Tuesday, January 31, 2012

reading between the lines

Take just a moment and imagine yourself back in the times in which you had just met the person who is now your significant other.  Remember those awkward conversations where you were poised to catch every single word that came out of their mouth so that you could analyze and interpret their interest properly.  You wouldn't want to seem too forward--too desperate.  You wouldn't want to do something out of proportion to what the situation called for.  So you listened and you watched and you tried to figure it out.  Wasn't it frustrating, even just a little bit, to not be sure of where you stood?  Wasn't it scary to take those first tentative steps over that invisible line that you probably couldn't ever return from?

How did you know when it was safe to take those steps?  How did you interpret the other person's completely inadequate communication of their own tentative feelings?  How did you know what they were thinking and feeling?  Because you kind of did know.  You figured it out--whether it was from their words or their body language or all the things they didn't say.  Their carefully chosen vocabulary spoke volumes to you about where their mind and their heart was at any given moment.

And those are exactly the same skills that I think we need when we're talking to people about faith (or talking with people around the possibility of faith).

Over the past 10-15 years, really since I returned from living overseas, I've been observing our culture here as it unfolds and grows into something new.  Every 500 years or so, we see this kind of cultural shift, where the parent culture births the daughter culture that becomes (at least for a while) the total antithesis of the parent.  I find these years in the middle to be so fascinating. 

One thing I've noticed is a shift away from scientific method and reasoning toward a more intuitive and emotional knowledge.  In this context, an appeal to authority in an argument carries little weight when it's compared with the actual experiences of those within the argument.  Spirituality is welcome and interesting, so long as no one is trying to impose his own sense of morality on others.

As I've observed these things and the way they relate to finding and growing in faith, I've observed that most people's barriers to faith and surrender to the kingdom rule of Jesus are largely emotional.  There are still components of the rational arguments against God.  And there surely are the same spiritual reasons that people always have to tell him no.  But by and large, the overarching theme of my friends' objections to God are based on an emotional response to how they perceive him, his character, and his followers.  The only real problem is that they don't usually talk about these issues at an emotional level.  Instead, they bring up rational objections to faith--they couch everything in intellectual terms.  A question about God's goodness might be couched in language that implies the real problem is whether it's theoretically possible that a good God can send someone to hell.

Which begs the question, how are we to respond to these emotional barriers, the deep and hidden barriers that people have to faith?  How are we to respond to them if we also have to be the ones who identify them?

I've written about the concept of emotional barriers before, here and here, and there's a list of common barriers available here.  But I've been thinking recently about how we can train ourselves to see behind a person's statements about their objections to God to hear what their heart is really asking. 

And I think that at least one answer is in the memories that you conjured up at the beginning of this post.  We already know how to do this.  We read between the lines every day of our lives as we interact with people socially.  We can hear from the tone of a co-worker's voice that she's frustrated and upset about something, even if she doesn't say it outright.  We know that our son is having a terrible day because of the way he goes straight to his room instead of hanging out with the family like normal.  Every single day we are called upon in these relationships to see more than the stated questions and issues to the hearts of the people we love and care about.

Why do we think that people's questions about faith would be any different?  Why do we take those at face value and try to answer them only at that surface level?  Why aren't we looking deeper into the lives of our friends to ask where that question is coming from, what life experience led to that question, what that question might tell us about the person's emotional barriers to faith?

If following Jesus means trusting him enough to allow him to tell us who we are (to give us a new identity), then these emotional barriers might be 100% more important than any intellectual question that I might say out loud.  Because my heart is where I make that final step toward allowing someone else to know me and love me and tell me who I am.  No matter what I believe in my head about a spouse or a boyfriend or a friend, I will never let them close to me until I know in my heart that they are trustworthy.  Similarly, no matter what I am convinced about evolution, the theology of eternal punishment, or even the question of God's existence, I will never be willing to give my life to him until my emotional barriers are overcome.

Next week, I'd like to talk more about engaging with those emotional barriers to faith, but for this week I want to think about identifying those barriers.  First, what are the emotional reasons you struggle to trust and follow God in your own walk with him?  How do those things help you to identify what those around you might be struggling with?  Second, what are all your friends saying about their objections to Jesus?  What are they not saying that you know is there, weighing on their hearts and minds?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

what are we afraid of, anyway?

The church gives us a lot of reasons not to befriend those outside of the church:  Family comes first and we need to be investing in those God has entrusted to us.  The body of Christ needs what little time and energy we have left over to run its programs, and we call this building up the body.  And then there are all those verses about keeping yourself from being polluted by the world, not being unequally yoked with unbelievers, not being of the world.

Like pretty much anything else, there's a continuum in our churches of how separate we are.  There are some churches where women wear jumpers and head coverings and they have 12 children and they never watch movies or tv.  Somewhere in the middle are the people who show up every time the church doors are open and have no time left over for other relationships.  And then, on the other end of the spectrum, those who go to church on Sundays, or maybe just the big 2 (Christmas & Easter), and who spend all the rest of their time outside the church, living just like the rest of the world does.

In my city, we have a lot of Christian schools.  Christian parents teach their kids early on that they are different--that they need to be different.  They might talk about the need to reach out to the world, but the culture they've created is so different from the world around them that they have little in common with those who don't share it.  And the kids are taught that this difference is supposed to be the very thing that draws people in to wanting to know more about Jesus.  But it seems like there's often also an underlying motivation of fear.  If I send my kids out into the world, or if I go there myself, what might happen to my spiritual life?  What might happen to my kids?  How will we stay pure and holy, people after God's own heart?

But let's imagine for a moment that we put that fear aside.  Let's say that I decided that I was going to live mostly in the world and be loosely affiliated with other followers of Jesus.  And let's say that in my deep desire to love and get to know people... just regular people... I spent so much time with them and got to know them so well that I fell in love with someone who has not given his life to Jesus.  What would happen?

It might be that it could separate me from everything that had always been important to me.  It could be the thing that made me walk away from a calling to ministry and evangelism and writing.  And, like Solomon with his foreign women, it could move my heart from total surrender to God to a position of compromise where I would never reach the potential for impact that he'd instilled in me.

But truly being his friend and walking with him for a while could also be a tremendous opportunity to grow.  It could give me the chance to learn to articulate more about faith and how I live it and what it means to me.  It could test and try the depth of my commitment to God so that once again, I knew for sure that nothing could separate me from him.  It could sharpen my thinking about what I believe and why I believe it.  It could give me opportunities that I never would have otherwise had to look someone in the eye and tell him that he is loved by God and that God wants to free him from bitterness or hopelessness or aimlessness.  It could make me a better person by challenging me to choose to love unconditionally and selflessly.  It could teach me to listen, really listen, to the cry of another person's heart.

The church often takes a very strong stance against loving those outside the church--at least loving in a way that might cost us something.  We'll hand out a list of verses to our people, give a set of cold, hard facts about the perceived or possible consequences.  And we often teach that obedience to God means walking away from situations where we might have to give of ourselves deeply and personally.

But who did Jesus spend his time with when he was on earth?  Why were the religious people always so up in arms about him?  Why did he take time to talk with the Samaritan woman at the well, or to let children come and talk to him?  Why?  What is it about humanity that he saw?

And what risk did he personally take when loving and challenging and walking beside people?

Well, we know he was betrayed by one of his closest friends.  He was ridiculed by the religious leaders.  He was crucified by the people he came to rescue.  He risked everything, and it cost him everything.

If we're really going to love our neighbors, I think we have to be all in.  I don't think we can do it from a position of power, a sense of separateness, or the idea that we have some great knowledge to impart.  No, I think we have to jump in with our whole selves, loving and living beside and investing in the people around us.  In this way, we are invited to abide in Christ in a deeply personal way.  If there is no risk, there is no need for God.  But if we follow Jesus into the trenches, loving people in spite of the mess that our shared humanity creates, he will be there right beside us, loving through us, and challenging us to an ever deepening dependence on him.

So what are we afraid of?

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Encounter Jesus

About a year ago, just after I published Second Story, my friend and I started dreaming of the next book project.  What did the church and its people truly need in order to take additional steps toward inviting others to know and follow Jesus?

We talked about her dad and his days of ministry to college students long ago.  He had this series of studies about Jesus that he simply called the John studies--they went through many stories from John where Jesus had important, life-changing conversations with people.  She explained how every time he took people through that study, they would give their lives to Christ.

We needed something similar for today.  The problem with the old studies, at least for today's culture, was that they were written in kind of a fill-in-the-blank style.  They were more authority based than story based.  So we started to ask ourselves, what would work today?  What would introduce people to Jesus--who he said he was and who he showed he was?  What would give people an opportunity to respond to his claims and his invitation without being overly simplistic? 

So I spent the next year writing these seven stories for a group of people who were willing to come to my house to participate in "storying" on a Sunday night.  We met off and on for the whole year.  That group saw me through my dad's death.  We prayed for each other.  We grew together.  And along the way, every single person saw their lives changed in some way.  We only meet sporadically right now, but we saw several take a significant and life-changing step into Jesus's kingdom.  Most of them are now involved in churches in some way.  Along the way we met Jesus, and he changed us.

I'm working on an app so that the stories will be easily sharable.  But for now, there's a dedicated page on my website that links you back to all the times I blogged about our discussions after the fact.  I'm praying every day that through these stories, many, many people will be introduced to Jesus and hear his invitation to join his kingdom fellowship and work.

If there's anything I can do to support or help you along the way in that endeavor, let me know.

Monday, January 23, 2012

big questions need prayerful responses

As you may know already, my dad passed away this past spring.  The months following his death were a long road of trying to figure life out.  My posts here, here, and here were part of my journey of working through my grief and answering those essential questions about life.

I think the death of a loved one does that--makes a person remember the big questions about life.  Is what I am doing right now worthwhile?  When I look back on my life, what regrets will I have?  How do who I'm becoming and what I'm doing have eternal significance?  Is it even possible to have eternal significance in life?

I think that there are so many other times in life when we are similarly confronted with these types of questions.  At these important times in life, it's really natural to ask these types of questions.  And these important times happen all throughout a person's life.  They happen at the birth of a child, the anticipation of marriage, the process of divorce, a diagnosis of cancer or other illness, the moment the nest is finally empty, or the day you retire.

Because I'm so terrible at thinking on my feet, I've gotten in the habit of periodically observing and analyzing where my friends are at in life.  Are they anticipating a big life change in the near future?  Is something coming up that might cause them to ask certain questions about life and God?  Because if I can think about these things ahead of time, I can also start praying about them too.  I can pray that God would prepare my heart to be a friend to them at this time.  I can prayerfully consider how I might respond when these questions come up.  I can think about what stories I have about how God has intercepted my life in similar circumstances.  I can think about stories from the Bible where God met people in similar circumstances.  And I can pray that the Holy Spirit will prepare their hearts to be ready to hear those stories.

So that's my question for you for this week.  What part of the life cycle are your friends at right now?  What life changes are they anticipating or expecting?  How can you be thinking and praying right now to be there for them in that moment?

If you want to think through these questions on a deeper level, there's a longer list available here.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Encounters with Jesus VII - Cleopas

 Well, after several months we finally were able to get together to do the last Encounters with Jesus story on Sunday night.  It was a great time of fellowship and catching up, and as far as the story is concerned, I felt like it caps off the series really wonderfully.  It is really meant to be an invitation to the life and kingdom work of Jesus, and I think that it does that.

It's been so amazing to see how people have grown and been changed by their encounters with Jesus through this series.  We are not in the same place as we were when we started.  My deepest prayer for this community now is that we will all be able to find out how God wants to use us in his work of reconciliation in the world.

As a community update, we're still trying to determine where to go from here.  What I'd love to do is start with the beginning of the Bible, maybe going back to Michael Novelli's Echo the Story curriculum.  I really want this community to know where Jesus fits into the overall story of God's interaction with humanity throughout history.  So we're still talking about it and will figure it out.

As an Encounters with Jesus update, I've got a couple of things in the works.  I've updated my website so that Encounters has its own page.  I've also been working on developing an app so that people can use these resources in conversations with friends about Jesus.  I'm not exactly sure what that would look like or how that would work, I only know that the days of little paper booklets (which is the other way I'm publishing the stories) are pretty much over.  It's basically a test case to see whether it's something people could use if they wanted to have some kind of guided discussions about who Jesus is and what that means to our lives today.  So stay tuned for announcements.  I'm working right now on getting the app approved for both Apple and Android devices.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Second Story review

Here's a new review of Second Story: Seeing what's not being said.  Thanks to Ted Gossard who read the book and took the time to review it on his blog!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Can we take this evangelism discussion to a deeper level?

I just finished reading this blog post -- 7 tips for talking with your neighbors about Jesus.  The tips are actually fairly close to a list I might make myself, but they barely scrape the surface of what each of those things might look like in real life.

And as I was reading the overall story, I've got to be honest... I was really frustrated.  What frustrated me was that I don't think that this pastor's experience with his neighbor is really normal for the regular Christian on the street.  Is it normal that you'd have a couple of conversations around the building, then go hang out watching a ballgame, and then invite someone to church, and then find that the person has suddenly decided to follow Jesus?

Really?  Because it hasn't been normal in my world.  Maybe once out of 100 people--or maybe once out of 1000.  But what do you do when you invite someone to church and they say no?  What happens if you bring up spiritual things and the guy looks at you like you're crazy?  How do you handle it if the guy starts avoiding you every time he sees you in the hallway?

And what if he goes to church with you, hears the gospel preached powerfully, and still has questions about God and about faith?  What if he says, "I just don't see how God could send people to hell," or something about how all Christians are hypocrites?  Do you send the guy to your pastor?  Or is there something that you should be doing or saying yourself?

And what if you're not a pastor, you haven't had all that training about how to talk about Jesus or answer a person's questions about Jesus or put the whole big story together?  What do you do then?  How do you direct a conversation to Jesus?

I don't want to make evangelism more complicated than it is, because really I do believe that it is all about building relationships with people and walking through life with them.  I believe it's listening and story-telling in natural and strategic ways.  But I really think we do a disservice to followers of Jesus and to those who don't follow Jesus by just giving church people a simple seven-step list and sending them off to figure out how to put it into practice.

If we want people within our churches to be thoughtfully and carefully and effectively talking with others about Jesus, then we need to walk beside them as they figure out what that looks like in their own life situations.  We need to provide resources and training.  We need to challenge them to befriend others for the long haul.  We need to be talking about barriers to faith--rational, spiritual, and emotional.  We need to be equipping people to do the work of evangelism, even if it takes 3 years instead of a couple of months.

At least, that's what I think...  so that's what we're doing here, on this blog, and in my community.  I'd be thrilled if we could take this discussion to a broader community.

Monday, January 16, 2012

awkward conversations about Jesus

So I was at church yesterday, and one of our members was telling us a story about how he was hanging out with different people from work several years back.  He had one semi-awkward conversation about faith with one of his good friends from work, and then moved on to the other friend.  Though they were pretty good friends and had things in common to talk about, one day he kinda just busted out with "can I tell you about Jesus?"  And the guy responded, "I'd really rather you not."  Not quite the response he was hoping for.  And how in the world do you recover from that?

When I was growing up in church, we were given these little tracts and sent on out to start conversations with people about spiritual things, basically by asking them to reveal real and deeply personal things about their spirituality and beliefs.  I'm not sure where we got the impression that this would work out well, but somehow this was supposed to force a realization that people were lost, and that would give us a segue to sharing how Christ would meet that need.  Then and only then might we give some kind of personal story about how Christ had been involved in our own hearts and lives.

Perhaps that worked in a different time and culture, but I can hardly imagine a situation in which that would actually work today.  I can't say that I have all the answers about what we should do, but I can tell you what I've had the opportunity to do and how that has seemed to work out within the context of my relationships.  And I think that story-telling is the essence of talking about faith in today's context.

For me, the conversation has tended to start when we're just talking about something else, and because my faith is so central to my life, I naturally bring it up when I'm talking about why I'm doing one thing or not doing another.  In that moment, I have never then tried to apply my own experience to another person's--I'm just sharing out of my own life and context, telling my own story about my own life.  Pile enough of these conversations together over a long period of time, and you've had hundreds of opportunities to tell the story of Christ in a really natural and relevant way.

Who knows where things will go from there?  Sometimes I then get a question like, "so, how did faith become such an important part of your life?"  And then I get to tell another iteration of my story that's more clear and cohesive, where I get to also really tell the story of the gospel.  Sometimes we've become such good friends over that period of time that I'm able to ask questions and speak into all kinds of aspects of their lives, as any friend would.  Sometimes together we uncover a certain longing for spirituality that then puts me in a position where I'm seen as a sort of spiritual mentor where I'm able to more specifically connect someone with resources or ideas to encourage them to explore that part of their lives.

Conversations about Jesus don't have to be huge, scary, mysterious things.  They don't even have to be awkward.  If we are truly building relationships with people, seeking to know them and love them as Jesus would, sharing out of our own experiences, and looking for opportunities to pray and serve, we can be the light that we were called to be.

What stories do you have to tell about who Jesus has been in your life?  How do those stories relate to mundane things like laundry and child-rearing and working and playing?  Where has God met you in the difficult places of your life?  Pray that God would bring to mind the stories that you have to tell when and where it would be appropriate in the context of your relationships.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Incense and the essence of faith

I was out of town this weekend, so I had the opportunity to visit an Eastern Orthodox church.  It was so, so different in practice from the churches I have attended.  They did part of the service in English and part of it in Russian.  The officiants were in robes and spent part of the time in front of an alter in the front of the church behind an ornate carved screen.  They used burning incense to bless and cover the congregants during the service.  We had to stand and sit and kneel and read prayers and other liturgy from books.  I was a foreigner, and I was lost.

It made me think a lot about culture and about what we invite people to when we invite them to Jesus.  Rather, it made me ask the question, "what are we inviting people to?"  Are we inviting them to our church, to worship God in the exact same way that we do?  Or are we inviting them into a lifetime of knowing and following Jesus?

I have the sense that many times our expressions of worship alienate and separate rather than invite and include.  I'm not sure that separation isn't necessary for some, or that it doesn't help create a community of belief that sustains and ministers to itself.  But when we expect those outside of the church culture to change enough to fit in within our culture, we are asking an awful lot.  And we really are asking for something that many will not be willing to give--maybe not ever, but for sure at least until they really know Jesus and have chosen to follow him.  (Whether they should have to do so is a question for another day).

So I think that if we're going to be effective evangelists in today's world, we have to be really really clear within our own hearts and minds about what is essential for belief and relationship with Jesus, and we have to let everything else go by the wayside within our conversations and invitations to those who do not yet believe in or follow Jesus.  It would be so unfortunate to let my culture or my expression of worship or my approach to God to so alienate someone that she was no longer interested in talking about God, especially if the something that's alienating her is something that's not essential to faith and godliness.

When I talk about God and about Jesus and about God's story of rescue and redemption and restoration, I want to be inviting people into an abundant life of restored relationships.  That's it.  That's all.  I don't always want to invite them to my church (although they would certainly be welcome there).  I don't want them to feel pressured to pray exactly the way I do (though I would be happy to pray with them and for them and to model my approach).  I don't want them to think that there's only one way to express devotion or to spend time with God or to hear from God.  I want to be there to help them discover what God is calling them to.  I want to provide them with resources and connections to other followers of Christ.  I want to prayerfully seek to hear from the Holy Spirit what he is doing in their hearts.  I want to walk with them and learn from them too.

So what do you think are the things that are essential to invite others into when you are inviting them to faith?

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Reflections on Rembrandt

Today I had the awesome opportunity to see a whole lot of work by Rembrandt, and much of it was focused on portraits of Jesus and drawings or paintings of Jesus in action as described in the narratives of Scripture.  It's hard to express how moving it was for me to spend some time with his work. 

This was my favorite drawing that I saw (in person!) today.  There were a lot of paintings and drawings that were much more clear and much more detailed.  But this one captured some of the emotion and ambiance that I imagined when I wrote about that story for my storying group.

As I wandered from drawing to painting to drawing, I was struck by the fact that my desire to write these stories for today's audiences is not a new thing.  I think people have been doing similar things for years and years and years... sometimes in words, like the plays I recently read by Dorothy Sayers about the life of Christ.  But sometimes in paintings like Rembrandt's or other artists.  Almost since the time Jesus died and rose again, people have been trying to figure out ways to communicate the meaning of Jesus's life and death on earth.  The act of painting (for Rembrandt) and the act of writing (for me) are like slow and reflective meditations that are trying to grasp the depth and height and breadth of who Jesus is and how his life and death on earth impacted the world and those around him.

I think it gave me a sense of belonging.  I belong to a community of faith that goes so, so far back and that will continue long after I am gone.  Sometimes for me it seems like I am doing something that is not normal with retelling these stories from Scripture.  Even though I feel like everything I've written is well-grounded in research, I have taken a lot of poetic license that springs from my own imagination of how things might have been.  After today, I'm so glad to know that I'm not the only one who has taken the time and effort to imagine these things.

In reality, I never really regretted taking that license because the act of meditation through imagination has changed me.  The stories in Scripture have the power to challenge and encourage and push me to grow in a way that straightforward words of doctrine or truth never will.  But I am very happy to know that, in addition to being meaningful to me, it puts me in company with people like Rembrandt.

Friday, January 6, 2012

a crock-pot evangelist

I have a really good friend who is incredibly outgoing.  She can be walking the dog in the park, and she can have conversations with 10 different people in 30 minutes.  And in those conversations, she can get to the deepest longings of the person's heart.  For example, just today she got a guy talking about his recent divorce, how much he is hurting, and how much her dog reminds him of his dogs who now live with the ex-wife.  She consistently is able to bring conversations like that to a spiritual level where she's able to share a little bit about who God is and the kind of abundant life he offers to all who follow him.  In 30 seconds she gets people talking and within 10, she's sharing deeply.  She's like a microwave oven--just pop it in and 30 seconds later it's all done.

I'm not that girl.  I hate talking to strangers, except in the very rare situation where they're coming onto my turf and I see myself in the role of hostess, and then it's ok.  Then I can make them feel welcome and comfortable.  Other than that, I really don't like to talk to people I don't know. 

I used to wish that I could be her.  I used to wish that I could turn into someone who could just walk up to someone and get them talking about deep things until I had the opportunity to share about Jesus.  But I'm not that girl, and I'm never going to be.

One of the most freeing and amazing things has been for me to realize over the past few years that God made me who I am on purpose.  I have particular inclinations and gifts and abilities that he's given me.  When I walk in those things prayerfully and am sensitive to those who are in my world around me, I have found that I have all kinds of opportunities to build relationships.  And these relationships are deeper and wider than just conversations about faith.  These are real people who've become my real friends and with whom I am able to share in tiny pieces over a long period of time.  These are people who invite me over for Thanksgiving dinner and hang out with me on weekends and who come to my dad's funeral.  These are people who are getting to know the real me--all the different quirks and passions and interests that I have.  These people are my friends.

I consider it an incredible privilege to share about my experiences with God with them.  But I also consider it an incredible privilege to share life with them.  The heart-to-heart conversation my friend has in 5 minutes takes me 3 years and 500 conversations to get to.  This is the kind of girl that I am.  And that is my style of evangelism.  I'm a crock-pot evangelist.

So... what about you?  Are you a microwave or a crock-pot evangelist? 

I'm not sure that it really matters, except maybe it matters that you know that it's ok to be either.  God can use both because he created both, and different people need different types of conversations at different times in their lives.  What does matter is being open and available and prayerful about the people in our lives, so that we can always be ready to answer for the hope that we have inside.

Monday, January 2, 2012

An invitation to dance

Imagine, if you will, a New Year's Eve party being held in a ballroom.  The Christmas lights are twinkling merrily above, and their light is magnified by their reflection shining on mirrors on either side of the room.  The rest of lights are dimmed, and disco balls sprinkle tiny colored lights onto the floor.  All around people laugh, dance, or stand on the sidelines chatting.  You see older couples, who've been dancing for years, and not a single step of theirs falters.  You see social dancers, there to have a good time and meet other people.  And you see "professional" dancers who take classes and use dance to express art and feeling and movement.

And then there, on the edge of the room, or in the center, where things move a little slower, you see another couple of dancers.  It's quite clearly the female's first time doing anything of the sort.  You watch as she's taught steps to dance after dance (because of course, they never play music for two of the same kind of dance in a row).  Her partner is patient to explain and to model and to hold on tight so she doesn't fall (because she definitely would, otherwise).  But what you see when you watch them dance is not so much the steps they're taking.  It's not so much the fact that she doesn't know what she's doing.  What you notice is his uninhibited joy of being in that place at that time, feeling the moment and the music and the magic of the promise of a new year.  And you notice her delighted laughter--at his joy and her mistakes and their fun and playfulness together.

And then you notice, over the course of the night, that you were not the only one to notice them dancing.  When it's time for pictures, you hear someone call out, "yeah, make sure to get a picture of them."  You overhear several other people telling them, "you look like you're having such a good time."  And you overhear one woman telling the male dancer how much his joy has impacted her--about how difficult her life has been this year and how much he has inspired her by his pure and uninhibited love of life.  And for just a moment, you want to be them.

When I think of those dancers, I am struck by how much pure thankfulness and gratitude to God can transform a person and be something that attracts others to a life of faith.  The male dancer has suffered much, yet he remains one of the most positive people I've ever met.  His secret is that he practices the discipline of thankfulness to God for the things that he has.  And over time that discipline of thankfulness has transformed his attitude into one of gratitude and hope and openness to life and the abundance that God has to offer.  And that makes him someone that people want to be around, want to emulate, want to learn from. 

I must admit that I have not been an exceptionally joyful person, particularly this year.  If you've been reading at all, you know that this year has been one of great darkness and difficulty.  In the first conversation that I ever really had with the male dancer, I began to long for the kind of hope and joy that he has in his daily life.  As I thought about my goals for this year, choosing to practice the discipline of thanksgiving to God was one of my top priorities.  And even as I have practiced it for only the last few weeks, I have seen it changing and transforming my own attitudes and heart.  The darkness that is out there does not look so dark to me as it once did.

But it wasn't until I saw the response of everyone to his dancing that I really began to think about how much thankfulness and having an attitude of gratitude is truly an invitation to the world to abundant life.  What if we, as the church, were truly thankful and grateful to what we've been given?  What if, in spite of hardships and suffering we took time to celebrate the gifts we have found within our circumstances?  What if we focused on the good giver of those gifts instead of the difficult circumstances we see around us?

Jesus offers us abundant life with the Eternal One.  I am convinced that abundance comes, at least in part, from our grateful thanksgiving to God for all he has given us and all he has done.  And the beauty of that gratefulness is in its power to invite and inspire other people to embrace the abundance of life in Christ too.

What do you have to be thankful to God for?  How can you express this gratitude in your everyday life?  How can God use this gratefulness to transform you and to invite and inspire others to embrace the abundant life he offers through Christ?

I don't know about you, but this year, I want to learn to dance the uninhibited dance of joy and thanksgiving.