Thankfulness in the Middle of Withoutness

Today is a day for appreciation. Well, I suppose every day is such a day, especially for Christians. We know the compassion of the one true God who loves humanity, no matter our wretchedness. This love was most fully expressed through the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer. If there’s something to appreciate, it’s that. In fact, this Gospel is the lens through which we view our world.

Beyond this, everyday appreciation is a muscle to be flexed. I mean that it takes practice to become something we engage in habitually. And yet, it’s a routine worth forming. Better yet, it’s an economy of sorts with a rather astounding exchange rate. In my own life, I’ve learned the more appreciation I uncover for the blessings I’ve been given, the less concerned I seem to be for what I don’t have. The more appreciation I have for where I am in life, the less time I spend wondering what could have been had I done things differently.

Maybe you know what I mean. Of course, you do. Any honest human being understands it’s impossible to be angry and happy simultaneously, just as it’s impossible to be disparagingly frustrated and appreciative simultaneously. These two passions can’t exist in the same sphere at the same time. One will always outbox the other. Let me give you an example.

Two weeks ago, during a nightmarish layover in Chicago, I found myself standing in a line no less than a football field in length. Indeed, there were hundreds of stranded passengers, and, as a general collective, the emotions were running hot throughout. I stood immersed in that thickly volatile line for three hours before finally reaching the desk and speaking with an American Airlines representative who, through a less-than-four-minute discussion, informed me there was nothing the airline could or would be doing to help or accommodate me.

I was being left helplessly without.

I did not express my rage to the representative. I’m not that kind of person. Besides, it probably wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. She had already endured the same sentiments from hundreds of people before me, and she would continue to suffer them with the same emotional immunity after I wandered off to find food and a place to sleep for the night. Still, I was mad.

I was frustrated.

I was feeling contemptuous.

I wasn’t experiencing any discernible reason for thankfulness—until I saw a particular little boy holding his big sister’s hand.

I told Jennifer and the kids the story when I got back to Michigan. The boy was no more than five or six years old. Both of his legs had been amputated and replaced with prosthetics. He was hobbling along unnaturally, laughing as he attempted to keep up with his sister amid the bustling crowd. Hand in hand, they passed right by me, both giggling. I don’t remember noticing the parents. Instead, I was more caught up in the playful coaxing of the sister. She was poking fun at him for slowing her down. She wasn’t being cruel, but instead big-sisterly. She was speaking as one speaks to a little one while at the same time doing what any typical big sister would do to any typical little brother. Except the boy wasn’t typical—at least not according to the assumed definition of typical. He didn’t have legs. He was forever without. But here he was laughing with his sister. He was tottering along without concern for what he didn’t have while rejoicing in the moment for something he did have, which was an incredibly devoted sibling.

I immediately felt a little sick to my stomach for being so inconvenienced by my travel woes. Combined, they were a relatively insignificant withoutness that I would undoubtedly forget in time. I can’t recall for sure if I did or not, but I likely whispered to myself, as I often sigh in other troubling situations, “In a hundred years, who’s going to care?” I speak this way to reposition my thinking. It’s a deliberate admittance that any moment of struggle, while I might not want to go through it again, will inevitably become laughable upon future reflection. In another sense, it’s also a subtle acknowledgment that past situations of struggle often become memories of having learned something important or discovered a personal strength, or better yet, a vivid depiction of God’s faithful deliverance when I could not self-deliver. In other words, my struggles play a part in God’s broader plan for my completeness.

This sounds familiar (Romans 5:1-5; 8:28). It also takes me back to the big sister.

Her playful pushback—calling him a slowpoke and saying he’d never get to where he was going if he didn’t keep moving—believe it or not, this reminded me of texts like Luke 18:21, Psalm 27, 1 Corinthians 9:24, Galatians 6:9, and others. These texts encourage believers not to give up, to keep pushing onward, to stay the course of faithfulness, always looking to Christ. They remind me that God has made promises and that He’s never One to break them. The sister’s persistent presence brought to mind such texts as Matthew 28:20, Zephaniah 3:17, Hebrews 13:5, Romans 8:38-39, Isaiah 41:10, and countless more. These remind me that God is with me in my struggles. The world would try to convince me that He is present as my enemy. Faith speaks something better. It knows He’s holding tightly to my hand. It knows the crowd is chaotically swirling, but it also admits God knows right where I am. He’s never going to lose sight of me. And all along the way, He’ll be prodding me in ways that lead me to discover proficiencies He is instilling for a faith that can meet with struggle and survive, even becoming thankful right in the middle of the storm.

God employs struggle in this way. Human storms are rarely fun, but they’re not necessarily bad.

Before attempting to fall asleep on the floor at gate E7 in O’Hare’s Terminal 2, I asked the Lord to forgive me for my foolishness. After that, I found myself as I described before: unable to be both angry and grateful simultaneously. At that point, gratefulness took over. I thanked Him for allowing those two children to pass by. That brief intersection in time was a reminder of something essential. I also discovered a quiet appreciation for the woman at the American Airlines desk who was tolerating the ire of countless travelers, doing what she could to at least listen to their concerns. I discovered a measure of thankfulness that I would be sleeping on the ground in an air-conditioned building instead of outside in the heat and humidity. I was thankful for the sandwich I could afford to buy before I got situated at my little campsite. I was thankful for the people who played a part in making it. I relearned what was meant by the old saying that when eating the fruit, be mindful of the one who planted the tree.

The Gospel goes the deepest in this regard.

Christians know God is always the One to whom thanksgiving is due. No matter who planted the tree, the trail of every tree’s planting and subsequent fruit leads to Him. In fact, Jesus encourages His believers in Matthew 6:26-29 to look around for easy reminders of this. A bird flitters around, doing what it can to eat and feed its young. It’s likely the flowers in your garden did not plant themselves, but rather, you did. Still, whether it’s the swooping birds or the well-dressed lilies of the field, God is the Creator, and we can behold His steady care on full display for His world even by looking at them. As we look, Jesus asks rhetorically, “Are you not of more value than they?” Of course, we are. This knowledge can only deliver the believer to the foot of the cross, the Kingdom that Jesus wants us to pursue (v. 33). It’s there we can measure our withouts against the greatest withoutness ever endured—the greatest struggle ever suffered, resulting in the most extraordinary care ever bestowed, all of it unfolding so that He could fill us with what truly satisfies—something that does not rust and thieves cannot steal: the forgiveness of our Sins.

With this as our heading, everything else seems so trivial. Everything else—both the blessings and struggles—seem worthy of appreciation.

But here’s the thing: we’re sinners and saints. We slip in and out of both thanklessness and gratitude. I did last week. I went from despair to hope that Thursday night in the airport, but I became frustrated by the whole thing again when I wrote last Sunday’s eNews message. I’d been on the phone with American Airlines for hours on Saturday, trying to get some financial satisfaction, all to no avail. I was getting angry. Looking back at what I wrote, I can see the nonchalance of thanklessness’s grip at work in the Sinful nature. It’s subtle, but it’s there. It wasn’t until later in the morning that I did find the ability to say, once again, “In a hundred years, who’s gonna care.”

God fed me with His love. He took me by the hand and coaxed me along in my withoutness toward something of far greater value that I’ll never be without: the love of God given through the person and work of Jesus Christ, my Savior.

I pray the same comfort for you.

Mud and Stars

God sure is good, isn’t He? I’m sure if you looked back over the years of your life, you’d agree. I’m certain you’d find plenty of moments acknowledging His gracious hand in both the good times and the bad.

I would imagine that like me, there are a number of things that have happened in your life that took a few years to make sense, even if only in part. You struggled to understand why God managed them the way He did. I’m guessing there are just as many bygone happenings on your timeline you still don’t understand, and it’s likely you never will, at least not until you meet the Lord face to face. Either way, until each of us breathes our last, each new day arrives at our doorstep, and God willing, we ripen with wisdom and are found capable of saying, “Each day is a new day in the Lord.”

Only Christians can say that. It’s a vocalized fruit of faith budding on the vine of Jesus. Its flower takes in both the sunshine and the rain, the joys and the hardships, knowing three things in particular. First, we are guaranteed to experience trouble (John 16:33a). Second, we can take heart in the fact that Jesus has overcome them all by His life, death, and resurrection for us (John 16:33b). And third, we can steer into each new day knowing that both the good and the bad are being used by God for the benefit of our salvation—for our final future in heaven with Him (Romans 8:28-39).

Imagine if this clarity of faith were hidden from us. Imagine if we didn’t know to expect both joy and sadness in this life. Imagine if we didn’t know that beneath the wing of our Savior, all these things were already well in hand and being worked in a way that gives the upper hand to the Gospel in our lives. Imagine if, when peering out toward any future, hopeless gloom was our only windowpane.

I say this knowing everybody is different, that everyone has various perspectives on things. When it comes to human outlooks, I’m one who believes the world can be divided into optimists and pessimists, with realists locating themselves in one category or the other depending on the situation. Thinking about this, I don’t know who said it, but I learned a rhyme many years ago about two men in prison. It goes something like, “Two men are looking through the same bars. One sees the mud and the other the stars.” For me, when the feeling of imprisonment sets in, and it sometimes does, I prefer to look at the stars. The more shackled I feel, the more I strive, the more I reach upward from the window of my cell looking for and anticipating a way to change my current situation. But I say this knowing that for some, the bars are often physiological or psychological in nature. In other words, no matter how hard they try, they just can’t seem to see anything but mud, and as a result, they have little energy for grasping at anything beyond their cell.

So, where am I going with all of this? I don’t know. I guess I’m sitting here listening to an early morning thunderstorm, thinking about the current bars of my cell, and having an unusually difficult time seeing anything but the mud.

I’ll be having surgery tomorrow at 2:30pm. It’ll be to repair the torn Achilles tendon on my right leg—my driving leg. Forget the fact it’s already been over a week since the tear. Disregard the doctor’s promise of two weeks of post-op pain. I’m imprisoned by something else. For a guy like me who’s relatively self-sufficient and always on the move, the prospect of countless weeks of immobility entangled with the impending need to rely on so many folks for so much help for so many things is tantamount to a prison sentence. At a minimum, it is a very hard lesson for me to learn. Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for the help. Truly. It’s just that it goes against the grains of my personality in the most visceral ways, and this being true, I can all but guarantee I’m going to experience guilt for burdening others with my needs.

Again, sitting here observing the cast on my leg while considering the months-long recovery ahead, I must admit that regardless of my usual capabilities and feelings of general optimism, it’s always possible for something to come along and kick these props from beneath me. This moment has challenged me once again to keep my heart and mind fixed in the right place. It has reminded me that whether one is inclined to see the mud or the stars in any situation, spiritually speaking we’re all in the same cell. We’re all imprisoned by Sin and Death, and no matter what we do, we cannot save ourselves. We need help from the outside. We need a rescuer who’s cosmically more than what we might be inclined by perspective or ability to see or reach for in this life. We need someone who can actually melt away the steely bars for all time, ultimately shattering the very real chains that refuse to let us go.

Christians can say each day is a new day in the Lord because they know that “someone” is the Son of God, Jesus Christ. He’s the One who meets us in the mud, submitting himself to the unrelenting murk of hopelessness in our place. He’s the One who gives His life for ours, and by His sacrifice, is found outshining even the brightest, most optimistic stars, and bringing life and light to the darkest prison cells. In moments like the one I’m experiencing right now, He proves the recalibrating power of this Gospel through His people as they brighten the lives of others around them.

I suppose that’s one reason why I began by saying just how good God is. Optimist, pessimist… whichever. Faith brings a completely different perspective, and from all the messages and help I’ve received from so many of you, I’m relearning just how over the top God can be with His goodness (1 Peter 4:10; John 13:35). This alone cuts through my sinful inhibitions and serves as a glimmering star beyond my cell window. It reminds me of a much bigger and better reality at work behind what I think I’m experiencing.

With this perspective, I assure you I’m ready to go into the forthcoming days—both the good ones and the bad ones—with gratefulness and hope, staking the claim that each day is a new day in the Lord. I’ll have my ups and downs. Still, through daily Word and prayer, I’m certain I’ll be strengthened for planting the flag of confidence every morning, trusting that God had a very good reason for not preventing my current situation, and being content to know that whatever His reason was, it was for the good of my salvation.

I pray the same confidence and contentment for you in whatever you may be enduring at this very moment.

A Sense of Humor

Maybe you sensed by my last few eNews messages that one of the bigger concerns I have during this time of quarantine is the seemingly irreparable damage that is occurring between people—friends becoming enemies.

There’s so much dividing so many right now. Honestly, I’m concerned that much of what’s at the root of these struggles is manufactured.

Of course, whether it is or whether it isn’t, I suppose the human divides are being amplified by the non-stop virtual access to everything and everyone. That’s part of the irony in this “quarantine.” We’ve been apart, and yet by way of social media, hardly. Our keyboards—the devices designed for giving our thoughts to others—have become both offensive and defensive weapons, rifles aimed into an expanse of folks who are there, but not really. The communal “false sense of security” we already had before this mess began has only gotten worse. In many of the conversations, far too many folks begin their arguments with phrases like “The real problem with the issue is,” or something like that, as if they actually had all of the relevant information—as if they have an 8’ by 16’ chalk board in their garage adorned with a dusty matrix of all the accurate data (not the false), and in its bottom corner is the only accurate conclusion in the world. Far too many are jockeying for the leading spot as “expert,” and few are actually listening. Even further, many appear to be astounded by their own brilliance, so much so that I dare say even their thoughtless replies/memes laced with profanity that took a whole ten seconds to create are beginning to tempt them with the deceptive feeling of having been divinely inspired.

The result in all of this has been a spewing of a whole lot of nothing; a vomitous mess revealing not much more than the deeper chambers of folks’ secretive innards; a cavernous sharing of opinions many of us wish we’d never written, heard, or seen.

Indeed, we’re seeing the darker sides of both ourselves and others.

After the mess we’re in eventually gets mopped up—and God willing, it will—if the communities in which we live, work, and serve are to ever regain a semblance of wholeness, we have to be prepared to put everything about these days behind us. We’ll need tools for doing so.

To start, if you’re wondering about these tools, I’ll let you in on a little secret. The Christian Church—the community of believers in Christ—is the only segment of the population that genuinely possesses them. Others might have facsimiles—replicas of sorts—but only the people who gather beneath the Niagara-like waterfall of forgiveness pouring forth from God Himself will have the capability for truly putting these days in the rearview mirror where they belong. Only the Church can exist in a time and place where our sins are put as far from us as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). Only the Church has the real peace that can outlast the time-stamped promises of the shallow what’s-done-is-done kind of handshakes extended from this finicky and crumbling world (John 14:27; John 20:21-23).

Beyond this, and even better, Christians don’t have to wait until this “shelter in place” order has passed to begin in this peace. This peace is ours right now, and we can live mindfully of it. As someone whose Facebook bio includes the descriptor “cultural critic,” I’m one who takes deliberate time to contemplate these things with the ultimate goal of passing along my discoveries—good or bad—to others. I think I’ve discovered one of the best ways to live in the peace of the Lord, especially right now.

Keep an eye out for humor.

We’re in a sideways situation. If you really think about it, the purpose of humor is to turn things a little sideways, and in the process, scowls are made into smiles. This is true because with humor, people find different avenues for connecting, avenues that perhaps they didn’t have access to before. Besides, when was the last time you heard of an angry person hoping to become angrier by watching their favorite comedy? Or a depressed person listening to their favorite comedian in order to foster more depression?

Humor can change things, and I have the perfect example.

I was reprimanded by a clerk in the UPS store in Fenton for not wearing a mask. In all honesty, I had it around my neck. It just wasn’t on my face. I was trying to carry a stack of boxes, and while doing so, my glasses kept fogging up, so I took the mask off so I could see what I was doing and where I was going. The clerk was swift to tell me that if I came into the store again without my mask, he wouldn’t serve me. Admittedly, the moment got a little contentious, especially when I reminded him that the wording of the Governor’s executive order strongly encouraged the wearing of masks, but did not actually mandate them. I did not have to wear a mask. Nevertheless, he said very plainly that I would not be allowed back into the store if I wasn’t wearing a mask.


I came back the next day wearing a Stormtrooper helmet. (Here’s the link:

He laughed. I laughed. The situation was eased. In fact, even my own original feeling of having been bullied had subsided. Things were fine, it just took a little bit of humor, something out of the ordinary, to bring two opponents together.

God gives humor. No doubt He has a sense of humor, Himself. Just look at the platypus. Poor guy. It’s like God had a whole bunch of leftover parts from the other animals, and in order to keep from wasting anything, he made a platypus.

Anyone familiar with the Bible knows God reveals His humor through more than just His unique creation. We get glimpses of it all over the place in the Holy Scriptures. That moment when Elijah is taunting the prophets of Baal, that’s hilarious, especially when, by the original language, you realize what Elijah is really saying. When his poking comment clicks, a giggle is hard to suppress. Take a look:

“And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened’” (1 Kings 18:27).

Relieving himself? Hah! That’s funny, right there.

The uptights among us might argue the following point, but I think Paul is a pretty funny guy sometimes. In fact, I’d say we get a little off-color humor from him in Galatians 5. If you know the context, then you know Paul is pretty angry with the Judaizers who are demanding that circumcision be considered part of salvation. In frustration, Paul essentially says, “Well, since they like circumcision so much, they should prove their own super-Christianity to us and just cut the whole darn thing off!”

Seriously. Read Galatians 5:7-12 and you’ll see.

Jesus used sarcasm for humor in order to make His points. There’s a perfect example in John 1:45-48. I imagine a half smile on His face during His conversation with Nathanael.

“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you’.”

I imagine the same of the Lord’s response to the disciples’ outburst in John 16:29-31. Read that one, too, when you get a chance.

If you’re listening carefully, even the Divine Service has a little bit of humor sprinkled in. Quite honestly, a smirk is not all that far from my face when we mention Pontius Pilate in the Creed. Why? Because of the irony involved. Having washed his hands of the Lord’s death, going out of his way to make sure his role in the unjust results would be forgotten, here we are saying his name over and over again throughout the centuries.

Admit it. That’s kind of funny.

There’s another side to humor that’s helpful to us. It was Will Rogers who said, “Everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else.” There’s truth in that observation. Humor can work in a confession/absolution sort of way. Humor can be used to reveal the things about ourselves that we’d much rather to hide. I’d argue that in many ways, humor is often the better stepping stone toward the honesties that might normally sting. Of course, if we’re not too pretentious and we actually have a sense of humor—that is, we’re willing to see our true selves a little sideways—humor can help guide us to an honest confession while equipping us with an even better tolerance for the mistakes of others. I don’t mean tolerance in the sense of being okay with Sin, but rather recognizing the need to pull the plank from our own eyes before we can remove the speck from someone else’s eye. We can acknowledge our failings, having realized our own foolishness, and we can seek the Lord’s forgiveness, fully enabled to forgive others, ultimately standing together and laughing at our collective past.

I suppose what I’m rambling on about here is that God does have a sense of humor, and in one sense, for us to see the humor in things is to affirm the peace we have in Him. Perhaps more succinctly, having a Godly sense of humor in the midst of terror proves the superiority of Christian joy against anything and everything that might attack us. It was Saint Peter who wrote in 1 Peter 2:11-20 that we are to “live as people who are free.” In context, what he meant was that even as the world challenges us, by the Gospel, we have what we need to live in the joy of Christ no matter what’s happening. He also points out that as Christians, if we freak out in the middle of struggle, we do our unbelieving onlookers a great disservice.

I guess I’ll end with the clarification that, like all forms of communication, humor has its place. I’m just letting you know that I’m deliberately looking for it in our current situation, and most of the time, it seems to help. I’m reading posts and follow-up replies, I’m considering the broken logic in memes and quick-witted sayings, and I’m discovering more opportunities to laugh than get frustrated.

Naturally, I’m not implying the license to laugh at someone’s unfortunate job loss, or to yuck it up at a funeral. No doubt the folks with no sense of humor were already preparing to lock and load in that regard. However, having re-read what I just wrote right there, go ahead. I’d say Christians would be the only ones capable of discovering a smile during such strife-filled situations. Read Psalm 27. What have we to fear in any circumstance? Death? Hardly. Even if an entire nation rises up in war against you alone, you have hope. This world is passing away, and with it, so goes all of its sorrows. Most certainly we can laugh at Death. Because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, if we actually had a picture of Death, I imagine seeing a toothless, skin-and-bones beastie on a leash, stripped of all his power and his tail between his legs.

If those of us with a sense of humor had a picture like that to view through the eyes of faith, I’ll bet the only struggle we’d experience would be to contain ourselves.