A recent survey reveals that most Americans ~ including those who identify themselves as Christians ~ have less than one spiritual conversation a week, and that many have none at all (reported by Jonathan Merritt in Learning to Speak God from Scratch). Apart from Sunday morning, spiritual topics rarely come into play. The reasons, according to Merritt: fear of offending others, perceived irrelevance, and a lack of confidence.
Our world is badly in need of spiritual conversation. Without it, we lack the language with which to process our experiences, and can arrive at skewed conclusions. For example:
- God is good to me and to the people around me = God must be good!
- God is mean to me and/or to the people around me OR I’m trying to be good, but bad things keep happening OR any combination of Life isn’t fair, I don’t deserve this, or Why me? = God must NOT be good, or must not exist.
- Christians are sinners, especially the leaders = what’s the point?
- The world is filled with suffering = where is God?
Amazingly, the same feelings are shared by King David in the Psalms. Even though he’s experienced God directly throughout his life, he often questions whether God exists, cares or is good. These are natural questions for a Christian to have. But David also pushes through his fear to arrive at a place of faith.
When we forget our blessings, the world contracts into suspicion, cynicism and isolationism. But when we count our blessings, the world expands into compassion, generosity and wonder. A reminder of this principle can be found on a Kraft Macaroni & Cheese box, which amazingly is still only a dollar at Stop & Shop, not even on sale. The back of the box reads:
Even more reasons to love it: this box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese dinner may look simple, but it actually contains some extraordinary things. Inside you’ll find happy childhood memories, tons of blissful smiles, and our delicious elbow macaroni waiting to be covered with gooey, cheesy goodness.
I laughed at first, but then I did just what the box said. I thought about my childhood, and how much Kraft macaroni and cheese I ate. I remembered loving Kraft macaroni and cheese so much that when I went to college and a roommate invited me to his mom’s house for dinner, where I would have “real mac and cheese,” I didn’t like it! In fact, I questioned that it was real mac and cheese. I thought of how my own mom kept the fact of our small household budget well hidden, and stretched each dollar as far as it could go. And then I looked at the box again, and realized that if I were thankful for Kraft macaroni and cheese, I would also by extension have to be thankful for each of its ingredients, including wheat flour, niacin, ferrous sulfate, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid, whey, milk fat, salt and sodium phosphate ~ for the cows that gave the milk, the farmers that milked the cows, the pails that caught the milk, the people who brought it to market, the factories that made the macaroni, all their workers, including the truckers who brought it to Stop & Shop, the people who made the cardboard, who wrote the blurb, who sold the box to me, the car I drove, and so on. So many reasons for my heart to praise!
Matt Rodman’s song “10,000 Reasons” is based on the 103rd Psalm, as is “Bless the Lord,” from Godspell. The title references 10,000 reasons to praise the Lord, reasons that the singer is given the opportunity to “find.” But in this case, 10,000 does not mean 10,000 ~ it’s a multiple of the holy number 10, as in the 10 Commnandments or a Jewish minyan, which is the minimum number of Jewish men required for public worship and is not to be confused with a Minion, which is a yellow creature with glasses that can’t decide whether it is good or evil but is generally considered to be cute. Ten is a number of completion, and suggests the infinite or unending, in the same way as forgiving our neighbor “seventy times seven” in the Bible is not meant to imply that we can stop forgiving after #490.
David writes, “don’t forget how kind the LORD is.” He goes on to list 20 reasons to praise the Lord: God forgives; he heals; he gives life; he loves; he is merciful; he fills our lives with good things; he gives youth; he gives strength; he is fair; he helps the oppressed; he lets us see his deeds; he reveals his plans; he is slow to anger; he is constant; he relents; he is unending; he is kind; he is compassionate; he passes his blessings from generation to generation; he is generous.
On September 9, I asked the congregation to fill out index cards listing their blessings, with the instruction to be creative (in other words, to say more than “friends and family,” great blessings but disproportionately quoted. Here are some of their answers:
My job; good health; boating to Fire Island; volunteering; this church and the love and guidance it gives me; healthy children; meeting with friends and shopping; my Dewie (note: Dewie is a dog), he gives me joy; forgiveness and support from loved ones; my experience working at the Hampton Classic Horse Show; that I survived two major illnesses; knowing God in all our trials and difficulties; the courage to leave a job that I was unhappy doing; pets; being 20 years cancer free; singing; my relationship with God and Jesus; Wednesday morning Bible study; my poodle Julie; this church and church family; faith, blessings, love and new days; for what God has done; for answered prayers; whales; the rain and the beautiful smells of the plants and pine needles when wet; the beautiful beaches that surround our island; ice cream; our retirement; talents to serve; the leadership and dedication of the Schaarschmidt family; the ability to be changed by school work; improved health; living in a country where we are free to worship and to speak our minds, discuss and debate about our issues and our leaders; eyeglasses; medical advances; hot water for showers; shoes; food and shelter; clothing; music; hearing; growing up in a loving family; our church and our pastor for all the love and support through good times and bad.
A few longer answers:
I am so grateful to know that the most important relationship in my life is with Jesus ~ and it is wonderful!
I am grateful for the Holy Spirit that dwells in me ~ He guides me, gives me wisdom, encourages me ~ without His Spirit, I could not manage this life.
I feel blessed that I can still exercise, garden, keep myself and my home clean, safe and sound (at my age). And I feel blessed for having such wonderful church friends!
Now let’s do some math. Between the 103rd Psalm, the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese box and a quick exercise with index cards, we’ve found over a hundred reasons for our hearts to praise. That’s 1% of 10,000 in only a short period of time! 10,000 may seem like a large number, but we’ve already put it in context. 100 people working together, each contributing one reason a day, would reach 10,000 reasons by Christmas.
But wait, there’s more! Because God has more than 10,000 reasons for our hearts to find. His blessings are infinite; this is only the beginning. If you’re unsure if God exists, or is listening, or is good, start with the 103rd Psalm, or even a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese ~ in this case the literal statement applies, taste and see that the Lord is good.
How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” Isaiah 52:7, NIV
The Christian life is filled with good news from beginning to end; in fact, the good news begins before creation and lasts after time ends. But it seems we only hear about it on Sundays. So where is all this good news?
Jesus tells his disciples, “Seek and you will find.” These days, it takes work to find the good news, while it takes no work at all to find the bad. Last Thursday, I made an online search of some major news pages. There were 48 stories on the home page of The New York Times. Not a single one was encouraging. I tried AOL ~ out of 26 stories, none were positive ~ in fact, most were negative. NPR included a couple human interest stories in the batch, but again no good news. Yahoo mixed fake news (in the guise of advertisements) into its real, bad news.
In media terms, good news is not considered news; at best, it’s filler. Gradual change is not considered news. Dramatic, negative things get attention, but they also take a toll.
Here’s an example from Hans Rosling’s bestselling book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. The majority of people polled believe that crime is going up; but crime is actually going down, and has been doing so for decades. Not only is it down, it’s dramatically down, from 14.5 million incidents in 1990 to 9.5 million in 2016, a 1/3 drop. So why are we more fearful? Because the coverage of crime has gone up.
Many people also continue to be afraid of flying, and for seemingly good reason; after all, there were ten major plane crashes in 2016. But there were also 40 million flights that year, making the chances of a plane crash one in 4 million. Flying is safer than ever.
Do we know this good news? Have we heard it? Seek and you will find.
I recently asked some friends if they’d seen a popular, well-reviewed movie. They said that they were avoiding it because they had read that it “wasn’t very good.” I asked how many reviews they’d read. Their answer: one. Those who follow the website The Film Stage will probably avoid “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, the new Fred Rogers biopic. The reviewer calls the film “frustrating … aggravating … a disappointment.” But this isn’t the big picture. In the entire world, the movie has only this one bad review ~ and a 99% overall rating.
News is selective. It tends to be bad. It is not representative, fair or balanced. When reporting news, people can make charts and statistics say whatever they’d like. For example, take a look at the chart to the left. This is my recent weight gain, which is alarming given the fact that I’ve been eating well and exercising. The kicker: the chart reflects a gain of one pound in one day. Now rotate the chart 45 degrees. This is a chart of my dramatic weight loss the next day, when I ate excess amounts of pizza and chocolate cake. The results don’t make sense. Should I see a doctor?
All these negative news stories are messing with our heads. We make generalizations ~ we read about one racist at Starbucks and we associate the chain with racism, despite the fact that they spent millions of dollars on training in response. We read about one police officer abusing the law and we start to distrust the police, despite the fact that there are over one million police officers in the United States, going about their job in a positive, meaningful way.
Many people think that “things are getting worse,” “it’s never been this bad,” and/or “the world is going to hell.” Again, the opposite is true. Here are some more statistics from Factfulness: in the last 20 years, extreme poverty has been nearly cut in half. Average life expectancy has nearly doubled this century, because fewer children are dying and health care has improved. Fewer people are also dying in disasters and war. We have more clean water, better global access to education, and greater rights for women. In 1893, women could only vote in New Zealand. Now they can vote everywhere except Vatican City.
Have you ever been on vacation, left your communication devices behind and avoided the news? If so, you’ve probably been surprised at the wonderful days you’ve had. “But of course,” you say, “I’m on vacation.” One can test this experience anywhere by going off the grid for a day. Instead of allowing artificial inputs to control one’s mood (“Earthquakes in Guatemala! Child kidnapped! WHAT did the President tweet!!!?”), one can fall in line with the rhythms of the day: the angle of the sun, the beginning and end of the work day, children playing, and perhaps a sense of being grounded, unrushed, enveloped by an inner peace.
It’s hard to resist the temptation to check our phones (note: I don’t own one!) at the first available moment, because we think we may have missed something. Less than a minute after a recent church softball game had ended, one of our players picked up his phone, read a breaking news story, and told us all about an aggravating political incident (unrelated to us), even before we’d had a chance to take off our cleats.
But good news ~ real good news ~ can also be that close. The coach of our women’s softball team has been growing steadily as a leader over the past few years, although he remains humble. He still doesn’t think that he’s a good speaker, although he always has everyone’s attention. When he reads Scripture, the players even take notes; and when he was unable to attend last week’s game, one of the players stepped up to share a meditation on her phone and to lead the team in prayer. When I told this story at a Bible study group, one of the attendees exclaimed, “We should hear more stories like these!”
Stories like these are all around us, although they don’t make the news. Babies are still being born, birthdays are still being celebrated, anniversaries are still encouraging us that yes, long-lasting love is really a thing. In our church, we have a woman who recently announced that she’s still doing well after a liver transplant two years ago. Many have survived cancer, injury, accident, loss, and have even managed to thrive. A parishioner’s grandmother recently had her house rebuilt in Connecticut by a volunteer organization. 70 people joined a half-marathon in Ireland to honor a church member who entered the Church Triumphant last year, and to call attention to the social causes she supported.
Those who seek good news are bound to find it. Even the online newspapers occasionally let some of these stories through. A famous Japanese singer joins a Harlem choir. A quiet secretary leaves $8 million in her will for scholarships, despite the fact that nobody knew she had money. An exoskeleton helps a teen to walk at her graduation.
Is optimism realistic? It is for Christians. We even have the Good News Bible to prove it (and it has pictures ~ more good news!). Our story ~ God’s story ~ has a happy beginning and ending, and many blessings, miracles and divine interventions in-between. As written in the United Methodist Communion service, “Hear the good news ~ Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. That proves God’s love for us!”
When we’re plugged in to the media, we’re bound to get bad news, like a veil pulled over our eyes. But when we’re plugged in to the world right before us ~ God’s creation, the change of seasons, our churches and communities ~ the good news starts to gain traction. And all the bad news in the world can’t outmatch the simple good news that God loves us. In fact, the word gospel means good news. Jesus tells his disciples, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). After His resurrection, He asks them ~ and by extension, us ~ to share this good news wherever we go (which includes wherever we tweet). The world is filled with bad news and dying to hear good news; thank God we have a never-ending supply!
How did Christians end up with a new Sabbath? The answer may be a bit disappointing. In 313, Emperor Constantine, an avid sun worshipper, declared that Sunday would be the new official Sabbath. In 364, the Pope followed suit. Christians were already gathering for meals, prayer, sermons and worship on Sundays, so the move made sense. Christ had been resurrected on a Sunday, so the connection was solidified.
Now there were two Sabbaths, one Jewish and one Christian, each with their own theological grounding. One Sabbath arrived at the end of the week and honored the seventh day of creation. Another arrived at the beginning of the week and was designed for praise (and in days to come, outreach). Each day bore a different tone as well. One was a break on the seventh day; another was encouragement on the first.
The weekend as we know it did not exist until at least 1908, when a New England cotton mill began granting its workers extra days off. The movement gained momentum in 1926, when Henry Ford began giving workers a Sunday break (perhaps in order to spend the time selling cars).
Because of the weekend, most people think of Monday as the first day of the week: back to school, back to work, back from vacation. But the calendars indicate that Sunday is still the first day. Each Sunday is like a little New Year and a whole lot of Easter, rolled into one. The first thing that happened on Easter was resurrection; the first thing that happens on Sundays is worship (and in other religions, soccer).
Many people tell me that Sunday worship gives them the energy to get through the week. That’s a lot of pressure, but fortunately it’s spread throughout the service. One never knows where the Spirit will take hold. Sometimes it’s in the children’s message. Sometimes it’s in the songs. Sometimes it’s in the prayers, and the response to the prayers. Sometimes it’s a single word: mercy, grace, peace. Sometimes it’s seeing one person. Sometimes it’s sharing a joy. Sometimes it’s being around others who continue to believe. Sometimes it’s being inspired by another’s struggle. Sometimes it’s in the first words spoken by the greeters, sometimes in the last words as a friend says farewell.
So what is a Sunday person?
A Sunday person is someone who stores up the energy of the resurrection and calls on it every day of the week.
A Sunday person is joyful even in the worst circumstances, standing on the promises of God.
When a Sunday person hears bad news, their first impulse is to look for the bright side. When a Sunday person hears good news, their first impulse is to spread it.
A Sunday person applies hope to every situation. If the situation gets worse, at least they tried. If it gets better, they point to the sky.
When a Sunday person sees the world crumbling around them, they look up and see God’s kingdom being built.
A Friday person says, “Thank God it’s Friday ~ no more school, no more work!” A Sunday person says, “Thank God it’s Sunday ~ no more sin, no more death!”
A Sunday person sees grace all around ~ in the lilies and hyacinths, but also in the dirt and broken branches. A Sunday person looks for the good in other people, and finds it; a Sunday person sees the beauty that Christ died for. A Sunday person finds time to be with God, pours out all of their troubles, and trades their sorrows for joy. Rain or shine, calm or storm, a Sunday person says, “This is the day that the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.” A Sunday person says, “This too shall pass.” A Sunday person looks forward rather than backward. A Sunday person holds fast, never gives up, and shines Christ’s light every day of the week.
Let’s be Sunday people!
The Rev. Richard Allen