The Grace of Thanks: How Thanksgiving Prepares us for Christmas

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As we re-enter life fresh off the gravy train (literally!), there is a great opportunity to prevent the “thanks-high” we experienced last week to fizzle. What is interesting about these back-to-back holidays is that the practice of thankfulness can prime our hearts to contemplate the deeper things of Christmas - and it primes our culture as well. Our nation has, in general, taken a week off singing alongside Ariel, “I want more!” (my daughter loves princess songs, so the lyrics are fresh!) And instead we have given an intentional look at the gifts we have stacked up in our little treasure troves; we took a break from the “who cares, no big deal” attitude and have acknowledged the presence of grace in our lives. That is the primer: acknowledging the existence of grace.

What it means to give thanks

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When we give “thanks” we are actually bearing a testimony that the things we are thankful for are not owed to us, and are often undeserved, i.e., they are examples of grace made tangible. What is occurring is a perspective change that relieves us from the pressures married to the “more mentality.” Others have pointed out the psychological benefits of regularly acknowledging the graces we have received, including increased satisfaction in life, strengthened self-esteem and greater enjoyment of relationships. The result is a humility in seeing what we have as gifts - undeserved graces. But the benefit can go deeper, connecting our heart to the One who has provided for our ultimate needs.

The phrase “Give Thanks," or some form of it, is recorded over 100 times in the Bible. A majority of the uses land in one of three categories: Giving thanks 1) for some character quality God possesses (Ps. 54:6, 106:1); 2) for something God has done for or given to His people (Ps. 9:1, 105:1; Dan. 2:23; Matt. 15:36); or 3) for what God promises to do or give in the future (Lk. 2:38; 1 Cor. 15:57). Noting the pattern, when Scripture focuses on giving thanks the perspective shifts from man’s strengths and accomplishments to God’s strengths and gifts.

For example, when the days-old Jesus is brought into the temple courts a devout elderly woman named Anna reacts with a thanksgiving that moves her to spread her reason for thanks:

she began to give thanks to God and to speak of Him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:38) 

To those who were waiting she spread the great news that God’s provision of life had arrived! And as we move from Thanksgiving to Christmas, there is a natural bridge that we can easily invite others to walk - from acknowledging the tangible graces in our lives, to hearing of an even greater grace: the redemption of God through Jesus.

Thanks as a Grace: What to do...

Thankfulness is good for the soul. Let’s be thankful …  continually

Practically speaking, we cannot overlook the benefits of a thankful heart. By acknowledging what did not have to be ours we are being drawn out of quick complaints into greater contentment, out of a self-focused mentality into more others-focused and out of the misery of discontentment into the joy of experiencing the life we have been given.

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The shift in perspective that occurs as we give thanks makes us quick to acknowledge God’s goodness. The more often we flex that muscle the more natural of a reflex it becomes, even in moments of stress, struggle and disappointment. It is more than looking for the silver lining, a change in what we look for (i.e., trying to see “good” in all situations), because what is occurring is a change in our sight. Thankfulness causes us to see life through a lens of grace which helps strengthen the heart. With Anna, we begin giving thanks to God for what He has done. So let us practice simple and continual thanks giving.

Thankfulness directs attention to greater life. Let’s Give others reason for thanks

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As we approach Christmas, we have the opportunity to do as Anna did: speak of Him to all who are waiting. Part of our human nature is a desire for greater depth in life, a firmer sense of personal security, a fuller grasp of purpose. In other words, there is a sense of waiting on and pursuing wholeness ... a personal redemption of sorts, that people long for. And the good news is - we have good news!

From the thanks-high of Thanksgiving we can turn to the greatest display of grace, the most wonderful reason for thanks we can have: The Prince of Peace, Wonderful Counselor and Mighty God who has come near. 

Let us speak of Him, for “to us a child has been born ... a Savior, who is Christ the Lord,” and invite others who are waiting to come and see.

The Value of Others: Becoming a Community that Loves Neighbors

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I am forever misplacing my keys or my wallet. It can happen anytime, but often it happens in the morning. Frustration builds knowing that I am on the verge of arriving late to an appointment or meeting. The result is panic and chaos as I search desperately for either (sometimes both). I try to calm down enough to sit still and remember the last time I had possession of them.     

If the truth be told, the panic and frustration I feel in those moments has nothing to do with how I’m about to inconvenience the person I’m scheduled to meet. Rather, my frustration is about my inability to control what the person I’m meeting that morning thinks of me. The point being: there is always a value associated with something that is lost, and the more something is valued, the more its loss is felt. 

In Luke 15, Jesus told three parables about lost things: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. To fully understand these parables one must appreciate the social context provided in the first two verses of Luke 15. 

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

It was the grumbling of the Pharisees and Scribes that prompted Jesus to tell the three parables of lost things. The point of all three parables revealed the God’s compassion for sinners whom the religious elite simply looked down upon as morally inferior – those who were not worthy of a shared meal.

For example, in the first parable about the lost sheep, Jesus’ point was to contrast the values of the Scribes and Pharisees with the values of God. Jesus’ clear message to the religious leaders exposed that they valued money more than people. In this parable, Jesus said to the religious leaders: 

 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”

Jesus immediately contrasted the values of God’s heart saying, 

“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

God doesn’t rejoice over lost sheep but over lost people. The religious leaders threw a party when a commodity was saved, whereas heaven threw a party and rejoiced when sinners were reclaimed. 

The point being that if we want to participate in Jesus’ mission of reclaiming lost people, we must first love lost people. Raising a young family in the suburbs of Lake Norman often doesn’t leave a lot of room or energy for loving our neighbors. The Scribes and the Pharisees were too self-righteous to love them, and we are often simply too busy. 

So how do we get started?

Below are four things to consider as we seek to be a community that loves our neighbors … 

1. Start with Repentance.

We may need to confess that our hearts resemble those of the Scribes and Pharisees more than we want to admit. It’s easy to allow the pursuit of the American Dream to replace our dying to self for the Kingdom of Christ.

2. Start with Something Simple.

Host a neighborhood play group or invite a neighbor over for an evening dinner. Crossfit has become the easiest way for me to meet and make friends with all kinds of people who would never consider taking a step inside NorthCross.

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3. Keep it Relational.

Remember relational capital is often required to earn the right to enter into a spiritual conversation with anyone. Focus on becoming a good friend more than trying to say the right thing.

4. Make Sure it’s Disruptive.

I know this sounds odd but loving our neighbors in a way that doesn’t require some sacrifice could easily be a ministry placebo that is more about quieting a guilty conscience than it is actually serving our neighbors around us.

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts: A Look at Preparing for Worship

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“Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!”

This is the phrase the Dillan Panthers repeat before every game in the easy-to-love TV series Friday Night Lights (yes, you should watch it if you haven’t yet). Pregame rituals, speeches, or other focus-honing traditions have been a well-known part of sporting events for years.

The inspiring (and terrifying) pregame ritual for the New Zealand rugby team is called the Maori Haka War Dance. Watch it! Afterwards they are ready to kill. Would you step on the rugby pitch after that? Yeah right. 

In various forms, time is spent directing attention toward the upcoming event so that the numerous pressures and distractions are not able to steal focus. The consistent efforts to focus display a respect for the upcoming event. I would also say preparation time admits a natural struggle to be fully engaged. If it is so necessary to set aside time to get the mind right before regular sporting events, how much more of a priority should it be before the activities that feed our heart and soul? 

BUT, do we really need to prepare to sing on Sunday?

Because our life is busy and distractions are multiplying around us, yes. The danger of cares and distractions is described by Jesus in Mark 4:

18 And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.

And yes, because we share a common struggle with the rest of humanity to fully engage in anything without at least a moment devoted to focus. The pursuit of wisdom begins with a call to develop a discipline that involves the mind and heart:

... making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. (Prov. 2:2-5)

Think about the rapid nature of last week: You had multiple evening events and after school activities for your children. Your job is requiring extra time, you have tough employees, and your family just committed to a new sport that will take up your Saturdays. Fly fishing is back. Your golf swing needs refining. The girls’ trip is vying for planning attention. The year is already filling up so the family vacations need to be put on the calendar. Add all this to normal stresses like the daily juggling act that usually includes keeping children alive, fed, and physically present where they are supposed to be (on repeat every day!).

On top of that, statistics say you are experiencing life and season changes regularly… in your home, career, children, marriage, or community. If that isn’t enough, we are trying to have friends (and rightly so), which requires time, and fit in some r&r, which also requires time. 

Wow. 

Now try to drive peacefully to church, where you are asked to engage in singing, be mentally present, and actually be fed and encouraged by God’s Word (or just learn something!).

Unlikely. 

No one is able to go straight from running 100 mph to parking it for a few moments with a sincerely quiet mind. That is why we should think about preparing our hearts and minds for Sunday.

So how do we prepare?

Follow the biblical model.

Throughout the Psalms we have examples of preparation; Psalms 120-134 are called “Songs of Ascent” and were specifically used on the way to Jerusalem in preparation for Passover. Within this group we have a variety of themes ranging from confession, blessing God’s name, reminders of their own story as God’s people, and collective calls to focus their heart on worshipping God. Check them out.

These songs were sung as individual families as well as part of their corporate worship throughout the week as they prepared for the final Passover meal — the one Jesus fulfilled and repurposed as a meal representing His sacrifice. 

Why did they have specific songs to sing before worship? Because the human heart has always needed time and help when preparing to be fully engaged with God. Otherwise, what should be awe-striking and soul-feeding becomes plain and seemingly irrelevant. You and I are no different.

Let me ask you a question (and I would encourage you to actually think about it): Do a majority of your Sunday mornings feel more like a burden than a time of encouragement? 

Side note: I admit there are plenty of factors that create this outcome, including unforeseen stresses throughout the week, over the weekend, or even on Sunday morning. There are also seasons when exhaustion feels like your only companion and time at church seems to make things worse. We experience days, weeks, and months of emotional / spiritual desert. That is all true. And preparation is even more necessary in those seasons. 

Considering regular busy seasons (a.k.a. normal life), I wonder if there is any time spent during your week or on Saturday night getting your heart in the game, so to speak. This is time where you are prayerfully admitting your struggle with distraction and life’s burdens and actively seeking the Spirit’s help to enter a mental (and emotional) place where your heart is focused and ready to be fed by God on Sunday morning. 

Crazy! Is that even possible? That sounds super Puritan to even suggest, right?… the next thing you know, we’re all arriving an hour early to pray together before the service. (Would that be a bad thing?)

We are all familiar with the battle to spread time and energy across work, family, home to-dos, rest, travel, and emergencies, and God knows your burdens even more — enough to give us examples of preparation that set our hearts up to lay down our burdens and be ready to feed on God’s Word, be renewed by His Spirit, and be excited about the task of bringing the hope of the Gospel to our neighbors. 

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Let’s get practical…

Maybe I have described your life as it pertains to Sunday mornings. Here are five tips for you and your family:

1 - Understand that Worship begins before sitting in your chair on Sunday.

This means you will have to develop a habit of setting aside 10-15 minutes before Sunday morning — put it in your calendar or set a reminder until it becomes a habit. This also means your personal time in prayer and Bible study throughout the week creates a foundation for Worship on Sunday;  your priority of regular time with the Lord directly impacts your attitude towards Sunday morning.

2 - Prepare practical needs Saturday night.

Sunday morning is always going to be mayhem when trying to wake, feed, and dress multiple people and expect flawless execution from the family (experience talking!). Lay out clothes. Plan a simple breakfast. Set your alarm 10 minutes earlier to create a buffer.

3 - Read a passage of Scripture.

You could read one Psalm each week from the collection I mentioned above (120-134). You could also read the text for the sermon coming up (we usually post the text on our FaceBook page). This can be done Saturday night. This can also be done as a family Sunday morning during breakfast (this requires no. 2).

4 - Pray simple prayers.

As you read Scripture weave in simple prayers connected to what you are reading. This is when you can include the current burdens, struggles, and stresses that will be drawing your mind and heart away from engaging in Worship. One idea is to use the ride to church — this is what I often do with Carley. We pray for all kinds of things, and it always helps settle my busy mind on the reality of worshipping God. 

5 - Remember Who worship is about.

Sunday morning is not first about you. Yes, it is for you; God feeds us, convicts us, and sends us out — and we should expect Jesus to be doing these things (it’s why we are talking about preparing before we come). But having ourselves as first priority in worship is like running a race with our shoes tied together — you will be constanting stumbling through Sunday as long as you worship. It has always been about God. We come because God forgave a debt we could never pay, then gave us life and provided us with true belonging in a community. And the biblical picture of this community is one of corporate gatherings to praise our Savior and Creator—this gathering being one of His main avenues of filling our hearts. We want to prepare to be shaped more into the image of Jesus, and part of that preparation is remembering Who Sunday is primarily about.

 

If this weekend was an important game, or the big presentation to the corporate office, or a weekend away we would all prepare. 

The food our heart needs most is offered on Sunday mornings, so we should make it a priority to come to the feast as prepared as possible. 

“Clear eyes, full hearts..” let's pray -- or something like that.

Introducing: The NorthCross Blog

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We should start with a question: Why?

Why would we be putting a blog together when there are so many other incredibly wonderful options already out there? Are we trying to be hip and up to par with the Christian culture? No, that's not it. Are we aiming to be noticed and made famous? No, neither of us have the face for that. Is it because we have a wisdom that no one else has and we feel we must share it with the world? No. Well, that's not quite it. 

As pastors, our desire is to instruct and minister to the members of our church in such a way that they are actually equipped to serve others with the grace and love of Jesus. Nothing new. This is what Paul mentioned to the church in Ephesus:

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ... (Ephesians 4:11-13)
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Paul paints a simple picture of individual spiritual edification that has the natural result of mutual growth of the body, and that is our desire.

So the goal of this simple blog is to study and apply Scripture in the space between Sunday morning and other spiritual growth opportunities (i.e. Life Groups and Bible Studies). We want to discuss as many ideas and topics as Scripture is able to speak to (yes, that means everything is game) and do it in a way that is helpful for our church as we seek to grow in our faith through our knowledge of Jesus. 

Now what?

As mentioned, the content will be all over the place, but the format will be divided into various series in order to couple our like content together. Some examples include:

"Books from the shelf" -- These posts will be brief and thoughtful book reviews of one of our own books which help create a suggested reading list for those interested.

"Table Scraps" -- The last stage in preparing a sermon is shaving down to the final draft. This always means cutting off portions that time simply does not allow for; but these "scraps" are still very worth while, and we want to share that extra bit with you on occasion to allow you to dive deeper into the text previously studied on Sunday morning.

"That's a Tough Question" -- We are confident that this phrase has entered your mind when you were thinking through how the Bible applies to life. With these we will attempt to answer (some of) life's (and doctrine's) hard questions with brevity and grace.

"But How?" -- We want to look at different aspects of the Christian life, giving the biblical picture along with helpful tips, to see those practically established and cultivated in our own lives.

"I was just thinking..." -- There always needs to be a catch-all for when subjects come up that we desire to dig into but do not fit neatly in another category. Yes, whatever is on our mind and we want to write about... most likely daily life from a Christian perspective.

There will be others down the road including guest posts and spotlights, but there's no need to cover everything in this post.

We take our role seriously.

Sunday morning flies by and is (mostly) limited to the sermon's content; Life Groups are wonderful, but there might be topics that are never officially taught on or discussed; Sunday school is a great opportunity to study God's Word with your church family (and we encourage it!), but there is only so much you can cover in 45 min. And even with those opportunities, we understand not everyone can participate in all of those avenues. We want to take our role seriously as pastors of NorthCross, and we believe that the relationships God has allowed us to be a part of locally gives us a unique ability to teach and study God's Word with you; it's one of the greatest benefits of having a local church with a local pastor (as opposed to worshipping via Skype and participating from afar... locally, you are known and able to be cared for in specific ways). 

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a way to meet you where you are and point you to Jesus

With this crazy technology called "the internet" we are given a very easy way to meet you where you are... and point you to Jesus. 

So with that, we are excited to introduce The NorthCross Blog...

We hope this becomes another avenue for our spiritual growth as a church body. Be on the lookout for posts a couple times a month!