Yes, but Do You Care?

Joyful face
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/backpackphotography/1234259576/">Backpack Photography</a>

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Be joyful. Pray. Be grateful. God wants you to be grateful. Don’t be a wet blanket on the fires of enthusiasm for God, but check everything carefully, keeping the good, rejecting the evil.

May the God of peace personally make you 100% dedicated to the cause. May you remain whole, body, soul, and spirit. And may you be blameless in the end.

Indeed, God who calls you will do this.

[See also, previous comments on 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22 and 1 Thessalonians 5:23-28.]

Last month, writing on this chapter, I wrote, “…you can’t command respect, let alone love. You can only earn it.”

Which, I believe is true. But there is something more. You can also give it. It’s called being gracious.

And you can give it – joy, love, respect, grace – even when it’s unearned.

Mostly, you give it by not being a wet blanket on the fires of enthusiasm. Whether that enthusiasm is for God, or for anything else. Nobody likes it when you rain on their parade. So, you think it’s crazy, or stupid, or you’re not really that interested in what someone is really excited about. So what! Most of the time, it’s not going to hurt anything to be gracious about it. Be happy for them.

You can also give it by giving what you do to the world around you. Do cook? Do you write? Do you clean? Do you sculpt? Do you teach? Do you make widgets? Whatever it is the difference between joy and drudgery comes down to this one question: Do you care? Even when nobody else is looking, are you 100% dedicated to the cause?

The whole gospel as Jesus presented it can be wrapped up in one simple idea: Jesus cared. And if you were to ask Jesus what he believed about God, he likely would have said: the only God worth believing in is the God who cares.

Or, as Paul says, “The God who calls you will do this.”

How You Get Through when Things Fall Apart

life magazine, German ruins1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

You don’t need anyone telling you when all this will happen, friends. You already know that it will be like a thief in the night. When people say “peace and security,” that’s when it’ll hit. It’s just as inevitable as a pregnant woman going into labor. But because you’re not living the night life, the thief won’t surprise you. You’re children of light. For you it’s always daytime, never night. So don’t fall asleep, but stay awake and sober. Those who sleep, sleep at night. Those who drink, drink at night. But you’re daytime people, sober people. Arm yourselves with faith and love, and protect your head with hope.

God’s anger isn’t meant for you. God’s intention is to spare you that. That’s what Jesus’ death was about: keeping us alive, whether we’re awake or asleep. So, keep on cheering each other up.

Of course, except for the quotation about the thief in the night, none of this is true.

  • People take naps.
  • The Thessalonians were just as flawed as the rest of us.
  • People drink around the clock.
  • And Jesus never claimed any of this about his dying to spare his followers persecution, let alone God’s wrath.

In fact, Jesus said just the opposite: “If they did it to me, they’ll do it to you.”

So what use is this passage? Two salvageable bits:

  1. Bad times are sure to come, and often when you least expect them. And especially when overconfidence is the flavor of the day. It happens in markets: dot-com bubble, housing bubble. It happens in government: “mission accomplished.” It happens in religious life: crystal cathedral. It’s no use arguing about whether these ups and downs are divine punishment. Sometimes they are consequences of one’s actions, but just as often, they’re just part of living on the planet. Expect them.
  2. Three of the best ways of dealing with bad times are by responding with faith, hope and love. Even if you did deserve what you got, but especially if you didn’t. Keeping your commitments, keeping your chin up, and reaching out to help someone else get through it. These things go a long way toward improving a bad situation sooner than it otherwise would on its own, alleviating the some of the suffering, and sometimes, keep things from being a lot worse.

Advice at a Funeral

rapture diagram
Credit: Richard Masoner

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

We want you to know what happens when people die so you won’t be sad like the heathen.

We believe that because Jesus died and returned to life. We also believe that God will bring back to life people who have died while believing this about Jesus. Here’s a message from God: When Jesus comes back from heaven, those who have already died will go to heaven first, and then those of us who are still alive will go to heaven next. Jesus himself, at the chief angel’s trumpet signal, will come down from heaven. First, the dead will rise. Then the living will float away into the clouds with Jesus forever.

Tell yourselves this story to make yourselves feel better.

The catch of course, besides the whole story being patently ridiculous, is that the schedule for all this happening gets revised every few years. (In 2011, every few months.)

We can give Paul credit for trying to be pastoral. But theological explanations (even good theology) is cold comfort for those who are mourning a real loss. Paul would have done much better if he’d gone to be with his friends at Thessolonica instead of giving them this story and instructions to tell it to each other. Job’s friends are no comfort to him as they drone on and on about how death and disaster are a case of divine punishment. And neither is the well-meaning reassurance often given at funerals that “God wanted Grandma to be with him now.” (Why is God all of a sudden so selfish?)

There’s nothing wrong with believing in an afterlife. It’s a charming idea. But even if there is, the technical details are not appropriate at funerals. And it does no good to say to someone, “Don’t be sad.” People need to feel what they feel. You’re much better off following Jesus example and weeping along. But only if you really mean it. Otherwise being there, saying you’re sorry, and keeping in touch after the funeral day crowds are gone are much more supportive responses to death and loss.