"More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness."
"More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness."
Mental health professionals often stress the importance of being present in the here and now moment as we live our day-to-day lives. These mental health professionals have recognized an important truth in the way the Creator has created His creatures, even though they might be surprised to realize that their position is actually grounded in Scriptural truth.
God Almighty is eternal, without beginning, without end. The I AM is the essence of unchanging being, at all times. He has created us in His image, for unending relationship with Him. Christ died to cover our sins to make that possible. The eternal Holy Spirit dwells within us as the first fruits of an abiding relationship with the Triune Godhead that will be fulfilled in heaven as we spend eternity in His presence.
I am not good at living in the present. Scars from my past tend to make me quite apprehensive about the future, and so I am continually scanning the horizon looking for threats. Many if not most of us spend a good bit of time looking backward in time as we process a myriad of experiences and then forward to prepare for future experiences. But when we do so, we risk missing the here and now (Matthew 6:25-34).
The Apostle Paul and the author of the epistle to the Hebrews both encourage their readers to avoid bitterness. Avoiding bitterness requires us to exercise forgiveness so that we are not bound to past hurts and offenses inflicted by others. The Apostle Matthew records in his Gospel Jesus’s exhortation to not worry about the needs of tomorrow but rather be seeking God’s kingdom in faith.
The Gospels are full of accounts of Jesus living in the present moment as He ministered during His time on earth. One of the most powerful examples is described toward the end of the Gospel of Luke, in Chapter 10. By this time, the Jewish authorities have given Jesus and His disciples good reason to believe that they are looking for a way to get Jesus out of their way, to eliminate their competition, as they see it. In this chapter, Jesus is clearly preparing for His crucifixion as He foretells the suffering that is coming in Verses 32-34. But instead of focusing on past conflict with the Jews or on His upcoming suffering, Jesus takes time to bless children—considered insignificant in that culture—to deal patiently with James and John as they asked Him for special treatment, and to heal a blind beggar. Jesus remains present even when there was a good bit in His recent past and upcoming future to think about.
A few weeks ago, I went out in our back yard for my morning time of dog play. It was damp, chilly, and foggy. But as I walked past our miniature Japanese maple tree, I noticed droplets of water clinging to the ends of its many branches, shining. It was truly magical, and I forgot about the dreary conditions and my lack of enthusiasm for the activity. Dog play soon commenced, and by the time I walked by the tree again, the light had changed and the droplets of water, while visible, were no longer glowing. I processed the incident as I collected dogs and tennis balls and went indoors. Had I not taken that blink of time to appreciate our bare but transformed little tree, the Lord would not have been able to bless me with that glimpse of His creative goodness. And once again, I am able to see a cycle of blessing: as I pay attention to what is before me in the present, I am blessed with glimpses of the Lord’s personal goodness. And that attentiveness strengthens my mental health and the ability to remain in the present moment and see more of what the Lord is doing.
To be alive to the wonder of the commonplace, I thought, that is the very gift of a wildly generous Creator, who ever invites his creatures to contemplate the exuberance of his excellent handiwork. There is a deep and abiding joy at work in this worlds-realm, and we who toil through our lives do often forget this, or overlook it. But look: it is all around! Ceaseless, unrelenting, certain as sunrise, and constant as the rhythm of a heartbeat.
February brings Valentine’s Day and thoughts of love and romance. Perhaps a candlelight dinner at a secluded table for two, soft music in the background, and a special meal of … roast turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, and pumpkin pie?
Wrong holiday? Not necessarily! While the turkey, stuffing, mashed potato, and pumpkin pie menu takes us back to Thanksgiving, there is an important link between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day. If we want to love well—romantically and otherwise—cultivating a grateful heart is essential.
At Thanksgiving, we are reminded to count our blessings and offer praise and thanksgiving to the Lord for His goodness and gracious provision. That is a very good thing, especially since giving thanks does not always come naturally to us. Giving thanks requires us to turn from our all too common and self-focused grumbling and look with eyes of faith toward the Lord and others. And this looking outward, beyond ourselves, enables and empowers us to love more genuinely and deeply.
This brings us back to Valentine’s Day. While romantic dinners and kind gestures toward others can be appropriate expressions of love, I would like to suggest that applying the principles of thanksgiving to those we want to love can be more powerful and longer lasting. If we want to generate thankfulness in relationship, we need to look at others with that intent, to see beyond their annoying habits, idiosyncrasies, and faults to those qualities that remind us that they are image-bearers of their Creator. And as we come to appreciate them, we can love them more fully.
The essence of thanksgiving is the giving of thanks. So as we become thankful for someone, it is essential that in addition to thanking God, we thank the person, express appreciation. The Apostle Paul models this as he addresses the believers in the church at Thessalonika:
We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father….You also became imitators of us and of the Lord, having received the word in much tribulation with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. I Thessalonians 1:2-3, 6-7.
Paul shepherds the congregations under his supervision with care and attention. He knows them, and what they are doing. He thanks God for them and then takes the time to share his appreciation of them in detail. What an encouragement that must have been for this early church, new in the faith living in a pagan world, and facing the ongoing threat of persecution. And so it all comes together: Paul has committed his heart and mind toward cultivating gratitude. He expresses that in the continual giving of thanks, encouraging and blessing others in love. His encouragement of them reinforces his attitude of gratitude, generating continual encouragement. It is a theme that runs through his epistles.
As we seek to love others in this “love month,” may we, like Paul, turn our hearts to the Lord in gratitude and thanksgiving so that we may love as He loves.
Now that we are past Christmas and the New Year is upon us, it easy to develop a dutiful “the party is over” mindset. We return to school and/or work. And, we gear up to pay for the party, so to speak: holiday bills, holiday pounds, exhaustion, and the all-too-common strained family relationships from family gatherings, all of which often generate or exacerbate fatigue, depression, and anxiety. We pay more attention to budgeting, we ponder the fastest and least painful way to lose weight and gain fitness, we set a new bed time, and we promise ourselves to change our participation in family gatherings even as we sometimes deal with guilt and shame because of our present condition.
It is easy to understand why New Year’s resolutions are a common theme in January. This is the time of year when we encounter and confront the consequences and the cumulative consequences of our choices, some of them poor ones. The typical approach to a New Year’s resolution is to browse the ads and offers of a quick DIY fix on our medium of choice. We plan to get our act together as quickly as possible and then get on with life.
But the quick DIY approach can be discouragingly counterproductive. It was first introduced to humanity by no other than Eve in the Garden of Eden. She engaged in conversation with the serpent by herself, even though Adam was at her side and the LORD was certainly within calling distance. She made the fateful choice herself, largely attracted by the serpent’s lie that the forbidden fruit would make her wise like God—so that she could continue to do life herself. We can’t fix ourselves, and when we try, we become self-focused and vulnerable to the pride that was exposed and exploited in the Garden of Eden. C.S Lewis puts it this way:
Teachers, in fact, often appeal to a boy's Pride, or as they call it, his
self-respect, to make him behave decently: many a man has overcome
cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper, by learning to think that they are
beneath his dignity--that is, by Pride. The devil laughs. He is perfectly
content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled
provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride--
just as he would be quite content to see your chilblains cured if he was
allowed, in return, to give you cancer. For Pride is spiritual cancer: it
eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common
Another problem with the DIM (“DO IT MYSELF”) approach is that it invites us to become performance oriented. We follow the way of the world and measure our value and status in society by how well we perform and how closely we conform to the expectations of our culture. This generates a competitive attitude, making it difficult if not impossible to find contentment and peace and to love as our Lord calls us to love.
We can give up and stay as we are. We can charge forward to fix ourselves anyway. Or, we can consider a Biblical approach. We can put our need before the throne of God that is both perfect and full of grace. We can DIWG—Do It With God.
The DIWG approach means that we find our identity and value in Christ and our place among His people. We look for the Holy Spirit to do His sanctifying work in us as we walk in faith and in the fellowship of believers. We not only talk the talk of faith, but we do our best to walk the walk. As we worship and minister in the body, our weaknesses and sin patterns will be exposed. We will be invited to confess and repent, to grow in conforming to the character of Christ. And as we do that, we will find that becoming whole, as our Creator intended, involves our bodies and minds as well as our souls and spirits. If we want to become who the Lord created us to be and to fulfill His purposes for us, we need to pursue physical and mental health as well.
Research has demonstrated that a healthy lifestyle of good nutrition, exercise, and adequate sleep is essential for brain health and our ability to make wise choices. And brain health and wise choices are essential in our faith walk. And the cycle continues: Our faith walk—built on deepening and growing relationships with the Lord and His people—also supports a healthy lifestyle as it enables us to fail without shame and to grow as we both humbly and confidently abide in Christ and depend upon the work of the Holy Spirit within us.
I, for one, find that I am surprised that 2023 arrived so quickly. I don’t feel that I have managed to clean up after 2022 yet! But ready or not, 2023 is here. May we accept the Lord’s invitation to seek wholeness in Him as we in turn invite the resident Holy Spirit to make Himself at home, choosing to keep company with our spiritual brothers and sisters to prosper that work in all of us.
Today marks the Winter Solstice--the shortest day of the year, and therefore the longest night. The Winter Solstice has a long history of pagan celebration, but it carries an even more powerful Christian message.
As the Winter Solstice marks the shortest day/longest night, it also marks the march toward Spring and Summer, times of abundant light and reduced darkness. The analogy is easy to make:
The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great Light, and those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, upon them a Light dawned. Isaiah 9:2, quoted in Matthew 4:16.
Then Jesus again spoke to them, saying, I am the Light of the world; he who follows Me will not walk in the darkness but will have the Light of life. John 8:12.
At the moment, the planet is angled away from the sun on its yearly journey. This is the season of darkness. But the celebration of the Winter Solstice reminds us that lighter--and better--days are ahead. In like manner, we are living in a sinful, dark world. But the Bible proclaims that the Light has come, and will come again! That is good news, indeed.
Of course, the analogy is not perfect. Our planet will continue to turn, and the Winter Solstice of 2023 will follow the coming spring, Sumer and fall. But those who follow Christ in faith will have His light regardless of the planetary position or the conditions of this world.
In the bleak midwinter, all creation groans
For a world in darkness, frozen like a stone.
Light is breaking
In a stable for a throne.
The Christmas narrative can be fairly described as a dialectical masterpiece, one that takes layer upon layer of apparently contradictory and incompatible bits of information and fits them into a miraculous whole. Contrasts and the unexpected become normal and commonplace.
The mighty angel Gabriel is sent from heaven to Galilee, considered a backwater town and some distance from Israel’s religious center, Jerusalem. A young woman with no status or renown is chosen to be the mother of the Son of God. Her betrothed marries her, willing to believe that the baby she carries is indeed of God. The two have little in the way of resources—no money, no power, no influence—with which to protect and nurture someone as important as the Son of God.
The young Galilean couple travels to Bethlehem late in the pregnancy, not by choice but by legal decree. And so they find themselves 90 miles from home when the Infant God is born. The royal birth announcement is made by an angel, not to the upper class but rather to a group of lowly shepherds. And as if the announcement of the single angel isn’t enough, he is joined by a host of angels rejoicing in the birth of the Messiah.
The newborn King—the Messiah, the Savior of the world—is the fulfillment of long-studied prophecy. Born in Bethlehem, to a virgin, from the line of David. And yet the religious experts and authorities of the day do not recognize the prophetic fulfillment. Instead, two elderly prophets proclaim the good news in the temple, and upper-class wise men from a distant land appear to pay homage.
The wise men direct attention to the baby Messiah, but not in the way they intend. A jealous ruler seeks the Messiah as well, not to pay homage, but to murder. The result is the untimely and tragic death of a generation of young children. The Messiah Himself is taken by His parents to Egypt. Egypt! The last place a Jewish family would expect or want to go….
And now, centuries later, here we are…. We have the benefit of the New Testament as well as the Old to understand those past events, and more context to understand and integrate the dialectical elements. But we, just like those who lived back then, still interpret what we read and events around us according to our personalities, personal histories, desires, and sin nature. Each Christmas season is an invitation to ponder anew the Incarnation and to pursue a deeper and truer knowledge of the Messiah so that we can better build our faith relationship with Him upon the reality of who He is. He has created us in His image; we must not make Him in ours.
And then from this humble position, we are—perhaps unexpectedly—much better able to glorify God with the angels as we celebrate God’s greatest gift at Christmas. From Christmas we look toward the Messiah’s return, which will come when we least expect it. Come Lord Jesus!
November. Thanksgiving. A reminder that “every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights….” (James 1:17a). As we count our blessings and thank the Lord for His goodness toward us, may we focus on the Giver as well as the gifts.