My apologies for not getting anything posted last week or this week. I have entered a season of increased busyness and probably won’t be able to post again until the start of next year. I hope that this year’s Advent proves to be both insightful and a season of growth for you. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
The Christmas season is now upon us and we can see decorations and other signs all around. Our holiday to-do lists have heated up as various deadlines close in and we often find ourselves swept along by the hustle and bustle of the season. There are gifts to buy, Christmas cards to mail, meals to prepare for, travel arrangements to be made, and many other things. There have also been some changes at church as we have turned the corner into the end of the calendar year. Last Sunday marked the beginning of Advent and we have begun to anticipate the celebration of Christ’s birth as well as his eventual second coming. In the spirit of this anticipation, Advent is also a time of preparation. As we anticipate the celebration of Christ’s birth, we also prepare ourselves and look to Christ’s return.
One of the ways that we prepare during Advent is by taking time for self-examination. In many ways Communion is a good analogy to help us wrap our minds around the Advent season. In 1 Corinthians, Paul admonishes the Corinthian church and us to examine ourselves so that we may eat the bread and drink the cup in a worthy manner. (1 Corinthians 11:23-34) Are we receiving communion with a heart that respects it for what it is or do we take it for granted? This self-examination involves both repentance and thanksgiving as we ultimately seek to be spiritually realigned.
This is the same idea that guides us as we prepare during the Advent season. One of the benefits of Advent being at the end of the calendar year is that we are able to look back upon the last 11 months and take stock of our lives and how we have been living for Christ. We can reflect on the trials and the blessings we’ve experienced during the last year with the benefit of hindsight. We are also able to see more of the big picture of our lives than we do when looking at it from day to day. Both of these considerations help us as we ponder the question of whether we’ve been living our lives in line with the new life we have in Christ.
With all of the preparations we are making for the celebration of Christmas, it is easy for Advent to get lost in the shuffle between Sundays. This is why having our daily time set aside for devotion is so important: it protects and maintains a time in our regular schedule for God. During these times we can offer prayers to God to guide us in our self-examinations and to give us clarity of vision to see where we have fallen short and to show us the ways in which we have been blessed. It is also during these times that we converse with God and lay before him the contents of our hearts. For we do not prepare ourselves solely through our force of will, but ultimately come to God so that He may continue to grow us and increase our faith. Our self-examination is a cooperative process that we engage in with God and our improvement as Christians is a grace we receive from Him.
Just as we prepare a Christmas tree for gifts to be placed under it, we also, during Advent, prepare ourselves to receive the gifts of God’s grace.
Thanksgiving has come and gone and we now find ourselves fully immersed in the lead-up to Christmas. However, one of the things Thanksgiving turkeys are known for is their encore appearances as leftovers. It is in this spirit of culinary sequels from the fridge that I would like to spend some post-Thanksgiving time thinking on being thankful.
Thankfulness or gratitude is an idea that often crosses our mind (to a greater or lesser degree) on a daily basis as we pray before each meal. Other times we encounter it as part of Sunday worship. Yet other times we are grateful when we are blessed in a particular way or when a specific crisis is averted. Regardless of the context, we typically think about thankfulness and gratitude as a feeling. We feel thankful. With this heuristic in place, we judge our degree of thankfulness based on the feeling of being thankful and seek to produce that feeling when we think we ought to be thankful. There is a difference, however, between feeling thankful and being thankful.
To feel thankful is a feeling and, by definition, is something that is temporary. It is therefore impossible that we should feel thankful all of the time: this feeling will come and go as it replaces and is replaced by other feelings woven throughout our lives such as happiness, sadness, anger, cheerfulness, and so on. Our feeling thankful will also be affected by things such as how tired we are, where our attention is focused, and a whole host of other factors beyond the other feelings coming and going from our consciousness. The sum of the matter is that our feeling of thankfulness ultimately comes up short as a means by which to evaluate whether we are living our lives with gratitude or not: it is too vague and volatile a thing. For example, we may become especially adept at producing this feeling of gratitude by our own efforts at the times we deem appropriate. Yet, in spite of our feeling the right way at the right time, we may not possess the least bit of genuine gratitude.
This begs the question: what is gratitude? What is thankfulness? From the above we can glean that it is not a feeling as we often suppose at first glance. The feeling stems from something else and is an echo or footprint of that something else. When we attempt to artificially produce this feeling, we are no closer to gratitude than an artist attempting to convey the idea of a cat by drawing only its tracks. We may be very good at drawing paw prints, but that doesn’t mean we know what a cat is. Nonetheless, we can learn some things about a cat by its footprints and the same holds true with gratitude.
Gratitude invariably shifts us out of the center of attention and instead focuses on something outside ourselves. It goes against the grain of the self-made man or woman that is idolized by our culture and instead acknowledges the fact that, while we exercise agency and stewardship in our lives, we did not create ourselves. From here, it is not difficult to see that gratitude is a very close relative of humility and has a large chunk of the same DNA. As such, being thankful means that we are necessarily humble. Being thankful, just like being humble, translates into action and how we live our lives. It seeps into our attitudes and dispositions.
Rather than a feeling, gratitude is what we might call an attitude of the heart: something that is near the core of our being and that affects everything which proceeds from our heart, be it word, thought, or deed. It is not something that we turn on and off at will. Of course, there are times when it closer to the forefront of our minds than others, but this does not affect its presence and influence in us. As we grow in our relationship with God, gratitude becomes a stronger influence in our lives. This is because we come to rely on God more fully and keep Him in mind in all we do. Gratitude is a natural outcome of growing intimacy with God. It proceeds from an increasingly God-centered view of the world and of ourselves.
Gratitude is a topic that is worth thinking on and digesting as we move into the Christmas season and Advent. With reminders of Christ’s first coming so readily before our eyes and minds, it is a fitting time to consider our response to the love that God shows us. Do we take it for granted or do we respond with thankfulness?
When we are told to have a positive attitude, we often consider it either a wishy-washy platitude or an apathetic dismissal. While it is true that such an admonition is used in both of these ways, I would like to submit that there is more substance in a positive attitude than what these common uses would indicate. What is it that makes a positive attitude more than just a nice thought or saccharine shtick?
Firstly, our attitude colors our outlook on everything. It is a psychological lens through which information passes as it is formed into our perceptions. As such, it can sharpen or distort our perceptions, either allowing them to be more accurate or skewing them (sometimes drastically) away from reality. Our attitude is the difference between taking a passing comment as a passing comment and taking it as an insult; the difference between having an open or closed mind. It is also key to the phenomenon known as the “self-fulfilling prophecy”. Our attitude affects how we treat people, which, in turn, affects how they treat us.
Second, our attitude makes a very real impact on the people around us. As noted in the self-fulfilling prophecy example above, our attitude really is contagious. It can be what helps someone else to, themselves, have a positive attitude which goes on to affect the people they come into contact with and who we may never see. In this way, our attitude has a subtle effect on actions and interactions beyond our little sphere. This wide-ranging influence is why the kind of attitude we have is a very important decision.
Third, in addition to having an effect on our perceptions and on others, our attitudes have an effect on our own lives and how we live them. Paul touches on this idea in his letter to the Philippians:
“Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Paul says that he is content no matter his circumstance. This speaks to his attitude not as a passing feeling, but as a persistent disposition. It is interesting to note the ideas Paul uses to convey his point. He says that he has learned “how to” be abased, abound, etc. This suggests that there is a better and worse way to undergo these things. To bring this into better focus, consider the more mundane example of having a cold. There seem to be two general categories into which people fall when dealing with this kind of disturbance. One group accepts the cold for what it is and proceeds forward with life in anticipation that the annoyingly runny nose will eventually go away with the aid of proper care and rest. The other group allows the discomfort and disturbance of the cold to take over their lives and dominate their attitude, inflicting undue strain and stress not only on themselves, but also on those around them. Chances are that we’ve encountered both of these approaches to the problem of being sick. In this case, it is clear that the first is a better way of addressing our cold and the second worse. They do not change the fact that a cold is a bad thing to deal with. Rather they speak to our disposition in a bad circumstance. We can apply the same reasoning to a good circumstance; noting that we can have better and worse mindsets as we move through it. This is the line of reasoning that Paul sets out as he addresses the Philippian Christians: he has learned how to have a positive attitude in both good and bad circumstances.
As we unpack this further, we come to the foundation upon which Paul grounds his attitude. He says that he can “do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Paul’s positive mindset is not based on his force of will when particular circumstances arise. He’s not forcing himself to be happy or humble. Instead, his mindset stems from a larger perspective in which circumstance forms a transient part. This perspective is cultivated as we grow in our relationship with God and learn to live our lives with Him. God, rather than being forgotten or relegated to a particular corner of our lives, is allowed to be a part of all that we say, think, and do. We allow Him to provide comfort, to provide guidance, or to provide insight in the innumerable situations we find ourselves in. Rather than being an escapist mentality, living our lives with God helps us to engage the people and situations around us in a healthy and constructive way. Paul does not say that his positive attitude is based on ignoring his problems. Instead, he says that he relies on Christ, who casts a light on the situation and helps him to proceed well. Above all else, Paul (and we as Christians) has an unquenchable hope in the new life we have in Christ which surpasses anything that this world or Hell itself can throw at us. It is this hope that strengthens us against the despair and cynicism inherent in having a bad attitude.
Although we often take having a positive attitude as a fluffy platitude anymore, I hope that the writing above has shown or at least helped you consider the idea that a positive attitude is something with substance that is worth taking the trouble to maintain. It would be foolish to claim that it is easy to keep a positive attitude, especially when we are surrounded by a world bursting at the seams with negativity. Nonetheless there is real value in this endeavor, for our attitude affects our perceptions and interactions with others as well as how we address ourselves to all manner of situations. We make a difference in the world every day, whether we like it or not. What kind of difference we make is very often the product of the attitude we have in life.
With the election drawing to a close this week with heightened emotion and intensity for many, we now find ourselves pondering what the future holds from here. It has oft been observed that this election in particular has been especially polarizing and, in affirmation of this, it has also weighed heavily upon many of our hearts and minds for some time now. However, as the dust begins to settle, our attention must turn to the matter of how we are going to proceed. For, though the presidential election is one of the most important events in the United States, which greatly affects and shapes the future course of the nation, it does not negate the numerous other moving parts of our lives.
As Christians, we must not lose sight of the fact that even something as big as the presidential election is ultimately a piece in the bigger picture. It is a piece that we, as part of the stewardship given to us in our lives, are required to speak to through casting our vote. Nonetheless, after the election is done, the votes tallied, and speeches made, there will still be evils such as hunger, poverty, corruption, and injustice in our world just as there were before. Our Adversary, the devil, will still be tirelessly pursuing our spiritual ruin and the spiritual ruin of all humanity.
For these reasons, as we return our focus to our more routine cycles, it is paramount that we remain mindful of the eternal aspects of our temporal lives. The words of Paul to the church in Colosse are poignant to us following the election:
Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.
Paul’s words provide a gut-check that makes us look at who we are called to be as Christians. It seems that this last campaign, perhaps more so than those previous, has tended to incline our hearts to hate and wish ill for others depending on who they did or didn’t support. However, our devotion and obedience to Christ demands that we put off such wickedness and instead give grace and love just as we have received grace and love from Christ. We are called to support and look out for one another for the greater glory of God, rather than give in to bitterness and hysteria. This is an admittedly difficult task, given that our political views may not have won the election and that we are faced with sentiments all too eager to stir us to anger and fear whenever we do things like turn on the TV or log on to Facebook. Sometimes we must take a deep breath and clear our minds of the clutter that so easily accumulates in it and distorts our perceptions. We must not let fear or resentment govern our lives, for then we and we alone have robbed ourselves of faith, hope, and love.
Life goes on after this election, and so does our goal of living our lives with and for God. As we move forward in our lives, we must keep our hearts and minds set on what is truly important and not lose sight of the God who loved the world so much that He gave His only begotten Son so that, while we were still enemies to Him, we might be reconciled to Him. Let us then, in keeping with His love, continue, as ever, to aim at and uphold the heart and spirit expressed in the greatest commandments:
Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,’ this is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”
Some may recall the unexpected sight of a Pokémon advertisement during the 2016 Super Bowl as part of the 20 year anniversary of the franchise. (Which can be seen here on the official Pokémon Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2F46tGehnfo) The theme running through the ad is people seeing other trainers and saying to themselves or others “I can do that,” or “We can do this,” or “You can do that,” respectively, and, in turn, becoming the inspiration for the next person shown in the commercial. In each case, their journey begins with the declaration, “I can do that.” The same holds true outside of the Pokémon context. When we set out to accomplish something or achieve some goal, it very often begins with us telling ourselves something similar.
This process is not unprecedented in the spiritual arena: Ignatius of Loyola had just such an experience. Once a man consumed by desire for the sort of fame, fortune, and perks that come with being a romantic knight, he is best known for founding the Jesuit religious order and authoring The Spiritual Exercises, a widely influential book concerned with the spiritual life. This change in his life’s trajectory came after he was gravely wounded by a cannon ball in battle. The projectile broke one of his legs and horribly mangled the other, leaving him bedridden and subject to what had to have been excruciating surgeries aimed at preserving his life and ability to walk. During his recovery, there was little for the injured Ignatius to do but read. Fortunately, there were many a book on courtly love and knightly exploits to be had. Unfortunately, none of these titles were available to him. Instead, the only books he could get his hands on were a commentary on the life of Christ and a compendium of the lives of various saints. Despite it not being his first choice, Ignatius took what he could get. Then something unexpected happened: as he read, he found himself drawn towards and fired up to serve God with his life. As he read about the lives of saints such as St. Francis of Assisi, Ignatius found himself thinking, “I can do that.” So it was that, after completing his recovery, Ignatius of Loyola set out to commit his life to God’s service.
In the Christian landscape today, we often perceive examples taken from the Bible or the lives of other Christians, not as inspiration, but as either “filler” for our spiritual lives or, perhaps more disheartening, examples dangled before us of what we ought and fail to be. Neither really fans the spiritual flame or moves us to action. However, this is precisely what these examples are there to do. Consider the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews: in it the author enumerates the many people of faith we find in the Old Testament such as Abraham, Moses, and David. If there were ever a list to make us feel inadequate and insignificant, this would be it. However, as he begins the next chapter, the author writes something that abruptly changes our perspective:
“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Rather than feeling sorry for ourselves because we don’t think we measure up, we are called to take heart and persevere on account of these people who have gone before us. These examples are given to us to help get us fired up. We look at how they lived their lives in faith and say to ourselves, “I can do that.” We may not have the same spiritual experiences they had, but that is neither the measure nor the goal that is set before us. They were imperfect people just as we are imperfect, but they held fast to their faith in God and made that the cornerstone of their lives. We too, setting our eyes on Christ, through whom we are and continue to be saved, aspire to live our lives in faith. We pursue God in all we do and seek to draw ever nearer to Him as we cooperate with his formative work in our lives. The effects of doing so are greater than we can imagine, both in our own lives and the lives of others. As we live our lives with God, others, seeing our life and example, may in turn say to themselves, “I can do that.”
With pumpkins, ghosts, and ghouls out in abundance, it can only mean that Halloween is once more upon us. This time of year, good scares are not difficult to find with haunted houses opening their doors, networks running scary movies, and the occasional friend or colleague jumping out of a concealed location. Indeed, Halloween is the season to get scared. The scares themselves come in a wide spectrum of styles ranging from the quick and reliable jumpscare to carefully arranged and artfully crafted ambiance which draws us into another world. With all these frights at our fingertips, it is worth our while to examine and think on them. Is there more to be gleaned from them than a quick thrill? I would like to propose that there is, in fact, more substance amid the boos than first meets the eye.
Getting scared introduces an element of humility into our lives. In our culture today, we take ourselves very seriously. I think this stems in no small part from the pride and self-aggrandizement that permeates our lives. We are regularly told that we “deserve it” or are shown images of what is considered to be an idealized person or life. These are the measures we then compare ourselves to and doggedly pursue. It is no wonder that we are so tightly wound when we are constantly fretting over meeting these goals. So often, it becomes a matter of self-justification in which we tell ourselves that at least we are better than so-and-so or we attempt to take refuge in convincing ourselves and others that we are the smartest person in the room. Our spiritual lives are subject to the same rat races as we attempt to have the “right” worship experience or be the most “spiritual” person in the room. Even our fun has become a matter of utmost seriousness as we use the metrics of social media to evaluate and draw satisfaction from our recreational activities.
When we allow ourselves to get scared, we are in effect dropping all of these pretenses. There is no image to keep up when we are breathlessly awaiting what is going to jump out at us from behind the next door. We are very simply there, in the moment. Put differently, getting spooked gives us a chance and (if we need it) an excuse to be authentic. We are so focused on living up to what we think we need to be that sometimes we forget to be who we are. The image we try to become is essentially a stylized perfection with all the depth and character of a G.I. Joe action figure or Barbie doll. These plastic façades cannot afford to show the slightest imperfection or weakness because to do so would destroy their illusion. To get scared (beyond a carefully scripted instance) is such an imperfection. Getting a good fright helps to keep us honest by reminding us of the frailty and fakeness of these societal masks. Our Halloween scares give us a touchstone with humility and reality. We are imperfect and that is ok. We can be healthy and imperfect because we have a perfect God who works with us, walks with us, and loves us in the midst of those imperfections. Rather than shunning or whitewashing these imperfections, He engages us through them in order to heal and shape us. Clinging to our false self-image turns our back on this vital part of our relationship with God which expands far beyond a single month of the year.
Sharing the fright with others adds yet another dimension. As stated before, when we get scared we drop our pretenses, and, along with them, the barriers that they set up. In an ironic twist, the images we project to others in order to better fit in end up making us further divided from them. The reason for this is that these projected images are nothing more than a ruse and for a ruse to work, people must not know that it is a ruse. Therefore, we must keep everyone at arm’s length to ensure that they do not accidently get a peek behind the curtain. In the end, we make sure that our false self fits perfectly with the others on the surface while our true self remains trapped and drowning in isolation below. Sharing a scare offers a unique experience in that we drop our acts and let our real selves come to the surface for air. It brings us into a degree of vulnerability that we may not dare touch in other contexts. While this mutual vulnerability may not, itself, bring us closer, it serves at the very least as a starting point. As our true self pops through the façade-covered surface, we get to see other heads bobbing up and down and realize that perhaps we aren’t so alone in our situation after all.
While I do not wish to set the frights and fun of Halloween on a pedestal, I hope that I have cast them in a new light that serves as food for thought as we go about our lives this season. More importantly, I hope that this brief discourse has shown some of the benefits of not taking ourselves too seriously. When we learn to relax and let go of our carefully crafted false self, we can have a more authentic, open, and healthy relationship with God. As an extension of our healthy relationship with God, our ability to relate to others also improves. So as Halloween comes around again, let us step back from our pretenses, spend some time with our friends and loved ones, and draw nearer to God.