Are You a Good Person?

Why do we do kind things for others?

Whether it’s helping out at a soup kitchen or just listening to a friend who’s having a bad day, what is our motivation?

In my community, people enjoy giving their time to a number of volunteer organizations in town. And that’s great.

But sometimes, I wonder what motivates such acts of kindness. Is it just to achieve that warm fuzzy feeling that comes over you when other people are better off because of you? Or is there another agenda/motivation at work?

Any time I work with a volunteer organization, I can’t help but notice that there’s always a moment when the spirit of unconditional helpfulness starts to break down. People start to argue. They start to complain. It starts to become clear that, by helping, they believed they were entering into some kind of bargain…and now they feel that they’ve been cheated. 

It’s the same way with friendships and relationships too. We all have that friend who will do absolutely anything for people they care about. That’s a beautiful thing. 

But when someone else can’t return that devotion in kind, we get angry. We feel burned. Why did we waste our time on such a person when they were so unworthy?

Philosophers have often asked the question whether it’s possible for humans to be purely altruistic. Are we capable of doing kind acts without the expectation of a return?

Based on my own experiences and observations, I would have to say yes…but only to a point.

After that point, we can no longer sustain kindness simply for the sake of kindness. We need to receive something in return for it…usually intangible things like love, respect, or control. We need these intangible rewards, because we are frail humans who can’t sustain our efforts for very long without them. And God knows this. Even Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

In our own feeble power, we can’t administer the same kind of unconditional love and kindness that God shows to us. After a while, when we don’t get anything in return, we feel resentful, even angry. We feel hurt, rejected, and betrayed when our love, kindness, or volunteerism is not returned in the same spirit in which it was offered.

Unless…

There is this wonderful gift that Christians have access to, known as the “Holy Spirit.” If you have ever met anyone who was truly powered by that Spirit, you could probably tell. That person had boundless energy for treating others with kindness. They always had a smile. When you are in their presence, you feel like you are bathed in warmth and unconditional regard. If you accidentally said or did something hurtful, they forgave you immediately. And they weren’t shy about telling you that God was the reason for their goodness, that they wouldn’t be able to do it on their own.

We all know people like that…and it is a prime example of the Holy Spirit at work.

In the New Testament, the apostles who received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost did all kinds of amazing, supernatural things. They healed lepers and demoniacs, they escaped from prisons, they faced persecution and eventually martyrdom with true forgiveness in their hearts.

Could they have done these things without the Holy Spirit? No. The New Testament stories show that, before they received the Holy Spirit, they were just regular people, trying their best to earn a living on the shores of Galilee. They were suspicious, blunt, tactless, often unkind. They had their own personal agendas and motivations. In the end, it was God’s Holy Spirit that transformed them.

Do you truly want to love others unconditionally, as God loves them? Do you want to give your time and energy without care for the outcome? 

Do you want to be purely altruistic?

Well…you can’t.

Unless you are ready to invite the Holy Spirit into your heart. 

And then…we have all the power of God at our disposal.

Are We Suffering Enough?

Abraham Lincoln. Virginia Woolf. Winston Churchill. Vincent van Gogh. The Apostle Paul. Jesus Christ.

What do all these people have in common?

Two things: they all made incredible contributions to society which changed the world forever.

And: they suffered. A lot.

Abraham Lincoln was known for bouts of “melancholia” that lasted days at a time. (As a matter of fact, so was Winston Churchill!) And we all know about both the suffering and the creative genius of Virginia Woolf and Vincent van Gogh.

Is suffering a requirement for making lasting contributions to the world and society?

When it comes to suffering, most of us want to avoid it. We can’t even tolerate a bad cold or a bruised finger without throwing medication at them to make the pain stop.

As for emotional suffering (grief, fear, anger, and sadness)…forget about it! Just think about something else. And if you can’t, have a drink or five.

We don’t seem to ever allow ourselves to experience suffering for more than a few minutes at a time.

And when we see other people suffering, our instinct is to turn away. If we can’t fix it, we don’t want to know about it.

What would happen if we really embraced suffering, allowed it into our lives, and let it teach us its lessons?

In 2 Corinthians, Paul has this to say about suffering: “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Many people have speculated about what exactly this “thorn” might have been. It could have been a physical illness or disability. Or he might just have been talking about the persecutions he faced. In any case, Paul embraced suffering. He believed it made him stronger because it forced him to rely completely on God for everything. And it does seem to have made him stronger; Paul probably did more to spread the gospel all over the world than any other single person.

As for Jesus, he took on the ultimate suffering in order to bring God’s grace to humanity. And if you go back and read the accounts of his Passion and crucifixion, you can clearly see how real and horrific his suffering was.

What does suffering do for us? Maybe it helps us see with greater clarity the problems of this world and motivates us to reimagine a world in which these problems can be solved. Maybe it opens up our minds and hearts to the suffering of others so that we can walk alongside them instead of turning away from their pain in disgust and fear. Or maybe it strips us of our own feeble powers and replaces them with the power of God instead.

For those of us who have a mental illness (or any kind of chronic illness, really), there is no escape from suffering. We carry despair and fear within us all the time. We understand the frailty and futility of this world better than anyone else. Is this weakness? Or is it a unique path to finding the strength of God?

In my own lifelong walk with the pain of severe depression and anxiety, I have had to trust God fully every moment of every day. In fact, my life has depended upon the relationship I’ve had with Him. I’ve often thought that if anyone else had to spend even two minutes inside my head, they would run away screaming with torment. But still, I go about my work in the world every day, sometimes even with a genuine smile. As Paul did, I feel that I can boast in my weakness, because it has given me the strength of God.

If I hadn’t suffered so keenly, would I have had the opportunity to know God so intimately? It’s hard to say.

But I do know that His power allows me to experience suffering without being destroyed by it.

And with that power of God on our side…there’s really nothing we can’t do.

The Time Jesus Got Angry About Sex

That’s one of those click-bait trick titles of course. Jesus never got angry about anyone having sex. Not even once.

Of course, we think of Jesus as a mild and gentle person who really never got angry much at all. But actually, this perception of him is completely untrue. There were several times when Jesus did express great anger. (Take a look at Mark 11:15, Matthew 23, and Mark 5 for just a few examples.)

But, although I have looked for it, I have not found a single verse that showed Jesus looking into people’s bedroom windows and launching into angry sermons about who they were having sex with. The closest he came to this was when he told the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more.” And he said that only after looking into her eyes with kindness and love, saving her from being stoned to death, and pronouncing on her a benediction of divine forgiveness.

But who did Jesus get angry with? He was angry with the religious establishment. He called them out as hypocrites. He chastised them for neglecting to help the poor among them, while the religious leaders got to walk around in “soft robes.” He accused them of loading people down with restrictive religious obligations while refusing to help them with the problems of daily life. He angrily overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were trying to monetize the love of God.

Jesus was angry about hypocrisy, inequality, the absence of compassion. These are things which, as Jesus’ representatives on Earth, we can rightly be angry about, too.

Yet, it seems to me, very often, that Christians are angrier about sex than almost anything else. With most preachers, when they mention sin, they almost always mean it as related to some kind of sexual activity. They are extremely preoccupied with what they term “sexual sin.” Any kind of sexual activity (but especially homosexuality) seem to be matters that concern them greatly. But except for that brief moment with the woman taken in adultery, Jesus never mentions it once.

Why is that? I think it’s because Jesus was so busy addressing the problems of poverty, illness, injustice, and hypocrisy in the world that he just didn’t have time to run around looking in people’s windows to make sure they were having sex with the right people. It just wasn’t on his radar. He had more important things to do.

And I believe that as Christians we have more important things to do, too. Our world is still riddled with the same problems that angered Jesus back in A.D. 30 or so. As Jesus’ representatives on Earth, it falls to us to address the myriad and obvious instances of poverty, illness, injustice, and hypocrisy that are ripping the world apart more thoroughly and completely than any hapless adulterer ever could.

I do not think, though, that Jesus was unconcerned about sexuality. He preached the importance of treating others with integrity, with compassion. He preached against adultery and divorce on the grounds of compassion for others. In the culture of the time, divorce ruined women financially for the rest of their lives, since they were dependent on their husbands completely. And adultery is sinful not because it involves sex, but because it involves hurting another child of God.

Concerning sex, as with anything else, I think Jesus wanted us to treat others as God’s children, not to use them for selfish purposes. This idea is laid out clearly when I Corinthians tells us to treat our bodies as “temples.” And integrity and compassion were the main concerns with everything Jesus preached about, whether money, religion, or family relationships.

Imagine if all the passion directed against people for “sexual sin” were used to address the real and very harmful sins which are surely but certainly destroying humanity. If we could harness all that passion for good, we would truly be a powerful army of God.

Is Morality a Dirty Word?

Subtitled: Has our culture lost its moral compass?

There was a time, still relatively easy to access in our collective memory, when morality was very black and white and, more importantly, the same for everyone.

You could appeal to this collective morality about anything, because we all agreed about what was right or wrong. We all went to church every Sunday. We all banded together to fight threats like WWII or the Depression. We all believed in God as He is depicted in the Bible. If you and another person had a disagreement about what was right or wrong, it was fairly easy to resolve, because we all believed the same things.

So simple. Wouldn’t it be great to go back to that?

Except it wasn’t that great for everyone. We mistrusted anyone who was different. As a society, we punished or ostracized people who didn’t believe as we did, were raised with different values, or who stood out in any way. (Immigrants, racial minorities, LBGT people, and women who wanted to have more rights come to mind.)

Because of these oppressions, our society went all the way in the opposite direction. Any kind of universal morality was abandoned as if it it were a gross and offensive hot potato. Mentioning God in certain circles is like dropping the naughtiest of swear words. And when we try to appeal to others on the basis of any kind of moral high ground, it soon feels like we’re speaking a foreign language that our hearers can’t understand.

The older generations (people my age and older) feel understandably lost and frightened in this bizarre landscape. We had certain moral values instilled in us by our parents. We wonder, why aren’t parents today teaching their children those same moral values? Surely everything that’s wrong in our world is because our children aren’t saying prayers publicly in school anymore, because they’re not saying the pledge (which most schools still do, by the way), because they’re not learning all the subtle nuances of behavior in a morally black-and-white world. We throw up our hands in dismay. WHAT is going to happen to these future generations who were never given a proper moral compass, as we were?

And yet, that desire within us for a universal morality still exists. You see it in almost every argument or debate, in every setting. One person has a strong inner sense of morality. The other person has an equally strong sense of morality; however, because we are so individualistic, their beliefs about the moral high road are quite different. This has the effect of making us feel like we are speaking different languages, in which it’s impossible to understand others’ point-of-view or to make ourselves understood. We are united in our desire for a moral universe, but deeply divided on what that moral universe should look like.

At some point during my career as public school teacher, we became aware that schools needed some kind of universal morality. Children and teens all learned a very different set of morals from their families, mostly taught by example rather than explicitly stated. Hence we couldn’t appeal to our students on any moral ground because everyone’s morals were so different. A number of initiatives cropped up over the years to try to give the students some kind of universal morality. We usually gave it a name like Citizenship or Leadership or Character. Yet it always seemed to me that these were too vague. Good citizenship for one person looks different from good citizenship for someone else. The same with character; what does that even mean? I could tell you what it means to me, but your perception of it might be very different.

I think these efforts by the public schools reveal something important about our society. Despite our individualism, we yearn to share some kind of universal morality, something we can all appeal to, a set of agreements about the way people are supposed to treat one another in this world. But how can we get there? Is it possible to create a set of agreements like this without punishing or ostracizing those who are different?

I believe that Jesus had the best answers to these questions. The ancient Hebrew people had universal morality in spades, with an elaborate set of rules for every occasion. Stories from Jesus’ ministry reveal the ways certain groups were hurt or oppressed by the system: women, Samaritans, the poor. When Jesus was asked which of their hundreds of rules was the most important, he responded: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In Jesus’ view, a love for God spills out naturally into a love for others. A respect for a higher power in the universe who created each one of and gave us our sense of purpose leads us to recognize the sacred purpose of our neighbors too. A neighbor is anyone with whom we share a sense of community either because we inhabit the same street, the same town, the same country, or the same world.

An elaborate system of rules about things like prayer in school, saying the pledge, or even going to church every Sunday won’t get us anywhere in finding a set of moral values we can all share. In some ways, it just creates more division. But imagine if every person in our world could agree on the sacredness of every individual as created in God’s image? What if every person loved their neighbor as themselves?

Some version of this kind of morality forms the foundation of every major religion of the world. That alone really tells you something about how universal this code of ethics is. It’s almost as if this moral code exists already within our DNA, but because we don’t articulate it or discuss it, we often forget about it.

One of the functions of the new covenant with Jesus was a “law that is written on our hearts.” Because of this new covenant, we no longer need an elaborate set of rules explaining how to be good, moral people. And we no longer have to learn a specific belief system from our parents or our teachers. Because everything we need for morality already exists within us.

Let’s start by acknowledging the sacredness of every individual person, their unique role in God’s creation. If we all start there, we could soon be speaking the same moral language again.

And what a relief that would be.

What Do You Do?

It’s one of the first questions anyone asks when getting to know someone. What’s your name? Where are you from? And…what do you do?

For me, the answer to this question used to be simple. I was a teacher, specifically a French and Spanish teacher. This role gave me my identity in the world, a simple way to articulate who I was to others.

These days, it’s not so simple. When people ask what I do, it’s like being asked to list every food I’ve ever eaten. The menu is so vast, so varied, I can’t possibly confine it to one thing.

My primary job is as a freelance writer where I write about, well, almost everything. Yesterday I had to write articles about creativity in teens, how to start your own clothing line, Medicare coverage of Zephyr valves, and a comparison of Hubspot and Pipedrive. One day recently, for reasons that are unclear, a number of my clients all wanted articles about feet. So that’s what I spent the whole day writing about.

Besides writing, I also work part-time as a bookkeeper at my church, fill in occasionally as a substitute teacher at my daughter’s school, and give virtual French lessons to two 13-year-old friends who are being homeschooled.

This lifestyle affords me a dizzying amount of freedom compared to the teaching job I had for 15 years. I work a lot (because I have to) but I set my own hours. This makes it easy to go to appointments or to do the grocery shopping when the stores are less crowded. If I’m suffering from anxiety and don’t feel like leaving the house or talking to people, I don’t have to. (Ironically, the fact that I have a choice makes me feel less anxious and gives me more desire to interact with others.) But most of all, I don’t have a full-time boss. Or more specifically, my boss is God alone.

I really can’t complain about the human bosses I’ve had. They have (for the most part) been supportive, even during times when it was difficult to do so. But as mere mortals, bosses are subject to all the whims, temptations, and pressures that humans experience. At normal jobs, where you are defined by your work, you are solely dependent on the good humor of your boss for survival. It just feels like too much power over my life to leave in human hands, and this has never felt quite right to me.

I often wonder, how did we get to the place where we define people’s identity based on their work? When did we BECOME our jobs? How did we all buy into this belief that we have to earn the right to be alive, or that we need a title to prove we’re worthy of existence?

Numbers tell the story most vividly. Most people spend 8-10 hours a day, 5 days a week, doing their job. Assuming they sleep for 8 hours (most people don’t), this leaves them just a few hours a day to prepare meals, go to appointments, clean the house, shop, spend time with loved ones, socialize with friends, enjoy a hobby, do volunteer work, exercise, meditate, journal, and all the other activities of living. The majority of our day belongs to someone else.

Of course, it is not practical for everyone to quit their full-time jobs and patch together a hodge-podge of gigs. And maybe not everyone would be happy doing that. But I can’t help but wish we could restructure our societal and economic expectations in some way to give individuals more freedom. I’m not sure how that would work, or what that would look like. All I know is that an economy that depends on humans belonging to other humans feels deeply wrong, on every level.

It appears that people in the early church were mostly defined by their jobs, too. The characters in Jesus’ story were introduced by their occupations: fisherman, carpenter, tax collector, lawyer, scribe. But when Jesus called His disciples to leave their work and follow Him, they did so without hesitation. They were ready to leave behind the clearly defined roles they had in the world and declare God as their boss instead. As that old bumper sticker from the 1980s says, their boss was a Jewish carpenter.

Maybe this is the place to start. Maybe we each need to be ready to give up the job that defines us and accept God’s leadership instead. Perhaps He would tell us that we are serving Him already in the role that we have. Or maybe He would tell us to do something completely radical, as He did with the disciples, with His assurance that we will be OK. The thought is scary, but freeing.

Maybe the place to start is not by changing our political and economic systems. Maybe the place to start is within ourselves.

Let’s all try it and see what happens. Maybe there is a lot to lose.

But just imagine all that we could gain.

Empty Hands

Emptiness. That’s a bad thing, right?

We are all seeking to be filled. We’re not exactly sure with what. We think money, love, a meaningful career, a family, or some combination of these things should do the trick.

But we don’t stop to think about it much. We just know that we don’t want to be empty. Ever. For even two seconds.

It’s as if we are bargain shoppers running up and down the aisles of life, filling our arms with as much as we can carry. We grab things off the shelves with reckless abandon. We take so much that we can hardly carry it. We don’t even know if we want or need it. We just want it, just in case it might fill us up.

What would happen if we allowed our hands to be empty?

Sometimes the true blessings of life come at you when you aren’t expecting them, when you aren’t even looking for them. They might come in an unexpected conversation with a child. Or a new friendship with someone you wouldn’t have expected. Or a sudden, breathtaking encounter with nature.

What if your hands are full when these unexpected blessings come at you? How will you receive the blessings if your hands are full of other things?

In Isaiah 40, the prophet tells us to be prepare ourselves for the Lord. “Make straight in the desert…a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all the people shall see it together.” Later, John the Baptist quoted this verse when he prepared to baptize Jesus, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s Messianic prediction.

John was talking about the human heart, instructing the people on how to be ready for the Lord to appear. And later events in the story of Jesus’ life and ministry showed that many people followed this advice, that they were ready, that they were open to the leading of the divine. But many others were not. They were unable to see God’s work in their lives. Because their hands were full of other things and they had no place within them for his Spirit. Like the Town of Bethlehem, which had no place for the Baby Jesus in the inn, the hearts of the religious authorities were too full of other concerns to make room for the Lord.

It is not an easy thing to empty ourselves. We have to let go of old habits, old ways of thinking, sometimes old relationships that hold us back from growing. Being empty is difficult and frightening.

Yet it is necessary work if we want to make space for the true, eternal, lasting blessings of God’s life in our hearts.

Allow yourself to be empty. Sit with that emptiness. Because within that emptiness is a wonderful openness to accept blessings that you could never have imagined.

Within that emptiness is freedom.

Christmas 2020

Are you preparing for your worst Christmas ever?

The consensus seems to be that the year 2020 in general, right up through the Christmas season, has brought nothing but illness, poverty, loss, and despair to most (if not all) the people I know.

Personally, I have no complaints about this year. It’s been a good year for me, for many reasons. The anxiety surrounding the pandemic, the social isolation and the economic challenges,the sense of loss we all share, are emotions that I have met many times before and I’ve developed my own array of coping skills. In short, 2020 doesn’t feel much different from other years for me. (And actually much better in some ways!)

But I’m aware that the fear, sadness, loss, and isolation is tough to take for most of us. Are you alone, separated from family during the holidays? Are you stuck at home with a toxic or abusive family member? Are you facing job loss which makes it hard to afford gifts for your children? Or maybe you have even lost a loved one this year. All these situations make Christmas feel like a giant, aching void of what should be, but isn’t.

I can remember many years when the Christmas season was a struggle. There were years when the recent loss of a new baby tortured me with the “should have beens.” There were other years when a toxic marriage, with constant fighting, was a giant crushing weight on my chest. And of course, there were all the years as a teacher and a single mom when I agonized over how to afford all the things on my children’s Christmas list.

Not to mention all the stress. Shopping (my least favorite activity!), baking, wrapping, and attending parties, all while trying to work full-time and care for a family made Christmas often feel like a chore.

Speaking of “should have been,” is Christmas supposed to be a chore? Is it supposed to be a lavish display of gifts that drives us to the brink of financial ruin? Is it supposed to be an aching reminder of everything we’ve lost? 

To answer these questions, I ask myself what the birth of Christ really means. It’s more than just a sweet story of a baby in a manger. Jesus’ birth means that God came to Earth and lived as one of the humblest of humans, a human who didn’t even have a place to sleep besides an animal’s feeding trough.  He endured suffering, loss, illness, and hardship…even though He was God. As Emmanuel, “God with us,” He brought sacredness to the condition of being human. 

He brought holiness to our feelings of loss, hardship, and suffering. He gave honor to the poor, the ill, and the grieving. All these conditions are tinged with the holiness of God, because God was a human and experienced them all. In this way, our suffering, our loss, our fear, our need have become places where God truly walks with us.

You hear it in the words of the hymns and carols.

“Chains He will break, for the slave is our brother, in all our trials born to be our friend.” “And in despair, I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth I said, for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to all.” “I’ll have a Blue Christmas without you.” “I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams.”

The true spiritual meaning of Christmas has nothing to do with gifts, food, or even family, although it’s always wonderful to have the opportunity to celebrate these things. Christmas, at its heart, is about all the ways in which our humanity (and our pain) have become holy.

Even nature gives us this message.  Has anyone noticed how gorgeous and stunning the colors of sunrise are during Solstice? And the snow covers all nature’s flaws with a smooth blanket, bringing the promise of a better tomorrow. To me, these are God’s signs that even in the darkest seasons of our lives (like the year 2020!) He is walking with us, giving us beauty along the way.

So if you are lonely, fearful, or grieving today, then you have more reason to celebrate Christmas than anyone else. Because of Christmas, you can open your heart to feel God’s Spirit, Emmanuel, God within you, comforting, supporting, encouraging. Because of Christmas, you can walk with confidence that sunrise and spring will always come again, and that you never have to endure the cold and darkness of your life alone. Even in 2020.

So no matter where you are, or who you are, embrace the holiness, and enjoy a Merry Christmas.

Hypocrisy

A note from Amy.

Are most Christians really just hypocrites?

There’s something about announcing our Christian beliefs that immediately opens us up to accusations of hypocrisy. The word seems to get thrown around a lot as an easy way to call someone out for disagreement, unkindness, or just in general not doing what other people want us to do.

I certainly understand how this has happened. Let’s be honest; Christian actions throughout history (and even in the news today) stink of hatred, apathy, meaningless violence, and other qualities which everyone can agree are the opposite of good Christianity. Understandably, this has made the world skeptical, even scornful, of the true depth of our Christian faith.

I am aware that when people know I’m a Christian, my actions are immediately under a very harsh microscope. Any unkind word, any clash of opinion, any failure to pay attention to details that others deem important, brands me instantly as a hypocrite. Obviously, Jesus would be doing much better than that. If I’m not exactly like Jesus, then of course I am a hypocrite, as are most other Christians. 

There is some merit to this argument. After all, Jesus himself warned that it is better to have a millstone around your neck and be drowned in the sea than to cause another person to stumble (Luke 17). As “the light of the world” and “the salt of the earth,” (Matthew 5) we are called to set ourselves apart from the sins of everyday life so that others can see Jesus through us.

Hypocrisy is defined as “behavior which contradicts what one claims to believe or feel.”

What do we believe and feel?

I believe that I am deeply flawed. I feel that I am sinful. I believe that Jesus is the only one able to love me enough to die for me, and that He has a plan to help me overcome my flaws.

Instead of giving up or pretending to be perfect, how about honesty and transparency? How about letting others know how much we struggle…and how much God is present in that struggle alongside us?

Isn’t that truly what being the “light of the world” is all about? After all, light illuminates the truth rather than hiding it.

The world may always see us as hypocrites. That’s because we have not been honest or transparent about God’s love and what it really means to us.

Let’s leave hypocrisy behind and work to become the “salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” that God created us to be.

Is This Really The End?

What is the true nature of Heaven?

Having lost several good friends close to my age, abruptly and unexpectedly, I’ve been forced to confront this question.

There are no real answers, of course. But as much as I try to ignore it, the reality of my mortality finds me in the middle of the night, sits on my chest, and relentlessly looks me in the eye.

It is horrifying to think that all we’ve done on earth could be for nothing, that those we love will abruptly disappear one by one, ending with ourselves. It’s a thought that can bring real despair.

But at the same time, it’s impossible to believe that this life on earth is all we get.

Some might think it’s vanity or hubris to believe the soul lives forever. Yet it can’t be denied that our minds and spirits constantly strive for something better and more satisfying than this earthly life. 

C.S. Lewis once said, “The fact that our hearts yearn for something Earth can’t supply is proof that Heaven must be our home.”

God created us with this feeling that we don’t belong here so that we can find our way home to Him.

We will someday leave behind our frail physical bodies to find the real peace and rest for which He created us.

But what can we do to draw closer to Him while we’re here on earth?

Romans 8 says: “If we live according to the flesh we will die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

Knowing our flesh is only temporary, let’s rely on the Holy Spirit that lives within each of us to draw closer to God every day.

Then, when the end of our earthly life finds us, it will approach as a familiar and beloved friend, instead of a terrifying phantom.

God has prepared a dwelling place for each of us. But we don’t have to wait. We can begin to taste heaven while we are still here…and in doing so, we can truly live forever.

Christmas Spirit

Are you in the Christmas spirit?

For me, the Christmas Spirit can feel hit or miss at times.

The celebration of Jesus’ birth brings me great joy. I love the old Christmas hymns, love setting up our manger scene and attending Christmas Eve service. 

But sometimes all the crazed consumerism strikes a jarring note of dissonance in God’s Silent Night. 

When I see videos of Black Friday shoppers lined up in front of stores, or rooms crammed with presents yet seemingly empty of Jesus, I feel grumpy. REALLY grumpy. It seems to me as if the Lord’s birth has been commandeered as an excuse for a marathon of competitive greed. Often those who celebrate Christmas with the most determination also seem to be the ones who have shut Jesus most determinedly out of their hearts the rest of the year.

Yet despite this, I can’t deny that Jesus appears to be miraculously at work within those same hearts. 

As if by magic, everyone suddenly seems kinder, more generous, more open, more ready to offer a smile or a helping hand to those who need it.

To quote Charles Dickens’ immortal description, Christmas is “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!”

This is one of the best descriptions I’ve ever read of “the Christmas Spirit.”

It’s also a very good description of the life that Jesus calls us to live every day…not just during the Christmas season.

As Colossians 3 says: “…clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other…Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body.” 

Whether or not Christ dwells in their hearts, God allows each person this brief moment to feel his presence, and experience the call to live as He wants us to live.  And the joy is so great that they can’t help but let it overflow with showy light displays, piles of wrapped gifts, the most gorgeous Christmas tree. And I must admit that’s pretty amazing.

It really is true that the news of Jesus’ birth, as described in Luke, still represents “good tidings of great joy that shall be to all people.” All people everywhere, no matter where they live, how much money they have, or even their relationship with Jesus the rest of the year. 

We get this brief moment in time when the whole world feels the pull of the Holy Spirit on their hearts.

And I say…God bless it.