Mindset

“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”  (Colossians 3:2)

When I started law school in 1979, I probably knew less about the legal system than anyone in our class.  I didn’t know the difference between civil law and criminal law.  I couldn’t distinguish a misdemeanor from a felony.  I vaguely understood the role of the Justice Department.  I had no concept of the interplay between federal and state judicial systems.  I had never read the Constitution.  My background was exclusively in engineering and mathematics, which put me at a disadvantage vis-à-vis my classmates.

However, it wasn’t my general ignorance that was the greatest hurdle I faced.  Rather, it was my belief that there were right and wrong answers in the law to be discovered.  Engineers operate on the knowledge that there are exact answers to technical problems.  For example, in my first job as a systems engineer, I was involved in developing computer simulations for surface-to-air missiles.  When I once inadvertently inserted the letter “O” rather than the number “0” in a computer program, the missile “crashed.”  In those days computer time was costly, and this error caused considerable consternation to my supervisor.  Still, it was better to find out in a computer lab rather than in an actual missile flight.  No doubt the engineers who worked on the angle of attack sensors for the Boeing 737 Max wish they had discovered their error in the design phase.

The engineering mindset that I brought to the study of law had to be transformed before I could move forward.  For, you see, law is more of an art than a science, which is why it finds its home in the liberal arts rather than the hard sciences.  Lawyering emphasizes interpretation and persuasion over calculation and solution.  Scientific laws are by their nature invariant within a given system.  Science and math are logically objective, whereas law is inherently subjective.  Although at times a law and its application are clear, more often than not there is room for construction and argumentation.  This is because laws are enshrined in words, and words are far more nuanced and intrinsically ambiguous than scientific formulas and numbers.  Therefore, in order to succeed as a lawyer my mindset had to fundamentally change.

When I switched vocations from the sciences to law, I did not know that a quarter century later my thinking and foundational assumptions would once again be radically challenged.  This occurred (and continues to occur) in my journey from the secular, non-believing world into Christianity and the kingdom of God.  For the mindset of one who would dwell in the kingdom of God is diametrically opposed to the mindset of one who follows the pattern of the world.  I did not understand this when I first became a Christian.  I thought that I might need to “kick up my game” a notch or two – perhaps by being a little kinder, a little more generous, or bit more forgiving.  It never occurred to me that the way of Jesus would require a baseline reset of my mind, a fundamental readjustment of my thought processes.

Paul certainly did not believe that following Christ was a matter of a few minor adjustments to our character.  He made it clear that we are a new creation and should no longer live for ourselves.  (2 Corinthians 5:15-17)  He wrote that this transformation is predicated on a change in our thinkingDo not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  (Romans 12:2)  What Paul is saying is that we Christians must rethink the way we see the world. The patterns that we have become comfortable with, the assumptions that we have accepted – either explicitly or implicitly – must be examined.  And the goal?  It is to “test and approve”God’s will!  And here we come to the heart of the matter – life in the kingdom of God is centered around God’s will, whereas life according to the pattern of this world is centered around my will.

Thus, kingdom living requires that our thinking must be directed to discerning God’s will.  We pray this in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”  (Matthew 6:10).  We hear this in the teaching of Jesus, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  (Matthew 7:21).  And we see this in Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”  (Matthew 26:39)

The question I have struggled with is how to pull this off in practice? How can my beliefs change so that I really believe God’s will is paramount?  I have a lifetime of living according to my will – putting myself first – in my family, my career, and my marriage.  While God surely renews our mind even as he gives us a new heart when we are saved; still, it is my choice where I will set my mind, what thoughts I will dwell upon.  The Spirit will lead, but I must follow.  On this there can be no doubt.  Moreover, as Paul makes clear, what we set our mind on will determine how we live.  “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.”  (Romans 8:5)

Changing my mindset from my will for my life (living for myself) to God’s will for my life (how he would have me live), is a far harder transition than changing my mindset from engineering to law.  So much of what I see and hear in the “pattern of the world” opposes the will of God and would tempt me to do the same.  For example, Jesus speaks of the evil of lust, but sexual images are everywhere.  He warns against anger, but I live in an angry world.  He says to speak the truth, but I am bombarded by lies.  It takes great effort for me not to slip into the cultural streams flowing past.  Yet, I must do precisely this if I am to avoid conforming to the pattern of this world.

I write about the pursuit of virtue to explore some of the ways I seek the renewal of my mind.  It has been a journey of discovery for me, but not one that has revealed any formula or one-size-fits-all process for change.  Indeed, I find more mystery than certainty around how the mind changes.  Much of what I have learned and written about has come from good teaching, great authors, prayer, and meditation on Scripture.  But one of most impactful ways I have found for doing this is through a community of like-minded individuals.

I learned this first when I was in law school.  Although I had a number of wonderful professors, it was my fellow students who inspired and challenged me by their approach to the curriculum.  My classmates were “all-in” for the study of law.  No one spoke of equations and calculations – it was all about investigation and issues, research and writing, precedents and persuasion – and slowly but gradually my thinking changed.  Being immersed in an environment where everyone was set on pursuing the same goal was a powerful inducement for me to learn and achieve.

It is a lesson that has been beneficial in my spiritual journey. The power of a community of believers whose minds are set on discerning God’s will has encouraged and helped me to grow.  It is a great blessing to have family and friends who have a kingdom mindset – those who don’t assume that faith is a matter of abstract belief and assertions, but that it involves real effort that starts with what is truly believed.  For example, on Tuesday mornings for the past ten years I have met with a community of like-minded believers.  There are roughly thirty of us who weekly read and discuss books from great Christian authors.  We also pray for one another, but mostly we listen and learn from one another – from men who have their minds set on things above.  On Friday mornings I meet with a smaller group of men.  Jim, Dave, Gideon, Bill, Mike, and I are less structured in our time together, but share challenges in our faith journeys, listen with open hearts, and encourage one another.  And every Saturday morning I meet with my friend John.  We have no agenda – we simply talk about our lives.  We pray and we laugh a lot, and we encourage one another to keep our minds set on things of God.

Friends, we are living in a time where following Paul’s counsel, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things,”  (Colossians 3:2), is harder than ever.  For increasingly the pattern of the world is to follow our own self-interests.  As Richard Foster recently wrote, “In the contemporary scene today, narcissism is the spirit of the age … It is in the air we breathe … this extreme self-centeredness, this total self-absorption, this exaggerated sense of entitlement, this utter self-obsession.”  More than ever we need the bond of Christian brothers and sisters whose minds are set on the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

S

 

Compost

“Where man sees but withered leaves, God sees sweet flowers growing.”  (Albert Laighton)

May is here and gardeners rejoice.  Whether in the south where backyard gardens are in full swing, or farther north where they are still emerging from a long hibernation, growers of every stripe are embracing the season.  In southern Maine, where Joanie and Pete grow their own organic produce, the soil has been mostly tilled or otherwise prepared and seed planting is underway.  Early planters such as snow peas, lettuce, and radishes are up and before too long beans, corn, and squash will be seeded.  As the days get warmer, the demands of the garden will grow and the two of them will spend more and more time outside.  Joanie loves gardening, and there is nothing she enjoys more than to spend a few hours outside tending her plants and talking with the Lord.  It fills her soul to partner with God to bring forth the bounty of the earth.  As the Psalmist proclaims:

O Lord, You drench the hills with rain, You water all the lands;
The earth is nourished by the fruit created by Your hands.
You make the grass grow green and lush for cows and bulls to eat;
You give us plants that we can tend and crops of grain and wheat.
 (Psalm 104:13-14)

When Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden, horticulture was not difficult.  We know this because after the Fall, God cursed the land.  His chilling words to Adam were:  “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”  (Genesis 3:17-19)  Anyone who has gardened knows “sweat of your brow” is not a metaphor.  It takes strength and perseverance to grow produce.  Fortunately, Joanie is a certified Master Gardener with an indefatigable spirit, and good knowledge of when to plant and how to execute a winning strategy against the three scourges of gardening:  diseases, pests and weeds.  But above all she understands that the essential component of garden life is literally in “the ground,” namely, a vibrant and healthy soil teaming with organic life.  Indeed, good soil is to a garden what a virtuous life is to a soul.  While plants can grow in poor soil, to be healthy and sustainably thrive they must be rooted in good earth.

Good earth is a particular focus for Pete.  For while he provides encouragement and a willing hand for the endless manual labor involved in raising a garden, he also makes compost.  More correctly, Pete partners with God to make compost, because the “magic” of making compost is nothing less than a miracle.  God may have cursed the ground after the Fall, but he also provided for its sustainability in the form of compost, which is a never ending cycle of “dust to dust.”

For the uninitiated, compost is the end product of accelerated decomposition of organic matter.  Ideally, the organic matter is a combination of those rich in nitrogen such as fruit and vegetable scraps and manure, and those rich in carbon such as dry leaves and sawdust.  And the end product?  It is a nutrient rich fertilizer that looks like soil but with a texture that more closely resembles peat moss.  Gardeners fondly refer to compost as “black gold” because of its incomparable value when added to the soil.  Compost enriches the soil with nutrients and provides a medium where beneficial microbes live and thrive even as they support the life of growing plants. Compost is not simply finely chopped up organic matter, but a radical chemical and biological transformation of such dead matter into a rich, dark, crumbly substance.  While it contains low levels of plant nutrients, its primary function is not a fertilizer to feed plants per se, but rather to feed the soil creating a better environment for the plants to feed themselves.

From time to time in years past, I tried making compost with varying degrees of success.  When I moved to an abandoned farm in Maine in the mid 1970’s I thought that I would plant vegetables to become self-sufficient.  A local farmer generously plowed and harrowed an enormous ten thousand square foot garden plot.  On one side I built several large bins for compost, which I mostly filed with chicken manure from a neighbor’s farm.  I didn’t have time to balance the high nitrogen manure with carbon rich materials, nor did I have the time to turn the piles over to help in the decaying process. As a result, when I finally dug into the piles later that year not much had happened over the summer – very little decomposition had occurred and it still smelled foul.  Several other half-hearted attempts to make compost over years met with similar results.  The one striking success was in the mid 1990’s when living in Ohio I prepared and tended a much smaller compost pile.  This time I was careful to balance the different types of organic matter and within weeks the pile started to heat up.  When I finally dug into it several months later, I was pleased to find that all of the kitchen and yard scraps had been transformed into the sweetest looking and feeling compost imaginable.  It was truly a magical moment.

God works a miracle when organic matter is converted into compost. To watch the breakdown of banana peels, corn cobs, and even coffee filters is a transformation that is truly amazing to behold.  God works no less a miracle when he takes a soul that has been crushed by sins and/or wounds and transforms it into a new creation.  Yet this is what we are promised when we are told that the one who belongs to Christ has become a new person – “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:  The old has gone, the new is here!  (2 Corinthians 5:17)

If Jesus had used compost as a parable for the kingdom of God, I imagine it may have gone something like this.

The Parable of the Compost

“Jesus told them this parable.  ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a refuse pile on the edge of a field.  Weeds, pomace, dung, and all manner of leftovers are cast into the pile where they are transformed into compost, which works through all the soil in the field.’

When his disciples heard this they said to him, ‘Explain to us the parable of the compost.’

Jesus answered, ‘The Refuse is anything that damages the soul – any sin such as anger, lust, and greed; and any evil that befalls a person such as illness, rejection, and the loss of a loved one.  The Field is the world, and the Compost stands for the people of the kingdom whom God has transformed out of the brokenness of their souls.’

‘But Lord,’ they said, ‘How can good come out of something so bad?’  Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.  Very truly I tell you, unless the refuse of one’s life is transformed into compost, it remains only refuse.  But if it is composted, it produces life for many.’

When his disciples heard this they were amazed.”

Jesus obviously did not use compost as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven, but the point of a soul being transformed is very real.  I witnessed just such a transformation some years ago with a woman I knew from work.  Becky was a follower of Christ who had had her ups and downs in life.  Her marriage had ended in a divorce, but the union had also produced a daughter who was the love of her life.  Becky raised her daughter and watched her mature into a confident and beautiful young woman.  It was a great day when she graduated from a local high school and started her freshman year at a nearby university.  Like all parents who send a child away to college, Becky felt both joy and fear when her only child moved out.  The latter turned out to be prescient when one evening early in the school year her daughter was a passenger in a car on driven by a boyfriend.  Tragically, he fell asleep at the wheel and drove into a bridge abutment.  She was killed instantly.  There is no way to describe Becky’s suffering.  Her one and only child, with a lifetime ahead of her, instantly cut down.

I didn’t see Becky very often for the next year or so, as she continued to work while processing her grief.  Still, she did not lose her faith through her ordeal, and gradually she was functioning again.  But what really stood out was how much empathy she showed towards others when they were going through difficult times.  It seemed that Becky was the one people turned to when they were suffering. When another woman in our department lost her granddaughter to a sudden crib death, Becky was the first to comfort her. The Lord had taken Becky’s divorce and tragic loss of her daughter and was working them for good.  She had become compost in his hands, allowing the Lord to transform her damaged soul so that she could now give life to others.

Spring is the season of hope.  The good earth, long suspended in a frozen grave, is once again in motion.  The world turns green and life stirs anew.  Gardeners emerge from their winter doldrums with enthusiasm and a vision for the year ahead.  There is no looking back.  The remnants from last year’s garden have been piled up and wonderfully transformed into compost.  May this Spring be for us too a new beginning, as the Lord takes the sins and wounds of our past and turns them into something beautiful for his kingdom.

S

Healing

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18)

Pat and I recently attended a Sunday service at a small church in our town.  After a few hymns, an elder stood up and read a list of prayer requests for members of the church and various family and friends.  It was a nice reminder that the body of Christ is a community that prays, grieves, and rejoices together.  When a church grows; however, there will come a day when the list becomes too long to read in the time available.  Even at the service we attended, the number of people needing prayer was impressive.  But what really caught my attention was that almost all of the prayers were for physical healing of one kind or another.  There were prayers for various cancers, heart problems, injuries, and other illnesses. There were one or two prayers asking God’s comfort for those suffering from the loss of a loved one, but for the most part the prayers were for physical healing.

When it comes physical healing, my thoughts gravitate towards how God works in the natural order of things.  For example, I marvel at how wonderfully God has designed us – from “simple” things like blood clotting that prevents bleeding to death when cut, to the way the body fights off infections and heals from injuries such as breaks and sprains.  I also believe God heals through the work of doctors and the progress of modern medicine, such as how a highly skilled surgeon replaced my aortic valve several years ago.  But when it comes to supernatural physical healings, my faith is derivative from what I hear (or not) from others.  The Biblical record is extensive regarding miraculous physical healings performed by Jesus, which occurred with a regularity that in my experience is absent today.

God also provides supernatural spiritual healing, “The Lord heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”  (Psalm 147:3)  Spiritual healing is the healing and regeneration of a person’s soul – a soul that has been so damaged by hurts and/or obsessions that spiritual growth ceases if not regresses.  Although modern science has given us a vast array of drugs to soothe over a lot of the emotional turmoil of life, true spiritual healing comes only from the Lord. I have not heard a lot of teaching about spiritual healing, which is too bad because I believe many of us unnecessarily live with spiritual wounds from our past.

Spiritual wounds are different than physical wounds because they reside in the soul as opposed to being localized in the physical body.  A spiritual wound can be inflicted by a hurtful word, a broken trust, abandonment, abuse, etc.  For example, James spoke of the power of a word to impact a life, comparing it to a fire.  “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.  It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.”  (James 3:6)  Was there ever a more bogus childhood mantra than “sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me?”  Indeed, a broken bone may be easier to endure because it will heal and the pain will eventually go away.   But unhealed spiritual wounds can be felt for a lifetime, affecting our thoughts, emotions, relationships, and actions and therefore stunting our spiritual growth.  In many ways, spiritual wounds are more debilitating than physical wounds because they can damage our relationships, degrade our character, and devastate our soul.  This is why Scripture admonishes us to guard our heart, Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23)  Jesus’s words are stronger, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”  (Matthew 10:28)

I received a spiritual wound when I was six years old that impacted my thoughts, emotions, relationships, and actions for more than fifty years.  An apt analogy for what happened to me is given by James when he compared the power of a spoken word to the “rudder” on a ship.  (James 3:4)  One word (or in my case one event) having the power to steer a life like a rudder steers a ship.

In many ways, when I was approaching 60 my soul was fragmented.  On the outside I seemed to be holding things together pretty well.  I belonged to a couple of small groups, taught a Sunday School class at church, and was engaged with various friends and family.  Yet on the inside I experienced daily turmoil, as I anguished over almost every interaction I had with other people.   For I tended to judge social contacts through the lens of my ego.   For example, if I met with a group of men and got a bunch of laughs and was affirmed, I felt great.  If I thought I was ignored, I felt horrible.  I internalized relationships and interactions based solely on how much interest other people showed in me.  Even unanswered emails were a cause for consternation, as I often imagined that the other person was angry with me.  No slight, perceived or real, was too small not to upset me.  And I hardly need to mention that open conflict with others had to be avoided at all costs.

This came to a head at a church picnic one summer day in 2011 when I had a brief encounter with a man I knew.  I don’t remember anything about our interaction other than the fact that something was said that made me think he was upset with me.  I honestly have no recollection of what transpired, but the matter quickly escalated in my mind.  As Pat and I drove home I brooded over the incident, feeling at once both angry and depressed.  That evening, fretting and fuming, I went outside and sat on the porch to reflect and pray about the incident.  I was totally unprepared for the revelation that the Lord brought to my mind.  For he miraculously revealed the source of my distress was a seemingly trivial event that occurred when I was six years old living in Baltimore in 1956.

My recollection of the event is that my father had sent my older brother and me to the local market to pick up a few grocery items for dinner.  [In the mid 1950’s a parent thought nothing of sending two children ages six and eight several blocks to run an errand.]  Somehow I ended up carrying a grocery bag with a bottle of ketchup, which in those days came in glass.  Unfortunately, on the way home I dropped the bag on the ground and the bottle broke. I was crying as I stumbled into the kitchen, and remember feeling my Dad’s anger when he found out what had happened. I am sure he didn’t spank me (something that I never remember him doing ever), and I don’t even remember him yelling.  But I do remember that he was unhappy with me.  In retrospect I don’t think his reaction was out of line, nor do I doubt that my Dad loved and cared for me.  Perhaps this is even why the episode had such a lasting impact, because for the first time I felt the weight of disapproval from someone whose love I had never questioned.  As a result, something happened to my soul that day that would remain hidden from my view until revealed by the Lord more than a half century later.

For what the Lord revealed to me as I prayed on the porch that summer day in 2011 was that fifty-five years earlier I had believed a lie from the Enemy that I had to be prefect in order to be loved.  As the years went by this lie slowly metastasized into a spiritual wound in the form of a deep fear of rejection and an overwhelming need for approval from others.  As I realized that this was the root of the turmoil in my soul, I started to weep as I sat on the porch.  I wept for the little kid who had dropped a bottle of ketchup a lifetime earlier, I wept for how I had needlessly carried the burden of it for so many years, and I wept for the people I had wounded from my wound.  But mostly I remember just thinking over and over again that, “I was just a little kid.”  It is not hard to imagine the “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” that had been at work on that day in 1956.  It was truly a cathartic moment as the Lord miraculously healed me from this wound.  For the first time, many events of my life suddenly came into focus.  I saw how many of my life choices had been driven by a fear of rejection and need for approval, how they had controlled so much of my emotional life, and how they had impacted most of my relationships.

It is hard for me to write about this incident because it is so minor in an objective sense.  When I compare it to the experience of some children who have suffered from broken and unloving homes, mental torment, bullying, and sexual and other physical abuse, it is almost embarrassing for me to relate.  Yet it played a significant role in shaping my personality and relationships, far beyond what could have been predicted from its seemingly trivial nature.  This isn’t a story about a mean father.  Nor is it a story about an overly sensitive child who protected himself by defensive behaviors.  Rather, it is a story about spiritual wounds that can only be healed by God.

I write about the pursuit of virtue because I believe it is the only way to follow Jesus.  It is not because I am a virtuous person or for that matter even a very good person.  Rather, it is precisely because I am not particularly virtuous or good that I feel compelled to reflect on my life and the struggles of my faith journey.  In the course of my journey, there have been some victories, but also there have been areas where I have been stuck in patterns of behavior.  I suspect that habitual patterns of unrighteous thoughts, words, and/or actions for those who would follow Jesus may be linked to unhealed spiritual wounds.  The question for all of us is whether we want to be healed?   Jesus asked the invalid by the pool, “Do you want to get well?”  (John 5:6)  When we can honestly answer Jesus’ question in the affirmative he will surely hear us, for we have his promise, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”  (Matthew 7:7-8)

I experienced an amazing spiritual healing from the Lord in 2011.  I knew that something deep in my soul had changed and I felt a tremendous relief that I no longer had to live for the approval of others.  Jesus words, “the truth will set you free,”  (John 8:32) could not have been more true for me.  The freedom I experienced gradually affected all of my relationships, but it took some time.  When I had open-heart surgery in 2013, I did not immediately jump off the operating table and start to dance.   I had many days, weeks, and months of recovery – much of which took effort on my part as I gradually started to exercise and strengthen a torn and bruised body.  Similarly, after I experienced spiritual healing from a need for approval, my patterns of thought and behavior did not immediately change.  Old habits and automatic responses to interactions with others had to be relearned.  But a lie had been exposed, a wound had been healed, and a soul had been set free.

S

Temple of the Holy Spirit

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your bodies.”  (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

Have you ever heard a sermon about caring for your body?  I have not.  And this strikes me as odd, given that Paul tells us that our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and that we are to honor God with our body.  Indeed, it is through the body that all aspects of our spiritual life are mediated.  We think, we feel, and we act, for better or worse, through our body.  There is no physical or spiritual action that we undertake that does not involve the body.  Moreover, our physical condition can materially affect our pursuit of Kingdom virtues.  For example, consider how difficult it is to show kindness and compassion to others when we are tired.  Jesus described this when three of his closest disciples could not stay awake with him as he walked in garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified.  His plaintive yet insightful words, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)  Our willpower is at a low point when we are weary, which makes us more vulnerable to temptation and sin.  Or consider how our stamina declines when we are overweight or out of shape.  Jesus’ command is, If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”  (Matthew 5:41)  This is assumed by the modern reader to be a metaphor.  But Jesus’ reference was from real life at the time, because a Roman soldier could force a citizen to carry his load for up to one mile.  How many Christians could even walk a single mile today, let alone two while carrying a heavy load?  The point being that our ability to serve is directly impacted by our physical condition.

Others have noted that our body is made by God, and that we are to use it to glorify him.  According to Rick Warren, “Your body is holy because God made it, and everything God makes has a purpose.  We are to bring glory to God with our bodies, so we can’t compartmentalize our lives and think that we can divorce our bodies and live as if only our spirit matters.  God owns your body!”  And yet most of our Christian leaders seem reluctant to teach a theology of caring for our bodies.  The reasons are no doubt complicated.  I suppose that a principal one is that failure to care for our bodies is self-evident.  Given that roughly 2/3 of adults in our country are now considered medically obese, one does not have to look very far on a Sunday morning to identify the guilty.  This is not a trivial concern because shaming people is itself contrary to the love we are committed to show to others.  And yet it is this same love that compels us to kindly speak the truth to those who may be on a slippery path.  It is ironic that we Christians crusade for the sanctity of human life, from the preborn to the end of life, and often take a stand against selected substances we put into the body such as alcohol, tobacco, drugs, etc.  And yet, as soon as anyone suggests that caring for our body is a moral imperative, we quickly change the subject.

The practical reasons to care for the body are well known.  The medical justifications alone are overwhelming – everything from preventing heart disease and diabetes to averting many cancers.  Moreover, there are affirmative health benefits – from increased energy and stamina to quality and length of life.  It can also have a positive impact on our emotions.  When I started running regularly in 1979, I found that the mood swings I had experienced for many years disappeared overnight.

But is caring for our body a Christian virtue?  Or is it a purely private matter?  I think it is fair to say that many people in the church consider it to be the latter, with no more right or wrong to it than the color of socks they pull out of a drawer in the morning.  On the other hand, there are some who look at how we care for our body as a matter of honoring God – being more akin to other Christian virtues that are commanded in God’s word.  Consider the three most critical areas of proper body care: rest; exercise; and diet.

Rest
Rest is so important in the Bible, that there is an entire Commandment directed to it.  “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” (Exodus 20:8)  This command emerges directly from the nature of God, who after six days of creative action, rested on the seventh day.  The most well-known comfort psalm starts, The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:1-3a)  Notice that the Lord makes me lie down.  He doesn’t suggest that I lie down, just as he doesn’t suggest that I rest on the Sabbath, he commands it.  Not to put too fine a point on this, but I believe God understands the tendency of many of us to shortchange our time of rest.  We are either too busy, or too distracted, or too preoccupied with other things and our rest is sacrificed.

Proper rest is essential for spiritual growth.  According to Christian author Jim Smith, “The number one enemy of Christian spiritual formation today is exhaustion… The human person is not merely a soul housed in a body.  Our bodies and souls are unified.  If our bodies suffer, so do our souls.  We cannot neglect the body in pursuit of spiritual growth.  In fact, neglecting our bodies necessarily impedes our spiritual growth…  If our bodies are not sufficiently rested, our energies will be diminished and our ability to pray, read the Bible, enter solitude or memorize Scripture will be minimized.”  (The Good And Beautiful God)

Exercise
Physical exercise per se is not mentioned very much in Scripture.  No doubt this has a lot to do with the times in which the Bible was written.  For the most part, the common people were living a hardscrabble existence.  Whether making bricks for their Egyptian masters, wandering in the desert, or struggling under Roman rule, daily life inherently involved hard physical labor. The idea that one day large numbers of people would live sedentary lifestyles – from desk jobs to computer games – was incomprehensible to the ancients.  Of course, physical training for sporting events was understood in the Roman world, and while Paul knew it had value, he framed it within the broader issue of holiness.  “Physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.”  (1 Timothy 4:8)  Still, Paul believed that our bodies are to be offered as a sacrifice to God.  “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship.”  (Romans 12:1)

Sloth, which is laziness and the avoidance of work, has long been viewed by the church as one of the seven deadly sins.  There are a number of teachings regarding sloth in the Bible.  For example, Through sloth, the rafters sag; because of idle hands, the house leaks.” (Ecclesiastes 10:18)  “The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway” (Proverbs 15:9)  The virtue that stands in opposition to sloth, is diligence, which speaks to the ability to apply oneself to the task at hand.  Although not uniquely applied to physical exercise, sloth and diligence often form the battle lines in the fight for our body.

I believe physical exercise is a virtue because a well conditioned body best positions us to live out other Christian virtues.  There is a tendency I think for us to see physical exercise only from the perspective of our own health – to view it as a means to feeling better in and of ourselves.  While this is a benefit, a properly functioning body enables us to serve others.  It can determine whether we have the strength to walk with a friend, help a neighbor, play with a child, travel on a mission trip, or serve in a food pantry.

Diet
What we eat and drink are of concern to God. He gave the Israelites very precise guidelines on what they were to eat and how to prepare it.  And also what they were to avoid.  The story of Daniel proposing and following a diet that avoided certain foods is a classic example of the importance of what we eat and drink in our spiritual journeys.  Indeed, many of our Christian brothers and sisters who fast, do so as a so-called “Daniel Fast” (vegetables in lieu of meat, wine, and other rich foods).  Gluttony, which is over-eating, has classically been viewed by the church as one of the seven deadly sins.  This is supported by various references in Scripture.  For example, Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.” (Proverbs 23:20-21)  Abstinence is one of the seven contrary virtues that has historically been recognized in opposition to gluttony.  These days, abstinence has taken on a decidedly sexual connotation, which all but hides its broader meaning to control those desires that would tempt us to overindulge in any area of our life.

Self-control, which is mentioned by Paul as a fruit of the Spirit, is one of the key virtues involved in regulating our eating habits (and for that matter, rest and exercise as well).  I particularly like this description of self-control:  Self Control is dominance over all desires.  It is one of the most important spiritual virtues that are essential for growth in the knowledge of God, pursuit of the Truth, and attaining of our future destiny.”  (Anonymous)  The Biblical image is powerful, Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control.”  (Proverbs 25:28)  Although self-control has a more expansive meaning for Christians, it nonetheless is a gateway virtue for the care of our body.  If we lack self-control in what we eat and drink, it seems probable that we will lack self-control in other areas of our physical and spiritual lives as well.

Caveats
For those who agree that caring for one’s body is important for spiritual health, there are several caveats that must be mentioned.

First, we must be ever vigilant that in caring for our body we don’t drift into sin.  Too much rest can become laziness and sloth.  Too much focus on what we eat can become an eating disorder.  And too much exercise can lead to idolatry of our body.  We live in a culture that worships the perfect human body and those fortunate enough to have the time and underlying physical abilities can easily turn any of these virtues into a vice.  And, of course, overhanging all of these sins is the greater sin of pride, which is the complete anti-God state of mind.

Second, many of us also have significant limitations related to our health and/or aging.  For us, our temple of the Holy Spirit has sprung some leaks and is slowly perishing.  Indeed, we can never escape the fact that the body that is sown is perishable.” (1 Corinthians 15:42)  It is also certain that at one time or another each of us will enter a season of life where obligations and duties leave little time for exercise.  At such times, we need not add any measure of guilt to already stressed out lives.  Rather, our goal should be to provide whatever care we can give with the time we have.

Finally, we must not elevate the care for our body above other Christian virtues.  Who among us would not rather live with a spouse who is out of shape but kind hearted, rather than perfectly fit and mean spirited?  The adage that beauty is only skin deep is a good reminder.  Not dissimilar from the words of God to Samuel when he was looking for a replacement king for Saul, The Lord does not look at the things people look at.  People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  (1 Samuel 16:7)

Final Thoughts
I am convinced that care for our body is a Biblical imperative.  God provides simply too much direction for its care for us to ignore.  As in all areas of our spiritual lives, we must be on guard against compartmentalization.  Everything must be consecrated to God, to his will and his glory alone.  William Law, 18th Century Anglican author of the classic Christian devotional A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life,” wrote the following:  “The devout are people who … consider God in everything, serve God in everything, and make every aspect of their lives holy by doing everything in the name of God and in a way that conforms to God’s glory.”

Whether our focus is on caring for our body or any other Christian virtue, what matters is whether our actions are pleasing in the sight of God.  Our touchstone must forever be found in the words of Paul, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31)

S

Night Sky

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  (Psalm 19:1)

The first time I remember seeing the Milky Way was the summer of 1974.  In May I moved from my parents’ house in suburban Maryland to fifty acres of abandoned farmland in rural Maine. There were no structures on the land save a dilapidated chicken coop, which I briefly contemplated occupying on a temporary basis.  But rotten floorboards, low ceiling, and general lack of hygiene from the previous tenants soon convinced me to abandon the idea.  And so, I opted to sleep in a tent for the summer months while building a cabin for the coming winter.  It was a time of living close to the land and the elements – other than sleeping and an occasional drive into town I was out-of-doors all of the time.

Occasionally I would head out of an evening and walk a little more than a mile down two dirt roads to the home of a retired seaman, known simply by his naval title, Chief.  Chief was of Scandinavian descent, and true to his heritage had built a free-standing, wood-fired sauna just off to one side of the old farmhouse where he lived.  On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons Chief would build a fire inside the sauna to superheat a cache of river stones.  Later on, some of the locals would gather and swap tales underneath a large maple tree in the front yard while waiting a turn in the sauna.  When one group emerged others of us would enter and perch on cedar benches from where an occasional cupful of water would be tossed on the stones to generate a plume of steam to intensify the heat.  After sweating out what seemed to be a week’s worth of dirt and rinsing with cold water from a nearby stream, the body felt clean like never before.  It was almost like the skin itself was breathing – a tingling sort of respiration that somehow made the walk back home all the more wonderfully sensuous.

It was on one of these nights, when the moon was dark and the air refreshingly cool and clear as it often is in Maine on summer nights, that the stars shown more brightly than I ever remembered.  Looking up, I saw what appeared to be a silky veil stretched across the heavens from horizon to horizon.  I presumed this to be a thin cloud floating overhead.  But this was no cloud, as I would later discover.  Rather, it is the galaxy of stars known as the Milky Way – billions upon billions of stars shining in the night sky.  Just so many faint points of stellar radiance merging on a clear night into a delicate curtain of starlight.  Those fortunate enough to view it receive a glimpse into the universe like no other.

It’s strange to think I lived nearly a quarter of a century without seeing the Milky Way.  In part, this was due to my general disinterest of celestial matters – not really caring much about the heavens.  But significantly, it was also due to so-called “light pollution” – a phenomena caused by outdoor lights, particularly near cities.  The light from these outdoor sources shines upwards in the night and is partially reflected back to the earth by our atmosphere.  The reflected light is just bright enough to obscure fainter objects in the night sky such as the Milky Way.  Having lived most of my life near Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington D.C, I had been surrounded by lighted nights.  But this was not the case in the remote hill country in the central part of Maine where I had moved, which was one of the last areas east of the Mississippi not affected by light pollution.

But even as my physical eyes were slowly being opened to the created universe, my spiritual eyes were still in the dark.  In part, this was due to my general indifference to religion and the supernatural.  But equally, I was living in the midst of a sort of spiritual light pollution.  This took the form of much of what I had been taught in school from naturalism in biology, to relativity in physics, to “all religions are the same” in philosophy.  There was also much in the culture that reflected a secular rather than religious worldview.  I don’t recall a lot of overt teaching against the existence of God, but among many people I knew there was a general disinterest if not disdain regarding matters of faith.  It was all just enough to make me feel comfortable in a life centered around me – a life that did not have to question where I was going or who I was becoming.

Unlike the failure of my physical eyes to see the Milky Way, the blindness of my spiritual eyes had real life consequences.  For during my years homesteading in Maine, the self-centeredness that is a natural outflow of the secularism I followed resulted in my estrangement from three good friends and damaged relationships with several others.  It was all too easy to dismiss a Creator God and his law as a guide for my life, but it remained to be seen how I could ever live a basically good and decent human existence otherwise.  The life I was living – with me at the center – treated people as objects to achieving my goals, controlled others through anger, and was generally unforgiving and unloving.  No amount of time in a sauna could ever clean up the mess in my innermost being.

But as I stared at the night sky that summer, God was at work on my soul. For thoughts about creation and whether there was a Creator began to stir.  When I looked to the heavens I began to wonder about how they were created, and even deeper, “Why should anything exist at all?  “Why isn’t there nothing?”  Unanswerable I thought, yet these questions were the birthing sounds of a spiritual journey.  Others I am sure have had similar encounters with the night sky.  For those with “eyes to see,” it is a glimpse of eternity and a signpost to a Power beyond the natural world in which we live.  But more than just a signpost, Paul taught that the created universe is clear evidence of God, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)  For me, it would be many years before I connected the beauty of the created order with a personal God, and much longer before I understood that this personal God has an equally beautiful design for the human experience – a design that is embodied in his revealed law.  That night was the first small step in a spiritual journey.

Years later when I eventually came to know Jesus as Savior, I found that he correctly diagnosed my condition,For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.  A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.” (Matthew 12:34-35)  The reason my relationships were a mess was because of the mess inside of me.  As long as my primary focus was on me, conflict was sure to follow.  Jesus also had the solution to my condition, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)  In other words, the solution to my spiritual problem was to hold to Jesus’ teaching, which is the will of the Father – the law of God.

Unbeknownst to me, even as God opened my physical eyes in 1974 to the beauty of the night sky, one day he would also open my spiritual eyes to behold the beauty of his Kingdom.   Somewhat surprisingly, this did not occur when I placed my faith in Jesus in 2000.  Instead, it would be another decade before I began to understand that faith in Jesus means to hear his word and obey.  In other words, to “seek first the kingdom [of God], and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).  Jesus makes it clear that obedience to the law of God, which he fleshed out in much of his teaching, is the only way into the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 7:21)

I have known life without God and it came at a very dear price indeed. Jesus tells us that anyone we follow, other than him, is a thief and that, “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy” (John 10:10a)  The life I was living in 1974, centered around me, killed and destroyed many relationships, and stole my joy.  In contrast, Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  (John 10:10b)  This is a life centered around God – life in his kingdom, which is a matter of “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17)  I have found that kingdom life has a beauty that surpasses even that of the night sky.  Paul speaks about the fruit of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  (Galatians 5:22-23)  These are not abstract concepts but real life qualities that seem to increase as I pursue the virtuous life commanded by God.

Psalm 19, which CS Lewis called “the greatest poem in the Psalter,” praises with equal voice the beauty of the heavens and the beauty of God’s law. The beauty of the heavens reflected in a clear night sky and the beauty of God’s law reflected in a life of virtue.

The beauty of the heavens:
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.  Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.  There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.  Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.  In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course.  It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat.”  (Psalm 19:1-6)

The beauty of God’s law:
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.  The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.  The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.  The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.  The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.  The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous.  They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.  By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.  Who can discern his errors?  Forgive my hidden faults.  Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me. Then will I be blameless, innocent of great transgression.  May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”  (Psalm 19:7-14)

When I viewed the Milky Way in 1974, I was seeing starlight that had been emitted over 20,000 years earlier.  When I read God’s word, I was hearing his law that had been spoken over 2,000 years earlier.  Ancient sights and ancient words – the beauty of a night sky and the beauty of God’s law – beacons of light to a dark soul.

S

 

No Man Is An Island

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.  And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”  (John Donne)

Is there anything more romantic than an island?  Pat and I spent our honeymoon on Monhegan Island, a small rocky oasis some twelve miles off the coast of Maine.  It was the perfect island retreat for a young couple in love.  Completely cut off from the mainland save for one undersea cable, and before the days of satellite Internet coverage, there was nothing from the outside world to distract us.  Of course, we were not self-sufficiently alone.  We stayed at the Island Inn, an old-fashioned hotel perched high above the tiny harbor where, weather permitting, visitors and supplies disembarked.  Over the years we have visited other islands, and always the romance of that first island stay is rekindled.  Even now, landlocked on a great continent, I sometimes hear the call of an island – a far land where I retreat whenever the stress of living threatens to overwhelm my soul.  It is an imaginary place to escape the reality of life when I am feeling overwhelmed by people and events.

To a large degree the American experience is that of self-sufficiency.  From the earliest days, we were a land of immigrants who were willing to forsake friends and family to sail to the new world.  We eventually fought a war for independence, which we proudly proclaimed in a great Declaration to that effect.  Later on, we were pioneers who pushed steadily westward, and then homesteaders who built our lives on vast, lonely plains.  At the start of the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover (a self-made millionaire) coined the phrase “rugged individualism” to describe a belief that people can make it on their own and government help should be minimal.  And today, those of us fortunate enough to live in great communities amid unbelievable affluence often as not pull into a garage, closing the overhead door behind us before exiting the car – alone again in our little island of a home. Although it is a fiction that we can make it on our own, we have elevated independence and self-sufficiency to national virtues.

But while these may be cultural virtues, nothing could be further from our calling as Christians.  For we know that we are not islands unconnected to others, but we are created and called to be inextricably tied one to the other.  The Apostle Paul used the human body as a metaphor to show our interconnectedness. “God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.  Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”  (1 Corinthians 12:24-27)  Indeed, no Christian can dispute that the call to interdependence is an essential feature of our faith, as we are commanded repeatedly in Scripture to be in close relationship to one another. For example, “Love one another” (John 13:34); Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13); “Be kind and compassionate to one another…” (Ephesians 4:32); “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21); and “Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another” (Colossians 3:13).

In his poem, No Man Is An Island, priest and poet John Donne affirms this Biblical truth by rejecting the idea that we are islands, isolated from others; rather, there is a certain inescapable interdependence that we all have with one another.  And yet, there seems to be no lack of lonely people around us, living in tiny self-created worlds with few or no friends.  I see it at a local rehabilitation center in the faces of certain people who have no one to visit them.  I sense it in our neighborhood where some people keep their window shades perpetually drawn and they themselves seldom emerge.  And I sometimes feel it in my soul when wanting to avoid others and draw into myself.

The antidote for isolation and loneliness is a community of friends – those who mutually share the fears, challenges, and joys of their lives, who listen without judgment, who occasionally challenge with truth spoken in love, and who always encourage one another.  There are many types of relationships, even friendships we can have with others.  But a real and true friend is someone who really knows me and is known by me.

For years I had no friends outside my immediate family.  It wasn’t until I was almost fifty, when one Sunday morning a pastor pointed out that there were many men who had no friends.  His words struck home, and I trace my own pursuit of friends from that day – a pursuit that at times has been a stumbling, bumbling, and often faltering affair.  It has taken me time, a lot of time.  Most of what I have learned has been by trial and error.  Ironically, it has been more of an inner journey than an outer one – more of learning about myself than learning about others.  Over time, I have developed a circle of friends with whom I associate regularly.  Reflecting on my journey, I have several observations about the development of friends. These are neither prescriptive nor exhaustive, but are offered simply as a personal reflection.

A first observation is that relationships at work are not a substitute for having friends.  For many years I believed that workplace relationships were the only personal contacts I needed outside of my family.  I interacted with many people at work on a daily basis, even occasionally socialized with them.  But while workplace relationships can occasionally develop into real friendships, I believe that the things that mostly bind people together at work – forced interactions and a common employer do not in the long run support intimate friendships.  This fact was revealed when I retired and all contacts with people at work were instantly severed.  I know other men who have suffered after retiring because they never developed friends beyond work.

A second observation is that being an introvert does not excuse one from having friends.  As an introvert, I really enjoy times when I am alone to read, write, and listen to music.  These are all good things, but just because they are good and that I like doing them does not excuse me from developing friendships.  It may be that psychologists are correct when they claim that introversion is invariant.  But it seems to me that this can be used as an excuse for not engaging with others, in the same way that virtually any vice can be excused by thinking “that’s just the way I’m wired.”  We introverts don’t have to abandon our times of solitude, but we also should not allow it to dominate our lives.  In this regard it is worth contemplating a scene from The Great Divorce, in which C.S. Lewis envisions the essence of hell as increasing separation from one another. The illustration he uses is a person setting up home on a street (in hell), fighting with a neighbor, and moving farther and farther away. “As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street.  Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbor.  Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move.  Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbors – and moved. So he settles in.  …  He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again.  Finally … getting further apart. … Millions of miles from us and from one another.  Every now and then they move further still.”

A third observation is that hurts caused by other people can be an impediment to making friends.  I have found that when I am hurt by other people, I tend to pull away – not just from them but from everyone else as well. It is a defense mechanism I have used to avoid being hurt again.  Like many people, I have the scars of being deeply hurt by others over the years.  Many of these hurts go back to childhood when the soul was so very tender.  These hurts can set in motion defensive patterns of behavior that can be very hard to overcome, and I have no easy answers for doing so.  I know some people who have been helped by programs such as Celebrate Recovery.  I received direct healing from the Lord, as I prayed one day over a conflict I was having with an acquaintance.  The Lord showed me that I did not need to fear rejection by others.  Although I am still hurt from time to time, I am better able to forgive and avoid retreating.

A fourth observation is that my pride is the biggest impediment I have to developing friends.   I can’t even begin to explain how deep the roots of pride are in my life because honestly I don’t see all of them.  This is pretty much what C.S. Lewis writes when he refers to pride as “The Great Sin” in his book Mere Christianity.  “There is one vice of which no man in the world is free; which every one in the world loathes when he sees it in someone else; and of which hardly any people, except Christians, ever imagine that they are guilty themselves. … The vice I am talking about is Pride.”  I tend to pull away from others when my ego is not stroked enough or my ego is offended.  When I first joined a men’s small group, I measured the success of a meeting by how much I was affirmed by the others.  What a burden it became to always have to focus on myself – always thinking about what I would say and how I could be praised.  There is much I could write about the scourge of pride in my life, because pride is always lurking, always waiting to raise its ugly head. Fortunately, becoming aware of the destructiveness of my ego, and with considerable healing from the Lord, I have reached a point where my pride has lost a bit of its power – at least enough that it no longer destroys my friendships.

My final observation is that true friends are formed out of sincere interest in others.  I don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out, because the thing that I value most in other people is their interest in me.  I am attracted to people who ask about me, and who seem genuinely interested in my life.  Similarly, there is nothing that I find more off-putting than someone who is so wrapped up in their own life that they never think to ask about me. And so, it is amazing that it took me so long to realize that if I am not interested in others and asking questions about them, that they will be put off by me.  Sincere interest in others is a powerful driver of friendships.  True friends are mutuality interested in one another.  Just as it is hard for me to build a relationship with someone who is so wrapped up in his or her self that there are few if any inquiries into my life, so too I cannot expect others to want a relationship with me if I show no sincere interest in them.  C.S. Lewis again puts a fine point on this with his observation in the essay, The Weight of GloryThere are no ordinary people.  You have never talked to a mere mortal.  Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.  But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”  To truly see others as God sees them – what an amazing opportunity we can easily let slip through our hands.

“There is nothing on earth more to be prized than true friendship.”  (Thomas Aquinas)

 “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.”  (Helen Keller)

S

A Christmas Gift

Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold.  She is more precious than rubies; nothing you desire can compare with her.  (Proverbs 3:13-15)

The Gift of the Magi is a short story by O. Henry.  The time is Christmas Eve and a young married couple Jim and Della are struggling financially.  Despite scrimping, neither one has been able to save enough money to buy a special gift for the other.  In desperation to purchase a present, each secretly sells their most prized possession.  Jim sells the gold watch that once belonged to his grandfather to buy Della some jewel encrusted hair combs.  Meanwhile, Della sells her beautiful knee-length hair to buy Jim a gold chain for his watch.  Despite their folly, their love is not diminished.  If anything it is enhanced as we read of a tender embrace.  The story concludes by relating their gifts to those of the Magi.  “The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the newborn Christ-child.  They were the first to give Christmas gifts.  Being wise, their gifts were doubtless wise ones. And here I have told you the story of two children who were not wise.  Each sold the most valuable thing he owned in order to buy a gift for the other.  But let me speak a last word to the wise of these days: Of all who give gifts, these two were the most wise.  Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the most wise.  Everywhere they are the wise ones.  They are the magi.”  

It is a lovely tale and well worth reading during Advent.  Here is a link to the story https://americanenglish.state.gov/files/ae/resource_files/1-the_gift_of_the_magi_0.pdf.

Most of us know that some gifts are wise and some are unwise.  I learned about unwise gifts one Christmas early in our marriage when I gave Pat an electric hand-held mixer.  It was a very nice mixer as I recall, nicely wrapped and capable of whipping potatoes into a fluffy delight – just the way I like them.  To my surprise, she was not overjoyed by my thoughtfulness.  I suppose that other men have learned the hard way that when it comes to gifts for their wives, kitchen appliances are unwise – ranking right up there with books on dieting, and tins of anti-aging cream. That said, there is a deeper wisdom to our gift giving that transcends the presents we select.  Although retailers would have us believe that the deep wisdom is embodied in the ubiquitous gift card, the Christmas story as told by Matthew offers a different perspective.  In particular, the accounts of the Magi and Joseph.

The Magi
The story of the Magi is the Christian apologetic for giving gifts at Christmas.  Even though the celebration of Christmas has its roots in both pagan rituals as well as the birth of Jesus, we Christians tie our gift giving back to those of the Magi, as recorded in Matthew.  “After they [the Magi] had heard the king [Herod], they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.  On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.  Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.”   (Matthew 2:9-12)

From what I read, many Biblical scholars believe the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were chosen for their spiritual significance – gold representing Christ’s kingship, frankincense a symbol of his priestly role, and myrrh a prefiguring of his death and embalming.  But the gifts also had monetary worth.  We moderns understand the intrinsic value of gold, but probably not the value of the two aromatic resins frankincense and myrrh, which in that day may have been worth more than their weight in gold.  Still, there are a lot of details missing from the story. Were these overflowing bags of gold, frankincense and myrrh strapped to the backs of camels, such as festively depicted on our Christmas cards?  Or were they more symbolic amounts?  Also, what did Mary and Joseph do with the gifts?  The gold no doubt would have been welcome to finance their subsequent escape to Egypt.  But what did they do with the frankincense and myrrh?  Perhaps these were sold to buy supplies for their journey.  [If so, I suppose it would be the first instance of Christmas gifts being returned.]  Still, this is all speculation.  For us Christians today, what we mostly take from this story is the giving of material gifts to celebrate Christmas.

Joseph
The story of Joseph involves the giving of a different kind of gift.  We read, “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.  Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”  (Matthew 1:18-19)  Who could blame Joseph for wanting to divorce Mary when he discovered that she was pregnant?  This was not his child, and no doubt he would be shamed if discovered by others.  But we read that Joseph was faithful to the law, or in other translations that he was a “righteous” man, so he was going to divorce Mary quietly to protect her from public disgrace. However, “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ … When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.”  (Matthew 1:20-21, 24)

It is easy to gloss over this part of the Christmas narrative.  We read that an angel told Joseph to do something, which he seems to automatically obey.  But Joseph had free will and like any of us could have questioned whether what he heard from the angel was real.  He was squarely within his rights under the law at that time to simply divorce Mary, which would have been an easy path to take.  Yet the far-reaching consequences of a divorce on her and its impact upon Jesus in being raised by a single mom cannot be known.  In our country today, single-mother households have a poverty rate roughly five times that of married couple families.  There is no reason to believe it would have been any different at the time of Jesus. Yet, Joseph chose the harder path of sacrificing his legal rights for the needs of Mary and her baby – an act of incalculable worth.

So, what did Mary treasure more – the gifts of the Magi or the virtuous act of Joseph?  I leave it for the reader to contemplate.  But when Joseph chose to stay with Mary and raise Jesus as his own son he made a wise and courageous choice that went beyond his rights under the law.  Indeed, on that day mercy triumphed over judgment.  And when viewed through the spectrum of Jesus’ future ministry, there is reason to believe that the actions of Joseph, born out of compassion for Mary, were closer to the spirit of Christmas than the gifts of the Magi.  For during his ministry, Jesus did not speak much about the giving of gifts other than his command to give to the needy.  However, in his teaching on the kingdom of God, Jesus would later say, For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven?”  (Matthew 5:20)  I wonder whether he was thinking about Joseph when he made this remarkable statement?  This is not to denigrate the Magi or their gifts, because they responded to God in the way that was available to them – a perilous journey to find the Christ-child and lavish him with gifts of great worth.  Still, gifts are not always measured by their intrinsic material value, but by their emotional worth.

A Christmas Gift
What if this year we give a Christmas gift informed by the story of Joseph – one that is grounded in the pursuit of virtue?  Since every aspect of our character affects those around us, any virtue we choose to work on will not only benefit our self but others as well.  Paul has some suggestions, Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”  (Colossians 3:12-14)  And so, what about clothing ourselves with kindnessas a Christmas gift to those around us?  Is there anyone who doesn’t yearn to be with someone who is kind rather than harsh; charitable rather than judgmental; and encouraging rather than critical?  Or what about clothing ourselves with gentleness and patience as a Christmas gift to others?  What a burden it must be to live with a person who is perpetually angry or prone to random outbursts, and what a gift it would be to be around a gentle and patient person.

The possibilities are endless.  For example, what about a gift that involves getting help for one’s own addiction? Is there a family member who wouldn’t forgo a pile of presents to have a parent who didn’t drink to excess, or a child who was not using drugs, or a spouse who wasn’t addicted to pornography? The deepest needs of humanity are not to be found in brightly wrapped Christmas presents, but in healthy, loving relationships.  Surely the wisest gift and most reflective of the spirit of Christmas is found where our greatest sacrifice meets another person’s greatest need.

This is not a suggestion to abjure traditional Christmas gifts, which could create its own sort of harm for many relationships.  Indeed, receiving gifts is a primary love language for some people.  And in truth there is also something of the spirit of Christmas in the happiness that comes from generously giving and receiving presents.  Still, our thinking can get so locked into material gifts that we can overlook wiser, more enduring gifts – gifts that can enrich our lives and the lives of others. So this year, in addition to presents carefully wrapped and cheerfully adorned by ribbons and bows, why not consider a gift born of the pursuit of virtue to meet the deepest needs of someone you love?  May your efforts draw you closer to God and others this Christmas season.

S