Research has shown that practicing gratitude boosts the immune system, bolsters resilience to stress, lowers depression, increases feelings of energy, determination, and strength, and even helps you sleep better at night. In fact, few things have been more repeatedly and empirically tested than the connection between gratitude and overall happiness and well-being. Experts confirm, over and over again, that those who would consider themselves happy are those who also consider themselves grateful.
Even though there is a preponderance of evidence for the benefits of thankfulness, most people do not practice gratitude. In a survey done by Janice Kaplan for her book The Gratitude Diaries, she found that while “more than 90% of people think gratitude makes you happier and gives you a more fulfilled life … less than half regularly express gratitude.” When was the last time you said anything more than an obligatory “Thank You” to the waitstaff at a restaurant or a wave of appreciation for the kind soul who held the door open for you at the bank? Have you experienced the benefits of a lifestyle of gratitude?
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. Colossians 3:16
The words of Paul tell us that those who have been transformed buy the good news of Christ will be singing to God with gratitude. This act of singing may be figurative, or it may be a first century way of saying what the researchers of today contend: gratitude brings a melody to mind. It is quite possible that Paul knew the same link between happiness and gratitude that Kaplan has now written about. It is likely that the God who created us, in all our complexity, inspired the Apostle to pen the connection between singing and gratitude woven into our DNA.
Perhaps you would accept a challenge, an experiment to test the veracity of modern sociology and ancient biblical interpretation: we could practice expressing our gratitude with the objective of placing a song on our lips. We could be thankful, to God to others, for the blessings they bring into our lives. We could show appreciation for the acts of service friends and strangers perform on our behalf. We could return kindness when we experience it. We could discover whether or not these disciplines of gratitude make us happier and allow us to feel greater contentment. We could be happier.
In this season of harvest, we have much to be thankful for: most of us have more than we need, whether it be as little as a bed instead of a dirt floor or as much as a home with as many bathrooms as inhabitants. God has orchestrated all the functions of nature to allow our bellies to be filled and our bodies to be useful. We, each and every one of us, have reason to express gratitude. It is a good time to give thanks unto the Lord.
If you listened to my message on Sunday, I mentioned in passing an ordeal I had been going through regarding a prescription refill. I had exhausted all my refills, so I called the health center to schedule a physical; I was informed that my PCP was no longer at that facility and I was reassigned; I was given the next available appointment – and a 7 week wait. At this point, I asked if I could get my prescriptions refilled and was given assurances they were in process. A few days later, as I ran out of one of my medications, I called the pharmacy, who was still waiting for authorization, so day after day I called and the health center marked my request as urgent. 10 days after I began the process, I determinedly walked over to the facility, talked to the receptionist, face-to-face, and she took my request to the back, returning after a while with the good news that my prescriptions were sent off to the pharmacy; a few hours later I finally received what I needed to maintain my health.
In hindsight, I have come to realize the importance of face-to-face interactions. I have come to understand the power of looking into another person’s eyes and voicing a genuine frustration. I have come to appreciate standing in front of another human being and receiving assurances that I have been heard and valued. After interacting with disembodied voices for more than a week with no progress, seeing another human being and being seen by another human being was what was necessary for my issues to be resolved. And now, because of technological conveniences, I fear that face-to-face interactions are few and far between.
I am concerned that we, as a society, are in danger of losing something important because we do not interact with one another in person. We can maintain contact with friends through social media. We can check in on family members with a text. We can experience spiritual growth through an app. We can shop for nearly all our essentials via the internet. We can receive instruction on nearly every topic by watching YouTube. In most areas of life (professional service calls are a singular exception), it is not required that we actually engage in human interactions…but it is desperately needed.
I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name. 3 John 14 (NIV)
Take it from one who has recently improved his physical health by meeting with someone face-to-face, your efforts in actual engagement will be rewarded. Take the risk and put the phone down. Sit a spell with a friend over a cup of tea or walk together along a river. Pop into a local hardware store and talk to the owner behind the counter about thermostats or trash cans. Attend a Bible study, even if it is filled with strangers. Talking to someone will benefit your relational health, learning with someone will enhance your intellectual health, worshipping with someone will develop your spiritual health. Let’s get together, face-to-face, for your sake and mine.
A few days after we moved to our new neighborhood a few weeks ago, we decided to be a bit adventurous and go out to a restaurant down the street from us. We chose to go to Yaowarat Road, an eatery named for a street in Bangkok’s Chinatown, which specializes in Thai/Chinese cuisine. When we first arrived and read the menu, I thought about going elsewhere, as there were few dishes I understood or thought we would enjoy. But we ordered what we comprehended (as well as some Pad Thai, which was not on the menu) and it was all delicious. It was a wonderful meal that I could have missed if I was unwilling to take a risk.
I was reminded about my supper at Yaowarat Road as I studied about a practice the Bible calls “the breaking of bread”. This phrase is complex: it is typically a reference to the ordinance of communion (referencing the Lord’s breaking the bread at the Passover table); it could, however, be referring to any meal shared by the people of God (as would be the case of Passover, which involves breaking bread, and the feeding of the five thousand, which also specifically states that the Lord broke the loaves). It is this more general meaning that I have been reflecting upon.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. Mark 6:41 (NIV)
One of the most unifying aspects of ministry is dining together, the time when the church comes together to break bread. A fascinating dynamic is at work when we share a meal, whether it be at a pot-luck or a restaurant. Our choices of cuisine say something about us: they show our preferences and our tolerances, they reveal our habits and our palates, and they demonstrate our knowledge and our experiences. When we share a meal with another, we display ourselves on that plate. Serving up jerk chicken tells us something. Ordering dessert tells us something else. Eating off another plate tells us yet something more.
Breaking bread also expresses our acceptance of one another. When we eat what another person has prepared or ordered, we are saying that your traditions and tastes matter. We might use more (or less) seasoning or another cut of meat or a different protein, if we were given the choice. But we allow another person to build the menu and we are given a glimpse of themselves. If we are lucky, we discover something delectable that we knew nothing about; if not, we might need an antacid for a day or two. Either way, our culinary knowledge and our fellowship is enlarged.
So, take a risk and break bread with someone – invite them to your home or your local diner and eat a meal with a fellow saint. If you are hesitant, I invite you to join me for dinner at the church this Wednesday night for one of my favorites. I hope you’ll have a heaping helping of hospitality.
Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it. Proverbs 22:6
Monday morning at 10AM, Jeanine and I will be dropping off at college our middle son, David. When we do, he will start his freshman year at Fitchburg State University. This will mark the third time we have dropped off our child at college (for those unfamiliar with our story, seven years ago we abandoned to the world of academia a defenseless boy at Gordon College and three years ago we deserted in our nation’s capital a wide-eyed girl at American University). For those wondering, repetition does not make the process of leaving a child to fend for himself any easier.
So, as David steps out of the shadows of our wings and begins to chart the course of his own flight, allow me to share a few words of wisdom for my own experiences:
- First, I would want to tell him to allow seize every opportunity to accentuate all that is good within him. I want David to use these next four years to discover and define his passions and pursue them. I’d want him to exhaust his electives with eclectic, not just easy, courses – art, drama, bocce, or women’s studies – with the intent on unearthing an unknown interest. I ask that he join a club or society outside his field of study. And, in the dining hall, I hope he expands his palate, eating more than just a backpack full of croutons.
- Next, I would want to tell him to remember why he is where he is. He is there to get an education. He is there to gain confidence in his independence. He is there to shine like the sun in a world of darkness. He is there to build life-long relationship with real people. I’d recommend to him to maintain the discipline of going to every class every time it meets, of working hard and then playing hard and of partnering with like-minded individuals to prod themselves onto good works. If his brother and sister are any indication of his future, he will return home a different, more assured, person; I’d want him to embrace that development.
- Then, I would remind him that an elephant is eaten one bite at a time. As he enters the dormitory on Monday, I am sure that there are fears and trepidations that will cloud his thinking, as well as the worry that this undertaking is too much to handle – and in the moment, it will be. But when he takes one step in the right direction, followed by another and another, before long progress will be seen. I would tell him to keep moving forward, even if it is baby steps.
As my child steps out of the car and into a world of curated independence, I’d want him to know that he is capable of more than he thinks possible and stronger than he thinks necessary.
For all those leaving for college for the first time this week, and for their families who love them, I pray God’s richest blessing and watch care be upon us as we all pursue our dreams.
For those wanting to read my thoughts seven years ago, read https://calvaryboston.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/a-parents-hope-for-freshmen/ and for my thoughts three years ago, read https://calvaryboston.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/for-freshmen/
As I mentioned in my previous post, we will be moving next weekend. It has been a trying three years at our most-recent residence. There have been sweet and wonderful times (three years of birthdays and Christmases, living under the same roof with a wide variety of pleasant co-renters and celebrating a graduation), but the preponderance of our memories will likely be less than stellar (terrible neighbors, ubiquitous ride-share vehicles blocking the driveway and a year-long aroma of cannabis in the stairways). Within the cookie-cutter walls of the cookie-cutter Dorchester triple-decker we had our fair share of joy and love, despite the near-constant attacks seeking to steal them.
All this is, I suppose, the facts of life. As the ‘80’s television theme song told me each week: “You take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have the facts of life, the facts of life.” Those who have more cultured tastes may also know the words of a Longfellow poem: “Thy fate is the common fate of all, into each life some rain must fall….” Life is a mix of pleasantries and unpleasantries, of dreams and nightmares; our only hope is that the good outweighs the bad and the sun outlasts the clouds.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 2 Corinthians 4:16-17
Paul tells us that our light and momentary troubles (which in the previous sentence is connected to ‘wasting away’) are achieving, or more literally working out, an all-surpassing glory. Paul is saying, in essence, that the difficulties of our earthly existence are preparing us to fully enjoy the abundant life given through Christ. Honestly, this concept frustrates me, mainly because I do not see my troubles as light and/or momentary; I see them as the contrary. Being accosted by neighbors is not a light affliction and being bombarded by the cacophony of weekend partiers is not a momentary problem.
I can only assume that Paul is speaking comparatively and not qualitatively. I can only reason that when we focus on the glorious future the Lord has secured for us, our everyday difficulties will seem insignificant. When I set my eyes on the place that Jesus has prepared for us in His Father’s house, the troubles I have with my earthly dwelling are meager and the troubles I have with my neighbors are fleeting.
I have no idea what we will find in our new habitation, so we may be jumping from the frying pan and into the fire. While I hope that is not the case, for I know that this new house will not be my final home. And while I hope that the good days far outnumber the bad, I know that some trouble will follow me, as if I had boxed them up and drove them to the new address myself. But I also know that they will never be too heavy or too long that I will be overcome, and what awaits me over the horizon, many years from now, will one day outweigh them all.
It all started with a simple exercise during our Sunday School class: write down one thing you think you need but do not have. My sweet and kind-hearted eleven-year-old boy, in tiny letters on his paper wrote two words which broke my heart – ‘less change’. Those in the class quickly offered consolation, telling one another that change is inevitable and can lead to positive things. But for at least one pre-teen, this is all too much: moving to a neighboring town, changing schools, having a life-long roommate go off to college and watching other family members transition to places of their own. It makes me sad that my son, despite the brave face, is hurting.
Yes, we are moving again. For those keeping score, this is the 7th time in our thirty year marriage that we are packing boxes and renting trucks. After 20 years (and 1 month) in Boston, we are moving 2 miles south of the city to Quincy. [As a side note: if you will be in the Boston area on Friday, August 30th, or Saturday, August 31st, we could use some help. Contact me.] For the only time in any of our lives, Jeanine and me included, one of us will be required to change school systems and make new friends and adjust to new paradigms. I am confident that God will order Joshua’s steps and that he will thrive in this new adventure, but I still worry. If you pray, would you pray for Josh?
This move has forced Jeanine and I to make necessary, but personally difficult, decisions. Certainly, we are determining what possessions we are moving, what we are donating and what we are tossing (and for all those Marie Kondo devotees out there, nothing in this process is sparking joy). But there are other decisions that have been made: we decided that our budget could only afford three bedrooms in our new living situation, and so our three oldest children, over the next month or two, are transitioning to college and beyond. In this, too, I am confident that God will guide my family into blessings I cannot yet comprehend.
The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way; though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for the Lord upholds his hand. Psalm 37:23-24 (ESV)
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read the Bible that God uses the process of change to bring about our maturity and development. Abraham was told to move. Mary and Joseph were led to relocate. Peter was commanded to change careers. It should come as no surprise to any of us that God may lead us in similar ways. New jobs, new schools and new homes may cause worry in the strongest of hearts, but when we know it is a part of God’s way we can take delight in knowing that whatever comes, He will uphold us.
For all those who feel that they need ‘less change’, hold out hope in knowing that the Lord will be with you on the other side of whatever change you are experiencing.
At Vacation Bible School earlier this week, one of the lessons was about ‘going beyond with boldness’. As I taught the seven 3rd through 6th graders in my class about courageously trusting in the Lord, about doing and saying what is right even when it is hard, we explored the life and faith of Esther. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Esther, the beautiful Jewish wife of the Persian king Xerxes I, and her cousin Mordecai persuade[d] the king to retract an order for the general annihilation of Jews throughout the empire.” Esther is the supreme example what God can do through a person who demonstrates boldness.
With a twenty-first century worldview, it might escape the awareness of the casual reader of the Old Testament that speaking to your husband about a decree would require extreme boldness. But the author of the book of Esther, in the first chapter, tells us what happens when a queen displeased King Xerxes: during a party with his friends, Queen Vashti was summoned in order to show her beauty; the queen refuses to go; so, the king exiles her from his presence and procures a new wife. If that is what happened to the queen after an informal request, what would happen to Esther when she decries an official proclamation? Yet, she courageously stood up for what was right.
“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” Esther 4:14
Esther is a role-model for all the spine-deficient among us. After deciding that God, in fact, raised her to the position of queen for just this purpose, she devises a plan and musters the strength to speak of this injustice perpetrated against the people of God. But when she had an audience before the king, she buckles and only invites him to a banquet. She chickens out, reminding us all that even the strongest sometimes shiver before they shine. Then, after two days of drinking, Esther speaks up and secures the safety of her people, boldly proclaiming the truth of God. Despite the real possibility of losing everything – even her life – she courageously stands up for God.
We are not that different from Esther. We see and hear of injustice and wrongdoing every day. We, too, may have come into our position – a place of power and prosperity – for such a time as this. We could speak to the authorities of today and address the issues of today. We could go beyond what we think is possible with boldness. We need modern-day Esthers, those who are apprehensive but aware, and tentative but trusting.
One final word from the lesson plan: the name Esther means ‘star’. Just as there are stars in the night sky that have died centuries ago and their light is still reaching the earth after travelling for thousands of years, so too the examples of ‘stars of the faith’ may have died long ago, but still shine today.
How does that old saying go? “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Seems that my family is entering another season of transition: Joshua is entering his Middle School years, David is off to college, Rebekah is finishing college, and we are moving (again). As we navigate these changes over the next few months, we are seeking God’s wisdom and provision. We are asking questions that will only be answered by some sort of divine intervention. I write all this not to solicit advice, but rather to seek prayer for His provision and direction in the days ahead from those who are so inclined.
Transitions come in all shapes and sizes. Everyone goes through times of relocation, recalibration and recuperation. We cannot eliminate transitions, but we can anticipate them and appreciate them. Transitions offer us all the opportunity to eliminate the clutter that accumulates in life and acknowledge the course corrections that every life must experience. Transitions provide us with times to cleanse ourselves from the toxins that sap us of life and place us in environments for growth. Transitions, like every form of change, are truly challenging, but when navigated properly they can be a blessing.
The author of Hebrews has wisdom from God for all those entering into a season change:
And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Hebrews 12:1-2
We need heed God’s advice to run the race of our life with perseverance. According to Merriam-Webster, perseverance is the continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition. Life is fraught with difficulties, failure, or opposition that can either frustrate us or fuel us. God’s encouragement to all of us is to continue exerting the effort necessary to accomplish our goals.
We need to contemplate that there is a course marked out for us by the creator of the universe. We each have a unique path, filled with peaks and valleys, that we are called to complete. We could, I suppose, choose to run someone else’s race and reach a place that will not fully satisfy, but it would be better to remain on the road that God has established to bring us where we ought to go.
We need to fix our eyes on Jesus: He has run this race before and now waits for us at the finish line. He is the pioneer (or author or source) of our faith – He is the one who is trustworthy and reliable. He is the perfecter of our faith – He is the one who teaches us how to finish strong and avoid the distractions that drown our dreams. He will lead us to the right and proper places when we trust in Him.
Would it be easier if life was absent of adversity, where we all were following the same formula and where it all works out in the end? Sure. But life is not like that. Our lives are continually in flux and difficulties and detours must be expected. Thankfully, we have a focal point, our Savior, who waits for us at our ‘forever’ home. All we need to do is stay on course until we reach the finish line.
In January, as a birthday gift from my family, I received a Fitbit© fitness tracker. Because of this high tech ‘wristwatch’, I have become aware of so many aspects of my life and health: this little gizmo tracks things like my steps, my sleep, my resting heart rate and my hours of activity. I am particularly obsessed with my step count and have begun to enjoy the sensation of personal accomplishment that comes from reaching my daily goal of eight-thousand steps. Plus, when you are walking 8,000 steps, generally over the same terrain, you begin to notice things that have escaped your attention if you were driving by. As I evaluate where my steps have taken me, I realize that where I walk is how I live.
Walking gives you the time to exchange pleasantries with those you are passing on the sidewalks or front porches along the path. Walking affords you the opportunity to observe the repairs being made to gorgeous old houses and those that are still desperately needed. Walking prepares you to keep your distance from that big unfriendly dog that is always guarding his fenced front yard (the fence of which is seriously too low). Walking provides you the time to check out what others are discarding and time to think about how you could use that dresser or night table on that great and glorious day when space is no longer a concern. Walking enables you to feel the sunshine and the gentle rain, invigorating the soul.
It has given me great joy to find some of your children walking in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. … And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love. 2 John 4,6
John’s second letter to the church tells believers that we must walk (or have the lifestyle) of truth and obedience and love. These are not individual commands but a singular multi-faceted directive. Part of my daily walk involves walking in the truth, putting feet to the gospel, walking in such a way that shows that God loves the residents of Geneva Avenue as deeply as the residents of Commonwealth Avenue. Part of my daily walk involves walking in obedience, putting feet to biblical integrity, walking in such a way that shows that God’s people stay on the sidewalks and resist trespassing onto the lawn. Part of my daily walk involves walking in love, putting feet to grace and mercy, walking in such a way that shows those who I encounter a willingness to offer my assistance and my understanding.
I have been asking myself a question as I walk: does how I go and where I go project the truth, obedience and love I have in God? In order to answer that question as I should, I need to remind myself that walking is more than a means of getting from one point to another, but an opportunity to slow down and engage in the life all around us. Walking is one way we serve the community as the body of Christ. It is more than an exercise for fitness; it is an exercise of faith.
Like many smaller churches, we have trouble meeting our ministry budget. In the past, we have engaged in appeals and fund-raisers, but still our revenues are insufficient to cover our expenses. Last week we discussed converting some of our land into a revenue source, but the scope and size of the project were not ideal. We voted not to proceed with this project, but we know something needs to be done.
As the meeting progressed, the words Jesus spoke to the crowd, known as the “Sermon on the Mount” reverberated in my mind:
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:31–33
We know that God knows what we need – food, drink, clothes – and that we ought not adopt an earthly obsession with chasing down these things. We know that God instructs us to instead engage in heavenly pursuits and chase after the kingdom and righteousness of God. This proper perspective leads the heavenly minded to gain the promises of God’s reign, as well as satisfaction of all their earthly needs. One application of this portion of scripture is personal: in a culture of “keeping up with the Joneses”, we must not get caught up in running after the trappings of earth and instead seek the treasures of heaven. Another application is ecclesial (church-related): Calvary ought not focus our energies on account balances but on kingdom building.
But what does it look like to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness”? Unpacking the biblical meaning of the “kingdom” is as hard as nailing Jello© to the wall. Understanding the kingdom of God is akin to defining the United Kingdom: it includes both a reality (an actual place) and a conception (the nature and ethic of the ruling crown). When we are told to seek this kingdom, we seek the habitation of heaven (for ourselves and others) and we seek to demonstrate the culture of the King. We get a glimpse of this kingdom – the dwelling place and desires of the king – toward the end of Revelation:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4
Perhaps this means we are supposed to seek the presence of God (through worship), the removal of suffering (through instruction and service), the elimination of death (through prayer and evangelism) and the end of mourning and crying and pain (through fellowship). These are the pursuits of those seeking His kingdom. If we can do that, while maintaining what is right, just and true for ourselves and others, all His manifest blessings for this world and the next will be given to us as well. Then, whether we balance our budget or blow it all, we will give honor and glory to God.