Sunday, December 20, 2020

And a Merry Covid Christmas to All


We read the story of the birth of Jesus condensed into a few chapters, but it was several years of perplexing times. It began with unnerving visits from angels and the difficulty of dealing with an unplanned pregnancy scandal.  Once the Nazareth gossip mill moved on to other juicy news, the pair faced new challenges.

A government mandate forced Joseph to shut down his business while he and pregnant Mary traveled to Bethlehem. It was likely several years before they returned home, and his family's finances recovered.  The trip to Bethlehem must have left them emotionally and physically depleted, as they arrived in a town overflowing with people.

Certainly, in the throes of labor, young Mary wished with all her heart that these circumstances had not separated her from her mother.  Nothing felt familiar or safe or comfortable as she laid her newborn son in the scratchy hay of a manger.

The problematic years continued as political strife tore the community apart due to Herod's edict sentencing so many infants to death.  It is likely that everyone in the surrounding area knew of someone who had experienced a loss. Yet, thanks to the warning of strange visitors and a message in a dream, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were safe and creating a new life in Egypt. Mary and Joseph may not have understood all that happened and did not know what lay ahead, but they knew they had Jesus.

The year 2020 has been a hard time for many of us. Some have seen a minor change in work schedules. Others have had lives turned upside-down with school at home, lost income, or separations from loved ones. Too many families have experienced severe illness or death of a loved one. Like Mary and Joseph, we have dug deep into our emotional reserves to steel ourselves for surviving. We wonder months later when the difficult things of this year will end, and we will be able to return to the familiar. We are still in the middle of the story. We may not know when the struggles of this year will end, but we do know we have Jesus.

That baby in the manger becomes the Savior on the cross. This hard time pales in comparison to the sacrifice of Christ. We stand in awe of a God who insists on loving us despite our weaknesses and failures. He loves us enough to send His Son to save and His Spirit to fill our hearts with strength and faith. The peace of this truth far outweighs our current experience. We are loved and loved perfectly.

Our prayers during this hard time are earnest and frequent. We pray for strength and safety and the peace that comes from knowing the end of the story. We long for the day when we can sum up this year in a few chapters of anecdotes, and we can see how God helped us to grow in our faith. We hope for this peace for you and yours, too. Like Mary and Joseph, we do not know how our story will proceed, but we know we have Jesus. God's word is trustworthy and true.

And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true.” Revelation 22: 5-6a

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Gratitude and Praise for the Win

I saw this clip and could think of little else besides 2020. Some days it seems that no matter what we try in order to survive, we get knocked down by a new circumstance of this bizarre year.

Whatever this guy is trying to achieve, we’ve got to give him credit for his persistence and enthusiasm. He seems to rush into each attempt as if he expects it to result in joy. He does not seem to mind finding himself half-naked and face-first on the mat, again, and again, and again. In a way, he is practicing Positive Psychology.

I am fascinated by Positive Psychology. Many branches of Psychology focus on what is not working: neurosis, anxiety, and other disorders. Positive Psychology looks at what’s right and why it works. Here we find the tools God gives us to survive: resilience, problem-solving, gratitude, and other coping skills.

I am not sure the man in the clip shows gratitude, but I know that gratitude is one of the most important of all of our coping skills. We do ourselves good when we feel or even express gratitude. Our emotions work carefully with our brains to not only help us learn but to help us react. Gratitude is an interesting emotion because it is also something we can practice. We feel gratitude, and that encourages us to practice it (e.g., say “thank you”), but we can also practice gratitude to feel it. For instance, the more we thank people, the more settled we become in our resiliency because we remind ourselves of people who care about us.

Praise has a similar practice/feeling connection. We are less likely to think of praising unless we make a point of practicing praise. This thinking puts a marker, of sorts, on our brain to look for good things to use for compliments. When we look for and praise good things, we develop good feelings. It is a beautiful loop of encouragement. Praising someone else makes us feel better.

When we practice praise or gratitude, we strengthen particular neural pathways that will be activated when needed.  We physically fill our brains with neurons connected to happiness and confidence. Psychologists will say this broadens the mind because it allows us to feel good emotions even during a negative situation. We do not ignore the negative. Instead, the negative gets connected to healthy emotions, such as a sense of peace and confidence.

I have read about this connection between practicing and feeling and brain changes, but I find the most compelling evidence in scripture.

We can see this in the Psalm below. Psalm 85 is likely from the time after the Babylonian exile. While I am sure those who returned experienced joy, their reality was complicated and tough. They came back to a barren and desolate land with no temple for worship. Look how the psalmist begins to put things into perspective:

Lord, you were favorable to Your land;
    You restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of Your people;
    You covered all their sin. Selah
You withdrew all Your wrath;
    You turned from Your hot anger.

Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
    and put away Your indignation toward us!
Will You be angry with us forever?
    Will You prolong Your anger to all generations?
Will You not revive us again,
    that Your people may rejoice in You?
Show us Your steadfast love, O Lord,
    and grant us Your salvation.

The daunting task ahead of them likely made them feel the punishment of the exile was not quite finished. In the next set of verses, the psalmist moves away from grief and toward the promises of God. He seeks out what is good amid the strife:

Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
    for He will speak peace to His people, to His saints;
    but let them not turn back to folly.
 Surely His salvation is near to those who fear Him,

that glory may dwell in our land.

And look what the change in emotional expression leads us to. The final verses focus on praise and gratitude and abound with the confidence of faith:

Steadfast love and faithfulness meet;
    righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs up from the ground,
    and righteousness looks down from the sky.
Yes, the Lord will give what is good,
    and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before Him
    and make His footsteps a way. Psalm 85 ESV © 2001 Crossway


Practicing gratitude and praise when it feels more appropriate to wallow in sadness and worry creates a path for God’s steadfast love and faithfulness meet our need. His plan is to care for us and to do so in a way that helps us to grow stronger. 

It is easy and natural to feel gratitude and praise when things go well, yet we often forget to practice them when we are distracted by the good in our life. When we neglect the practice of gratitude and praise, we are too likely to begin to have faith in our ability to create good things.

When we experience grief and worry we are not so tempted to credit ourselves through praise. When we feel sadness, anxiety, or frustration, we can stop and give credit where credit is due. Not to blame God for troubles, but to remember and revel in His gracious mercy.

Take advantage of this time of frustration and practice gratitude and praise. Then watch God help you grow. Use scripture as your tool, and God will grow your faith, also.

God’s peace and strength are ours.