Monday, January 30, 2017

Recipe for the Good Life: Part 4

ARE you still looking in the wrong places for the good life, hoping it will miraculously materialize?
            For the last couple of weeks we’ve been digging into Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians to discover exactly what The Good Life is and how to achieve it. Evidently it’s something people have struggled with for ages. Paul gives this congregation of Christ followers a long list, and we made it about a third of the way through, to verse 14 last week. This week we’ll tackle the next three. I know, I said we’d finish the list today, but on closer examination, I think it’s best to bite off three more and then finish the list over the next couple of weeks. If we truly want The Good Life, we need to study these carefully.
            So let’s do some more digging!

           Moving on to verse 15, Paul says, “See that no one renders evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all.”
            Bottom line: no tooth for a tooth, no getting even. No saying nasty things back to someone who has scorned or ridiculed you. No quick-witted, unsavory retorts. No seeking vengeance. No getting back at someone. No libeling them on social media. No standing on some dais in the country’s capital, ranting and raving and slinging potty-mouth words at someone you don’t like and don’t agree with. When you do that, you’re showing your true stripes, as we like to say here in the U.S. And they’re pretty ugly. No one is won over by shouting at them; no one changes their minds when verbal mud is chucked at them.
            People are most often won over by truth spoken in love and a gentle voice. Indeed, the truth and voice may be firm, but it’s not vitriol that makes converts. It might gain a reaction and plenty of media attention, but it’s not going to change people’s hearts, unless they’re on your side to begin with. Which brings me to a story. Actually, a couple of them.

            Some years ago, when my older son was attending college, there was a well-meaning guy who would show up on campus every day in the same place with his thick Bible and shot hellfire and brimstone words and all-day sermons to the students, and probably the staff. My son would sit and listen to him from afar, making mental notes about his presentation and delivery. One day my son had the guts to approach him and tell him that he was giving the faith a very bad name; that his method was winning more enemies than converts. In a nutshell, he was driving away the very people who needed the true message the most. And many had heard him for so long, that they regarded him as some kind of nut to be avoided. My son was angered by the methods this man used; angered by the impression he gave others about Christianity. Eventually this man got booted off campus for his behavior. So much for making converts for Christ.
            My husband and I saw the same thing happening on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC a couple of years ago. One guy on each pillar, ranting and raving, swinging their Bibles around, acting as though they were messengers sent by God to proclaim salvation to the masses. Well, maybe they were, but my husband and I thought their technique was lousy, and horribly embarrassing. And few, if anyone, listened to them—except maybe to laugh at them. So often, I think our behavior makes God cringe and stifles the Holy Spirit from working in others’ lives. So often our attitudes, behavior, and speech make messes He has to clean up.

            And then notice what Paul says about what we are to pursue: “…pursue what is good both for yourselves and for all” (my emphasis). We are to on the pursuit of goodness, not just for ourselves, but for everyone. So this recipe for having the good life entails keeping watch over our brothers and sisters, making sure that whatever we do benefits them along with benefiting us. Combine that with Paul’s admonishment in another letter to consider others as more important than ourselves, and we’re really focusing more on others’ needs than our own. And in First Timothy, Paul says, “Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share.”
            The King James Version says to “ever follow that which is good…” We’re to always be on the lookout for it and choose to do good. Always. One question we might ask ourselves is: “Will this action benefit everyone, or will it harm someone?” True, while not everyone is going to get what she wants we should always think about what she needs, and aim for that. Even if it costs us something. Sometimes I think we’re just too exhausted or broken to do well at this verse. And maybe pursuing simplicity alongside it would help us have enough energy and resources to make it happen!

            Before we move on to the next verse, consider this quote from the famous theater director Michael Chekhov in his book To the Actor.
            “Imagine a character entirely attached to an earthly kind of life. It’s powerful
            and egotistical will is constantly drawn downward. All its passionate wishes
            and lusts are stamped with low and base qualities. It has no sympathy for
            anyone or anything. Mistrust, suspicion and blame fill its whole limited and          
            introverted inner life. The character denies a straight and honest way of
            living, always choosing round-about and crooked paths. It is a self-centered
            and at times an aggressive type of person.”

            Wow! Paints a powerful word picture of a pretty dark person, doesn’t it? Certainly none of us are like that, are we? Probably not, but many times in our lives we may come close. We’re focused on earthly things, worldly goals that wrench our hearts and minds from the eternal, and the Eternal. Our thinking is self-focused, egotistical. Me minded. Rather than lifted to the heights of hope, our spirits are dragged downward and chained to the present. We become jaded, and mistrust dominates our thoughts and decisions. Our fingers point blame at everyone except ourselves. We become intellectually dishonest, blaming everyone else for our tragedies, expecting everyone else to fix them, taking responsibility for nothing and expecting handouts and freebies for everything. Our hearts become jealous and envious. Covetous.

            Something to think about as we make honest assessments of our thoughts and hearts.

            Then Paul switches into happiness gear when he says, “Rejoice always.” In other words be cheerful, calmly happy.
            I know. Often that’s easier than it sounds. Right now the events of the last 13-14 months have piled up high enough to overload my spirit, my human one that is. Even the good events in your life can bring stress; and the good events in my life were interspersed with not-so-good, physical, emotional, and spirit-draining ones. And because of that, I’m really feeling a need to pull an Elijah, to run off and flop down next to some out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere brook where no one can find me. To be fed by some birds. To sleep. Or crash in a field of poppies like Dorothy did in the Wizard of Oz.

            These days it’s taking all of the energy I have to get up, get dressed, and put one foot in front of the other. I cry out to God every morning to get me through the day. No, not just get me through the day. See me through the day with a grateful heart, with a purpose for living. And I can only do that if I’m willing to turn to my grateful list. The L-O-N-G one that tallies off all of the things I am grateful for, and thank the Creator for them. And smile. Doing those two things change your attitude. Literally. (It’s a brain chemical thing.) Doing those two things pour hope into my heart. Why? Because I’m replaying God’s track record in my mind, remembering what He’s done for me and what I am sure He will do for me in the future; how He will sustain me. Although others have let me down, He never will. Although I have let myself down, He lifts me up. Always. He’s the first person I seek in the morning and the last person I seek at night. Without Him, my life would unravel like a thread ripping from a spool on a high-speed sewing machine. My spirit would disintegrate.
            Paul knew very well what he was talking about when he said, “Rejoice always.” The man who many times had to run for his life. The man who had to be lowered from a roof in a basket so others wouldn’t find and kill him. A man who was stoned nearly to death (some believe he actually did die), and imprisoned on more than one occasion. A man whose closest friends and allies abandoned him when he needed them the most. This is the man who says, “Rejoice always.” If we don’t our spirits (and bodies) will die a slow, torturous death. Life will suck the life out of us.
            Paul knew what he was talking about. And he also knew that taking the focus off of self and putting it on others, encouraging them and lifting them up, goes a long way in perking up our spirits and cracking the despondency that comes along with too much self.

            So whatever you’re going through, you can Rejoice! If it’s wonderful, rejoice over its wonder and pleasure. If it’s painful, rejoice that God is still in control, knows what you are going through and what you need, and will be with you to guide and walk you through it. Rejoice that this too shall pass and that joy comes in the morning.

            And join me next week for more uncovering of The Good Life!


May you prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers (3 John 2).

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Monday, January 23, 2017

Recipe for the Good Life: Part 3

         WHAT comes to mind when you hear “The Good Life”? Is it a yacht on the Riviera, a vacation home, world travel? Or is it no sorrow, sickness, poverty, or pain?
           The last two weeks we’ve been looking at what The Bible, specifically Paul has to say about having the first Good Life in the letter he wrote to the church in Thessalonica. He gave them some guidelines to adhere to if they want to live a brotherly and orderly life. Today, we’ll be going through the first part of his long list that we find in chapter 5.
            If you haven’t read this section, off the top of your head, what do you think he’d mention as the first thing on the list? Hint: It isn’t self-focused. And that seems to be the underlying message throughout the list. Being other, rather than self-focused.

           That’s a tough one because that’s one of the first things that usually goes through someone’s head: What’s in it for me? What am I going to get out of it? How will I get my share, how will it protect me, further my goals, advance my success?

   But Paul starts out by saying in verse 11: “Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing.” Before he commends them for doing it, Paul instructs them to focus on one another’s needs, their comforts. He tells them to instruct one another and challenge and improve each other morally, intellectually, and spiritually. Expect the best for one another, in every area, and help each other achieve the best! It’s like setting individual achievement bars that continually gets raised higher and higher as we all strive for the next level. Of course, each person’s bar may be set at a different height, but the end goal is still the same, regardless of how fast you improve. You don’t give Olympic caliber goals to a neophyte. You set a bar they can reach and teach and help them to get there so they can reset it.

            So the first thing we’re to be ready, willing and able to do is comfort and edify. Some people are better at these than others of us, but we all need to work at doing them and doing them well.

            Then Paul gives a list of exhortations, and he starts with our attitudes toward the brethren who are laboring in the trenches for our spiritual health. Those teaching and guiding us. Why do you think he starts there? I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that many people, if not most people are gossipers, backbiters, complainers, whiners, and know-it-alls who think everything should be done their way. Real control freaks. And they make life miserable for these pastors, elders, deacons and teachers. Instead of lifting them up in prayer (for their work is exhausting physically, mentally, and spiritually), we complain about them and make life difficult for them. Teaching and shepherding is a grave responsibility; we need to make the labor as enjoyable as possible for them. Support, encourage, acknowledge their authority (oh, there’s that distasteful “authority” word many bristle over).
            Send them letters of encouragement instead of nasty notes and messages about how the music didn’t fit the service, the sound was off, the air conditioning was too cold, blah, blah, blah. We had a member of one of the church’s we attended take notes on the music every Sunday, which he tramped into the worship pastor’s office with on Monday morning. Maybe he felt as though he had a right to do that, being an elder and all, but it certainly didn’t make the worship pastor’s work any easier; and the pastor came to dread Monday mornings. This man should have been less critical and more supportive and encouraging. He didn’t know it all, even though he obviously thought he had the pulse of the congregation.

            In this verse, Paul also points out that these leaders also admonish us, which means they warn, advise, urge us earnestly, or warn or reprimand us firmly. And they have a right to do it if they believe we are living a life contrary to God’s truth. Nowadays we call it “tough love.”
            We are to esteem these leaders very highly in love for their work’s sake. Esteem and love. Make their work more joyful. Let them know we appreciate their labors. And then Paul adds: “Be at peace among yourselves.” With the way things are headed in so many churches today, we need to really pay attention to that one. “Be at peace among yourselves.” This word has a different meaning than the word peace (shalom) we were studying, which can mean rest, happiness, favor, or prosperity.

            But the peace Paul speaks of is being a peacemaker, someone who is peaceable or makes peace. In other words, stop all of the infighting! Most of the discord has self-centered roots. If you feel like complaining, check your motives. You may be surprised what you find lurking in your heart.

            Next, Paul says, “Warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all.” Here again, his teaching is other-focused, not self-focused. Unruly is defined as: “disorderly and disruptive and not amenable to discipline or control.” In a nutshell, you need to continue loving these rebel rousers, but you may have to boot them out of the congregation if they’re causing unrest. (Loving does not mean letting someone do whatever the heck he wants. Boundaries need to be drawn.) Tell them they can return when they’re willing to listen, and be sober, humble and loving toward the rest of the people—their brothers and sisters in Christ. Give them fair warning and then follow through with the discipline. (I think more parents need to follow this rule!)

            In the same verse Paul also tells us to comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all.
            A fainthearted person is someone prone to timidity, someone lacking courage—like the wobbly-kneed Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. These people need an extra measure of encouragement, prayers for strength and discipline of their thinking. The King James Version of the Bible uses the term feebleminded, which is defined as little-spirited. So to bring them comfort would be to encourage them and bolster their spirit.
            Upholding or supporting the weak means to support those who are feeble, incapable of fending for themselves, sick, without strength, physically weak. It could be children, the elderly, the infirm, the mentally weak or ill. The disabled. Do not disregard them, do not pass them by, do not dismiss them, do not marginalize them. At every opportunity, we need to come alongside them to carry whatever burden of theirs we can and encourage them spiritually, physically, and emotionally.

            Well, the first section of this exhortation list certainly focuses a lot on comforting, edifying, loving and living in peace, and living patiently. Being peacemakers. It’s a lot to pray about and chew on this week, jot down some notes on how we’re doing in each of these important areas. The whole list sounds other-focused. And that’s a good thing.
            Have you ever noticed how focusing one someone else and their problems make yours look kind of puny and irrelevant?

            Make it a great week of living the Good Life—loving, encouraging and lifting others up! And join me next week for the rest of Good Life list.


May you prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers (3 John 2).