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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