Friday, November 29, 2019

Gratitude and Harvard Medical School

      Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 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 3:15-16 (NIV)

This time of year everyone tells us that we ought to be thankful. A lot of us have every reason to be. We have family and friends who love us. We have work to do that pays us a living wage and allows us to contribute something to the world. We have roles to play in the lives of our children and grandchildren. We have at least some measure of health. We gather in warm homes around full tables and rightly count our blessings. 
     But there are those, aren’t there, to whom easy platitudes about being thankful might sound more insulting than helpful? There are empty seats at their tables. The food there is pretty sparse. Their families are estranged. They live with chronic health conditions that make it hard to smile and laugh. They lost jobs this year, or their jobs don’t pay the bills. I’m all too aware that there are people in our world, our city, even our church who might hear the words “be thankful” as callous disregard for the real difficulties that characterize their lives, often through no fault of their own. 
     I’m all too aware that if my life wasn’t so good, I might find gratitude much more difficult too. 
     On the Harvard Medical School website, there’s a post about gratitude that makes a pretty bold assertion: “gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.” It cites several studies indicating that “gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” It was honestly a little surprising to me to find such strong research on an admittedly abstract topic like gratitude among the established medical community.
     One study cited had a group of participants write about things they were grateful for that had occurred that week, a second group write about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and a third write about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). After ten weeks, the researchers found that those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. They also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.
     Another study, from the University of Pennsylvania, had 411 people write about early memories. Researchers tested the effectiveness of various psychological techniques in helping participants cope with those memories. When their assignment was to write and deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who they had never thanked for their kindness, participants immediately exhibited a large increase in happiness scores. This impact was greater than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month.  
     Together, the cited studies found associations between acts of gratitude and a reduction in stress hormones, improved sleep quality, fewer feelings of hopelessness, and increased levels of optimism. One even suggested a connection between gratitude and eating better!
     Admittedly, all of this falls short of proving causation. I’m sure the studies have holes in them. But I bet all of us can probably attest to the fact that gratitude can make a huge difference in personal and professional relationships. I know that I can say that being grateful helps me to cope when life isn’t going as I wish it was. But even if there is no real connection between gratitude and psychological, emotional, and physical health, as believers in Jesus we should still be grateful.
     That’s because we aren’t supposed to be grateful because it’s good for us, or makes us more likable, or helps us cope. We’re supposed to be grateful because of the love and faithfulness of God. 
     Paul writes that Christians should give thanks in all circumstances. He didn’t say for all circumstances, of course, but he does think that we should be able to find a reason, whatever is going on around us, to give thanks to God. For believers, gratitude isn’t just a way of looking at the world. It’s a habit in which we choose to regularly and sincerely give thanks to God for his love and faithfulness. 
     Notice, too, that being thankful has to do with our being “in Christ Jesus.” Paul means something similar in Colossians 3, when he connects letting “the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts and letting “the message of Christ dwell among [us] richly” with being thankful. When we’re grateful, we create space for the peace that Christ brings to rule our hearts (instead of the anxieties and fears that run the show when we’re not thankful). When we show gratitude by giving thanks to God and loving each other, that’s when the message of Jesus can live among us most vividly.   
     I think it’s important to note that the studies mentioned in the post emphasized acts of gratitude. That’s for obvious reasons, of course: empirically there’s no other way to measure it than by what study participants do. I think that’s true for you and me as well. Gratitude isn’t just a feeling. It’s made known in the things that we do to show it. And sometimes you can do those things even if you’re not feeling gratitude in the moment.
     When you pray, cultivate the habit of thanking God for what he’s blessed you with and how he’s shown his faithfulness to you. Be specific. Count your blessings, as the song says.
     Make your gratitude known. Tell people you’re thankful for them. Let them see it in the way you treat them. And let people know that you recognize that God has been good to you, and that you’re thankful for it.
     Say “thank you.” At home, at work, at school, when your waiter brings your food: you can’t say it too much.
     I love the way the post on Harvard’s website talks about gratitude:

     Gratitude is a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.

     I think that definition overlays nicely with Christian gratitude, especially in emphasizing how gratitude helps us to recognize that what’s good in our lives often comes from outside ourselves.
     That’s why we can always be grateful: our God never fails us. He has shown us in Christ that nothing, not even sin or death, can un-do the good he does for us. As the writer of Hebrews says: “Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,  let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe…”     

     It might make you feel better. It might make you more likable. It will certainly please God.     

Friday, November 22, 2019


     Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth  of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.  You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides!  You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
     Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish,  but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.     
-Mathew 23:23-26 (NIV)

A production company is using our church building as a film location next week. It’s just a short film, not the next Avengers movie, but I’ve been kind of amazed at what’s involved in getting ready for even something of this scale. 
     One of the things that has to be done is the recruiting of extras. The production company has asked our church to serve; anyone who wants to is supposed to show up on the days of filming in “Sunday best” clothing to be part of the background. I hope we can be convincing; they want us to pretend to be a church.
     It occurs to me, though, that pretending to be a church is a lot easier than the real thing. 
     I guess that’s why it’s so tempting. I guess that’s why most of us, myself included, are tempted from time to time to just play the role of a Christian.
     I don’t think Jesus necessarily had anything against actors. He just didn’t want actors in the ranks of those who claimed to be his disciples. In the Gospels, he called some of the religious people who antagonized him hypocrites. Literally, it’s a compound word that describes someone who “interprets underneath,” but it was originally used to describe an actor or stage performer — someone who spoke his lines from underneath a mask. By Jesus’ day it was also used metaphorically of anyone who wore a mask and played a role.  
     So those religious people who antagonized Jesus were hypocrites because they were more interested in being admired by other people for their piety than really pleasing God. They lived their religious lives for others to see. Sometimes they hid violations of God’s most fundamental commands under a veneer of religiosity, ignoring their responsibility to their parents or taking advantage of widows and calling it a religious requirement. They split theological hairs while ignoring matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. They converted people to their own brand of religion while leading them away from the kingdom of God.
     They made sure that they looked good for their audience — the people they wanted to impress and even cheat — so that hearts and minds that were dark and sick would remain safely out of view. 
     They wore their masks and played their roles and had maybe even convinced themselves that in so doing they were pleasing God.
     That’s the thing about hypocrisy: It isn’t only those watching who are fooled.
     We use the word hypocrite in our world a little differently. Sometimes folks say they want nothing to do with the church because it’s full of hypocrites. They dismiss us all as actors playing a role because they’ve seen (or maybe just heard about) some of the inconsistency in the church. And, to be honest, “inconsistency” is sometimes putting it mildly. There are, without a doubt, hypocrites among those who claim to follow Jesus. Everything he criticized the pretenders of his day for can be applied to some of us. There are those among us who are more interested in being admired by other people for their piety than in really pleasing God. There are those among us who live their religious lives strictly for others to see: They don’t “waste” one act of service or kindness or piety if there isn’t an audience to applaud them. 
     Some among us hide violations of God’s most basic commands under a veneer of religiosity and split theological hairs while ignoring matters of justice, mercy, and faithfulness. Some convert people to their own brand of religion while leading them away from the kingdom of God. Some perform religion for an audience while dark and sick hearts and minds hide safely behind masks and costumes. There are hypocrites in church.
     But it isn’t hypocrisy to honestly struggle with sin. It isn’t hypocrisy to know that anger, drunkenness, lust, and so on don’t please God, but still lose battles with those very things. Preachers, teachers, ministers, pastors, elders — everyone who has ever tried to instruct people in following Jesus or has tried to model what following him looks like — are very aware that we don’t always successfully practice what we preach. In itself, that isn’t hypocrisy.
     It becomes hypocrisy when we grow content with pretending. It becomes hypocrisy when the costume and mask are our religion, when there’s no tension between the role we’re playing and the ways in which the heart and mind under the mask and costume betray that role. It becomes hypocrisy when the applause of the audience to whom we’re playing becomes all our faith is about. 
     So how do I know if I’m a hypocrite? Well, at first blush I’d say that we know if we’re honest with ourselves. I might also say that being concerned about hypocrisy in your life is a pretty solid sign that you aren’t one, or at least that you’re reforming. One of the marks of a hypocrite is that he or she doesn’t see it in his or herself.
     Do you pray when you’re alone and no one else can see you? Do you give and serve when no one knows? Do you worship when it’s just you and God? Spend time in Scripture when there’s no one to impress? Those are pretty solid signs that your faith is not just for show, that you aren’t just playing the role of someone following Jesus. 
     Those same things also happen to be the prescription for treating hypocrisy. If you’re feeling convicted that you may be pretending to follow Jesus instead of actually following him, then make a decision to spend a certain amount of time in private prayer every day. Read the Bible at least as regularly as you go to the gym. Serve someone in need or give to a good cause for no reason other than it’s the kind of thing the Lord wants us to do. Try to stop playing to the audience of your church, friends, family, or whoever, and make an effort to find reward in simply living like Jesus and trusting in him.  
     If we’ll do those things, our masks will start to slip. That will be OK, though, because underneath we’ll find that our real faces look more like Jesus followers than the characters we’ve been playing.
     I hope that we can act sufficiently like a church next week while that movie’s getting made.

     The rest of the time, I hope that we’re not acting at all.

Friday, November 8, 2019

"The Chorus Is the Gospel"

     If God is for us,  who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son,  but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things…? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?  Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?
     …I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future,  nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.      
-Romans 8:31-32, 35, 38-39 (NIV)

Back in 2002, when Bruce Springsteen released his post-9/11 record The Rising, he did an interview with John Pareles, the longtime music critic for The New York Times, in his living room in New Jersey. Talking about his music in general, and the album in particular, he said something for the first time that he’s said in many places since. It’s just a short sentence, but it’s stuck with me since I first heard him say it.
     He’s describing the way he writes music, and particularly how he wrote after September 11th. He talks about feeling that he has to write about “real horrors” that are part of peoples’ lives, but also the hope that people find in friendship, family, work, and day-to-day life.  
     And then the line about his songs that’s stuck with me: “The verses are the blues, the chorus is the gospel.”

     You know people whose verses are full of the blues, don’t you? More than their share. Some of us meet them every week in our food pantry, hearing updates on lives characterized by struggle, health problems, age, addiction, insecurity, and fear. Some are strangers here, immigrants bewildered by the system they have to navigate to enjoy what I take for granted because of the accident of my birth. Some need help with food because of the cost of medications that sustain their lives — lives they wonder if there’s much reason to sustain. 
     Some of us meet folks singing blues-filled verses in the nursing homes they visit each week. They sing and pray and speak words of comfort and hope from Scripture to people whose spirits are imprisoned in failing bodies, who have no one to care for them, whose only visit each week are from those of us willing to sacrifice  a Sunday afternoon to listen to them, smile at them, laugh with them.
     We hear colleagues at work or school singing the blues of alienated families, lost marriages, financial setbacks, health issues, and grief. Closer to home, our hearts break hearing our kids sing the blues, our parents. We hear the blues from our neighbors, or from high school or college friends on our social media feeds. They dominate the headlines, sung in unfamiliar languages by people we don’t know. But we know the blues when we hear them. 
     That’s because we know the blues ourselves. Job, the ultimate bluesman, once pointed out, “Mortals, born of woman, are of few days  and full of trouble.” He may have been depressed when he came up with that, and there is much more to a life than the trouble he bemoans. But he wasn’t wrong, was he? That’s a song we can identify with. Even when we have it good, when life is going well, we know the blues are lurking. Maybe not in this verse, but quite possibly in the next one. Or the one after that.
     When the verses of your life are the blues, there are a few ways you can go. One is to whistle a happy tune anyway, plastering on a fake smile and singing Don’t Worry, Be Happy, or Keep on the Sunny Side while everything around you is Hurt. Sometimes that’s our impulse in the church, that we shouldn’t feel pain or disappointment or anger or fear, that somehow to acknowledge the darkness is to turn away from the light. That’s a mistake. The light shines in the darkness, John’s Gospel says. 
     The darkness is real, but it doesn’t snuff out the light. That’s the other mistake: to believe that the blues are all there is. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it. The darkness is real, but the light’s still there. The verses of our life are the blues, sometimes at the very least. We have loss and grief and pain and disappointment, and it’s easy to sing about that in a loop. But don’t forget that there's a chorus, and our chorus is the gospel.

     While I was writing this, I got a call that my great-aunt, Mozelle Payne, had died. She was my maternal grandmother’s last living sister, 98 years old. I always called her Aunt Mozie, and I guess I was a teenager before it dawned on me that she was actually my great-aunt. Aunt Mozie had a long life, but it wasn’t always easy. Its verses had their share of the blues about them. Her children had lifelong health problems. She had her own struggles. But I never saw Mozie that she didn’t smile and hug me. She wasn’t afraid to acknowledge the hardships and grief in her life, but she faced all of it with hope, courage, and joy. 
     She knew the chorus, and that made the difference.
     It will make the difference for you and me, too. Seems like our world is about getting rid of the blues. If we elect the right party, “cancel” the right people, call out enough injustice, then we won’t have to sing the blues anymore. Or is it eating right, exercising, and taking the right vitamins or essential oils or antioxidants? Or maybe we just need to be more tolerant. Or watch our children more closely. Or quit watching them so closely. Or arm ourselves. Or get rid of all the guns. 
     No. The chorus is the gospel. It’s the counterpoint to the blues in the verses of our lives. It draws our eyes and hearts upward to the hope that God has given us in Jesus. The blues are part of our lives, but the answer is neither to ignore them nor to wallow in them. The answer is to, periodically and regularly, sing the chorus.
     That’s the chorus there in Romans 8 — one version of it, anyway. There are many variations on it in the Bible and in the life of the church, but that one that Paul sang is pretty compelling. It reminds us not to sing the blues without singing the gospel. Hardship, trouble, grief, shame, violence, disease, death — all of that is real, but it can’t separate us from Christ’s love, from God’s love as experienced through Jesus. The blues are real, but so is God’s love.

      So may we sing the blues when we need to, and may we care enough about each other to sing them together. But may we then sing the chorus of the gospel even louder, and may the tears of our joy mingle with and finally wash away the tears of our sorrow.