Light and darkness

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23).

Given our modern understanding of light and vision, we probably think of our eyes more as windows than as lamps. We know very well that our eyes do not produce light; they relay to the brain information that has come to light in the immediate vicinity. However, Jesus does not choose to teach us details of optics or biology. He chooses to warn us about how we use our eyes.

“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” How can we know where our treasure is? Our eyes tell us where our treasure is. Our treasure is what we look at most often and most intently. Where our eyes spend the most time, there we have put our hearts.

If we pay more attention to the wealth of this world than to God’s eternal kingdom, then our treasure is in this world and our hearts are in this world. If our eyes can see only the things of this world, then we are living in darkness. We are blind to the things that matter most.

The wealth that blinds us is not always measured in dollars. If some other person in this world is the one thing we want to see all the time, we are still in darkness. If our goal is fun and entertainment, if it is power over others, or even if it is a worthy cause to make this world a better place, we remain in darkness. If we are looking most at our own thoughts or our own feelings, trusting most what we understand best or what uplifts us to the greatest heights, then we walk in darkness.

Even if we look at the good things we do for God, we still remain in darkness. Our help for others, our prayers, our fasting—all these things we do with God in mind. When we do these things for our own sake, or to be honored by the people of this world, then we travel in darkness.

We spend most of our lives in darkness, because our eyes are focused on ourselves and on the world around us. God has a blessing for us, though. His light shines into our darkness, and our eyes are opened to the kingdom of heaven. We see Jesus, and we learn what he has done for us. We see his blessings and learn about his gifts of forgiveness and eternal life. We see the Light, and Jesus himself rescues us from the blindness that we had brought upon ourselves.

When we ignore Jesus and allow him to be eclipsed, we stumble in the darkness. God does not want to leave us lost in the darkness. Christ chooses to sine into our darkness; he chooses to bring us back to the Light. J.

Advent thoughts: December 13

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given….” (Isaiah 9:2, 6—read Isaiah 9:1-7).

We all began in darkness. We all started as enemies of God, blind to his truth, unable to comprehend the things God was saying to us. Our nature was to be selfish, to demand what we wanted when we wanted it, to be unconcerned about the inconvenience we caused anyone else. We were at the center of the world. We were our own gods, and we demanded that everyone worship us and serve us.

It is one thing to teach people to be polite, to say “please” and “thank you,” to have good manners both in public and at home. But good manners do not dispel the darkness. They may hide our selfishness from others, but they do not cause our selfishness to disappear. Only the light can dispel the darkness. Only the light can clear away sin and cause people to be truly loving, true servants to God and to their neighbors.

That light has come. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome the light. Whenever light and darkness battle, light wins. It is the nature of light to shine and to remove darkness. It is the nature of darkness to be beaten whenever it confronts the light.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. He is not born only to Mary and Joseph; he is not given only to the two of them. He is born to all of us. The angel told the shepherds, “A Savior has been born to you.” As Mary represents all the believers of Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church in declaring herself to be the handmaiden of the Lord, so she is in the place of all believers when she gives birth to her first-born Son. For the timeless Son of God was born once in time to redeem people from every time, beginning with Adam and Eve and continuing to the last child conceived before Christ appears in glory to make everything new.

When Handel wrote music for these words of Isaiah, he put a musical pause between Wonderful and Counselor. They belong together as one name: Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor who tells us the truth we need to know because he is the Truth. He deserves our wonder, our awe, our amazement at who he is and at what he has done for us. Because he has redeemed us, we now receive his counsel to guide our lives and to grant us eternal life.

He is also the Mighty God. The child lying in the manger is running the universe at the very same time. All things are possible for him, but he only does the things that are right, that match his Law, that benefit the people around him. When Jesus began to work miracles, he only worked them for other people in need. He fed thousands in the wilderness; but when he was hungry, he did not feed himself. He healed others, but he allowed himself to be arrested and beaten and killed. He stopped storms, but he did not stop the crowd from arresting him or the Roman solders from mocking him.

He is the Everlasting Father. In the timelessness of God, relations are changeable, so the Bride of Christ can also give birth to him. We are all children of God through the work of Jesus, making Christ our Father as well as our Brother. Because he is the Son of God, God calls us sons—we are adopted into his family through Christ’s work. Because we are children of the Church, Christ’s Bride, Jesus is our Father just as his Father has become our Father.

He is the Prince of Peace. His entry into this world meant war with the devil and with the sinful world and with sin in general, but Jesus won that war. We started out in darkness as enemies of God, but through redemption God has made peace with us. That peace is Shalom—not merely an absence of conflict, but the presence of goodness: a place for everything and everything in its place. Peace is not boring: it is harmony like a symphony orchestra; it is a blend of colors like a painting or like a flower garden.

All this Jesus has done for us. He is all these things to us. Because of what he has done, Jesus has claimed us for his kingdom, and we belong to him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

The autumnal equinox has passed. When the alarm goes off in the morning, it is still dark outside. Darkness falls again soon after supper, so my evening reading and writing is done with the help of electric lights. The darkness contributes to the melancholy feeling I have about some other changes that happened in my life this month.

For the last ten years, I have been an adjunct instructor for a two-year college. I have taught at a branch campus of a state university; the branch is located on military property. Some of my students have been active military personnel; some retired from the military; some spouses or children of military personnel; and some simply nearby residents taking a college class. I have had students old enough to remember the day President Kennedy was shot; I have had students too young to remember the day that terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. I’ve heard many anecdotes about military life including events in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I began by teaching a course in World Religions since my degrees were in the field of religion. Most of my classes have been a survey of world history. Two nights a week for sixteen weeks I have guided students from the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China, right up to current events. Some of my students have said that they never liked history until they took my class. Others have contributed to the class by sharing personal experiences in other cultures, things they’ve been taught in other classes, and things they’ve picked up from the Internet. I hope that among my dozens of students over the last ten years, a good number have gained not merely a few new facts but a way of learning about history that helps them lead more informed and interesting lives.

My summer class and fall classes this year were canceled due to low enrollment. The administration of the state university has been promoting online learning, and it appears that we have reached the point where more students would rather learn online than in the classroom. I’m not opposed to the latest technology, but when it comes to teaching history, I prefer the classroom experience. I like to see the facial expressions and body language of the people I am teaching. I like the conversations before and after class that cover many things not related to the subject matter of the class. I like seeing students interact with one another.

This week I told the school to keep my name off the spring listing of classes. I don’t know yet whether I have taught my last college class, but the burden of preparing a class, then having it canceled at the last moment, is one I want to avoid for a while.

Meanwhile, I am driving a different car. For the last fifteen years I have been driving a 1999 Ford Escort. It had about 50,000 miles on the odometer when I bought it; it now has more than 210,000 miles. The air conditioner hasn’t worked for years, and this fall a faulty sensor started causing a warning light to flicker on and off. In a recent post I described my Escort as “a common Ford to carry me home.” I suspect that the reference to the spiritual song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” went past many of my readers.

My parents bought a Ford Granada when I was in high school. I learned how to drive on that car. When I graduated college, they gave me the car as a gift. A few years later I had the chance to buy a Mercury Sable in good condition from an elderly couple who no longer needed two cars. I sold the Granada to a man who lived on the same street as me, attended the same church, and needed a car. The Sable served well for many years, but I ended up buying the Escort fifteen years ago and selling the Sable to a high school girl who was getting her first car. The very same day I bought my current car, my daughter went to her job and heard a fellow employee say that he needed to acquire a car quickly. She told him about my Escort, he came by the house the next morning, test drove it, handed over five hundred dollars, and drove away.

The first car I test drove from the used car lot was a Ford Focus. It seemed OK when I drove it. However, before deciding on the car I asked to check the trunk. Last month two of my daughters were stranded by the side of the rode in a remote place for two hours because they had a flat tire. Although my daughter had owned the car for two years, she did not realize that there was no spare tire and no jack in the trunk. A call to 911 did not get help to them; eventually they found the number for the county sheriff and got the help they needed. Anyhow, when I opened the trunk of the Focus, I found no spare tire and sitting rainwater in the tire well. That ended my interest in the Focus.

The salesman suggested that I test drive a 2004 Honda Accord. It also handled well, it had a spare tire and no water in the trunk, and he dropped the price $1000 to match what he had been asking for the Focus. I went home that Saturday afternoon, did some research on the Accord, called him Monday to say I would buy the car, and drove it home on Tuesday. I’ve had more than a week to get used to it, and I am comfortable with the car. My Escort had a radio with a cassette tape deck, but my Accord has two radios—one with a CD player, which probably came with the car when it was new, and another with lots of lights and buttons that I don’t understand at all. It is set to a local station I enjoy, so I have not done much experimenting with it.

Though it seems strange after all these years to be in a different car—one that is not a Ford—I’m sure that I made the right decision. After all the book of Acts says several times that the first Christians were in one Accord, and what was good enough for them should be good enough for me. J.

Where were you when the lights went out?

Several unanticipated problems arose this afternoon when electric power failed at the local shopping mall. Fortunately nobody was hurt, and order was eventually restored.

The restaurants in the food court of course could not cook more food. One fast food establishment had some sandwiches and salads already prepared, but financial transactions were still difficult without use of the cash registers. Eventually, the manager discovered that one of his recently-hired workers was home schooled and was able to calculate correct change in her head, so the food was sold before it spoiled.

Emergency lights came on in the main corridors of the mall, but the rear sections of many stores were shrouded in darkness. One customer, trapped in darkness in a dressing room, mistakenly put on three pairs of pants in his confusion. Eventually he found his way out of the dressing room. When the magnitude of the problem was realized, store employees and regular customers all over the mall began using their cell phones as flashlights to rescue those customers who were trapped in the darkness. One helper spent fifteen minutes trying to comfort a woman apparently frozen in terror in the darkness. When a second helper arrived, the two of them discovered that the first helper had been consoling a mannequin.

Some customers became confused about which store was which in the darkness. A number of men of various ages stumbled in and out of Victoria’s Secret, claiming that they were trying to find the tools department of J. C. Penney.

Most traumatized were the people trapped on the mall’s escalators. Security was able to assist those who were near the top or bottom of an escalator when the power went out, but those trapped in the middle had to wait nearly two hours for electricity to be restored.

Happy April Fools’ Day to all, and to all a good night. J.

Is depression sinful?

I have been out of the dark days long enough that I can begin to look back at my depression with an analytic mind. I still remember waking up in the morning and regretting it, dreading the coming day. I remember driving across bridges and studying the rail, wondering if it was possible to flip the car over the rail and down into the river. I remember using coffee as a drug to get started in the morning, and using whiskey or gin as a drug to fall asleep at night. I remember ignoring advice about saving for retirement because I did not expect or intend to live that long.

Some people say that depression is sinful. (I did some internet surfing to fact-check this statement. Some sites are pretty harsh about depression and anxiety, calling them sinful choices and not treatable illnesses.) They quote verses such as Hebrews 13:5-6, Philippians 4:6, and I Peter 5:7 as evidence that, when a person has depression, that person is sinning. I respond that depression, like anger, is not a sin. But depression, like anger, is a powerful temptation to sin. People who have depression are likely to make sinful choices that confound their families and their friends. Depression is not something they choose for themselves; depression is something that happened to them.

Being sad for a few days is not depression. Mourning a loss for a time is not depression. Depression is lingering darkness of the mind and heart. Depression is absence of hope. Depression is desire for destruction, the lack of will to continue living. Depression can lead to suicide. It can lead to other forms of self-harm, including cutting one’s body, abusing alcohol and other drugs, or trying to reinvent one’s self. Depression might cause a person to quit school, to leave a rewarding job, to refuse all invitations to spend time with friends, or to make damaging self-revelations on social media.

Depression is an illness—or, to be more accurate, depression is a symptom that something is wrong. Many causes can lead to depression. They include poor nutrition, lack of sleep or of exercise, and abuse of drugs or alcohol. (Yes—substance abuse can be a cause of depression or a result of depression. It can be both, creating a vicious spiral.) Depression can be the result of a chemical imbalance in the body. It can be a symptom of an illness or a side effect of the treatment for an illness.  Depression can be caused by ongoing stress or by childhood trauma, whether remembered or forgotten. Depression can have genetic causes, as people from some families are predisposed toward depression. Depression can be caused by spiritual problems, such as feeling guilt over one’s sins. Often depression is the result of several of these causes rather than only one of them.

Because depression has many possible causes, different things help different people to battle depression. Medication is helpful to some people but not to others. Counseling helps some people but not others. Prayer and meditation help some people but not others. Finding new hobbies or ways to be active helps some people but not others. When a person has persevered through depression and now feels better, those things that helped that one person might not be any help to another person who has depression.

When one has depression, other peoples’ hope and joy can seem like illusions. Optimists appear oblivious to reality. After all the world is a terrible place, stained by sin, and people with depression find it easy to believe that they are the only ones who see things as they really are. When someone else tries to correct their perspective, that helpful friend is likely to be told that he or she just doesn’t understand.

 Even if it appears to outsiders that a person with depression has chosen to be that way and to stay that way, accusing that person of sinning is not helpful. A sense of guilt has never helped a person shake off depression; being made to feel guilty only worsens the problem. The book of Job is a classic study in depression. Job’s friends were right to sit with him and comfort him with their presence. They were wrong to challenge his perceptions and to tell him that he was causing his own problems. God never told Job why Job was allowed to suffer, but God did say that Job’s friends were wrong and that they would be forgiven when Job prayed for them.

Being present with a person who has depression helps. Listening helps. Caring helps. Judging, arguing, and accusing do not help. Depression is connected to sin, but depression itself is not sinful. Depression is a result of living in a world polluted by sin and evil, just as influenza and cancer and broken bones are results of living in a world polluted by sin and evil. Rather than accepting all these problems, the better approach is to find solutions for these problems, whether or not those solutions include medication, counseling, or prayer. Thanking God for every kind of help he provides, we each do our best to be productive in our own lives and helpful to those around us. J.

One thousand days of darkness

It seems that the Mayans were right. They predicted that the world would end in December 2012. (OK—I know that they did not really predict that. Play along with me here.) They only missed by a few weeks. I guess it was obvious to them that the ending should take place at the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. To come so close to the actual end so many centuries before the actual event is incredibly accurate prognostication.

The second half of 2012 would have been rotten for me even without a Mayan prediction. Murphy’s Gremlins were unusually busy from the end of the summer through the autumn. Automobile breakdowns required towing and expensive repairs, computers failed and needed to be replaced, appliances broke down and needed repairs, and all of this cost money. I am still paying interest to the credit card companies because of the bills that had to be paid at that time.

But money is only money. When the darkness fell, it was about more than mere dollars and cents. Gradually, increasingly, nothing seemed right with the world. Life had lost its meaning. Existence was just a matter of getting from one day to the next.

I had been through dark times before. When I was in school, there were weeks when I was discouraged and the whole business of life seemed pointless. Somehow, without anybody’s help, I pulled through those times and kept on going. Later, when work got busy and did not let up, I felt the darkness again. One friend sent me a box of chocolate which helped—the thoughtfulness and the candy both brought cheer. As the years went by, I noticed that December and Christmas always had their layer of gloom, and I considered the possibility that I had developed Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). I fought back with Vitamin D pills and exercise. Somehow I survived.

Then came a time when I was riding a wave of success. My writing was getting published, and I was making public appearances, even on television. Other people were interested in what I had to say. I wondered at times how long the good feelings would last and how bad the crash would be when it came. For more than a year, life seemed to be good, and I was basking in the sunshine with pleasure.

The crash happened. The good feelings fled. I was left with a sense of irretrievable loss. When I thought things might be improving, they failed to improve. Songs on the radio reminded me how miserable I was. I was able to write about it, and that helped a little, but only a little. It seemed that the sun had gone out of my life forever.

I handled my depression poorly. I self-medicated by drinking, which of course only made things worse. Finally, after two years of darkness, I was honest with my family doctor about what was happening inside me. He started me on medication, and I also began counseling. Finally, after a lifetime of struggle, I was able to admit that I am anxious and depressed and cannot handle these afflictions on my own.

Are things better today? In some ways, yes. The medicine and the counseling are helping. Progress is happening. I am aware of people who struggle with far greater afflictions than mine. After all, I have not missed a day of work through this time of darkness. I have kept it hidden from most of those who see me several times a week.

Today marks one thousand days of darkness. I cannot say that the darkness ends at one thousand days; there may be a day one thousand and one. With God’s help, though, I am stronger than all this garbage. I can and I should pull through and find my way into the light again.

J.