Happy…I Mean Holy New Year!

I saw something on Facebook the other day that caught my attention.  It was a challenge to select a person you know, and starting January 1, to pray for their happiness every day for a month.  Sounds like a good idea.  I knew immediately who I would choose.  This person has been through a season of sorrow and she could do with some happiness about now.  And just as quickly, I had another thought.  This one had to be from the Holy Spirit because I could not have come up with this on my own, at least not as quickly.  “Instead of praying for her happiness, pray for her holiness.”  Of course!  That is a much better prayer.  

God is not as concerned with our happiness as He is with our holiness.  If you look at a Bible concordance you will find that the word “holy” is used 650 times in The New American Standard Bible.  I did a quick search and found that “happy’ is used a mere16 times, and the word “happiness” is used only four!  Clearly God is emphasizing holiness.

Now there is nothing wrong with happiness, and I suppose happiness can be defined in many different ways.  I know I am happy when I am surrounded by my family, and as a mom, I am happy when they are happy.  For some people happiness may lie in material possessions: money in the bank, a big house, a fancy car….you can fill in the blank here.  Again there is nothing wrong with nice things, but I see many people in my psychology practice who have all of those things but they are not happy.

For many of us happiness lies in “if only” and the “as soon as.”  If only I had my health I could be happy.  I will be happy as soon as I get that job, find someone to love, graduate and get that degree, lose twenty pounds, and so on.  If only I had more money, a new car, or no mortgage.  We wish our lives away waiting for that thing, person, or situation that will make us happy.  Or we spend our lives looking in the rear view mirror, regretting our choices and blaming our unhappiness on the decisions we made.  I am not saying that is wrong because most of us have regrets. And we are all only one bad decision away from messing up our lives and throwing happiness away.  But defining your happiness or lack thereof on the things we should have done or wish we hadn’t done is a waste.  If only things were different we could be happy.  I’m thinking of two widows I know who miss their husbands every day of their lives.  One has chosen to find joy and purpose, the other cannot find good in anything and is just waiting to die.

Where is God when I am unhappy?  When I grieve, when I hurt?  Doesn’t He care about my needs?  I believe He does, but I also believe His primary concern is for my spiritual needs. God is not some kind of cosmic Santa Claus standing before me to hear my wish list.  Instead, I stand before Him, aware of my utter neediness and spiritual poverty.  Without Christ and the salvation He brings, I have nothing but a death sentence hanging over my head.  Jesus came to bring me right standing with God and everlasting life.  So even if I had nothing more than that (and that is a lot!), I should be happy.  Jesus said He offers abundant life, so shouldn’t that abundance include happiness?

If God cares so much about us, why do we go through seasons of anguish?  Try to get a mental picture of what is making you unhappy, sad, and stricken with grief.  An unhappy marriage, estrangement from a loved one, a financial loss, bad news from the doctor…whatever it is.  Now picture that thing as a giant anvil and imagine God has placed you upon it and is chiseling away everything that does not look like Jesus.  That is holiness in the making!  

Are happiness and holiness mutually exclusive?  In the 1600s a man named Thomas Brookswrote at length about the connection between happiness and holiness.  He claimed that happiness and holiness were one in the same.  That the only way to true happiness is throughholiness.  Matthew Henry later wrote that only those who are truly holy can be truly happy.  When I started thinking about these things, I recalled stories about those who have been imprisoned and martyred for their faith.  The apostle Paul and Corrie and Betsy ten Boom come to mind.  Every December I do advent readings, and those usually include letters Deitrich Bonhoeffer wrote from prison.  In a letter to his beloved Maria he wrote: “I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas.”  How could he say that from a prison cell?  He knew the happiness of celebrating Christmas with empty hands but a full heart.

Every year at this time I look for a verse or a word to claim for the New Year.  I think my word will be holiness because God keeps brining it to my attention. I’m guessing I will go through another refining period. And as I think of all holiness means I realize I have much to learn.  I’ll keep you posted.

PUTTING THINGS IN ORDER

Last night I did something different, something I have needed to do for a long time.  Together with some of my friends I began a three-week class called “What Do I Do Now?”  It’s a class that not only gives you a great deal of information about what to do when a loved one dies, it helps you organize everything you need and get it into one place.

 

I promised myself four years ago that I would get things together because that was when Jerry suddenly became very ill and was unable to communicate.  In addition to being gravely worried about him, there were things I needed to take care of.  Life doesn’t stop when someone becomes very ill or dies.  There was information I needed from him about bank accounts, passwords, and ongoing business transactions.  I needed to access the contents of his briefcase but I didn’t know the combination.  With the help of my daughters I muddled along and happily, Jerry recovered.  I wish I could tell you I followed through on my resolution, but once the crisis was past so was the urgency to get things done. This year we have been more intentional and have made inroads, but there is still much to be accomplished.  So when this class became available I enrolled.

 

I have to tell you the first night was overwhelming.  I am surprised at my reaction, because I wanted to bolt!  The facilitator told us at the beginning of her lesson that last night would be the hardest.  “What could be so hard,” I wondered.  I’m still asking myself that question this morning.  Why was my reaction so strong?  This is just taking care of details.

 

I think it’s a combination of facing my own mortality, revisiting the possibility that I might lose my husband, all the decisions that will have to be made about what to do with my physical remains, my earthly possessions, and even my dogs.  Things I guess I am still not wanting to think about. But the harsh reality is that one day Jerry and I will die.  “Pass away” sounds so much nicer, but that’s just semantics.  We will leave this earth behind and enter into the presence of Jesus. That’s the good news.  The bad news is there will be hard things to do in the aftermath.  If I go first I want to make things easier for Jerry and my girls, so it will be helpful to have things done in advance.  And if he goes first I want to make things easier for me, so having everything in one notebook will help.

 

This year I am doing a Bible study of the book of Daniel.  Instead of approaching the book from a prophetic standpoint, our study is focusing on the sovereignty of God.  “God is in control,’ is our overarching theme.  So in my lesson this morning I was challenged to consider areas of my life that make me anxious, and write a Bible truth that corresponds to the situation.  I didn’t have to think too long.  My notebook from last night was sitting on my desk in plain view.  The verse I wrote is one of my favorites, Isaiah 41:10:

 

Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will hold on to you with my righteous right hand. (CSV).

 

I might need to tattoo that verse on my right hand.  (Don’t worry kids, I won’t!)  God’s promise brings my anxiety level way down.  It is wise to be prepared, but ultimately God is in control. He knows the road ahead of me, and He will walk it with me.     

 

 

NECESSARY LOSSES

Dropping Off at College: Freshman Year

 

This is one of my favorite times of the year to look at social media.  Facebook and Instagram are loaded with back to school pictures…from first day at preschool to first day of college.  There have even been some leaving-home-for-first-job pictures.  Keep them coming!  These pictures are always bittersweet.  I especially love the pictures that show the goodbye hugs, the tears, and the looks on faces of both parent and child.  There have even been some blog posts about the struggle of letting go, trusting God with your child no matter what age they are.  We keep having to put our babies back in the basket and float them into the future God has for them.

 

I’ve been thinking about this letting go thing for some time now, and it is a continual theme in my office. I’ve decided that life is a succession of losses, one letting go after another.  And oh how we hate that letting go.  It’s been many years since I have read Judith Viorst’s book, Letting Go.  I’m remembering the central tenant of the book is that life presents us with a series of losses that are necessary to our growth and development.  These losses include the loss of a mother’s protection, the losses of impossible expectations for our lives, the loss of our younger selves (OUCH!), and the loss of loved ones through separation or death. Trying to hold on is futile, but we still hang on, sometimes desperately.  

 

I’ve been trying to think of an analogy that demonstrates the struggle involved in letting go.  Try to picture your seven-year old self with both fists full of coins.  You have been collecting and saving those coins, maybe for something special. These coins are yours, and you finally have enough to fill both of your tightly clenched hands.  Now suppose a stranger comes along and offers you two handfuls of diamonds.  But in order to receive these diamonds you have to let go of your coins.  Maybe as a seven-year old, you don’t realize the value of diamonds.  And you are very suspicious of this stranger.  He might not have your best interest at heart.  So you refuse the offer and keep your coins.  But you have done so at the expense of great treasure.

 

At the heart of letting go is loss of control.  We think if we hold on we can protect and keep.  But control is just an illusion.  We only have control over our choices, not the outcome.  We can exercise, eat the right foods, have regular checkups, and faithfully brush our teeth, but cancer may get us anyway.  As for letting go of our children, that was the whole goal from the beginning.  You do your best as a parent.  You provide them with all the basics and many of the luxuries.  You try your best to teach them to be kind and respectful, to be contributing members of society, and to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.  But the window of time for this training is brief.  When you look at eighteen years in the rear view mirror, it seems like it went by so fast.  And it goes by even faster with grandchildren!  We have to remind ourselves over and over that those children we poured ourselves into were never ours to begin with.  They belong to God and were on loan to us for a short time. We also must remember that God loves them even more than we do.  I remember a long-ago conversation with God when I heard Him say, “How can I be God in her life if you keep trying to be God?”  Moms and dads, here is a little secret: The empty nest is also wonderful.  Seeing your baby hold her baby is priceless!  Watching your son teach his son how to hit a baseball is special!  You wouldn’t want to miss out on that.  Growing old with the man you have loved for a lifetime is a hard-to-put-into-words blessing.  We need to understand that there are different kinds of good. Holding on to what is already gone keeps us stuck, and it keeps us from enjoying our new chapters, new seasons. You will get through this, and a year from now things may look entirely different (see photos above and below.)

 

There are daily losses I must reckon with, and more losses to come.  A look in the mirror is a reminder.  I now know from experience that every loss comes with a gain, a hidden gift.  But oh how I hate losing firm skin!  Even the worst of losses, the death of a loved one or our own death, is a necessary loss.  We try to hold on to people, positions, possessions, and even our own lives, but these are things that keep us earthbound.  I need to open my hands and let go of the coins because diamonds await!

 

To everything there is a season…a time to get and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to cast away.  Ecc. 3: 6.

 

Dropping Off at College: Sophomore Year

 

 

HYDRANGEAS AND QUIET TIMES

 

I have to give my sister credit for this one.  We were talking on the phone a few mornings ago.  She is in New York visiting her daughter, my niece, Jacque.  Apparently the part of New York where my niece lives (Long Island) produces hydrangeas in abundance.  I can’t even get mine to bloom!  My sister told me that Jacque went into the yard one afternoon to cut some hydrangea blossoms, and brought them into the house and put them in a vase of water.  They quickly drooped, and by the next morning they were gone.  That is when my sister gave Jacque a tip our grandmother had given us. She always cut her roses in the morning and quickly put them in the bucket of water she carried.  Jacque followed this procedure the next morning and the hydrangeas lasted for days.

 

I became curious about why this technique works so well.  I’m so glad I live in the Google age, because one can research anything. And I can’t pick up the phone and call my grandmother anymore.  It seems that early morning is the best time to cut flowers because they have had the benefit of a cooler night and their stems are full of water and carbohydrates. As the day heats up, flowers lose moisture, their stems are less firm, and the blooms become limp.  They have a hard time recuperating when they are cut and brought into the house.

 

So as my sister and I were talking about our grandmother’s advice, she pointed out the parallel of having a quiet time early in the morning, before the day heats up.  I know my day goes better when I start it with the Bible and a conversation with God.  And many times, if I don’t do it in the morning it just doesn’t happen. There are too many distractions during the day.  I am reminded of the last part of Proverbs 8:17: those who seek me early shall find meThere are other places in Scripture that encourage us to be still and alone with God before our day gets hectic. 

 

I knew there had to be a physiological reason why God would tell us to seek Him early.  So again I did a little research on one of my favorite subjects, the brain.  I found out that our brains are actually bigger in the morning!  Researchers using MRI scans found that the brain shrinks during the course of the day, returning to its full size the next morning.  What causes the brain to shrink?  Dehydration!  Just like hydrangeas, the brain loses water during the day.  And at night our brains rehydrate.  Think of a sponge.  When it is dry it is not nearly as big (or useful) as it is when it is fully hydrated. One theory of this mechanism is that fluids from the lower parts of our bodies are redistributed when we are lying down.  Another explanation is that the time of day has something to do with hydration.

 

Our brains are about 85% water, and brain function depends on having that water.  Water is necessary for the brain’s production of hormones and neurotransmitters, and essential for removing toxins.  When our brains are fully hydrated, we are able to think faster, be more focused, and experience greater clarity and creativity.  We are more alert.  And who knows this better than the God who created our brains. Maybe that is why he encourages us to seek Him early, when we can concentrate, when we can fully attend His word, when we can hear Him.

 

Isn’t our God amazing?

 

“My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O LORD; in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up” – Psalms 5:3

 

 

 

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