The lost art of joy – Joy to the world

* MERRY CHRISTMAS *

Did St Nicholas visit you last night? I think I must have been on the naughty list!

Yesterday, we looked at the origins of Santa Claus, and how the cultural icon that we have for our modern Christmas was actually built upon over time – from the Coke commercials of the 1930’s, which in turn were based on illustrations in a magazine in the 1880’s, which in turn was based on a poem written in the 1820’s, which in turn was inspired by the various tales and legends of 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

All of those were based on the life of Bishop Nicholas of Myra, who was later recognised as St Nicholas.

But the life of St Nicholas was in turn inspired by one man whose birth we celebrate today on December 25th*.

Whether you believe he is the Son of God or not, Jesus, the son of a carpenter from a back block of the Roman empire, undeniably changed the world. The influence of Christianity permeates our culture, from our calendar to our holidays to our systems of government and our democracy.

Jesus still has followers numbering in the billions all over the world, and his teachings on love, generosity and peace have inspired countless people spanning hundreds of generations to seek the best in others, to live for a purpose bigger than themselves. To give and to forgive, to go and to grow.

But even more so for those who believe that he is the Son of God, Jesus promises eternal life connected to God in heaven, which is the ultimate joy.

Jesus isn’t just for the rich and powerful, the famous, those who are ‘worthy’ of him. His promises of love, connection, and joy everlasting are available to everyone no matter how ordinary or poor or oppressed. That’s why, when Jesus was born, angels appeared to shepherds in the fields, not to the religious or political upper class.

In the gospel of Luke, it reads,

And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’

~ Luke 2:8-14

Yes indeed, the birth of Jesus was good news of great joy.

We celebrate Christmas because, 2000 years ago in a stable in the back blocks of the middle east, a baby was born, a baby who would grow into a man, a man whose influence inspired selfless giving and love through countless generations.

Whether it be through a life of devotion to God, or giving to a child overseas through a charity, or making a meal for those without a home, or even if it’s simply seen in the gifts left in a stocking by a jolly old man in a red suit, the love and generosity of Jesus still inspires joy now, and forevermore if you choose to believe.

Truly, joy to the world.

~~~

* I know … technically Jesus wasn’t born on the 25th of December. He was probably born in the middle of the year, sometime in the northern hemisphere summer, and the date of the 25th of December was chosen by the Roman Emperor Constantine in AD 336, in place of the celebration of the Pagan Sun god Mithra. The most important thing is that we remember and celebrate it 🙂

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The lost art of joy – St Nicholas

Santa Claus – c1881 and c1931

When you’re Santa Claus, kids will tell you anything.

When I was at University, I had a holiday job running children’s activities and games for parties, work functions and the like. One of the roles I got to do a few times was to don the Santa suit and ho-ho-ho for 20 minutes while asking all the kids what they wanted for Christmas. Though I found that some of the chattier kids weren’t just telling me that they wanted for Christmas, but what they did yesterday, and what they’re going to be when they grow up, and what mummy and daddy do at work, and where they live. Lucky my intentions weren’t nefarious! Quick tip – never tell children important information like credit card numbers if you don’t want the guy playing Santa to know as well.

Santa Claus is an enduring symbol of western Christmas celebrations, part of our modern cultural folklore. Santa is almost exclusively associated with joy – he’s kind, he brings gifts and he’s jolly with a deep belly laugh. He seeks goodness in people. As TV producer and Santa performer, Jonathan Meath said, “Santa is really the only cultural icon we have who’s male, does not carry a gun, and is all about peace, joy, giving, and caring for other people. That’s part of the magic for me, especially in a culture where we’ve become so commercialized and hooked into manufactured icons. Santa is much more organic, integral, connected to the past, and therefore connected to the future.”

So where did the notion of the modern Santa come from?

Modern cultural Santa, like most things in our modern world, was influenced by commercialisation. The modern image of Santa, a jolly fat man with a big white beard, in a red snow suit, comes from Coca Cola. In 1931, illustrator Haddon Sundblom created the image of Santa as we currently know him, and from 1931-1964, Sundblom created a new ad for Coke each year featuring the jolly old fat man.

Sundblom, in turn, took his inspiration for Santa Claus from the drawings of political cartoonist Thomas Nast. At the turn of the 20th century, several illustrators were drawing Santa Claus as a fat man with a beard, smoking a pipe. The inspiration for these pictures of Santa came from the work of Nast who between 1863 and 1883, published a drawing of Santa Claus every year in the magazine Harpers Weekly. Nast’s most popular, and most recognised rendition of Santa was published in early 1881.

Nast himself drew inspiration for his depictions of Santa Claus from the stories and traditions that preceded him in the early 1800’s, specifically the very famous poem, “A visit from St Nicholas”, or what is also known as “T’was the night before Christmas”. This poem was published in 1823. Around this time in history, writers and illustrators had begun to rediscover some of the old stories and were using them to tell stories about the gift-givers of Christmas.

Prior to the 1800’s, traditions of gift-giving were still very strong but in early 16th century Europe after the protestant reformation, the old stories and traditions became unpopular. So in the UK, particularly in England, he became ‘Father Christmas’ from stories plays during the middle ages in the UK and parts of northern Europe. In parts of Austria and Germany, the present giver became the ‘Christkind’ a golden-haired baby, with wings, who symbolizes the new born baby Jesus. In the early USA his name was ‘Kris Kringle’ (from the Christkind).

Dutch settlers to the USA took their tradition of ’Sinterklaas’ with them, and over time, Kris Kringle and Father Christmas became intertwined with Sinterklaas, which morphed to ‘Santa Claus’.

In turn, the origins of Sinterklaas, Father Christmas and Kris Kringle was St Nicholas.

So who was St Nicholas exactly? What’s known about St Nicholas was that he was born during the third century in the village of Patara, in Asia Minor (currently, modern Turkey). His parents raised him as a devout Christian but died when he was a child. His parents left him a significant inheritance, but instead of spending it on himself, Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. He died on the 6th of December AD 343.

There were many stories that make up the legend of St Nicholas, and certain miracles that were ascribed to him, which help explain the origins of the modern character of St Nicholas.

One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. The man was so poor, he could not pay a dowry so that his daughters, meaning that rather than get married, they would be sold into slavery. But on three different occasions, a bag of gold mysteriously appeared in their home – providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold were said to have been tossed through an open window to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry, hence the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes in readiness for gifts from Saint Nicholas.

Several stories tell of Nicholas and the sea. It is said that when he was young, Nicholas made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There as he walked where Jesus walked, he sought to more deeply experience Jesus’ life, passion, and resurrection. Returning by sea, a storm arose which threatened to wreck the ship. Nicholas calmly prayed, and the wind and waves suddenly calmed, sparing them all.

There’s a lot that we can learn from the original St Nicholas. He lived a life and taught others of the value of giving, of connection, of selfless kindness. In turn, all of these acts brought joy to those around him.

Christmas can also be a time for joy, not just for us, but for those around us, if we too can follow the lead of St Nicholas – being selfless, being kind, being generous, connecting with others.

Why we need Christ at the beginning of Christmas

ChristmasLights

The tinsel has been adorning shopping centres for weeks now, while houses glow with festive spirit and the rainbow of thousands of tiny bulbs.  And yet it’s only now, with Christmas less than a week away, that I’ve had enough of a chance to slow down and contemplate the place of Christmas in the world of 2015.

It’s certainly a different world now than it used to be.  I remember only a few years ago, the meaning of Christmas seemed to be drowning in a rampant flood of commercialism.  This year, the meaning of Christmas seems like it’s being assaulted by rampant secularism on one hand, and a terrorism-related pervading sense of apprehension on the other.

Jason Wilson recently wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian Australia.  The tone was a bit hubristic, but the conclusion was fair:

“It has long since stopped being a primarily religious event in Western culture, so the secular left does not need to be too concerned about reclaiming Christmas for themselves.  And the way to do that is to insist on the enactment of its deepest meaning for Christians and secularists alike, which is a radical generosity – to refugees, to those who do not share our faith (or lack thereof), and even to our political enemies.”

Wilson is right on both counts; Christmas is, and always has been about radical generosity, and Christmas has lost its traditional Christian roots.

What I’ve been pondering is whether it’s possible to have radical generosity without “Christ” as the first part of “Christmas”?

After all, Christmas is Christmas because of the ultimate example of radical generosity, the son of God giving himself as the ultimate sacrifice to a world who despised, tortured and killed him.  Whether you’re a Christian or an atheist, the moral of the Christmas story is a universal principle that we can all aspire to.

There’s also a lot more about Christmas that can inspire us, especially to those of us who do celebrate the deeper spiritual meanings of our Saviour’s birth.

Jesus taught that he was “the way, the truth and the life”.  It seems that the average western Christian has forgotten this fundamental.  Jesus gives life a direction, a unity of purpose that should fuse us together into a unified body, inspired by and continually pursuing the truth of the gospel.  Instead, it seems that we’re scattered, running in different directions like spooked horses, ignoring the common truth of the gospel and blindly accepting every alluring pseudo-profound notion, so long as it has a bit of out-of-context scripture mixed in.

Jesus also taught that he was the light of the world.  Paris, Kenya, Nigeria, the Lindt Café, or San Bernardino … it seems that we’re being overwhelmed by darkness.  Evil seems to be touching all corners of the globe at the hands of ISIS, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram, or just lone wolves with tar-pitch souls and itchy trigger fingers.  It seems that any one could be a victim of the new terrorism, that no one is ever truly safe.

The thing about darkness is it’s not a force of its own.  Darkness is only present because of an absence of light.  It’s human to fight darkness with more darkness – radical Muslims have waged war on the West, and it’s natural to retaliate against other Muslims.  But adding darkness to darkness doesn’t enlighten.  We need to add light.  As Christians, we need to be the light that Jesus shines into the darkest places.

It isn’t easy.  I’m certainly not going to pretend that I have it all worked out, or put myself up as a shining example of love and tolerance.

Not that anyone can do it all on their own either.  It takes thousands of little bulbs to light up a prize-winning Christmas-lights display.  And it takes all of us working as the body of Christ to overcome the darkness.  Whether your bulb is dull and flickering, or powering brightly, if we all give God our best, he will put us together to become the perfect display of his light.

This year, put your little light on display by putting Christ at the beginning of Christmas.

And have a very Merry Christmas (and a safe holiday season)!

Seven Elements of Good Mental Health: 6. Forgiveness – The Prospering Soul

Life shouldn’t just be about avoiding poor health, but also enjoying good health. Our psychological health is no different.

Before we take a look at poor mental health, let’s look at some of the ways that people can enjoy good mental health and wellbeing. This next series of posts will discuss seven elements that are Biblically and scientifically recognised as important to people living richer and more fulfilling lives.

These aren’t the only ways that a person can find fulfilment, nor are they sure-fire ways of preventing all mental health problems either. They’re not seven steps to enlightenment or happiness either.   But applying these principles can improve psychosocial wellbeing, and encourage good mental health.

6. Forgiveness

“You’d think after five months of lying on my back, I would have given up any idea of getting even, just be a nice guy and call it a day. Nice guys are fine: you have to have somebody to take advantage of… but they always finish last.”

Mel Gibson’s character spoke these words as an introduction to the movie “Payback.” It’s plot line sees him maim or kill every person linked in the chain of thugs and organised crime that ripped him off of his seventy thousand dollars. At the end of the movie, after he exacts the final revenge on the last villain, he drives off with a smile on his face, his money and his renewed romance. But if this was real life, would he have been happy, or would he have just been even?

It’s human nature to repay wrong with another wrong. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. If you hurt me, natural justice is fulfilled if I make you feel the same pain in return. So what choices do you have if someone hurts or wrongs you? Well, you could retaliate. You could plan retribution. Ask for recompense. Or simply push for recognition of your pain. Sometimes these strategies lead to resolution, but usually not immediately, and in order to stay motivated to achieve a delayed resolution, you have to keep reminding yourself of the pain caused to you, so that the effort you’re making will be worthwhile.

As the old proverb goes, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” If you hurt me, hurting you back doesn’t make my pain go away. It just adds more pain to the world, because I’m still in pain and now you’re in pain. Then you’ll want to hurt me back, and the cycle escalates. Francis Bacon said, “A man that studieth revenge keeps his own wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.” In other words, you may be able to bring about retribution, but during the process, you’ll end up keeping your own wounds open and festering, instead of letting them close and heal. It’s like someone cut you with a knife, and if order to show them what damage they did to you, you keep reopening the wound every few days. The wound may look open and fresh should they ever care to notice, but you’re the one who had to put up with an open wound for an extended time, and re-live the pain every time you reopened it.

Interestingly, research tend to support this notion. One study showed that when subjects were asked to think of reacting aggressively to a given scenario, parts of the limbic system in their brains increased in activity. This isn’t unsurprising, given that our brain subconsciously prepares us all the time for fight or flight responses when it starts to sense danger, in preparation for possible action. What was more interesting is that it also reduced the activity of the subjects frontal lobes as well. As discussed by Worthington and colleagues, “Thus, one implication might be that negative emotion acts antagonistically toward reasoning. This suggests that reasoning is disrupted by anger and that imaginally rehearsing angry and aggressive mental scenarios (i.e., ruminating angrily) could (a) catapult one into negative emotive responding and (b) shut down rational approach and calm emotions. Imagery as well as verbal rumination might stimulate similar effects.” [1]

The other option is a particular form of acceptance, which we know as forgiveness. Forgiveness, the act of moving on from insult or injustice, a actually a complex psychological process. There have lots of studies looking at different aspects of forgiveness, but without getting bogged down in details, forgiveness helps to rebalance things. People who forgive habitually tend to also have lower systolic, diastolic blood pressure, and individual acts of forgiveness and lower hostility predicted lower stress levels, which in turn predicted lower self-reported illness, a strong mediator being reduced negative affect (a “bad mood”) was the strongest mediator between forgiveness and physical health symptoms, although they also noted other variables such as spirituality, social skills, and lower stress also had a role in the forgiveness-health relationship [2].

I understand that talking about forgiveness can bring up some deep and difficult feelings in some people. Just like physical wounds, some are shallow and heal quickly, but others are inflicted so deep that they’re hard to heal – severe trauma like rape, childhood abuse, domestic violence and other deep psychological insults. It’s important to clarify here that memories of such traumatic events often intrude into your conscious awareness, where it replays in your memory, but not of your own volition. That’s different to unforgiveness and rumination, which are memories which we foster and encourage. Forgiveness is still a part of the healing process of these severe traumas, but the healing process may take longer, and the process of finding that forgiveness may require a professional to help walk through the process. If you’ve been the victim of a severe trauma, you don’t need to go it alone. Find a psychologist or talk to your doctor if you’re not sure.

For the Christian, forgiveness is at the very core of the entire life of faith we lead. God forgave us, and we can enjoy that forgiveness if we choose to move away from a life enslaved to sin. It is through the death of Jesus on the cross that we have this chance, and Jesus himself showed the ultimate in forgiveness when, as he hung dying on the cross, he forgave the soldiers that put him there. Throughout his ministry, he preached the same message – forgiveness is a central text of the Lords prayer, he told Peter that he should forgive someone “seventy times seven”, and he showed grace to those around him such as the woman caught in adultery. There are many more examples of forgiveness in the Bible as well.

I don’t know if there is any one particular best method to forgive. Apologies help [3], but they aren’t necessary to be able to forgive someone. Sometimes people find actually saying the words “I forgive you” to be a powerful release. That can be to a person directly, although that may not always go down well. Saying it internally is valid. Sometimes writing it in a letter, and then tearing it up as an act of finality, can be useful.

I hope that you can find it in your heart to forgive those in your life that have wronged you and continue to move forward. Remember, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and discover that the prisoner was you.” (Lewis B. Smedes)

References

[1]        Worthington EL, Jr., Witvliet CV, Pietrini P, Miller AJ. Forgiveness, health, and well-being: a review of evidence for emotional versus decisional forgiveness, dispositional forgivingness, and reduced unforgiveness. Journal of behavioral medicine 2007 Aug;30(4):291-302.
[2]        Lawler KA, Younger JW, Piferi RL, Jobe RL, Edmondson KA, Jones WH. The unique effects of forgiveness on health: an exploration of pathways. Journal of behavioral medicine 2005 Apr;28(2):157-67.
[3]        Strang S, Utikal V, Fischbacher U, Weber B, Falk A. Neural correlates of receiving an apology and active forgiveness: an FMRI study. PloS one 2014;9(2):e87654.

Prayer Proof?

In Wisconsin, USA, Leilani Neumann is found guilty of second degree reckless homocide of her 11-year-old daughter Kara.  During her recent trial, the prosecution alleged that she ignored the worsening symptoms of Kara’s undiagnosed diabetes for two weeks, and chose prayer instead of seeking medical advice.  Even during the last hours before Kara’s death, Leilani stood with her husband and Bible study members praying for her.  Witnesses said that it was only when the comatosed girl stopped breathing that someone called paramedics.  Neumann family supporters state that the trial was misconducted, without a single witness called for the defense, and an appeal is planned.

Across the other side of the US, Billy is a graduating student of the Bethel School of Ministry, in Redding, California.   He reported on a recent trip to Ecuador where he prayed for a seven year old boy with leg deformities from birth. It was hard for the boy to walk and impossible for him to run, which made him the target of taunts when he tried to play soccer.  Despite their best efforts, doctors had failed to correct the deformities.  Billy prayed for him three times, and after the third prayer, the boy said he saw “the hand of God come down” and touch him.  He took a few tentative steps, and his legs became straighter and straighter.  His mother tearfully confirmed that her previously lame son could now walk and run.  The last thing Billy saw as he was driving away from the crusade was the boy running up and down the car park, staring in wonder at his perfectly straight legs.

Same act of prayer, same God, but two contradictory results.  It is a conundrum that has confused the church for centuries.  Why does God answer some prayer with miracles, and why are some prayers for healing seemingly unanswered?  What is the effectiveness of prayer?

There have been some attempts to measure the effects of prayer scientifically.  One of the first published clinical trials of intercessory prayer was a 1988 study by Randolph Byrd.  Almost 400 patients over a period of time were randomized to receive prayer from born-again Christians, while the other half received no prayer.  The results showed a positive outcome for prayer in six of the twenty-nine variables observed.  Unfortunately, the study was plagued by problems in the construction of the trial, and many feel that the positive results were because of study bias, not the prayer itself.

There have been better studies since then.  The “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer” (“STEP”) was a well conducted trial that took 10 years and $US2.4 million.  1800 patients, all admitted to hospital for the same condition, were divided into three groups: one received prayer and knew they were prayed for, another group received prayer without knowing about it, and the last received no prayer.  The prayer was performed by committed Christians experienced in praying for the sick.  The results were not encouraging for intercessory prayer, with the two groups receiving prayer actually having poorer outcomes than those not prayed for.

On the surface this does little to help the dilemma of prayer for healing.  On deeper analysis, there may have been confounding factors.  Those in the control group (without prayer in the study) may have been praying themselves.  Or perhaps the answer to prayer in those studied came outside of the study’s parameters.  Perhaps God wants us to trust in him and his word, the raw power of faith, rather than in the science of a clean-cut clinical study that “proved” the benefits of prayer.  When it comes to the studying of prayer, Christians and clinicians have noted that prayer is not an easily quantifiable substance.  And neither is God for that matter.  When God works supernaturally, he works super-naturally, literally above the laws of nature.  Prayer, then, cannot be studied scientifically since the scientific method relies on observing and controlling variables within the natural order.

In fact, I personally think that God delights in performing miracles that are beyond our reasoning.  The miracles of Jesus provide many good examples – he placed mud, made out of the mixture of dirt and his saliva, onto a blind mans eyes.  He touched lepers.  He told Peter to find tax money in the mouth of a fish.  These sort of miracles perplex yet inspire us.  Scientifically quantifiable or not, they still move us to worship the greatness of God.

How do we find the wisdom to know when to choose medicine or miracle?  Two of Jesus’ miracles come to mind that might shed light on this delicate balance.  The woman with the issue of blood (Luke 8:43-48) had “spent all her living upon physicians, neither could be healed of any.”  She touched Jesus and was healed, and Jesus told her “thy faith hath made thee whole.”  The lame man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-9) waited patiently near the waters edge and tried as best he could to make it into the waters to be healed but was unable to get there by himself.  When Jesus told him to walk, he got up instantly and was healed.

Both stories are of people in need who didn’t wait passively for healing.  Each did whatever was in their power to find healing, and were at the point where their effort was not enough.  The woman pursued Jesus, whereas Jesus came to the man, but in both cases their faith engaged God and they received healing.  I think the same is true in modern day life.  Healing is by the grace of God.  We do nothing to earn it.  But like many things in the kingdom of God, we also need to ask, to seek and to knock.

I understand that my profession as a GP makes me a little biased, but the healing or prevention of many diseases is available simply by following modern medical advice, or by using simple therapies like vaccinations or antibiotics.  For Kara Neumann, the answer to prayer was in the insulin and fluids that doctors would have given her had they been called in time.  Perhaps it’s because we are so used to the benefits of medicine that we do not see immunizations or pharmaceuticals as miracles, or answers to prayer.  But imagine if you could go back in time one hundred years with some of todays basic medicines like penicillin.  You would be able to cure diseases like syphilis or pneumonia, in that time untreatable and fatal, and you would be labelled as a miracle worker.  Modern medicine is miraculous.

But when modern medicine cannot touch a sickness, either because of limited access to medicine or the limits of medical science itself, the “miraculous” can take place.  Like the boy in Ecuador, or the woman with the the issue of blood, physicians could not heal them, but God did, when personal faith touched his power and grace.

It would be absurd to stand outside in a thunderstorm and pray for God to shelter us when we could just walk inside our house.  In the same way, common sense dictates that we thank God for modern medicine and use it appropriately, because it is just as much a gift of God as our houses are.  Medicines sit along side the astounding phenomena of supernatural power that we define as “miraculous.”  And while the power of prayer may not be quantifiable or reproducible like modern pharmaceuticals, it is nevertheless tangible, just like the love of God that has provided them both.

(Originally published in Alive Magazine, June/July 2009)