Sunday, February 4, 2018

On Eagle's Wings

The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 40:21-31.

Kids are energy vampires. They never seem to tire but they leave me exhausted. I swear they are siphoning off my energy somehow. And when they have expended it all they don't take a break; they simply drop where they are are, like marionettes with their strings cut. They are awake one second and then asleep the next. I have lots of pictures of my kids sleeping where they dropped, crumpled in heaps, on sofas, on stairs, in high chairs. I have always envied their ability to get to sleep so fast. The problem is they just won't do it when you want them to. Try to get them to go to sleep on your schedule and they can come up with more ways to postpone it than a lawyer can reasons to delay a guilty client's trial. Have you noticed it's mostly when they are asleep that we call them angels? When awake, they can rival the devil for the amount of destruction and disruption they accomplish. And in less time than it takes to realize they are being suspiciously silent.

I was reminded of this when reading the famous lines at their end of today's passage from Isaiah: “...those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with the wings of eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

The weariness being talked about is spiritual, of course. But there are parallels between some of the physical causes of fatigue and the spiritual ones. The causes of fatigue can be internal or external.

One external cause of fatigue is an infectious agent, such as the viruses that cause colds or the flu. They attack the body and fighting them leaves us with no energy. Spiritually the kinds of things that can sap our energy are the viral ideas that permeate our culture. Such as consumerism. Whether you are on the internet, or watching TV, or listening to the radio or podcasts, you are inundated with commercials that basically tell you that the products they tout will make your life better. You will be cooler, sexier, healthier, and happier if you just buy this smartphone, car, medicine, or soft drink. The continual repetition of these ads can make you vaguely dissatisfied with what you already have or even with your life. If nothing else the novelty of the latest gadget makes you crave something you never needed before.

And indeed companies are actively trying to make their products addictive. Snack foods keep rolling out new flavors. Play this video game well and you will be rewarded with more of levels of the game to play. See this superhero film and get the toys and merchandise. Alternately if a toy sells well, Hollywood will turn it into a TV show or a movie franchise. Pursuing the illusory happiness that material things promise can be exhausting. You end up with a lot of stuff and a vague sense of emptiness.

The first step in dealing with an overdose of materialism is to realize that more things don't make us happier. Indeed, studies show making more money only increases your level of happiness until you are able to meet all your needs. Making much more money than you actually need doesn't make you substantially happier. Indeed only one of the 10 wealthiest countries, according to Business Insider, appears on the list of the 10 happiest countries, according to the UN: Norway. Japan, on the other hand, while the 30th richest country in the world has 8th highest suicide rate in the world. Money can't buy happiness. Having many possessions won't make you happy. The question is “What can?”

Gratitude is one of the psychologically tested ways to increase happiness. If you list 3 to 5 things each day for which you are grateful you will, within 30 days, feel greater well-being and happiness. And expressing that gratitude to others is associated with increased empathy, optimism and energy. The secret is not getting more stuff but being grateful for what and whom you already have in your life.

Another external viral cause of spiritual fatigue is the deluge of things demanding our attention. Putting aside the commercial messages, there still is a tsunami of content engulfing us from the moment we wake up and turn on the media until we turn off our screens and crawl exhausted into bed. If you wish to know what is going on in the world or just in our country, you have to pay attention to the news. If you want to understand a major issue in depth, you need to watch the Frontline documentary or listen to the NPR podcast or read the latest heavily researched book you hear discussed on Fresh Air. But as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “There is no end to the making of many books, and much study is exhausting to the body.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12) It can also overwhelm your mental health. As one character says to another in a New Yorker cartoon by David Sipress, “My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to stay sane.” The sheer amount of bad news can leave you numb with despair.

We need a balanced diet of content. No one should ignore important information but we need to prioritize. Nobody can know or indeed needs to know everything. And remember that the news tends to be not what happens all the time but what is out of the ordinary. Paying too much attention to what the headlines scream can make it seem like the entire world and every single aspect of it is falling apart. You need to balance out bad news with good news. Reading the Bible and Christian books can give you a much needed perspective on our world. There have always been people doing evil but there have also always been those who are doing good: teaching, healing, and freeing other people. And we are to go and do likewise. Making the world or some part of it better can help alleviate the feeling of being helpless in the face of the ignorance, stupidity and evil we encounter.

Internal processes like arthritis or fibromyalgia can leave you physically depleted. Pain drains you. And it doesn't matter if you feel it physically or mentally. Depression can rob you of energy, and we've just found evidence that the body reacts to it as it does physical pain, namely, by inflammation. It looks like depression is another type of auto-immune disease, the body attacking a part of itself as if it were a foreign body.

Spiritually, the pain of bad theology can harm you. Scientific studies have demonstrated over and over the positive and protective effects of religious faith: less depression and anxiety, lower risk of substance abuse and suicide and a better ability to cope with stress. But that depends upon how you see God. Kenneth Pargament, professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, says, regarding mental health, “If you tend to see God as punitive, threatening or unreliable, then that's not very helpful.” Believing God is punishing you or abandoning you is associated with emotional distress, higher rates of depression, a lower quality of life and even an increased risk of an early death. As a nurse, I have seen a remarkable change come over patients who were distraught over their relationship with God when I ask them if they had confessed their sin to God. And when they said “yes,” I quoted to them 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faith and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Their whole demeanor changed, and one started eating again and another expressed relief and gratitude. 

Accepting forgiveness also gives us hope. It means our past no matter how bad need not determine our future. With the sole exception of Jesus every person God uses in the Bible is a sinner. Moses was a murderer. Paul was an accessory to murder. Noah got drunk. Abraham was willing to pimp out his wife. David was an adulterer. Peter denied Jesus 3 times. God used them nevertheless. God uses imperfect but forgiven people to carry out his mission. Indeed his mission is to get rid of evil by transforming bad people into good people. It is a process and it doesn't take place overnight. But if the person keeps responding to God's love and direction, he or she will become a better, a more Christlike person over time.

Another cause of physical fatigue can be two different dysfunctions of the same organ. The thyroid secretes hormones that regulate your metabolism or use of energy. In hypothyroidism it produces too little. That can make you sluggish, constipated and tired all the time. The equivalent is people whose spirituality is all about prayer and meditation and frankly themselves. They don't really exercise the “love your neighbor” part of the gospel. The Dead Sea got its name from the fact that, having tributaries but no outlet, it is too salty for anything to live in. So it is with people whose spirituality is all about feeling good and not about doing good. James pegged it when he wrote, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes or daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well-fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:15-17) Remember that we are created in the image of the God who is love. If you really want to find yourself, you will do so in acting in love towards others.

In the case of hyperthyroidism, the thyroid overproduces its hormones. The person is thin, nervous, has tremors, a fast heartbeat and once again fatigue. The spiritual equivalent is someone who is constantly moving and takes no time for rest. This can be the person who overdoes the “love your neighbor” part and forgets the “as yourself” part. From the beginning God decided that we needed times of rest: the Sabbath. In this 24/7 world it is easy to forget that you need to take breaks. As Jesus said, the Sabbath was made for us. We need to take care of ourselves or we will cease to be of any use to others. So the remedy is to not find time but make time to pray, meditate on God, sing, turn off the screens, and whatever else you need to do to recuperate. Hopefully, coming here to worship with others and concentrate on your spiritual side helps you recharge your batteries.

I go to the jail twice a week. I don't always feel up to it. But then I meet people, answer their questions, listen to their concerns, pray with them, share communion with them, lead them in worship and send them literature that I hope is relevant to their situation and needs, and I find the lethargy has lifted. I am energized by talking to them about God and talking to God about them.

Finally, I want to look at who will renew their strength. Isaiah identifies them as “those who wait on the Lord.” The Hebrew word translated “wait” literally means “collect or gather together” and comes from a root that means “bind.” It can also mean “expect” or “hope” and in two translations it is rendered “trust.” Thus a more expanded translation might go: “Those who wait expectantly in the Lord, binding themselves to him with trust and hope, will renew their strength.” Mere waiting can sap your strength but if you wait expectantly, if you trust the person you're waiting for to fulfill his promises to you and put your hope in that, it will energize you. It's like a kid waiting expectantly for his birthday or Christmas, knowing his parents and relatives and friends will give him good presents. In fact, depending on how confident she is that she will get what she wants, it will be a giddy, almost joyful anticipation.

And that is how we should wait on the Lord. With joy and hope and expectation that, as Paul said, “he who began a good work in you will carry it through to completion on the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6) And as we wait in anticipation, we can make sure we are not possessed by our possessions, express our gratitude for the good experiences and people in our lives, balance out the bad news of the day with the timeless good news of God's love and forgiveness and hope in Jesus, get out there and show our neighbor real love while not neglecting to take breaks to refresh and restore ourselves by connecting to the one who is the source of goodness. And if we do that, our spirits will soar like eagles on the wing in a clear and boundless sky.  

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