As we ascended up and out of a dimly lit subway station, the street corner’s bright lights belied the evening dusk settling over the city. Although we had already been in New York City for several days on a family vacation, the activity of Times Square far surpassed any busyness we had yet encountered. Flashing advertisements, video screens playing production clips, and the constant buzz of pedestrian and automobile traffic met us everywhere we turned. Not a single corner of quiet could be found.
One summer break during college, I went with three friends to the Grand Canyon for a rim-to-rim hike. Carrying a sixty-pound pack through suffocating heat, we trekked mile after mile, snaking down the Kaibab Trail and across the scorching canyon floor. At one point, I blacked out and awoke moments later with my friends gazing down at me. They pulled me to a safe spot, took the pack off my back, and had me eat Starbursts candy (sugar was just what I needed). That escapade could have gone very differently if I’d been hiking alone!
A study conducted by a group of neuroeconomists from the University of Zurich found that people who showed generosity were happier than people who acted in a selfish way. In fact, they found that if people were even a little bit generous, they still experienced a pleasant feeling. The researchers measured activity in areas of the brain linked to contentment and generosity. Interestingly, the feeling of happiness that one experiences when giving has been termed a “warm glow.”
The idolatry of ancient Israel’s neighbors led the psalmist to write, “Their idols are merely things of silver and gold, shaped by human hands. They have mouths but cannot speak, and eyes but cannot see” (Psalm 115:4-5). In essence, he was asking, “Why would a person feel the need to worship and bring a sacrifice to an idol? Who would devote their lives to a god they know is false—somehow hoping it would bless them?”
When John Lasseter of Pixar Studios was asked about the limitations of working with animation, he said, “The more organic something is . . . the harder it is to recreate with a computer.” In contrast, a review of some organic photography gushed, “One canvas in magenta red has curling squares of what looks like skin or material; another has furry brown hairs sprouting on green and orange stripes; and on a third, lip-like shapes float on a gray-white background.” The reviewer was describing photos of tree bark.
In 2017, when a hurricane levelled the island of Puerto Rico, millions were without electricity, clean water, medicine, and food. And since most of the country’s mobile phone signal had gone down, the majority of people had no way to communicate. However, a pharmacy owner discovered that her satellite, intended for transmitting prescriptions, was still receiving a signal. For days, the woman’s neighbors lined up to call their friends and loved ones to let them know they were okay. This working phone tucked behind a pharmacy counter provided a lifeline. The phone didn’t mean they avoided hardship, but it did provide help as they endured the devastation.
The ceasefire began with the sound of singing on the battlefield. It was Christmas Eve 1914, along the Western Front of the fighting in WWI. German soldiers alternated singing Christmas carols with their enemies—British, Belgian, and French soldiers. This goodwill spilled into the next day, when fighters emerged from the trenches, unarmed. They introduced themselves and exchanged small gifts. Reflecting on that experience, one veteran said, “If we had been left to ourselves there would never have been another shot fired.” A short break in hostility allowed the soldiers to see their opponents as people, not merely enemies.
I’ve seen believers in Jesus walk through fierce storms of life while trusting in God through it all. How do they do it? I’ve often wondered if it was their personality enabling them to show calm in the midst of turmoil, kindness when mistreated, and courage when most would falter.
“Let me warn you about systematic theology.” My friend started telling me of her struggles in studying biblical doctrines for the first time. “It’s hard . . . it can make you doubt, because you learn that we don’t have the answers to everything about God. Sometimes we can’t know the answers, and we have to trust that God knows them, and that that’s enough.”
“Do you still hope for peace?” a Rolling Stone interviewer asked singer-songwriter Bob Dylan in 1984. “There isn’t going to be any peace,” Dylan replied. His response drew criticism from certain quarters for being “fatalistic”. Dylan’s detractors aside, peace remains ever elusive.
I’ve recently become familiar with the growing popularity of the concept of “self-compassion”—accepting ourselves as we are and giving ourselves the compassion and grace to heal and grow, no matter how long that takes.
After a driver lost control of his vehicle and struck some trees, injuring a passenger with him, he blamed the accident on a spider. He told police that an arachnid on the car’s visor—above his head—distracted him. Fortunately, even though he crashed due to the conflict with this tiny foe, the passenger’s injuries were minor. The damage to the vehicle, however, was not. Things could have been much different if the driver had simply hit the brakes, pulled over to the side of the road, and calmly dealt with his eight-legged enemy.
Augustus, the Roman emperor mentioned in Luke 2:1, was a divisive figure. He instituted the imperial cult— religious worship of emperors—which would later cause the death of many Christians. But he was also the leader who established the Pax Romana, a period of relative peace in that part of the world. Before then, the Roman Empire was continually seeking to expand and conquer. Augustus’ idea of peace, for nations to seek to live in relative harmony, was completely novel to the aggressive Roman Empire.
Since ancient times, faithful Christians have spoken about what John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul”. This “dark night” descends upon even the most faithful believers, upon those who have walked with God for years. In this dark night, believers can feel spiritually dry for unusually long periods of time, as if they’re just going through the motions of discipleship. It can feel as if God has refused to show up, as if He’s missing in action.