For the LORD will be at your side and will keep your foot from being snared.
The great boxer, Mohammed Ali, was frequently interviewed by the media after his victorious matches. A favored public figure for his personality and confidence, he was repeatedly asked, “How do you win so often?” He would always answer with confidence: “I believe in myself!”
In this holiday season of being asked to believe—from believing in our ability to make it through work and the financial strain of the Christmas season, to children believing in Santa Claus, or believing that God is present in our lives—sometimes the last thing we believe in is ourselves.
Trusting ourselves is paramount to doing well in all other areas of our lives. Believing that we are making good decisions and following God’s plan for us is part of the key to confidence and self-assured behavior in the face of any challenges and any triumphs. The way we handle our families, our jobs, and our own personal disciplines has everything to do with how we see and trust ourselves.
There are many people who will try to undermine your confidence. At work, you may be criticized for minute details on a job otherwise well done. At church, you may be left out of gatherings by well-meaning people who don’t think to ask if you’re free, or worse, by people who may not know you at all and judge before they ask or engage. Whatever the blows to your confidence are, rest assured that in God, you are prepared to field them and move past them.
While we can allow ourselves that moment to reflect and to respond to what we’re experiencing—by getting upset or feeling bad—we need to pick ourselves up, evaluate the damage, determine the reason for it, and move on. If we can improve or make a situation right, we should. And if we have to look at the setback for what it really is—a minor learning opportunity or a moment of hurtful reflection from which we can recover—we should do that, too, and grow from what it taught us.
The danger in losing confidence is losing sight of what is important, be it your family, work, spirituality, or all three. Confidence helps to keep you from worrying yourself into inaction or questioning what you know is right. This season, trusting in your faith will keep you from stalling in doing God’s work in the community, the home, and the church. Understanding that He is always with us keeps us from stagnating in faith and drives us to what is important as members of a faith community during the holiday season.
Psalm 118 tells us: “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever.”
Gratitude is a prayer to God. After all, as Christians, we should get more from thanking Him than we do from asking Him for things. And, if gratitude is nurtured appropriately, it will grow and our focus on it will too. What happens when we obsess about something—pizza when we’re dieting, a television show when it has ended for the season, the warm weather when it’s gone? We think about the missing component constantly. What if we try to focus on gratitude this season?
I’m not saying it is missing from our lives, but we have been through a lot lately as Americans— terrorist attacks, a grueling presidential election, and natural disasters from our own coastline to Italy and beyond. Maybe, in our “survival mode” these past few months, we have forgotten how to give thanks. Or maybe we remember how to give thanks but still focus on the negative, which takes us away from the positive aspects of our lives.
Let’s face it, giving thanks and feeling a generosity of spirit is something that we know is good for us—better than dwelling on bills, fighting with a neighbor, or reading sensationalistic news stories daily. Yet, we don’t often do it. If telling others how much they mean to us feels good and helps another, why not make that a daily initiative? If working hard and remaining disciplined about bills, health, and family responsibilities allows you a good night’s sleep and puts you on the path to being more organized and successful, then why can’t that be part of an easy weekly “to do” list? If you find that focusing on only positive news or taking action when you see the things you want to change is rewarding, why not make that a personal habit too?
This season, around our Thanksgiving dinner tables, at church over the holiday weekend, and in our daily interaction with co-workers, I want us all to take stock of what we have to be thankful for. Focus on what fills our hearts with gratitude. Maybe we’re not millionaires, but we can make a good living. Maybe we are disappointed with the world or the way our job is going, but we have our own personal goals, and we can make a difference when we put our minds to it. And maybe we don’t get turkey, stuffing, and potatoes with gravy every day, but on Thanksgiving, we might. All of this is deserving of thanks—of long-term gratitude and a shift in focus.
God does love us regardless of our thankfulness, gratitude, or whatever you want to call it. In His eyes, gratitude and practicing thankfulness can only lead to strength of character and a renewed sense of love for Him and love for our fellow humankind.
Let’s go back to Psalm 118 6-7 and see what it tells us once we get past the initial need to give thanks to the Lord: “When hard pressed, I cried to the LORD; He brought me into a spacious place. The LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me? The LORD is with me; He is my helper. I look in triumph on my enemies.”
In further analysis, we find what we should be obsessing on: No fear when we love and honor God—only victory over challenges and a push to have gratitude for the life we are all given.
It’s hard to check our social media or open a newspaper these days without seeing extreme violence here in our cities and overseas in war zones. On top of it all, we can’t turn on the television or radio without seeing or hearing all the domestic political campaign messages—complete with the hateful and combative language that seems to come with them lately. For faith communities, trying to make sense of it all has become a weekly, if not daily, endeavor.
It’s not our imagination. Times are a bit trying right now. Even while enjoying beautiful fall weather and unseasonably warm temperatures in some areas of the country, we are reminded that many coastal cities, who were affected by Hurricane Matthew, are trying to dig out, put their lives back in perspective, and assess long term damage. Certainly, we want to help the natural disaster survivors with donations, just as we want to understand viable solutions for stopping the violence in the Middle East and our cities here. Whether we want to focus on it daily or not, we want to see positive results in the end for our own country. But, we can’t do it all, and we can’t be sure of whether or not we are doing the right thing all the time. Is prayer enough for the hurricane victims? Is participating in political banter at work appropriate? Is shutting the television off when we see yet another bombing or military strike somewhere in the world a callous and insensitive thing to do?
Psalms 46:10 tells us: “He says, Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth." (NIV) We can take comfort in this somewhat because God is telling us that He has our backs. He has everything under control, and in time, the world will be restored to what we think of as “normal” or settled. However, by “be still,” I don’t think that He means we should do nothing. We have to stick to our Christian values, and we have to understand our role in this often-tumultuous world around us. God always asks of us that we do our best—that we stick to our core values—and that we use His Word to inspire and edify others. During difficult times, this is no different. In fact, it should be amplified to meet the need in the world and in our communities.
Experts tell us that in times of stress or uncertainty, we should maintain our health and wellness, we should surround ourselves with friends and family or other people who hold similar values to our own, and we should pray, worship, and engage in church fellowship like we always do. Currently, it’s evident that everyone is searching for answers and comfort. With looming elections, escalating violence here and overseas, and natural disasters that threaten the most innocent of citizens, adhering to prayer sometimes seems the only thing we can do. I urge you all to see the importance and power of prayer.
Psalms 62:5-6 says, “Truly my soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will not be shaken” (NIV). A lot of people talk peace and serenity or salvation in the face of terrible things. We must always remember the power we each have to stand by our convictions, live by example, pray, spread God’s Word and His love, and remain strong in the face of all that challenges us.
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. (NIV)
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. (NIV)
Recently, the long-awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington, D.C. The opening ceremony was a much touted event with heads of state, musical performers, celebrities, and other well-known people in attendance. Residents of the District of Columbia were warned weeks in advance of street closings, the museum communications department was tasked with notifying the public of the timed passes for entrance that would be required the entire weekend of the museum opening, and security was intense because the event was extremely high profile. Because the museum was stocked with priceless artifacts, and so many people would be in attendance, it was apparent the eyes of the world would be on 200 15th Street NW, Washington D.C. on the big opening day of September 24th, 2016.
The eyes of the world are still on the museum—a beautiful lattice-work building that now graces the National Mall—and all that it means to the history of our country. Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum’s Founding Director has said of the museum, “This Museum will tell the American story through the lens of African American history and culture. This is America’s Story and this museum is for all Americans.” The goals of the museum are, in part, to show the resiliency, the optimism, and yes, the spirituality of all Americans in relation to their experiences with culture and ethnicity in this country and in global forums. After all, we have all come to this country from a myriad of backgrounds, and as quarrelsome and difficult as we can be sometimes, we all live, work, play, and worship together as Americans.
The country is often divided. We are a combination of many religions and cultures. We have survived blame and persecution of one another, and we have experienced camaraderie and support when outsiders attack our integrity or our strength. The duality makes us diverse and resilient. The National Museum of African American History and Culture works to remind us of that. It reminds us that no matter how different we are, albeit our rocky pasts, we are one under God. Each exhibit forces us to recognize the biases we feel, and challenge those beliefs to eliminate the suspicion and blame we sometimes feel toward those who are “different” than us.
It is easy to forget the struggle, to forget that, at one time, African Americans were turned away from lunch counters, buses, public pools, and schools, and not afforded the same basic rights afforded to white Americans. And, it might even be easy to forget that, at one time, the thought of having the first African American President of the United States speak at the opening of such a museum would have been an impossible achievement, an event that many people thought they would never see. And yet, here we are. Our Princeton-educated First Lady, Michelle Obama, an African American woman with multiple degrees, a successful law career behind her, and influence that goes far beyond the White House, came to Pittsburgh to speak a few weeks ago, and it was “standing room, sign up now or forfeit your spot” only. She spoke on behalf of Hillary Clinton, the first woman to secure the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. These are exciting times. Yet, they are also trying times, because for all of our advances—culturally and politically—we are still embroiled in figuring out our relationships to one another as different races, cultures, and religions living in one country.
So, I challenge you all to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Educate yourself. Challenge your biases. Remember that our differences are what make us unique and “stop passing judgement on one another.” Build your fellow brothers and sisters up and “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.”
1 Peter 4:8-9
Above all, love one another deeply, because our love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. (NIV)
As the leaves start to change and fall this season, I find myself reflecting on the year thus far and what’s to come. I start to wonder: did I follow my New Year’s resolutions? Did I accomplish everything I needed to to make 2016 the best it could be? We are about to enter our busiest season: the holidays. Full of fall revival services, bountiful food, gift giving, celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and the welcoming of a new year, there is no doubt that this season also means chaos and stress. We love our celebrations, but what about all of the planning that goes into them? The last-minute errands we have to run, trying to find the perfect recipe or the perfect present, gathering together families that don’t always get along perfectly—it can all be a bit much. Add in the volunteer opportunities, decorating, the Christmas concerts and plays, and our otherwise normal daily routines, and it can be hard to catch your breath. But it’s important we don’t let this special season pass in a blur; we need to reflect on our experiences and find our peace so we don’t get lost.
Before the more recognized holidays begin, we have a few that occurred the last couple weeks that are a little lesser known: International Day of Peace and National Good Neighbor Day. Each year on September 21st, we celebrate International Day of Peace. According to The General Assembly of the United Nations, the day serves as a day “devoted to strengthening the ideals of peace, both within and among all nations and peoples.” Though this day has passed, I think it is crucial we all remember the reason we celebrate that day, and carry it with us not only through the rest of the season, but each and every day. Remember that we are all children of God, created to serve a specific purpose. Take that with you when you’re shopping on Black Friday and a fellow shopper or worker upsets you. Take that with you when you’re at work and a discussion becomes heated. Remember that as you hear about the heartbreaking tragedies you see on the news. Remember the importance of peace. And most notably, take peace to heart for yourself during this chaotic season. Take a moment to breath, reflect, and give your thanks to God for His bountiful blessings.
Just days ago, on September 28th, we recognized National Good Neighbor Day. I know, this sounds like just another made up “holiday,” like “Make Up Your Own Holiday Day” or “National Popcorn Day.” You might be wondering why I think National Good Neighbor Day is notable. I invite you to return to the verse I mentioned earlier from 1 Peter 4: “Above all, love one another deeply, because our love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (8-9, NIV). Of course, we love when we have good neighbors. We feel safe; we don’t have to awkwardly avoid them on our front porches; we have someone to keep an eye on things when we’re out of town. But most importantly, we need to be good neighbors ourselves, offering hospitality without ill will. And this idea fits perfectly with the feeling of peace that came from celebrating International Day of Peace. Peace and hospitality go hand in hand, especially in a season where greed can be just a little too prevalent.
So as you find yourself in the midst of celebration, remember to stop and take a breath and find your peace. Share your peace with others, and “love one another deeply.”