Fall Forecast

Did you notice summer? It’s gone. Vacation travel dropped, school is starting, and church programs are headed into high gear. Depending on where you live, the weather cooled. Fall has arrived.

Some people use fall as a transition season to try to get organized “before the holidays,” which are the next hallmark of another year going full circle at breakneck speed. For some, fall may be a time of discouragement because of all the stuff they didn’t accomplish in the summer or the dread of the impending holiday deluge of relatives and expenses.

An important truth to remember is that we do not have to sit by helplessly and let stuff happen to us. While we cannot always prevent things from going wrong, we can choose how we will respond to life’s circumstances. We can decide where the meaning will come from in our lives and take action to seek it.

The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes reminds of this. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” may be the most famous words from this Old Testament book. It’s all meaningless! But that’s only the opening line. If we stop there we miss the wisdom that comes from looking at the book as whole. The writer takes a close look at the human condition, commenting on practically everything between birth and death. The upshot is that we have limits. We work hard, and then we work harder. We toil after riches. We indulge ourselves with possessions exceeding our need. We chase after human understanding. We miss out on the wonder of our younger years because we’re so caught up in planning our futures.

But for all this effort, we still face the reality that we cannot do it all—and that trying to is not the point of life.

Trying harder simply does not make us happier.

In fact, our limitations are part of the way God created us. We are not God, and we need to get over thinking we can be. We were not created to be God, but to be with God, to be connected to God. That’s what the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us with his litany of our pointless strivings. A book that opens with “It’s all meaningless” (1:2) ends with “Remember your creator” (12:1) That is where we will find meaning and joy.

Life is sometimes one giant puzzle, but even with its unanswered questions, it is a gift God wants us to enjoy because we are in relationship with God. And God brings order out of chaos in ways we can never aspire to.

As you mull over what this fall season brings you, consider the forecast for your future, whether next month or next year. Don’t base your forecast on what you can accomplish, even though we all have lists of responsibilities. Instead, base it on what you can remember.

How many ways can you remember your creator? Remember God in the pursuit of balance in your life. Remember God in the way you respond to the worries that keep you awake at night. Remember God in decisions that could change your life. Remember God when you suffer and when you rejoice, when you work and when you play, when you speak and when you hold your tongue. Remember God when you encounter your own lack of wisdom.

“Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone,” the writer of Ecclesiastes says in closing (12:13). In relation to God we find the meaning our hearts crave.

Changing Faith Changes Health

August is National Immunization Awareness Month. I’m sure it’s no accident that this observance falls just before a new school year begins. Schools typically ask parents to verify that a child’s immunizations are up-to-date when school starts. As a doctor, I’m glad to see this observance.

Immunizations make the world a healthier place and give kids healthier lives.

But as a pastor, a focus on immunizations also reminds me of the role an early eighteenth century pastor played in introducing inoculation, the forerunner of immunizations, to America.

In the 1700s, the prevailing theological perspective of small pox was that it was God’s judgment on the sins of humanity. Further, trying to prevent small pox was interpreted as interfering with God’s will, which could result in greater judgment. I like to think we have come a long way from that kind of thinking about disease.

Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister and pastor of Boston’s famed North Church, was well aware of the force of an infectious disease to ravage a population. In 1713, his wife, newborn twins, and two-year-old daughter all died from measles. Small pox outbursts plagued Boston from about 1640 on. Mather had lived through several waves of the disease.

Mather had an African slave, given to him by his congregation, who claimed he had undergone a procedure while still in Africa. He described inoculation to Mather and said that among his people, no one died from small pox anymore. We have no other history of African inoculation than a note in Mather’s diary, but this defense against small pox may go as far back as the eighth century in India.

Mather did his homework and then in 1721 used his pulpit and popularity to urge inoculation. Along with Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, who conducted the first inoculations in Boston, Cotton Mather believed that his faith did not require him to do nothing lest he provoke God’s wrath, but that faith and science together could save lives. In 1721 more than half of Boston’s 10,000 residents contracted small pox, and the disease was responsible for three-fourths of all the deaths in the city that year.

Mather and Boylston could not sit by and not try to stop the scourge with what we might call clinical trials today. In the end, 14 percent of people who caught small pox, but were not inoculated, died. Only 2 percent of those inoculated died from the disease. Yet Mather and Boylston drew a lot of fire for their actions, both from people of faith and people of science.

Immunizations have evolved considerably in the last 300 years to be a safe and effective public health tool.

The Centers for Disease Control puts immunization at the top of the list of ten great public health achievements of the twentieth century. The last known case of small pox occurring naturally was in 1977. Immunizations eradicated small pox on a global scale. Because of immunizations polio, measles, mumps and other diseases that used to run rampant are greatly reduced threats.

And it all started with a pastor who was not afraid of science.

The challenge now is to ask ourselves in what ways our faith can grow and expand so that we will hear the call of God? When it comes to changing the health of our cities, what action does God call us to?

Following Mather’s example, are we willing to answer?

Give Us Summer-and Contentment!

This year snow coated a swath of the middle of the nation on Mother’s Day. Schools had snow days on Monday. Facebook boomed with pictures of snow and captions of exasperation.

Some people, of course, love winter’s glistening snows. Others yearn for crisp fall days, while still others thrive in beach weather. All winter we wish it were not so cold, and all summer we wish it were not so hot. Whatever season we are in, we seem to wish for something else.

Life is that way. Whatever season we are in, we look elsewhere.

A season when we have more money. A season when we have better health. A season when the kids are older. A season when we are less sleep-deprived. A season when we can take a real vacation. A season when the household schedule settles down.

As I watch people—including myself—rushing through their days, I can’t help wonder if we understand the meaning of contentment.   I think of the apostle Paul’s exhortation about contentment: “ … for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need” (Philippians 4:11–12).

These verses come to us in a chapter full of rejoicing—whatever our circumstance. We may well have painful circumstances, and I am not suggesting that pain is a cause of rejoicing. Neither am I saying that rejoicing happens only when everything is going well. Rather, my point is that our contentment and joy have little to do with our circumstances. We may be going through a difficult season, or we may be going through an encouraging season. Either way, Paul tells us we can make our needs known to God (4:6–7). God cares, and God’s peace comes to us.

Contentment does not come from getting what we want; it comes from understanding who we are as beloved children of God. Let me offer these thoughts about enjoying the season we are in, whether the time of year or the time of life.

• Look for the blessing. I’m not going to be trite and say something like every cloud has a silver lining. But I will say that blessing is possible whatever is going on in your life. A poignant moment with a loved one, a thoughtful note from a friend, unexpected laughter, cherished memories—our circumstances do not determine these things.

• Embrace the challenge. If your circumstances are difficult, consider what is within your power to change. Even small steps matter. On the other hand, if your circumstances are comfortable, consider how you can let your abundance—whether financial, emotional, or spiritual—overflow into the life of another person.

• Learn something. Don’t let any experience go to waste. Absorb the moment. See the bigger meaning of small events. Realize your life is a journey, not a destination, and remember to enjoy the sights along the way.

In Season and Out

In the part of the world where I live, we have seasons. Summers in Memphis can be pretty hot and sticky, but plenty of places have far more severe winters, so I’m not complaining. I am reflecting, though.

We define seasons by the rising and setting points of the sun throughout the year. The angle of the earth in relation to the sun, and the particular part of the globe we live in, changes the weather we experience. When summer’s on its way, we watch vegetation come to life. As winter approaches, long sunny days turn short and gloomy. Dry days turn damp with rain or snow. In the midst of the current season, we always know that the next season will come. We also know it will not last forever, and we know that each season—even winter—brings to the earth something it needs to nourish our lives.

Not everyone has uniform opinions about a season. One may complain about freezing, inconveniencing snow while another marvels at its exquisite glistening. One may disdain the humidity of summer while another in the same city revels in the feel of sun on skin. What makes the difference in our experiences of seasons? Of what we focus on? Is it simply a personality inclination to see the glass half empty versus the glass half full, or is there an undercurrent of our ability to receive the gifts of each distinct season?

Perhaps you have figured out that I am not so much talking about the meterological seasons of the year that come as the earth spins through space, but pondering the seasons of our lives as we live and move and have our being in God. Even the health of our lives goes through seasons: relational dry spells make us ache for love; sloshy work situations prepare us for a new phase; physical or emotional pain prod us to practice deep breathing. These are winter longing for spring’s new life.

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah’s beautiful words explore the metaphor of seasons, our relationship to God, and God’s care for the poor and needy.

“Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you. For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled” (Isaiah 25:3–5).

Isaiah spoke to a people whose national history included seasons of enslavement, desert wandering, struggling for identity, and oppression by enemies. The nation of Israel was not always faithful, but God’s love was steadfast.

After a chapter describing rank upon rank of suffering and judgment, Isaiah turns to words of comfort and redemption. Notice the words that bring to mind God’s presence in Israel’s history and the promise of God’s ultimate triumph. In the heat of desert wanderings, God gave a pillar of cloud to shade and guide the people. When ruthless enemies attacked, God took action. The poor and needy—and don’t we all fall into that category in some way?—found refuge in God in times of distress.

Health at various levels may be compromised by literal or figurative rainstorm, heat, and drought. Ruthless enemies may seem to have the upper hand. Some seasons of our lives feel like barren winter. Ultimately, God triumphs.

Whatever the seasons look like where you live, turn and tilt your face toward the sun of God’s faithfulness. Health and salvation wait for you there.