Transformational Lessons of Autumn

By Matt Sapp

Six years ago Harvey Cox wrote a book called The Future of FaithIn it he argues that we are going through a great religious transition from the Age of Belief to the Age of the Spirit.  Generally, he says, contemporary culture is moving from a religiosity governed by particular beliefs about God toward a religiosity that’s more at home embracing religious mystery. “The experience of the divine is displacing theories about it,” he writes.

Cox quotes Albert Einstein as saying,

The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead, a snuffed out candle.

I think Harvey Cox is right about a great religious transition, and there are no transitions quite as grand as the earth-sweeping shifts from one season to the next.

As summer gives way to fall, it’s an appropriate time to stand “rapt in awe” and wonder at the mystery of the seasons and the God who governs them.

We know how the seasons work, of course.  It is not entirely a mystery.  We know why the days get shorter and the air gets colder in the fall.   Scientists can explain how temperature and light interact with trees to make the leaves change colors.

These explanations, however, do not take the mystery or the awe from the scale of these grand transitions. It does not take the wonder out of delicate processes that repeat themselves with such precision and regularity.

The changing of the seasons inspires a certain delight in me, and I know I’m not alone. Those of you pining for pumpkin spice lattes, warm sweaters, and the smell of roaring fires drifting up through neighborhood chimneys know what I’m talking about.

As much as I dislike winter (is hate too strong a word?), the first day when the air turns from crisp to biting and the warming rays of fall have lost their last vestiges of heat inspires a sense of awe in me, even as I hunker down and wait for spring.

So as summer gives way to fall, here are a few things we can learn from the changing of the seasons.

Seasons remind us that change isn’t bad, especially when we’re prepared for it. Seasons are the epitome of predictable change. We know what kind of change to expect with seasons. Seasons remind us that there are rhythms to life, cycles of existence, and that we’re intimately connected to them.

The changing seasons bring new opportunities and new experiences, even as they may bring some new challenges. But the challenges of change usually come when change catches us off guard—like a winter storm without a snow shovel or a cold night before the wood has been brought in.

When we’re well prepared change is something to look forward to. When the wood is gathered and the snow shovel is ready, the challenge of winter fades. It can even be fun if the sled is ready too.

Seasons remind us that change is impossible to avoid. Change comes whether we like it or not.

Change comes to our bodies and our families—and to our churches—as time goes by.  Seasons remind us of the inevitable and steady passage of time. Every season gives us a chance to change with it. It’s silly to leave our beach towels packed away and our winter coats on when summer comes.

Seasons remind us of the presence of powerful forces beyond our control. There is both mystery and order to the way the world works.  As mentioned, some of it we understand and some of it will always be too big for us.  The order and predictability of the seasons is reassuring in a world that doesn’t always make sense. And the mystery and grandeur of seasonal change inspires a sense of awe and wonder that keeps us from becoming what Einstein might call snuffed out candles.

Here’s to candles that continue to burn brightly. Happy fall.

The Holy Spirit is with us always

pentec2When Jesus gave his “Farewell Speeches” beginning in John 14, he assured his disciples that they will never be alone.  Rather, God will send the Holy Spirit–the “advocate”–to be with them always.

This season will be a difficult one for many people who face loss or loneliness.  According to statistics as reported in the Wall Street Journal by Elizabeth Bernstein, more people will face loneliness now than in the past three decades.

She states that 40% of Americans claim that they struggle with loneliness, up from 20% in the 1980s.  Furthermore, one-person households are up from 17% in 1970 to 27% last year.

Christians are not immune to the despair of loneliness; however, with a greater awareness of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we can realize that we are never truly alone.  When one reads all of the scriptures about the Holy Spirit, we can sense that the Holy Spirit is with us in several powerful ways.

For one, the Holy Spirit fills us with life.  In Genesis 1 and 2, God created all that existed, including humans.  When God made humans the Bible says that God forms us out of dirt and mud and breathed into us (the same Hebrew word for “breathe” is “spirit”) life.

We also find this language in Ezekiel 36, when the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of dry bones.  The dry bones represented all of the people who went astray from God and went after all those idols and selfish longings that don’t end up making life any better.  Like zombies, these bones were lifeless drones that went about their business day in and day out, always searching, always thirsting.

In 36:22-28, God renewed a promise to Israel that they will be filled with a clean spirit, new life, and a “heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone.”  The Holy Spirit is the conduit whereby Jesus gives those who trust in God “life and life more abundantly” (John 10:10).

In addition to life, the Holy Spirit gives power to fulfill God’s mission.  The prophet Micah stated that his ministry was founded on the power of the Spirit: “I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord” (3:8).

This is the same power the Holy Spirit provided Jesus at Jesus’ baptism and the disciples during Pentecost.  In all three situations–Micah’s, Jesus’ and the early church–that power was not for wielding violence but for proclaiming the Word of God.

When we are filled with the life of the Spirit, how are we to contain ourselves and not preach the good news of that presence in our lives?

The Holy Spirit is not all fun and games, however.  According to scripture, the Holy Spirit also provides conviction.  Many people misrepresent the Holy Spirit (and God) by making God out to be one who condemns people. We can recite John 3:16, but we forget the next verse: “For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (v. 17).

I heard it once said that condemnation hinders poeple from coming to God, but conviction draws people to God.  It is the Holy Spirit that draws people with the power of conviction, for no one can draw near to God as long as sin stands in the way.  Jesus’ message had always been one of love, but also of challenge: “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand!” (Mark 1:15).

The Holy Spirit also brings comfort.  For those who face loneliness, this is the greatest promise that God gives to us.  While some translations translate the Holy Spirit in John 14:16 as “advocate,” some other translations refer to this Greek word (paraclete) as “comforter.”

This is appropriate, for even in times of hardship and grief, winter and despair, the Holy Spirit is present with us: praying for us, speaking with a still small voice in our ears, and encouraging us to take one step in front of another.

The Holy Spirit is one of the most overlooked persons in the Trinity, but one of the most compelling.  This Advent season, as loneliness sets in, I encourage you to take a second look at how the Holy Spirit can carry you through to new life and peace.

Although Seasonal Affective Disorder, depression affects many believers, “joy comes in the morning”

Winter-trees-without-leavesI’ve been writing articles on spiritual disciplines this month.  I intend to continue that series, but since the weatherman is insisting that this weekend will be cold and wet, I’d like to shift gears.  This article is for readers who struggle with seasonal affective disorder or mild depression during the winter months.

Over twelve years ago, I didn’t realize how widespread seasonal depression was in our state because, being from sunny Florida, I didn’t even know such a thing existed.

In the first year we moved, there was a snowstorm in Atlanta and my wife and I didn’t waste time in building snowmen, making snow angels, and tossing around a few snowballs for fun.  We took pictures of our snow-covered cars for family in Florida.  It was really fun.

The seasons changed, and I appreciated all that God had to offer in creation: from the Spring-time mating calls of birds to the autumnal change of the leaves.  But then, about the second or third year here, I started to feel differently in the winter time.

I believe it was in the dead winter of 2004-2005 when I went to a friend–a social worker who knew more about counseling than I–to tell her that I had feelings of isolation and depression that I had never felt before in my life.  She recommended a therapist, and I went with great results.

Spring came, and I recovered quite well from the whole ordeal.  Our first child turned one, and things moved right along.  Then, when winter hit again the following year, those same feelings erupted.  I became melancholy and lethargic; I gained weight.  Although my withdrawal wasn’t as severe as the previous winter, I definitely felt differently.

I noticed a pattern as the years passed.  Winter came and I would get severe mood swings.  Finally, when last year’s winter proved mild, I got scared: winter came, then springtime, but I never recovered.

I was burned out, and my family and friends noticed a difference.  My best friend of twenty years told me that I seemed depressed to him, and he mentioned on more than one occasion that I was always the life of the party, what had happened?

Although we ministers–and Christians in general–like to spiritualize things and blame either Satan, sin, or dysfunction for mood swings and illness, I acknowledged that I was no different than roughly 6% of the U.S. population that struggles with what many doctors call seasonal affective disorder or SAD.

SAD is not uncommon for people who face harsh winters or, in the least, winters in which very little sunlight is available.  It can be a symptom of mild depression on the one hand or, in severe cases, bipolar emotional disorder or chronic depression.  It often overlaps one of these conditions, though it can simply affect people who face too much stress in their lives, pastors not withstanding.

The more I acknowledged my own wrestling match with this illness, the more I opened up about it with folks at church.  Turns out I wasn’t alone: by the time March hit, I managed to gather a small support system of like-minded people who face depression in one way or another.

We inquire about each other’s health every so often.  We send encouraging texts and emails (especially on overcast days).  We share resources. (Just the other day, one sent me a e-devotional on depression.)

No Christian who struggles with depression or SAD is alone.  Though “sorrow may last for the night, joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5b).  God, though seemingly distant, is always present; and, I can bear witness to the fact that reaching out and getting help can make all the difference in the world.

If you struggle with a similar disorder, I encourage you to seek help, speak with a trusted counselor, doctor or therapist, and hang in there.

(Postscript:  While browsing Baptist sites this evening, I stumbled upon a recently published article concerning SAD at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Press website.  My only critique of the article is that the author does indeed spiritualize the issue, assuming that a re-dedication to Christ and more Bible study time might do the trick in combating SAD.  That may be fine and dandy, but additional help may be required!)