I woke this morning to a sky that looked like a soft white blanket, draped heavily over our small corner of the universe here in Florida. The air was calm and evoked a quiet stillness that could be seen in the way that everyone moved about peacefully, greeting one another during the holiday season. The white sky is probably the closest Pensacola will ever get to a white Christmas, but it reminded me of a trip we took as a family to Seattle. However, despite the somber clouds, there was a buzz, an energy. The post-Christmas lull from decadent foods, long-awaited reunions of family and friends, and the bliss of receiving gifts from the ones you love all mingled with the anticipation of a new year. A new start, full of unknown changes and opportunities, adventures and traditions, new friends and old, all created in our mind’s eye by the spirit of hope that we hold for the future. The future… a subject many of us spend a good majority of our days dwelling on.
One of my favorite Christmas things to do the last few years has been to see A Christmas Carol performed at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta. It is a story that we are all familiar with and holds deep meaning for the spirit of Christmas. In the story, Scrooge, a man whose heart has become hardened and cold, is visited by three ghosts. The ghost of Christmas past reminds Scrooge of the joy he experienced with friends and family in years past. The ghost of Christmas present shows Scrooge the joys and hardships shared by those around him that he was so unaware of. And lastly, the ghost of Christmas future comes to show Scrooge what his life would be like if he continued to live his life shut off to the world around him. Scrooge’s heart is softened as he lets go of his past hurts and his fears about the future and embraces the love of those around him. The gift that Scrooge really receives that Christmas is a new perspective. Many of us struggle in the same way that Scrooge did. We become so wrapped up in our own goals or interests, planning for the future or stuck in our past pains that we miss out on Christmas present, on the here and now. We spend our time planning and dreaming of the future, and the other half of our time dwelling on our past. Rarely do we bring our awareness to the present, and if you had mentioned that to me several years ago I wouldn’t have understood what it meant. And as I have begun to learn how to live in the present moment I realized that much of my previous habits of thinking were the roots of much suffering and strife in my mind. I longed for a quiet and confident mind and to be set free from my anxieties and fears. I needed to learn to live in the present, not in my past or in the future. Jesus spoke saying…
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matthew 6:31-34 ESV
Right before this verse Jesus talks about not being able to serve two masters, both God and man. So if we allow our mind to think on whatever the wind blows in we will think on things of this earth, becoming enslaved to the things of this world. But Isaiah tells us that if we can think of God and the things of His kingdom the clouds in our mind will clear and we will find peace…
“You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock.” Isaiah 26:3-4
When we allow our mind to be stayed on Christ we find perfect peace. Our minds become less crowded by our worries and we begin to notice things we missed before. We notice the sounds and tastes of life happening around us. We don’t feel the need to judge and compare ourselves to everyone we see. We find it easy to look people in the eye and to smile, to have compassion upon others. We have created space in our minds for thoughts about others, whispered to us by the Holy Spirit at work in our hearts. We find a quiet calm, a steady strength, and most of all … freedom. Freedom from our worries, freedom from our fears, freedom from our stress and the many things that an undisciplined mind had enslaved us to.
But the question many of us have is HOW? How do we keep our mind fixed on Christ? The Sunday school answer is to read your Bible more, go to church and pray, and while all of those things are perfectly wonderful I’d like to be a bit more specific than that. All of those things are necessary for spiritual growth, but we are in a need of what Scrooge was given, a new perspective on our world. We need to change our viewpoint from which we look at life and the people around us, and while I don’t think any of us will be visited by the ghost of Christmas past we do need to change the way we think. The best way to fix our mind on Christ and to be set free of our past and our future is to discipline our mind, which comes only through practice. The Bible mentions self-control and self-discipline at least 50 different times. Paul says to the Corinthians…
“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” 1 Corinthians 9:25-27 NIV
We all watch the Olympics with awe at the level of athleticism and ability demonstrated by those who compete. However, what we don’t see is a lifetime of strict training as Paul says, a lifestyle centered around discipline and void of anything that would hinder their athletic performance. They are not willing to take any chances, winning an Olympic medal is their ultimate goal, always in their mind. While most of us are not world class athletes we are Christians striving toward a similarly lofty goal, to renew our mind and become more like Christ, to live in the present moment that God may use us to glorify His name and advance His kingdom on this earth.
In our world today our minds are bombarded with images, ideas, sensations, all of which only encourages our minds to be further scattered and divided, enslaved to the things of this world. We must create space in our lives if we want to create space in our minds. In order to embrace the present, we have to learn how to become aware, to awaken our deadened senses. And then we just might find our perspective changing ever so slowly. So my challenge to you this new year is to learn how to be present, how to still your mind and fix it on Christ. Practice… go to a coffee shop and just sit. Don’t check your phone, don’t bring a book, just order a drink and sit and watch, teach yourself to be still, to be quiet. Eventually, try it in a quiet room alone and sit in silence. Maybe choose a scripture to meditate on, but the goal is not to memorize scripture at that moment, just sit in the presence of God and learn to be still and I promise you, you will find that perfect peace you long for, a new perspective on the world around you and in time you will learn to be present, set free from the chaos of this world. Like Paul says discipline doesn’t come easily, we must work at it, practice it daily. For some of us this may mean some drastic changes in our lifestyle and for others, it may be an encouragement to continue to live in the now. Whatever this may mean for you, take this new year as an opportunity to embrace life and not let it pass you by. And maybe next Christmas when you watch the tale of Scrooge you will be proud to say that you have not become numb to the life around you and that you have learned to live in the present… to embrace the presence of God.