“Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long. Remember, Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you, Lord, are good.” Psalm 25: 4-7
Growing up in Alabama meant that the nearest beach was the Gulf Coast. There are legendary stories of things that happened on that coast. There was a story of a woman on a Gulf coast beach who covered herself in suntan lotion and then fell asleep in shallow water. She woke up because something was bumping her raft. It was sharks. She had drifted seven miles from where she put that raft into the water. Thank goodness, she was rescued. Can you imagine waking up surrounded by sharks? I am certain that story is still alive and well in Alabama today.
Life is a lot like that sometimes, isn’t it? We end up on a different course, at a different place, not by a flourish of trumpets or cymbals clashing announcing a change, but by a slow drifting from where we should be to where we end up. We don’t mean to gain weight, but we have a little piece of cake just to be sociable, and soon we’ve gained ten pounds. A young person says: I started running with the wrong crowd and I didn’t think it would matter. Now, I’m a different person, and I don’t like myself. How do they get this way? A student says: I started off with a good grade in the course. I only missed one or two assignments. I was absent two or three days, I got a little behind, and now I’m failing. A husband or wife says: Our marriage has always been better than average. Not long ago we had a family picnic. Last night we were yelling at each other about a divorce. When did this happen to us? A solid citizen says: I have a drink from time to time. I’ve never really worried about it. Yesterday, I woke up on the floor and could not remember where I’d been for a full day. I cannot quit drinking and I don’t like what I’ve become. How did that happen?
One way that it happens is that we take so much in life for granted. Parents take their children for granted. Husband and wife take each other for granted. Many a marriage has a lackluster quality for just that reason. There is a failure to be attentive, considerate, to love and to cherish. Many marriages run aground not because of infidelity or incompatibility but from neglect. There is a sentence from a novel I read not long ago that says it. “Their marriage had become a sort of tired friendship.” We take things, people, husbands, wives, children, churches for granted. But mainly, we take God for granted. Have you heard that there are no “foxhole atheists,” no atheists in the trenches of war? They are quick believers. Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” We forget the Lord’s benefits so quickly. Christian constancy means not taking life’s relationships for granted. Checking on where you stand with your loved ones, your neighbors, your church, is important in life because life is moving in a certain direction. It may feel like it, but you are not drifting through life. Life has a goal, an end-point, a final destination, and thank goodness, we are assured that at our long journey’s end, we will be welcomed home by God.
One of the main reasons we drift is the pressure that we put upon ourselves. That pressure causes a slow, dangerous riptide that sweeps us away from where we should be. Pressure can be a good thing. It is part of life. People cannot be truly fulfilled without some amount of pressure that motivates and gives a drive to succeed. Pressure just needs to be managed. Pressure can turn coal into diamonds. But like anything else, too much of it can sap our strength, undermine health, rob us of happiness, and decrease our opportunities for the deeper needs of life.
Be aware of the pressure you put upon yourself. When we reach so high and stride so hard to get ahead, to get the promotion, to make more money, to be the best, our ego needs often drive us to take on more than we can accomplish, and the result is pressure. Disappointments and failure means even more pressure, and as pressure increases our perspective decreases. The pressure distorts where we are in life. We lose touch with how we are really doing in our relationships and begin to drift. Are you putting too much pressure on yourself? Do you habitually, as a matter of course, plan more for a day than is possible to accomplish? Do you condemn yourself when you do not accomplish all that you planned? Do you ever feel tired when you think about all the things you want to do, and things others demand and expect you to do? Do you feel at times that you are meeting everybody’s needs except your own? Are you often impatient with people? Do you ever feel like giving up, tossing in the towel, quitting? Are you often so tense that you cannot sleep at night? If you answered yes to any of those questions then you are under too much pressure.
When we find ourselves in the pressure cooker, it is all too easy to drift or relapse into bad habits of the past. Apply pressure and the potential for relapse skyrockets: an alcoholic relapses back to the bottle; an overeater back to the buffet; a gambler back to the casino; a workaholic back to over-scheduling so much that there is no white space left on the calendar.
Pressure causes us to drift from where we should be. One great way to release pressure in life is to increase your prayer life. I know that may sound trite, or simplistic, but it really helps. Prayer gives life a fresh perspective. The disciples asked Jesus how to pray and he gave them a model of prayer. Everyone has their own way to pray the ideas in that prayer. Once a friend told me that he was an expert at worrying, but didn’t know how to pray. I told him prayer has been called, “the opposite of worry.” Later he reported to me that he had learned to pray and it was helping align his life again. He said he did the opposite of worry. I’m not really sure how the mechanics of the opposite of worry works, but the point is, prayer helps.
The book of Zechariah states in 4:6 – “’Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” When we pray we step back from where we are. It is more than a moment for a deep breath. Prayer is an alignment of our direction. Prayer reminds us that God cares and wants us back on the path that was intended, a path before we drifted, a path that leads to eternity. In that way, prayer is a wake up call that we are alive to more than just the natural world, that we are connected to the supernatural.
I read a story about a soldier who fought in the Vietnam War. While he led the way at the front of his patrol, his fellow soldiers fell one by one. Eventually he was alone and terrified. As explosions happened all around him, he kept walking and never fell. When he returned to America, it haunted his mind. He could not rid himself of that moment. Doctors tried to help him but he could not let it go. He visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., with a list that contained the names of his fallen friends. He searched out each name one by one. He slowly rubbed his finger over each name on the wall. But there was one name that he could not find. Finally someone helped him. “Are you sure you have the name right?” “Yes,” he answered. “Sir, is this your name?” she asked. “Yes.” “But sir, you are alive. You weren’t killed. Your name isn’t on that wall. Go and live your life!” It was as if a light was turned on in a dark room. Eventually he learned to live life again.
He was surprised that his name was not on that wall. He went on to live life. One of the things that Jesus did when he came was to remind people that life is more than day-to-day living, than the accumulation of pressures, achievements, failures, ups, downs. Jesus pointed people toward heaven. In Luke 10:20 Jesus says to “rejoice that your name stands written in heaven.” We kind of have the opposite reaction to that soldier at the Vietnam Memorial. Yes, your name is listed in the Book of Life! That means a lot. It reminds us to go out and live life, to nurture relationships, to take account of where you are in your journey to heaven. That is Christian constancy- to constantly remember the things that are really important in life. Being mindful of a “heavenly goal” can stop drifting and become a towline pulling you back to shore.
There is a story in the Bible about the prophet Isaiah. He was feeling shaky about life. King Uzziah’s 50-year reign was over, and Israel’s economy, or rather, it’s whole future, had a bleak outlook. The Assyrians were about to attack. The people were downcast and depressed. Isaiah went into the temple and experienced a vision of God upon the throne. It reminded him that God was still in charge. God was still the ultimate goal. It caused him to reflect upon himself and his spiritual progress. He was deeply humbled, his pride was burned away, and he was able to get a new perspective upon life. We may not have a spiritual experience on that level, but we can turn to God in prayer and take account of our lives just as Isaiah did.
There is a story in John chapter 6 that happens after the feeding of the 5,000, a story we know well. When the people showed up the next day, Jesus knew that they were there only to be fed again. So he began to teach them more about what life is really about. After teaching them, Jesus said, “That is a hard lesson.” Then the Bible says that many of the people, and many of his disciples, began to walk away and leave. Jesus turned to the twelve disciples and asked if they were going to leave, too. In one of the only times in the Gospels when Peter actually seems to grasp the meaning of what is happening, Peter responds, saying, “Where else would we go? You alone have the words to eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” Drifting can happen at any point in life, especially when pressure causes us to feel lost. When we set our sights on the true horizon, the ultimate goal of heaven, we have a better chance of finding our way home again and staying on track. Prayer can re-focus life. As Isaiah found, an awareness of God can give us a new perspective on where we are in life. Christian constancy means not letting the pressures of life keep us from nurturing what is really important. Be careful not to fall asleep and wake up surrounded by sharks. Keep your sights set on God. He wants you to keep a steady course. You’re already heading in his direction. Your name is written in his Book of Life.