“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John 1:14
Even though I was a history major in college I do not consider myself much of a historian. Still, I do remember that at the time of Christ many Greeks believed that matter was evil. Only things related to the spirit were considered good. This philosophy affected many early Christians. There was the belief among some early followers that the body and all things material were corrupt. One can only imagine how those holding such a view looked at the natural world.
Today we can say with confidence that the material world is not evil. We know from Genesis 1 that the world was created by God and that He declared it “good.” But even if we didn’t have this passage, the birth of Christ also makes the same positive affirmation. How so? Simply by His willingness to take on human flesh in the Incarnation God affirms the goodness of the material world and Creation.
Although you rarely hear people declaring the material world evil these days there are still many who make a clear distinction between things sacred and secular. After the coming of Christ I am not sure that even this is a valid distinction. The coming of Jesus as Emmanuel—God with us—reveals the truth that the divine presence permeates all of the world. As Emmanuel, God remains present in and around us. This means that if we truly have eyes to see then we will discern His presence in Creation and in those around us. Jesus himself said “the kingdom of God is in your midst.” If we look closely we will see it all around us.
While I was in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a couple of weeks ago I had a chance to spend some time at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. In additions to her delightful paintings, the museum displays a number of sayings from the famous artist. O’Keeffe once said, “seeing takes time.” When it comes to seeing the divine in this present world it does, in fact, take time. But if we will be persistent in our looking and open to God’s wonderful surprises, we will discover that the God who made Himself known through the Child born in Bethlehem is still very much in our midst.
(I took the two pictures above on my recent trip to New Mexico.)
While I was in northern California last week I was reminded that many species of plants (and animals) can only thrive where the conditions are just right. The majestic redwoods do well on the coast of California for a reason. Further east on the White Mountains, the ancient bristlecone pine forests exists because the conditions are just right for them to grow there. The redwoods could not grow where the bristlecone pine trees are found and those trees would not last long in the environment where the redwoods thrive. Rob and I also visited a bog area that is the home of the cobra pitcher plant. You will not find this unique plant in many places because like the redwood and pine trees, it requires a certain type soil and environment to survive and prosper. It is just a fact of nature that various species require certain conditions in order to do well.
What is true in the natural world is also true in the spiritual realm. There are conditions that are necessary in order to thrive spiritually. Without these conditions we will not do well at all. Our chances of growing without the right environment are about as good as a bristlecone pine tree making it on the coast of California. What are the ideal conditions for spiritual prosperity? Obviously, there are many. Here are a couple of things that come to my mind. First, we thrive spiritually when we focus on the kingdom of God. Jesus placed great emphasis on the kingdom of God and taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” He also said “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness…” (Matthew 6:33) Many of us fail to grow spiritually because our lives tend to focus first and foremost on ourselves. We want our kingdom to come and our will to be done. We won’t get far spiritually that way.
Second, we will also have a better chance of thriving spiritually if we will seek to incorporate spiritual disciplines into our lives. These are time-tested practices that put us in a position to grow. Some of the classic disciplines are prayer, the study of scripture, fasting, solitude, silence, meditation, service, worship and confession. Where these practices are found in the soil of one’s life there is far more likelihood of flourishing than if these disciplines are absent or neglected.
As humans created in the image of God we have the freedom to choose our spiritual environment. If we find ourselves in a place where we are not growing we can change that. This is good news! It offers hope for everyone. We can all thrive if we just make the effort to place ourselves in the environment God has deemed best for us.
(The redwood trees and pitcher plant shown above were photographed last week. The ancient bristlecone pine tree image was taken a couple of years ago.)