What Keeps Your World from Falling Apart?

One of the recurring struggles in my life has been my tendency to envy others. I often compare myself to others in some twisted game of internal competition where I inevitably end up in the losers bracket. It’s one of those prime examples of insanity, doing the same thing over again, expecting different results. In my struggle with self-measuring, I find myself caught up in a giant toilet-bowl swirly of discontent, envy and jealousy.

“I’m not as smart as him.”

“She has more talent in her little toe that I do in my entire body!”

“Why can’t I be as good-looking as him?”

I have learned that the best defense against my envy attacks is gratitude. I must practice being grateful in all things lest I fall into my toilet bowl of discontent and envy.

I have challenged myself over the past year to write down five things I’m grateful for each morning. If I miss a day, then I list ten the next. This practice has helped me get free from the chains of envy and jealousy in my life. When I’m grateful, I’m less likely to obsess over what other people have.

Brian McLaren, in his book Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words, gives an entire chapter on the practice of gratitude. One of the exercises he encourages his readers to do is to write out a prayer, finishing three prompts:

  • “Thank you, Lord, for…” (Name gifts as they come to mind.)
  • “If I stopped being grateful…” (Tell God what would happen to you if you didn’t give thanks.)
  • “Thank you!” (Describe how you feel to be so blessed.)

It was the second prompt, “If I stopped being grateful…” that really caught my attention. As I began to explore my life and what it would become if I stopped being grateful, I was overwhelmed with how tragically different my life would end up. I would end up a wretched, bitter old man, isolated from my family and my church. I would be alone and homeless, all because of my chronic ingratitude.

As I contemplated on this realization, it occurred to me that gratitude is like the earth’s axis in my life. If the earth’s axis moves too far off it’s 23.5-degree angle, all havoc would break loose, literally destroying earth, as we know it. The same thing would happen to my world if I lost my axis of gratitude. My life would be turned upside down.

We can’t survive without an axis of gratitude.

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” Cicero

The City at Night

As I left Chicago on that dreary winter afternoon, the snow was spitting across the backdrop of gray and black skyscrapers fading into the low depression of clouds. Miles of overwhelmed highways looped around the city in a chokehold of grit and exhaust.  As I drove south, I couldn’t help but notice the corrosion of a great city; vacant warehouses and unfinished road construction scarred the grayness like bedsores on an old man’s ashen body.   Urban blight only seemed to be magnified against the opaque winter grayness.

My five-hour trip brought me into St. Louis at about 9:00 on a Saturday night. As I crossed the river, the lights of the Gateway Arch welcomed me home. The copper-green dome of the historic courthouse radiated in her winter gown accompanied by the sparkle of the city skyline. The brisk winter night seemed to highlight the beauty of my hometown. I traveled through my favorite city corridor past several illuminated landmarks: Busch Stadium, Union Station, and Forest Park, and thought to myself how beautiful St. Louis is at night.

As I made my way home, the thought occurred to me, cities always look better at night. They seem to shimmer and glitter with light, putting on a dazzling display for those who are passing through. But in the daylight, much of that sparkle seems to disappear. In the light of day, the city isn’t able to hide its mortifying decay of vacant warehouses and stores, the blight of burned out buildings, stripped of its brick and copper, laid bare for gawkers to see. In the light of day, the city skeletons won’t stay in their dark closets. So the city has learned to use the shadows of darkness to cover her scars, while at the same time, using lighting effects to accentuate her beauty marks.

In Matthew 5:14 Jesus told his followers, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” I wonder if the church, the city on a hill, has also found ways of covering up her scars in the shadow of darkness. The light of Christ is supposed to illuminate from us so others can see His light through us, but I’m afraid we tend to use the light mainly to spotlight the good things that make us proud and we keep our scars and our poverty hidden away in the dark corners of our back closets. I pray for the day when we can allow God’s light to shine on us so we can be seen for what we truly are, broken people made beautiful by the Light, not concealed in darkness.