First Things First
By: John H. Campbell
"God knows that you need all of these things. But strive first for the Dominion of God and God's righteousness, and all of these things will be given to you as well. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today."
It never fails. Every year, when the end of one year is drawing to a close and January first looms ever nearer, someone always has to ask me what my "New Year's Resolution" is. (Most often, it comes with their personal suggestion attached, and it involves me doing something I either don't really want or need to do, but rather something they personally wish I would or would not do). For the past few years now, my answer has been the same thing, delivered with a smile: "Only one: not to make any New Year's Resolutions." For many of those who know me, it has become the expected response.
It isn't that I am opposed to the idea of anyone taking advantage of the close of one calendar year and the beginning of another as an opportunity to cease procrastination of new habits they want to enact or wean themselves off of undesirable ones; it's just that I tend to think of things differently.
For me, it's a little too much like being what I refer to as being an "E and C" Christian. (For those not familiar with the term, it is my reference to someone who attends church on Easter Sunday and at Christmas, and then puts their spirituality or their spiritual ideas on a shelf, stored away with the tree, lights, wreath and Nativity set and the PAAS Easter Egg dye and chocolate bunnies for the remainder of the year.) I admit we don't always make it to church every Sunday. Sometimes, for many Sundays in a row. But one thing I would not want to do is get to a point where the only times we attended were on Christmas and Easter. Besides, I would prefer to observe the sacred and spiritual meanings of those days year round, and not just at specific times or dates on a calendar.
In my reference to attending church sporadically, I am by no means inferring that it is mandatory for one to actually even attend church at all in order to have a deep sense of spirituality or Oneness with God. And I don't think for a moment that God is going to be "offended" if anyone ever sets foot in a church or not their entire lives; in my opinion, if one attends church out of fear that God will be "angry" with them for not attending, or that they are "required" to in order to "please" God, rather than to develop a greater sense of spiritual health, a group sense of connectedness with God, and fellowship with other people of faith, then I think that they are going to church for all the wrong reasons in the first place.
It is the more the principle I am referring to - the idea or the assumption that we should be inclined to be "more" spiritual or in touch with God and our spirituality at one time of the year-times more commonly associated with spiritual renewal-than another. Although I always enjoy the Holiday festivities and the Christmas Season, I elect to celebrate what Christmas is celebrating-the time when we observe the birth of Christ and all that He represents and Gave to us, as well as a kind and giving nature and spirit on a daily basis. I feel the same way about New Year's Resolutions: if there is something we want or need to do-be it being more attentive to our health, responsibilities, diet, whatever it is that we have been procrastinating - then why wait for midnight on December 31st, or the morning of January 1st to do it? Why wait at all? In the words of the lesser known but oh so frequently quoted "St. Nike," "Just do it!"
That opinion being stated, just because I don't care to make resolutions, or embark on any new and dramatic path (or one that merely seems dramatic to one on an individual basis) at the close of one year and the beginning of another, I certainly have a lot of respect for the concept of doing so. I have, at times started a new habit or discipline on the first of a month, or a random Monday morning, and even at the beginning of the year.
There is absolutely nothing wrong or spiritually "unhealthy" with the idea or concept of "a fresh start and fresh new beginning" by doing something new and different as the old year becomes a new one - on the contrary, such a discipline can be indicative of a strong sense of spiritual fitness.
But what I think people do miss out on at times in the practice and ritual of annual resolutions is that merely "doing something new," while it can create a new and fresh perspective on things and lead to growth, it is not necessary in order to feel a true sense of renewal. A far more pertinent question would be asking oneself why they are opting to make this new decision; what impact will it have? From a spiritual perspective, perhaps the most important question of all is: How will this impact my spirituality, and bring me closer to feeling at one with God, and therefore lead to a greater sense of wholeness in my life, appreciation of the gift of my life, and simultaneously enrich the lives of those around me, of possible or applicable?
That is not to say that I do not have my own ideas about how to observe the passing of the old year into the new. Just as many publications-both on and offline, and television programs-have their annual "Year in Review" issues and episodes towards the ending of December and the first part of January, I usually take the final days in between December 25th and midnight on January 31st to do my own sort of reflection of my "Year in Review," but in a different light.
For example: What all did I learn this year? What lessons did I learn from my actions, my decisions, and the path which I chose on a daily basis? Which life lessons were painful, and which ones were pleasant surprises? What knowledge did I attain, and how will I utilize it in the coming year?
What new people came into my life, and what blessings or gifts did my knowing them, whether for a brief or extended period of time, enrich my life with? What was I able to pass on to them from knowing them? Did my words or actions help them in some way - offering hope, or encouragement? If not, how could I have done things differently so that they might, if I encounter the same opportunity next time? How will this effect my decisions moving forward?
How did I grow this year, spiritually or otherwise? When I reflect back on my spirituality this time last year, what is different, or how has it evolved or been enhanced? What goals that I had this time last year did I achieve, and which ones have I not yet achieved? What good things happened that brought me a sense of peace, joy and gratitude, and what not so good things took place, and how did I react to them and what impact did they have on my outlook on life and sense of well being? What one event was most meaningful to me?
I know these are not the standard things that people might think about towards the end of the year and leading into a new one, but this has become a process which is very meaningful to me in a spiritual sense and really enables me to put the close of one year and the beginning of a new one into better perspective. It also enables me to keep my own perspective in check and ensure that my focus is on what truly is important and matters the most rather than what is not important or carries little to no significance.
It's not an "inventory" to me so much as it is the opportunity to give thanks for the blessings that might have come my way in the previous year, not only the more substantial and obvious ones-new acquaintances, new friends, new opportunities, times when I was able to see good things happen for others that I had been hoping, praying and rooting for right along with them - but also the little things that always carry such value, as well as the silver linings which came along with the clouds and the difficult times that I might not have been able to easily ascertain at that time. It also provides the opportunity for closure to events which might have been distressing and meaningless or served no useful purpose to me at the time but proved to be grand opportunities for spiritual growth.
One rather interesting outcome of this type of annual review of events is that often the times which carried with them the heaviest emotional burden or the most difficulty have proven to lead to some of the greater senses of spiritual awakening, awareness, and feelings of Oneness with God. Even more interesting is looking back in retrospect and being able to step back and have a view of the big picture with slightly more clarity. A perfect example of this is being able to see the impact that certain events carried when contrasted with other collections of events throughout the year; a chance meeting with someone early in the year which led to a friendship, and their being there for me in a need of time and crisis later on in the year, and myself later being able to return the same kindness to them. The old adage of "everything for a reason" seems less of a tired cliche when events are seen in retrospect.
And there seems to be one constant between all of the good events which took place, often at unexpected times. I wasn't trying so hard to make them happen, and in more cases than not, I wasn't trying at all. I had only let go of the struggle, the effort, and the worry I had felt and merely focused on God and allowing things to "be" rather than focusing so intently on their "being a certain way."
In fact, when I reflect on the times when a longed for and long awaited answer to something which I had been struggling over suddenly and finally came, it only arrived when I did something I refer to as "going back to the basics" and putting things in the priority I know always works: placing spiritual health, and my spirituality and connection with God, as I understand God through my understandings of the teachings of Christ and personal experience, at the forefront of everything. This is the extremely valuable and necessary teaching which I feel is being referred to by Jesus in Matthew 6, and although the way it works for each one of us may differ on an individual level, as we all do in our understanding of spiritual teachings, the principle remains the same. As with other timeless teachings, I have found this one to ring resoundingly true, no matter how times may evolve or how much time goes by.
Over the Holidays this past year, in fact, over the past few weeks, I have experienced this very concept in action. Not for me, so much; although it has occurred in my own life many, many times, as I will relate later on. This was for a very close friend of mine who up until just recently did not really acknowledge his own spirituality or choose to be connected with it.
Even those who I am acquainted with whom I don't always agree or totally get along with a hundred percent of the time due to differences of opinion are of value to me, and not just "during the Holidays" but all through the year. In the weeks before Christmas, there had been a few disagreements between a friend of mine and I who, although we are good friends, do not and have not always seen things eye to eye (and Thank God that agreeing upon everything is not any type of requirement for a good, solid friendship!) But we had resolved those disagreements, and placed any conflict which might have arisen from them aside. We were in contact over the holidays, and things seemed to be good for everyone.
But as I have been finishing the writing and editing of this piece, I have been in consistent, close contact with said friend who has been dealing with a tragic crisis which struck his life immediately following Christmas. I received an urgent message at an odd hour from him asking for help, for someone to talk to, for some type of guidance and anchor. My usually very confident friend seemed as if what he was dealing with - the sudden loss of a relationship as his wife of many years had suddenly and without any warning left their marriage and left him completely alone - had completely turned his life upside down, and it had. Despite all of the holiday issues that had been going on here with my own family, I wanted to do whatever I could to be there for someone in need-many have often done the same for me.
He came from a very spiritual - I stress the idea of spiritual rather than "religious" - background, but had become a self professed atheist over the years. I recall a few times over the past year or two when I had tried to get into a conversation with him regarding spiritual matters, and although he had a lot of respect for my beliefs and their meaning to me, we agreed to disagree as he did not seem to share my honest belief in a God of unconditional Love at the Heart of everything.
Although we may have personally experienced our own tragedies, heartbreaks and trials on a deeply individual level and can empathize with another in a situation that might be similar to or that we might be able to relate to something we ourselves have experienced, there is no way that we can know or experience precisely what they themselves are experiencing, or the acuteness, severity or intensity of whatever emotional pain or grief they may be going through. To me, to attempt to do so risks trivializing their anguish, which in my experience does little to help matters. Dispensing unsolicited advice is not always the best idea, as what may offer solace to our souls individually may create unrest for another, and even if it is requested, all too frequently we search our hearts, souls and minds for answers which we may not even fully understand the questions to, as they are from the experience of someone other than ourselves. As a result, what it is we feel that we can offer may come up lacking.
It is at these times that I feel suggestions should remain few and limited, and that the best possible and most loving and considerate gift which we can offer is a sympathetic ear, an open heart, and a metaphorical shoulder to cry on. These can often compensate for any lack of true understanding we may be equipped to feel or offer, regardless of how much our souls may desire to be able to give it to another in need.
So rather than attempt to offer any definitive solutions or answers, I just listened, and tried to be as supportive as possible, without any type of judgment or speculation other than that which focused on maintaining as positive an attitude as possible given the difficult and distressing circumstances. He was exercising every possible option to make contact with the person who had left him, in every attempt to influence the outcome being a positive one; although he was open to the possibility that the relationship might have ended permanently and that he might have to consider the possibility of moving on with his life without her as being as critical a part of it if a part of it at all, he was, as most of us do under such circumstances, hoping for the best.
Not at my direct suggestion, but from within himself, he reached a decision to take the step to reconnect with his own spirituality and understanding of God after what he said was many years of placing this aspect of his life aside, and elected to attend a church service at a place of worship where he felt comfortable. I was very supportive and encouraged him to do so, and once I was satisfied that he was not a direct threat to himself, I was able to let go and lift up the situation in prayer. My prayer was not for things to suddenly and magically correct themselves, nor was it for any defined and specific outcome to the situation; it was merely that my friend and all people involved in the situation would experience God's Unconditional Love, Care and Guidance.
Several hours after my last conversation, I spoke to him and received some amazing news: No, things were not fixed; things were not as he wanted them to be and things were, and still are far from being what the hoped for outcomes would be. But things had gotten better.
First and foremost, he confessed to me that he had experienced a very profound sense of reconnection with the Divine, with God and had been able to feel that connection. Secondly, he had been able to let go of many of the concerns; although he still had a heavy heart given the situation and was dealing with some very challenging emotions, he seemed to have regained something which had not been present in my prior conversations with him-a sense of hope, regardless of the outcome of his current circumstances. Although he had spent sleepless hours longing to be reunited with his beloved, he was experiencing an intense sense of being reunited with the spiritual side of himself he had ignored for so long, and with God.
And then just mere hours later, he received the word that his wife was taking steps towards their communicating again - and quite possibly taking steps towards trying to work the issues which had split them apart out, as well as possibly leading to their marriage and relationship being saved and renewed. It was not an immediate assurance that this would be the case, or any type of assurance for that matter that it would in fact happen - but it gave him hope, as well as the assurance that she was alive, well and okay, and willing to communicate, a step in the right direction. He admitted that he knew that God had heard him, and felt as if his prayers had been answered; not necessarily a prayer to "fix" the situation, but the prayers to enable him to reconnect with his spirituality and be better equipped to work towards a resolution which would be best for all concerned. It was an amazing experience, especially given some conversations I had with the person in months prior-this was quite the epiphany in one of the people who I least expected to see having one.
What really struck me with the whole series of events and made it possible to relate them to events which directly happened to me and had a very profound effect upon spiritual, emotional and other types of growth in my own life was the course of action he had decided upon and taken to arrive in the place where he did. He stopped seeking and pursuing his goal of reconnection with the person who he loved - he did not relinquish it, but merely placed the importance of that as secondary - and ceased worrying about the outcome as much, just as Christ also teaches in Matthew 6 when He tells us "do not worry about tomorrow." (One of my favorite parts of Matthew, just before another favorite, Matthew 7 - containing the admonition not to judge others.)
My friend sought a reconnection with God first - and lo and behold, things happened. Not only was he able to achieve a greater sense of inner peace and the ability to better cope with the situation, but he was able to feel the sense of spiritual connection to Something Greater which in my heart is so very vital, so necessary to anything we might need, want or pursue in our lives. That in and of itself made a dramatic difference in not only the circumstance, but how he was able to process, approach, and cope with it. I feel that without the awareness that God is with us, and Loves us - that which is trivial in the grand scheme of things, and those things which we feel are oppressing us can seem insurmountable. With a sense or feeling of God's Love for us - well, in all honesty, things can still be rough when they get rough - but there is a dramatic difference in the way we react to our surroundings and circumstances, which often results in some miraculous occurrences we might not have initially expected until we opened our eyes.
As is the case with all of us, myself included. A great many moments in my own life experience, trials and struggles have stood out for me as being the greatest moments of spiritual clarity and closeness to God, leading to a deep and profound sense of spiritual renewal and hope for a new beginning. They occurred often at unexpected, or the least expected times, and often in the most unexpected of places or seemingly unlikely sources. But the vast majority, if not all of them did not happen until I was able to step away from the direct source of my distress and the desperate seeking of answers, and was able to focus first on my connection and personal relationship with and understanding of a Loving God, as I understand God through the teachings of Christ as well as my own experiences.
It has been taught, and we have been reassured over and over again in what Christ taught, that whatever it is we long for, or seek that if we believe with faith, put God and being a loving person first, take the steps towards our goals and patiently "Ask, seek and knock," then it will be delivered to us in the time and manner that it is supposed to unfold-and somehow, it always does. We cannot determine exactly or place or focus on lot of energy on the where, when and how. God's imagination is far more vast and knowing than ours could be. We simply have to trust that things will be and allow them to unfold in the best way possible for all involved. God already knows whatever it is we could want or need, so that should be at the most a secondary concern or even a non-issue: Seek God first, and all else will follow.
And "seeking God first" does not, by any means involve limiting the scope and nature of God's reach by segregating it solely to the places we might subconsciously relegate it to out of habit. It may not mean attending a church service we somehow find ourselves being drawn to, or reading the Bible, or searching spiritual and religious texts online or elsewhere at all. It could be something as simplistic as our taking the time to counsel with a friend in need, or reaching out to help someone who asks, or doing volunteer work to occupy the frantic hours of uncertainty we might be experiencing due to some personal crisis; illness, depression, loneliness, the loss (or apparent loss) of a relationship, a friendship or a job. Our current spiritual path or lack thereof is immaterial. It is what is in our heart that matters most.
To me, "seeking God first" means one thing: seeking a deeper connection with God, above and beyond everything else, by putting ourselves into such a place where God's Love can flow to, as well as through us and at the same time, placing our trust fully in God, knowing that our needs for whatever else we might be seeking have already been met before we were even fully aware of or had any prior knowledge of them.
If we are selflessly helping another person in need or committing a random act of unsolicited kindness, we are letting God flow through us to another person. If we are practicing the "Great Commandment" and "Golden Rule" of Christ by Loving One Another with unconditional love and respect the way God Loves each and every one of us, we are connecting ourselves with God. If we are coming to God honestly and sincerely - truly as we are with an open heart and mind, and the willingness to understand that we are loved as we are and for who we are and how we were Created, and coming from a place of sheer gratitude and Love rather than fear or "bargaining" with God to "make it all better when we mess up or things get messed up," then we are aligning ourselves for a deep and true connection with the Greatest spiritual energy known.
I think back to some very profound instances in my own spiritual journey and life experience when I could experience this very principle in action. I think back to a time many years ago when I was experiencing a time of crisis and loss, and had no idea how to cope or deal with it. I had some supportive friends, but I was experiencing a need for something which no person, or any amount of comfort or reassurance could replace; a sense of loneliness that no amount of company could assuage. Although I was upset over the loss of a relationship then, deep down I was experiencing a void which nothing at the time could seem to fill. I didn't know it at first, but later realized that it was a case of feeling and being spiritually famished and dry.
I recall being tormented over various things concerning how I would get things back on track, how I would repair broken bonds and other particulars about my situation, and then placing those aside. At the time, I was leaving behind a very repressive and legalistic interpretation of Christianity, and out of the desire to reconnect with God and my own spirituality, I was considering visiting a new church, a more liberal church which was not swept up in dogma and conditions, but rather the idea that God was less about legality and more about Love. It was also a congregation which did not offer judgment towards people based upon their sexuality or sexual orientation, meaning the fact that I am bisexual would be a non-issue. I had been seeking a place of worship where I could be myself, but had been putting off taking the leap of faith and actually taking the step of going there.
One night, when I was out driving, listening to music and thinking on things, I drove by the church, only to see the little weekly message board out front with the message, "Don't Give Up. Give In To God." That spoke to me, and I ceased being as concerned with the situation I was dealing with, and I chose to attend-which was the beginning of a state of total spiritual renewal for me and what I think was one of the very first times I approached God as I am, not desiring anything more than a sense of knowing I am Loved as I am.
A short time later in my life, I found myself in a different city, away from where I had been living, and seeking support, new friends, and a new group of people to share my faith with. I had found another supportive church, but was concerned over finding work at the time, as well as some new friends. I filled my hours with volunteer work, assisting and providing support and counseling to people with HIV, AIDS, and other life threatening illnesses. I was doing so merely out of the idea that rather than wallow in self pity over feeling alone that it would be far more productive to use my time and talents to help those in need. Besides, I experience some of my happiest times knowing that something I said or did made a difference in someone else's life or just brightened their day or offered hope in some way.
Some more interesting things occurred as a result of my putting aside that which I felt an immediate need for, and placing the welfare and concern for others over my own, seemingly trivial worries and concerns. I encountered a great many very spiritual people - the majority of whom had very healthy and positive ideas about God which they shared with me - something which I had been seeking more of. As a result of encountering and being among others who identified as bisexual and through other people who I met that I was able to find affirming support groups for other bisexual individuals, as well as those who had been through the process I was still undergoing at the time of reconciling my spirituality and sexuality. I also developed new work skills, and connections that enabled me to locate a job I was comfortable with.
Even after I had begun and was well underway with the process of my own spiritual renewal, there were some of the times I would be struggling with specific issues and would be doing research in books or, more frequently, the Internet (although this was close to 10 years ago, with nowhere near the amount of information which is readily available on the Web now, I was already very active online.)
As I was coming out and accepting myself I was made to be, as bisexual, there were many things distressing me; although in my heart I believed and knew these were not concerns, there were many years of dogmatic, fear based conditioning to be undone created by my internalization of the comments of others attempting to speak for God or trying to play God over time.
I recall some of my internet searches, and when I was seeking exact and specific things, most of them did not yield much. Finally, I just began seeking things regarding positive spirituality, liberal Christian thought in regards to sexual orientation, and ideas of a God of Unconditional Love - and that is when the types of things I was searching for came into view.
I knew there were sites that offered support for Gay and Lesbian Christians and had discovered a few, but did not know of any sites which would be affirming, supportive or accepting of bisexual Christians, and especially those such as myself who are involved simultaneously in honest and committed relationships with both a woman and a man. But in response to the terms "bisexual" and "Christian" there was this site, offering support of bisexual Christians and offering alternative beliefs and ideas about spirituality and sexuality. Oddly enough, when I was merely seeking terms related to "liberal" and "Christian" the very first search result that came up was for a site offering support to Christians in multiple partner relationships, and who were welcoming and supportive of the fact that I am a bisexual man who is in love and relationship with both a woman and a man. And finally, there was another site offering support for those seeking to reconcile their spirituality and sexuality, and debunking and dissecting the dogma about any form of consensual sexual sharing among adults being "unnatural." All of these were things which offered needed support to me in a time of need, and all were answered prayers.
All of these instances might seem very minor to some, but at the time I made these discoveries, they were direct answers to prayers. And in every single one of these instances, I was seeking the spiritual. I was seeking God first, and searching for ways to be able to reconcile spirituality and sexuality before other issues of self-acceptance. The answers to the prayers and the hope and knowledge that I had been seeking did not result merely from my specifically looking for them, but rather seeking God first - in this case, seeking to find support for the idea that there were others who might have had similar concerns and who wanted to fully be who they knew they were Made to be but who would not abandon their faith in God in order to do so nor abandon the hope that they would be Loved as is. I was seeking hope, and to enrich my spiritual health first, and this led to the direct fulfillment of many of the desires of my heart, and alleviation of the worries, anxieties and fears which had kept my heart heavy and unable to fully experience God's Unconditional love and acceptance.
There have been many more instances of where my heart led me to place spiritual matters - and doing what I knew to be right in my heart first-above that which I specifically desired which led to things being better all around; there was the instance where a series of "circumstances" led to my becoming involved with a girl from my past who did not know of my being bisexual, and when I did what I knew to be right by being fully up front and honest with her about who I am before becoming involved, it led to her admitting her own bisexuality to me and the beginning of a beautiful (if unconventional) committed relationship where both of us share a unique and honest bond of love with each other as well as with our same gender partners. There have been many instances I can think of regarding career opportunities I was presented with where electing to give up one opportunity in the interest of doing the right and honest thing (again, putting God first in being considerate and respectful of others) only led to having an even better and more fulfilling one where I could better utilize the gifts which God blessed me with show up.
Regardless of any of the particulars, in every single instance in my life where I have chosen to place spiritual well being and my understanding of God and being and feeling closer to God, as well as doing what it is that I feel God wishes for all of us-to show the same measure of love and kindness to others we would want for ourselves-above all else, everything else has fallen into place, and every time in a more interesting, better, (and at often times, mysterious) fashion than anything I could have envisioned.
And that is why I always strive to live by the directive of "seeking God first" whenever I find myself in a place of worry, fear, anxiety or crisis, or if I am seeking to achieve a certain goal or aspiration. I always endeavor to keep the spiritual and my understanding of God at the forefront in all of my endeavors, before and above any personal concern, desire or issue. Everything else follows.
God is not a God of "requirements" - at least, not in my heart or in my experience. God wants the absolute best of what is best for us, based upon how we were Created to be as individuals, and we have free will at any time to "ask seek and knock" for help, guidance and direction towards that if we desire, whenever we choose to. Even if there is something we desperately long for and seek, if we cease worrying and place the Trust where it needs to be, miraculous things can take place. We need to abandon the worry and trust that all is taken care of, and place God first.
In every instance where I have sought to improve my relationship with God first before placing undue worry, concern and effort to improving my lot in life, it was not "conditional." It was not an, "ok God, be there for me and I will do this or that." It was merely, "God, I know You're there, help me." And I feel that it was merely recognizing, embracing and being open to this Eternal Love without conditions that made all of the difference in what transpired afterwards.
I don't believe that God suddenly "favors" us upon our recognition of the Reality of God. The things or people that come into our lives to give us hope and a greater sense of faith or help us somehow are often people we have known all along or who have been right there all along. Nor do I believe that God suddenly gives us the ability to accomplish something which we did not already possess somewhere in our being or soul. I think it is all in our being able to see God more clearly and be open to the reality that we are not an island alone to ourselves. This then enables us to fully connect to the Source of everything and therefore able to connect with the unique gifts God has blessed us each with in order to find the solutions that we are seeking to whatever it is we may be concerned about.
I stand convinced that God is not just beside us or all around us but a part of us, and no matter what may obscure our understanding of the idea-be it fear, doubt, or disconnectedness - there is no way anyone can be truly separate from God. If we have, develop, or renew and redevelop a solid trust and relationship with God first, then the things we desire will be more apparent. We will become fully conscious and aware in a sense of faith when opportunities present themselves and we may then embrace them without fear, doubt or hesitation. It is because if this that I fully believe that spiritual wholeness is a prerequisite, rather than a secondary thought, to any sense of true peace which anything else that we could want or hope for would enable us to feel.
There are a few thoughts I would add in tandem with the idea of seeking God, a sense of connectedness with God, and pursuing spiritual wholeness first and foremost.
One would be something which seems appropriate towards the end of one year and the beginning of a new, if you are among those who choose to view the turning of the calendar in an "out with the old, in with the new" type of mindset. I am drawn to a verse which many reference when they are speaking of a sense of spiritual renewal, and rebirth:
"No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved." -Matthew 9:16-17
If you find yourself at this time, or at any time, wanting to move forward into a new year, or day, or hour with a fresh spiritual perspective or sense of renewal, this is one teaching which I have found to be particularly useful. If there are old ideas you may still hold on to about God or about spirituality which are old, and do not serve to create a greater sense of connectedness with God but rather inhibit it, this to me seems an idea which should definitely be considered.
A renewal of one's spirituality often means the washing away and cleansing of old (and sometimes toxic) beliefs and ideas which could have contributed to a sense of spiritual void, emptiness, or disconnection in the first place, and I have found that while it is often a difficult task. The very best thing to do is to acknowledge that while maintaining certain ideas about God in the past may have worked during that time in our lives, God is far greater than any concept or fear we could have, and we may need to shed those skins in order to move on and maintain our reconnection with God, and our spiritual health.
I do not feel that it means that we abandon cherished traditions which bring us a sense of peace and connectedness, but rather that it means that we inventory and evaluate any ideas which may be preventing us from fully experiencing a sense of trust, connectedness and Oneness with God and determine whether or not these are drawing us closer or further apart from God, from others, and from the person who God Made us to be. Many times, when one develops a healthy sense of spiritual renewal, it comes in a form which may resemble the old in some ways, but is also something completely new. I feel this verse is an admonition to not allow old, or negative ways of thought to interfere with a newfound sense of renewal.
And speaking of thoughts, one other verse comes to mind, in regards to our thinking and how our experience of God can be influenced by our own thoughts:
"In the morning, when Jesus returned to the city, He was hungry. And seeing a fig tree by the side of the road, He went to it and found nothing at all on it but leaves. Then Jesus said to it, "May no fruit ever come from you again!" And the fig tree withered at once. When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, "How did the fig tree wither at once?" Jesus answered them, "Truly, I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea', it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive". -Matthew 21: 18-22
This has long been one of my favorite passages from the New Testament, and to me it carries a very powerful message and meaning about faith, our thoughts, and the impact they can have on our lives and our experience.
On one hand, I interpret Jesus ridding Himself of a tree which no longer bears worthwhile fruit as being representative of our finding the ability within ourselves to move past old ideas and old beliefs which no longer serve our well being, or which may in fact prove to be detrimental to our spiritual health and relationship with God. An old tree, which no longer bears worthwhile fruit, is put to rest, as the metaphor of moving a mountain supports the idea that whatever we seek, with faith, can be made possible.
But I think that there is also a deeper meaning to this allegory, or account, in that faith is one of the most powerful things we can have, and we should exercise caution in how we elect to use it. Do we use our faith to move mountains, overcome that which distresses us? Or do we give in to negative thinking? Our maintaining of positive and constructive thoughts, and the strength which those can provide us, seems to be a primary cornerstone of this teaching.
I feel that regardless of how one chooses to interpret this passage, the one clear message to be obtained from it is that what it is we experience in life has a great deal to do with our attitude, our thoughts, and how we feel about God. To me, this further emphasizes why it is so important that our sense of spiritual well being and connectedness with God should be the priority over all things. If we are connected to the Source, to Love first, then we are less inclined to give in to patterns of negative thinking which can cause us to lose our focus and trip up, miss the mark, or act in unloving ways towards others. When we place our relationship with God first, that which we hope for, have faith in, pray for and long for will be in alignment with that which is good - which will bring not only joy to us individually, but those around us as well - which keeps us focused on the Great Commandment - to show others the same measure of love and kindness we would want for ourselves.
Perhaps most telling in Matthew 6 is the admonition "Do not worry," and although it is often quoted when we are in our greatest times of need or longing, it is truly sound and timeless advice, and something to take to heart as we think on the days ahead, not only in this year, and the year to come. Live in the moment; savor each minute with those you love, enjoying the blessings God has given us, and simply just the joy of being, and the hope of renewal, which begins with each new day.
There is another reason I elect not to make any specific resolutions at the end of one year and the beginning of a new. Each brand new day to me is a blessing rather than a chore (as I unfortunately thought at one time in my life) -and one lesson I carried with me in my "year end" inventory this year is just how sacred and precious the gift of each new day is for each and every one of us. Certainly, we will have our difficult days. We will have great days, and we will have those that at face value might seem unremarkable or unspectacular.
But a funny thing - yet a good thing happens when we place our spiritual well being and sense of connectedness with God as our highest priority and at the forefront of anything and everything else - at least in my experience. Suddenly, we are able to find happiness in places we might not have seen it before. The little things we might take for granted that bring us joy, or a smile that we might let ourselves fall into the trap of taking for granted when we allow ourselves to get caught up in the everyday carry more meaning and depth, as we are able to have the understanding that these are not merely coincidences but small threads of something far greater at work that understands things more deeply than any of us could ever begin to. We are able to get our priorities in check, and realize that life is not a competition to see who did better at this or that, or which person is right or wrong, or anything else, for that matter.
It is not just those of us who already possess faith in God, or did who can embrace this gift; it is there for any of us who choose to open our hearts, minds and eyes, as I feel sure my friend who had forgotten about God for a long time only to find he could return to open and loving arms - as he was and without condition - when he chose to be open to it, would tell you. I would say the same from my own experiences.
When we connect with God, and feel a deep sense of connectedness not only with God but everyone else, and all of Creation, we can arrive closer to the understanding that everyone and everything has a purpose in our lives, and that no matter how different our paths may be that they all have at their core the same concept: a God which Loves each and every one of us, and only Desires that we are able to fully embrace life and be there for one another, or at the very least, treat all others with the same measure of Love that we would want to receive.
As we begin each day, rather than think about what it is we want to accomplish over the next 24 hours, or what all it is we have to do in the coming week, or what we will do differently in the 365 days to come than we had in the previous year, I feel that a healthier focus is to instead think on one primary directive:
What steps am I taking, and what am I doing to improve my spiritual health-and most importantly what am I doing to enable myself and others to fully experience God's Unconditional Love?
It is this which I feel needs to be at the forefront of our hearts and souls as we cross the threshold from one year into a new. Rather than be concerned with whether or not we make it to the gym before anyone else on January 1st, or whether we drop those ten pounds or whatever goals we have made for ourselves as the calendar turns-if we truly do adopt a "resolution," if you will, or putting "first things first" by seeking God first, as we are, and knowing we are Loved as we are with an open heart, soul and mind, I am firmly convinced that everything we could ever possibly want or need, as well as a sense of peace and wholeness than we could have ever imagined will follow - in this year and all the years to come.
It never fails.
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