Well, here we go. The bell is about to ring. The holiday season is upon us. It will be like a toboggan run from now to New Year’s Day. High speed, high stakes, and high emotions. It is a rough time of year as it is, but with the injuries we all have suffered from nearly two years of social isolation and awkwardness, this time around could bring the more peril to our souls than we have ever experienced if we are not careful. Unfortunately, during the pandemic, many people found solace for their unexpected time at home by increasing drug and alcohol consumption. As a result, a record number of people died last year from drug overdoses: more than 100,000 people tragically perished compared to 78,000 the year before, a 30 percent increase. Drug and alcohol addiction has increased by 27 percent for people ages 15 to 25. During the holidays especially, emotions run high as family members and friends see each other, often for the first time in a long while. The pace of life picks up everywhere with greater shopping, eating, socializing, celebrating, and visiting. During this time of year, we all tend to examine our own lives to determine if we feel good or bad about ourselves. Therefore, now is a perfect time before we get in the fast lane, to take a big breath and ask ourselves if we might go about things differently in the coming year. It is an opportune time for us to slow down and begin looking out for each other’s wellbeing and be quick to offer words of encouragement and gratitude to friends and family, even strangers. After all, there is no greater medicine for our souls or antidote for despair and anxiety than gratitude.
Addiction has been called a disease of the emotions. Instead of learning how to share our emotions in a healthier and sober environment, we often run to harmful substances seeking solutions and comfort for how we are feeling. Tragically, these substances often become our enemies, harming our souls and bodies. Instead of gaining greater clarity through increased consumption, which is the lie we often pursue, we instead make our lives and thought processes even muddier and more confused. When we abuse substances, we arrest our emotional development and become stuck in old, unhealthy patterns. For this reason, the Apostle Paul wrote to new believers in Ephesus, “So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life.
Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 5:16-20)
Gratitude is one of the key ingredients of emotionally and spiritually healthy lives; we find it often at the center of praise, songs, and worship towards God. We need to remember this week to not give thanks only once a year when we gather around the Thanksgiving table but practice it every day by “giving thanks for everything,” as the passage reminds us. Do you remember growing up when your parents or teachers used to tell you that the two most important things in life to say to others were “please” and “thank you”? Our society seems to be drifting dangerously further from this sage advice. Instead of approaching our neighbors with gratitude and thanks, many of us start off our days or conversations with complaints, bitterness, or anger, terribly worried about what we don’t have or deserve, or how badly someone has recently wronged us. These kinds of negative emotions often lead into harmful relationships and practices, including substance abuse.
Expressing gratitude is an admission or recognition that we need other people or a community of people to whom we are accountable to make it through life in a healthy manner. Have you ever noticed that people who struggle most with knowing how to say “thank you” are the same people who suffer most from being alone, isolated, or acting self-sufficient, self-absorbed, or excessively independent? Gratitude is like a magic key that unlocks hearts and accelerates healthy relationships if only we would practice it more often. So why in the world do people not say “thank you” more often if it is so helpful to a healthy life? To begin with, gratitude requires a degree of empathy and compassion and awareness of other people. It is a shift of focus away from ourselves to others. It is a muscle that needs to be constantly exercised to become more naturally a part of our lives and faith. May this holiday season be an opportunity for all to tell someone else how grateful we are for what they have done to enhance our lives in either big or little ways. When we do, the Holy Spirit will be with us in new and life-giving ways.
One of the things I love most about my job with Frontier Fellowship is watching how the Good News of Jesus Christ impacts the whole person, not only their spiritual lives. We try to bring this whole-person approach to all our projects around the world. For example, for more than 30 years we have brought healing, wholeness, and education to the Dalit, or untouchable people in northern India, empowering them to be loved by God and helping their neighbors to treat them as equally worthy people. In southern Mexico, we have empowered the Lacandon and Tzotzil people to be recognized and honored by the majority Spanish- speaking people who are in power. With all our projects, we support counseling and drug addiction programs where we can to complement our church leadership or discipleship programs. Unfortunately, outside the western world, there is still little to no counseling programs available for the general population. For instance, I was shocked to learn that there are more than 12 million drug addicts in Egypt and eight million people suffering from either heroin or opioid abuse in Iran. Also, it’s astonishing that Myanmar produces more illegal methamphetamine than any other country in the world. Frontier Fellowship makes it a priority to support counseling programs and emotional healing opportunities wherever we can. Accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior is not only the most important and essential first step for any person trapped in a drug culture, but it is the beginning of a much longer journey of recovery and achieving psychological as well as spiritual wellbeing.
At the heart of the Christian faith is our need to give thanks to God. By ourselves we have done nothing to earn his salvation and loving presence in our lives. It is his unmerited grace that has brought us into his presence and made us active participants in his kingdom. He has given us purpose and wholeness where there was none before. Gratitude is born from a realization of how much we need God and others to remain whole, sane, and faithful. He is the initiator of all that is good in us. The healthiest thing we can do is thank God each morning for a new day and for the gift of his mercy in our lives. We are not to rush first to ask God to address our wish list of things we need or want; rather we need to take time to thank him first for all he has done to help us in our lives before we humbly ask for his ongoing help and assistance. We need to do the same with other people, too; take time to thank our friends and family for all they have done to help us. Where in the world would we be without the love of God and the help and encouragement of others in our lives?
Many of us know someone who has died or suffers from of drug or alcohol abuse. Drugs are ten to a hundred times more potent than they used to be even 20 years ago. All it takes is just one bad decision or choice to abuse a powerful substance for someone to potentially lose their life. God has given us a Holy Spirit to satisfy every need of our souls. It is the very best medicine we will ever find. May we learn to say no to all other alternatives and substitutes, especially the ones which can easily destroy us. Instead, may we learn to give thanks for all God has given us in his son and our Savior, Jesus Christ. And may we learn to always give thanks and encouragement to each other, especially now during this holiday season.
As the Apostle Paul said to his followers in Colossae, “…you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony…. And (remember) always be thankful.” (Colossians 3:12b-14, 15b)
My family and I wish you a joy-filled Thanksgiving celebration. We give thanks for each one of you who have brought such abundant encouragement and fellowship into our lives.
At this time of year, I am reminded of the Doxology:
“Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
Praise him, all creatures here below;
Praise him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”