The Good Life (Part I)
A job I had as pastor of a church once nearly did me in. It was three years of preaching, teaching, administration, counseling, weddings, funerals, conflict management, visitation, youth work and more. It was three years of workaholism that left me exhausted and depressed.
Inside, I knew it was time to resign. If I didn’t, I would break.
Yet resignation was no cure-all. Removing myself from the work, the stress, the theological confusion, was just not enough. To my surprise the depression still lingered, at times even deepened.
I’d go to bed at night and get up in the morning even more tired than I was when I went to bed. I found myself crying a lot. I was afraid of people. I didn’t want to preach. I was about as creative as a drought stricken garden in August. I had the personality of a dial tone.
All the while I kept saying to myself, “I’m young. I’m tough. I’ll bounce back!” Yet, for two years the depression had me by the throat.
Vacations, a daily quiet time with Jesus, a loving wife, a new home, three healthy, affectionate children, some understanding friends, and prayers for healing never were quite able to blow away the clouds of depression.
One day in summer, while in the midst of all this, my wife said, “Get in the car, we’re going to the zoo!” Without protest, I limply went along. And there, of all places, the Lord touched me and pointed me in the direction that has brought renewal to my life again and again across the years.
All of this happened when I ventured into the aviary, a huge, glass domed building billed as an optimum habitat for birds. Zoo keepers have seen to it that the right foliage, the right sunlight, moisture level and foods are there for each species of fowl. And they have been careful to keep out harmful influences like predators and disease.
What I found as I sat on a bench and looked around was a very active, singing, splashing, feeding and mating community of birds. And I envied them both their joy and their living environment. And I began to complain to God about it.
“God,” I said, “We can build a place like this for birds, why can’t we do it for human beings? Doesn’t the Bible say ‘Not even a sparrow falls from heaven that, you don’t know and care?’ And doesn’t the book also say. ‘Are you not of more value than one of these?’ Lord, I want to be happy again. I want to live in a healthy atmosphere like this. I want a place that will nourish me to wholeness.
And then the Lord spoke to me. Not in a voice of thunder. But with a flash of insight, with an inaudible, inner word directing me to Scripture.
“Stephen,” He said, “I made a place like this for you once. It was called the Garden of Eden.” And with that the Lord grew silent. Yet I was not silent! My mind reeled. My emotions swirled with expectancy. And I determined to get a Bible as quickly as I could and read all about the Garden of Eden. What was it like? What was present there for a person’s well being? What was absent? And even though people have sinned and been driven out of Eden, how much of its ingredients can we still find and faithfully reintroduce into our lifestyles, our homes, our churches, communities and world?
All of these questions started me on a search. And what I found I struggled to follow. And the result was a slow but steady renewal of my emotional health, even my physical health, my joy, and my eagerness to become useful again.
And the things I have found I share with you.
The first ingredient in the Garden of Eden for man and woman’s health is sunlight. The Lord said, “Let there be light. And it was so.” And the man and the woman were nude and worked out of doors. So, they would have soaked up plenty of the sun’s warming rays.
Today, if one is not careful he can live in the dark as regards sunshine. The windows of our homes are heavily curtained, there is a roof above our heads. At work, an office can have no windows. And the light we work under is artificial— fluorescents. Why, our lifestyles are simply so indoors that we seldom see the light of day!
It is interesting to study what happens when a human being does not get enough sunlight. Norway, the land of long winters and the Arctic night, has the highest per capita suicide rate in the world. Medical researchers are discovering a phenomena they’ve labeled, “S.A.D.” or the Seasonal Affective Disorder. The dark days of winter, they are finding, are largely responsible for bouts with winter depression or cabin fever. And even educational studies have found that students who work in windowless class rooms make lower grades, are ill and absent more, and suffer more depression.
Light has long been known to affect morning glories, sunflowers and groundhogs. But it is just now being taken seriously as to its influence on people. Within the past century a Doctor Finsen of Denmark was watching over a cat who’d been bloodied in a cat fight. He noticed the creature chose to loll in the sun. When the shade overtook the cat, the animal got up and moved into the sun again. And so quickly did the cat recover from his wounds that the physician began to wonder if sunshine might have a healing effect on human beings. So, he began experimenting by allowing his patients to convalesce in rooms with sunny windows. And, for others, he wheeled them out on the lawn for moderate exposure to the warmth of the sun. The results over the years have become obvious. Moderate amounts of light and heat are simply good medicine.
Let me hasten to point out that too much sun damages the skin, can cause cancer and premature wrinkling! But moderate amounts of sunshine produce vitamins D and A, helps fight infection, prevents rickets, helps the body produce calcium in the bones, and provides a definite psychological boost. It’s like it reads in the “Garfield” the cat cartoon. Garfield is sitting broodily in a window watching it rain. “I hate cloudy days,” He complains. “When it’s sunny I’m happy. When it’s cloudy I’m so sad. On a cloudy day I can use up a week’s worth of moods.”
A second element found in the original Garden of Eden is fresh air. Genesis 1 and 2 tells how God blew into man’s nostrils “the breath of life” and Adam became a living soul. There in Eden Adam and Eve lived in a country garden. Lush vegetation continually replenished the air. And there were no car exhausts, no smoke stack industries, and no cigars to foul the air.
Today, we’ve got a problem here. A line of cars one block long uses up enough air in 15 minutes to keep 300 people alive for an entire day. Car exhausts, and smokestack industries have combined to seriously pollute the atmosphere. It is so bad that in many cities the radio stations broadcast the daily “Air Quality Index.”
I love to tell the story of the Chicago resident who flew with me from the city into Piedmont, North Carolina. I was telling him how much he would enjoy the green, rolling hills, the fresh air and lack of congestion.
“Ha!” He snorted. “Fresh air, indeed! Why, in Chicago our air is just as fresh as yours!”
But when he stepped off the airliner and took a deep breath of our pure North Carolina air, it was just too much for him. He fainted dead away. Why, we had to hold him under a truck exhaust to revive him!
Seriously, one of the most polluted places in the United States is the home. In recent years energy conservation has caused us to insulate, tighten up our windows, and bring in the wood stove. Our heaters and air conditioners run continually. And there is inadequate exchange of air inside our homes. Cigarette smoke, gasses from cooking, polishes and cleansers, hair spray and the wood stove begin to accumulate and hover in the air we breath. And the result is air that is breathed over, stale, tainted and unhealthy.
Experts point to the need to open up our houses regularly so that there can be an exchange of air. And they are telling us to get outdoors more. Like Adam and Eve. One doctor I know prescribes for his patients, “Two miles of fresh air daily.”
Not only does one find fresh air and sunshine in Eden paradise. Physical exercise is there as well. Adam and Eve led an active life physically. There was walking, farming, food gathering and moving in and out among the animals as they named each one.
Today, it is so easy to become sedate we let our fingers do the walking through the yellow pages of the telephone directory. Our sports participation has been reduced to the level of a spectator. Our work is desk work or sitting and monitoring a machine. And the automobile takes us where we want to go.
Oddly enough, Tibet is the nation that usually boasts the longevity record today. You’d think it would be the United States what with all our doctors, hospitals, medicines, foods and vitamin supplements. But clear medical research reveals that the people of Tibet lead active lives pushing, pulling, climbing hills, etc. which contributes substantially to their longevity while Americans are much more sedate, climbing stairs on escalators, rolling along in automobiles and studiously avoiding a sweat.
Yet God made us for action. And each of us needs a regular exercise program. Without it a person is committing what James Michener calls “slow suicide.”
During my college years the professors in the physical education department urged students to develop what they called a lifetime participation sport, something like golf or tennis or canoeing. And I scoffed at them! After all, I was a football player. A Jock. A real athlete. And I thought I would play football forever!
But all too quickly we age out of a sport or become injured and have to hang up our uniform. And that day came for me in my twentieth year. And for a long time I had no outlet for my recreational needs. It was simply football for me or nothing. And in that nothing I became more and more sedate for years. Recreation for me became turning on the television set and watching others do it. My running was to the refrigerator during commercials. And my lifting was from the potato chip bag to the dip to my mouth.
Twenty-five extra pounds, lack of energy, and a serious depression later I began to see the wisdom of finding a lifetime participation sport for myself. The criterion were simple. The sport should be something one likes to do or one will eventually quit. I, for instance, hate to jog. I detest half court pick-up basketball games. But I love to swim. I find the water refreshing, the exercise invigorating!
Another criterion for a lifetime participation sport is that it must be something readily available. As much as I enjoy snow skiing, it is only available to me once or twice a year at best. And that is not adequate for my exercise needs. But there is an outdoor and indoor pool available to me at a price I can afford three or four times a week.
So I swim. And off comes the pounds. Back comes the zest.
Dr. Joseph N. Butler, a medical doctor with The National Institute on Aging wrote, “If exercise could be packed into a pill, it would be the most widely prescribed medicine in the nation.” Because it was a part of Adam and Eve’s lifestyle in Eden it should be a portion of our lives as well. Walking, tennis, golf, canoeing, swimming— whatever— but at least three times a week for a half hour or more.
In Genesis 1:29 God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” And you can be certain that in Eden the human diet was both natural and fresh. They drank water, ate fruits and nuts, vegetables of every variety and babies were nurtured on Mother’s breast milk!
Adam and Eve gathered their food from the garden. We gather ours from the neighborhood supermarket. And ours is not always fresh. Many times it is over-processed and thereby stripped of its valuable nutrients.
Let’s say you go to the grocery store in April and buy yourself an apple for lunch. Where did that apple come from? How old is it? What’s been done to it? Reason will tell you apples are ripe for the picking in early fall. So it is at least six months old. Further research will reveal that the apple could have been picked two to three years ago, sprayed with an insecticide, stacked in a vacuum sealed vault and covered with a cold nitrogen blanket to preserve it until the market made it possible to sell at good profit.
And what is true of the apple is as much true for flour, cereals, bread, and many other food stuffs that line grocery shelves and eventually line our pantries and our stomachs. Thus many Americans are becoming what nutritional experts call “overfed and yet undernourished.”
The only solutions seem to be to grow one’s own garden, to buy from fresh produce stands and farmer’s markets, and to read the ingredients labels all food packages by law must have. While we can’t do as well as Adam and Eve did in their diet, we can certainly do better. After all, our purpose in eating is not to just fill our gut, but to nourish our bodies. And over-processed junk food won’t do.
All of this brings us to abstinence. In Eden God did not create everything for human consumption. In Genesis 2:17 God warns, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
Leviticus is the great food book of the Bible. In it the Lord shares clear dietary laws. An example is the prohibition against pork eating. Modern science points out that pigs are natural scavengers, sort of like nature’s vacuum cleaners. Like buzzards, they scour the earth indiscriminately removing decaying flesh, wholesome grain or just about anything else with which one slops them.
It is also pointed out that what a pig eats is only filtered once before it become part of his flesh. You see, a swine does not have a large and small intestines; only a stomach. So, when one eats pork he is eating a scavenger with an indiscriminate diet who only filters his food one time before it becomes a part of his flesh. This means that when one eats pork he is eating second-hand what the pig ate firsthand.
For years medical researchers have pointed to pork as an unhealthy food because of its high level of fat which tends to clog human arteries, and because of a pig’s tendency to carry the trichinosis parasite that not even thorough cooking always destroys.
And it is not just pork that is bad for humans. Medically and/or scripturally humans are also warned away from consuming too much caffeine as found in tea and coffee, nicotine as in tobacco, too much salt and sugar, excessive amounts of alcohol and other drugs, and meats that are not fresh.
Many Christians point to verses like I Timothy 4:4 as license to eat anything they want. But a careful reading of such verses shows the opposite. Advising young Timothy the apostle Paul wrote, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving; for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” Clearly Paul expected Timothy to watch what he ate according to Biblical teachings.
Furthermore, in Acts 15 the church met in a general council to decide just such an issue. Are Christians under the laws of ceremony, diet and morality just as the Jews are? The council said, “No.” Christians are not under the law as a means of salvation. They are simply under the law as persons saved by faith in Christ. And, as such, the law is only a means of healthy, civilized living. Spelling this out in a pastoral letter to be circulated among all churches, Acts 15:28-29 says, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.”
Many Christians ask me, “If I eat pork or smoke or drink too much, will I still go to heaven?” And I tell them, “If you’ve been saved by Christ you will. In fact, eating like you do, you might just get there a little faster!”
Part of Eden’s optimum human habitat also included work. In Genesis 2:15 God told Adam to “Dress the earth and keep it.” Adam was thus given the job of a farmer.
Work is not a curse as some in our day suppose. Work, you see, was given before the Fall. It is an ingredient in no less than paradise.
Do you see the dignity Adam had in working with God to maintain His creation? God did not tell Adam, “I’m creating a garden. Go stand over there and watch. But keep out of my way!” The Lord dignified man by allowing him to become a co-worker.
In Eden there was one job for each person. It was a job which God specifically directed Adam to perform. And it was a necessary job. To be sure, farming still is! It’s like the bumper sticker that reads, “Have you thanked a farmer three times today?” It was a job that allowed Adam exercise in the fresh air and daylight of creation. And it allowed Adam to start and finish a job and enjoy the fruits of his labor.
After the Fall, however, work came under a curse. In Genesis 3:17-19 God curses the ground and calls work a “toil” with “thorns”, “sweat”, and the dust of death in it. All of this adds up to stress. There is with us today the thorns of unemployment and underemployment. There is the sweat of overwork, and depersonalization. And there is the death of emotional burnout and ultimately death of the body.
Yet into this world of such woe God Himself has come in the person of Jesus Christ. He has worked among us as a carpenter and as a teacher and healer. And we are still called to work alongside Him in our own careers.
During the middle ages members of the carpenters guild learned to make paneled doors. They constructed them so that the two panels near the top were small and the four panels below were longer. This created two symbols to serve each household as a reminder. The top symbol was a cross. The bottom symbol was an open book— the Bible. And for every carpenter who built such a door as well as for every homeowner who walked through one, it was a remainder that their work was holy work. It had a cross in it. The Word of God was in it. And Jesus was the doorway into eternal life.
Our labor today must afford us such dignity as well. There should be Christ, His Word, and His cross in the center of our labor also. We should be able to say with Adam, “God sent me to this job. I’m His co-laborer. I do something necessary. I’m aiding God’s people.”