Sunday, October 23, 2016

Why You Need to Play More and Work Less

I don’t remember exactly when he said it or even what prompted his comment, but I’ve never forgotten his words.   Many years ago, when I was working at a church on Long Island, I was talking with the local denominational executive, a guy named Tom Castlen.   As we talked, Tom looked at me with a serious air of concern in his eyes, and said.  “Kennedy, you work too hard.”        

And do you know what my first reaction was?   I felt flattered.  I thought to myself.  “Really?  Gee thanks.”    Then I realized. Tom wasn’t giving me a compliment.  He was delivering a serious criticism.   And the fact that his criticism flattered me showed how right he was.  To this day, I struggle with setting healthy limits on my work, a struggle that has hurt me more as a pastor than it has helped me.

But I don’t face this struggle alone.   Americans have become the most over-worked nation in the developed world.  A good many Americans don’t take all their vacation, and even when they do, 6 in 10 report that they work then too, even while their family members complain.  So what’s the big problem?   Isn’t working hard one of those things that makes America great?   Here’s the problem.  

Research shows that that the levels of depression, anger and resentment among workers has gotten higher than ever.   Nearly one in three report feeling overworked and overtired on a regular basis.   And when researchers ask children the one thing they want the most from their parents, it was that they be less stressed and less tired.   And on top of all this, the overworked workers report making far more mistakes than those who aren’t overworked.   

Here’s the painful truth.  When work gets out of balance, it makes everything worse.  Your health declines.  Your family life gets more conflict and less joy.  And you don’t even get better at your job.  You get worse.   So how do you find the balance?  In these ancient words, God shows the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say.  

In a world that can demand more work than ever before, demands that will make you more stressed and less healthy and happy than ever, how do you step away from that madness?   How do you find a path where you can work well without hurting yourself, your family, even your job?  In these words, God shows you the way.   God tells you. The answer ultimately lies in asking this question. Who are you really working for and why?    And as you discover the real answer to that question, you will find a path to freedom that will liberate you to work with energy and passion, even as it frees you to work less and play more.

Too often when you think about these words we just read, the number 4 commandment in God’s top ten, you think about all those words on Sabbath, on taking a rest.  But the commandment doesn’t start there.   It starts by focusing on work.   Working is actually part of the command.   God doesn’t say.   Hey it might be good for you to work, but no worries if you don’t.  No, God says.   You shall work six days.   Now why is God so focused on work?   It’s simple. God works.    The very first thing the Bible tells us about God is that.  God works.    That’s what God was doing in those six days when he created the earth.  God was working.   And God was loving it.     Every day, God finished one part of the job, and do you remember what he said?  It’s good.   In fact, by the end, when God got to working on us, God even moved the needle to very good.

And that should tell you something.  God made you to work.   God built in you a desire to do things, to create, to build, to produce.    It’s why when I do a chore around the house, unloading the dishwasher, repairing something, whatever it might be, my son, Patrick, wants to help.   And when I tell him how helpful he was, I can see the satisfaction that wells up.    Work, when it’s done right, brings you joy.  What the playwright, Oscar Wilde said is true.  Work is much more fun than fun.  

But here’s the problem with work.  It’s the problem that led God to give the commandment.   In your work, without realizing it, you start losing touch with what you’re working for.   God gave you work so you could live out your gifts, so you could become everything God created you to be.   God gave you work to give you life.   So if that’s the case, why are so many people’s work killing them, killing their joy, their relationships, their souls, maybe even their life? 

They’ve forgotten why they do it, what it’s really supposed to mean.   I’d like to tell you that when I was working so hard, so hard that a colleague criticized me for it, that I was working out of joy and satisfaction.  And some of that was there.    But I was feeling way more anxiety than I was joy.    I was anxious about looking good, about looking like the toughest, most capable person in the room especially since I was pretty sure I wasn’t.   I was anxious to be successful, whatever that looked like, and I was terrified that if I stopped it wouldn’t happen.  I would fail.  And what would that say about me?   I wanted people to like me, and I discovered, never saying no, helped with that.    And finally my “work” helped me avoid the other work I really needed to do, on my relationships, on myself, work on my connection with God, work that made me feel pretty uncomfortable.  To put it simply, I worked to feel good about myself, to find a way to confirm that I was good, valuable, worthy.    
That’s what happens.  The goals may be different for different people.  Some may work to make money, to achieve security, to provide for their family.  They may work for recognition or fame.  Heck, you may not even know what you’re working for.    But whatever it is, in that motivation, something goes seriously wrong.   You stop working out of the joy or satisfaction it gives you.  Instead, you work out of fear, out of insecurity and anxiety.  You work to fill a void that you feel aching inside of you, and if you can’t fill it, at least your work helps you ignore it’s there.         

That’s why God gave this command.   The word, Sabbath, Shabbat in Hebrew, has a simple meaning.  It means stop.  Stop.    Why?   It’s because when you don’t stop, you lose perspective.   You lose who God created you to be.    You become less human, and in doing so, you make people you don’t even know less human too. 

When I was growing up, it was the strangest thing.  Lots of stores had a day that they closed.  I mean, they closed all day, and they did it once a week.   And lo and behold, you hardly had any stores that stayed open 24 hours.    And somehow people still got food, clothes, all sorts of things.    But it meant a lot of people weren’t working hours that took them away from their families; that hurt their health; that made their lives miserable.   When God talked about the whole slavery in Egypt thing, he wasn’t just taking a walk down memory lane.  God was saying to the Israelites.  Don’t become the Egyptians.  Don’t do to others what your slave masters did to you. 

But God isn’t just giving this commandment because of that.   God is giving it to remind them of two things they desperately need to remember.   First, God is saying.  You’re not God.   You didn’t get yourself out of Egypt.   I did that.  That’s why I’m God and you’re not.   So if you stop for a day, the sun is still going to rise.  Life will continue on.  You’re not that important.  And that’s a good thing.  You can let go for a little bit, and not everything will collapse.   And if you practice that one day each week, you might start believing it.   

And second and most crucially of all, God is reminding you.   You have value.  You have worth, not because of how useful you are to me or to others.   You have worth and value simply because you are.   God didn’t intend Sabbath to be a day off, a day to run errands or catch up on laundry.   God made Sabbath as a day for you to do nothing, to play.   That’s why you worship on the Sabbath.   Worship is playing.  It’s doing something that has no obvious productive or practical purpose.  That’s what play is. 

Strangely enough, researchers are discovering that we need it.      One researcher, Stuart Brown, put it this way.   “The opposite of play isn’t work – the opposite of play is depression.”  Basically, God created you to play as well as work.   And if you stop playing, then your work will stop working so to speak.  Or as Brown put it: “In the long run, work does not work without play.”   

But God is saying more than that.  God is saying.  One day a week you have to stop and play, because one day a week you need to remember who you are.   You’re my creation, my child, and my love for you has nothing to do with what you do.  It has everything to do with who you are. 

That’s why God wants us to baptize babies.  Because, let’s get real, what do babies do?  They don’t really do much of anything but eat and poop.  You pretty much have to do everything for them.   And that’s the point.   All of us come into the world, doing nothing of value but simply existing.  And guess what.  That’s enough.   That’s enough for you to be loved and valued and cherished.   And one day each week, God orders you to remember that, that simply existing is enough for you to be loved by the creator of the universe. 

But if that’s true, why didn’t the Israelites get it?  Why does our world not get it?  Why do you maybe not get it?  It’s because you don’t yet believe it, really believe it.   But if you look at the cross, if you really look at what God in Jesus did for you, then more and more that belief will break through.   God went through that cross when you had done nothing for him, when in fact your screw ups put him there.    God went through the exhaustion of it, the agony of it, the humiliation of it, why?   God didn’t do it out of duty or even so you might like him.  God did it out of joy, the joy of loving you, of bringing you home.  God entered into that slavery to free you from a bondage to proving yourself that drives you with fear and shame.  On that cross, God endured the most brutal work of all to give you the rest you desperately need, a resting from proving yourself, from hiding from yourself, from restlessly seeking love when the love you need has been waiting for you all along.   And the more that love rests in you, the more your work will become work rather a place to prove your value.  And you will find the freedom to work joyfully, and to play joyfully, and to rest in the love that loves you no matter what.   So in the name of God, stop, cease your work, and remember who you are and believe it.   

Sunday, October 16, 2016

How Do You Let go of the Anxieties of Comparison and Competition and Become Free to Be All That You Were Created to Be?

When I was growing up, I used to love to draw.    I’d scribble all sorts of doodles, just to pass the time.   I’d love to see it develop into something that I could actually recognize, a person or an animal or a tree, whatever.  But that’s not me anymore.   And I’ve begun to wonder, especially as I see my own son scribbling away, what happened?  Why don’t I draw any more?

At first, I thought to myself.  Well, I don’t draw because I was never that good at it. But to be honest, early on I knew that I wasn’t that good at it yet I still did it.    I just didn’t care.   I liked to draw and that’s all that mattered.    Then it hit me.  That’s why I don’t draw.    Now, I do care.   I do care that I don’t draw that well.   I worry what others might think.  I imagine people saying to themselves if I ever drew something.  “Does he know how terrible that looks?  Why is he inflicting that on the world?”   I’m embarrassed about my lack of skill.   I’ve even come to believe that it even says something deep down about me, something defective in who I am.

I bring this up because this feeling doesn’t just live in me.  Over the years, I’ve come to learn that it lives in most.    And those feelings kill the creativity that lives inside us: the willingness to try new things, the willingness to risk that enables each of us to grow.   Instead folks work to fit in.  They still want to stand out, but only in ways that make them look better than others.   For example, I don’t mind if another preacher comes to visit here on a Sunday, as long as I think that they’re not as good as I am.   But, if I think they’re better than me…now that’s a bad dream come to life.  

But why do people do that?   Why do folks avoid creativity or risk-taking?  It’s not because they don’t want to be creative or take risks.   No, they’re simply scared of the shame they’ll feel if they fail.   Why do folks worry about how they compare to others, to other’s kids or others’ parenting skills or their work or their homes and the list could go on?     And more than that, how do you get free of that?  How do you live a life not caught up in the anxieties of constant comparing, even competition with others?   How do you live a life taken up instead with living joyfully and creatively, rather than one hemmed in by fears of failure, of losing face before others?   In these words, words that form the core of God’s good news to us, God shows us the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

How do you not get caught up in fears of failure, fears that hold you back from growth, from risk, from creativity?   In these words, God offers the answer.    God tells you.  The answer lies in knowing that you are more enslaved then you even realize, but that God has provided a door to greater freedom than you could ever have dreamed.

You see.  When the Bible talks about salvation, what does that mean?  What is God actually saving us from?   Again and again, the Bible tells you that God is saving you from slavery.  Now how can you be enslaved?   You and I live in one of the freest places on the planet.   You can say pretty much whatever you want.    You can travel wherever you choose.   Americans have more freedoms than anyone on earth.   Yet, even so, what Paul says is painfully true.  

When the Bible talks about slavery, it’s not talking about some outward bondage.  No, it’s talking about an inner reality.  

Too often, people get confused when the Bible talks about sin.   They think that this word sin has to do with bad things you do or good things you don’t.  But sin goes way deeper than that.   Sin isn’t so much a bad thing you do, as a power that binds you, even enslaves you. What do I mean?
When you see a beautiful building, where did that building begin?  Did it begin when the workers broke ground?  No.  Did it begin when the architect put it down on paper?   No.  It began first within, in the architect’s mind.   Long before it appeared on the outside, even as a plan, it was born on the inside, where no one but its creator could see it.  It’s the same with anything.   Anything you do good or bad, always starts from within.   It begins with a thought, a perception.   It begins as an inner reality before it ever becomes an outer one. 

When Adam and Eve took the fruit from the forbidden tree, their separation from God had already occurred.   That separation began when they decided within that they would trust the serpent rather than the God who created them.    And with that separation from God, so began their slavery and your slavery too. 

Do you remember what happened next in that story?   Adam and Eve hid.  They hid their bodies from each other by weaving clothes out of fig leaves.  Then they went and hid from God.   And when God came to look for them, even when they came out, they were still hiding.   How do you know that?    All you need to do is listen to the conversation they had.   God asks them what happened.  
Adam does come out a bit.  He even admits fear, the first mention of fear in the Bible by the way.   God didn’t create fear.  Sin created fear.   God asks Adam, “Who told you that you were naked?  Did you eat from that tree I told you not to eat from?”   What does Adam too?  He says.  “The woman you gave me as a companion, she gave me fruit from the tree, and, yes, I ate it.”     Adam manages to blame not only Eve but God too.  That woman, the one you gave me, God, she made me do it.  Adam may have come out of the bushes, but he’s still hiding.   Instead of hiding behind the bushes, Adam is hiding behind Eve.   Eve then hides behind the serpent, blames it on him.   Don’t you see?  That’s what blaming is.  It’s hiding. Whenever you blame, whenever you avoid responsibility for your actions, that’s what you’re doing.  You are hiding. 

And why are you hiding?  You are scared.   You are scared of rejection or embarrassment or even punishment and the shame that comes with it.  You fear being found, because you fear being found out.     And it is that fear that binds you.  That fear is the power that enslaves you, a power that the Bible describes with the word sin.   That is the inner reality that leads you to all sorts of outward actions that wound you and wound others.     

That is the painful inner reality of the human condition.   Through your fear, a fear that come from your lack of trust in God’s love for you, you become bound up, enslaved.  On the outside, you may look free.  But inside, if you are honest, you know you are anything but.  

Still, human beings deny that reality.   That’s why, to break through that denial, God gave the law.   
Yet what did human beings do with the law?   They used it to make their slavery even worse.    Instead of seeing that God has given the law to show them how enslaved they were, how desperately they needed to be freed; human beings used it to hide even more than before.    How did they do that?
Well, folks began to think.   Hey, if I keep these rules that God gives, then I am ok.   But what happens, when people do that?   Sure on the outside, they may look good or at least convince themselves they look good.  But remember, the power of sin, begins within.   And inside, all sorts of junk is going on.   All their outward obedience just becomes an elaborate disguise, a religious form of hiding.   That’s why you can have people in churches that are miserable, and judgmental, and far from loving.   They’re not coming to church to be found.  They’re coming to church to hide.       

But the more you hide, the more alone you become.   You grow isolated from others.   You grow isolated from yourself.  You stay isolated from God.   And in your isolation, bound by your fears, your shame, you live a life so much less than what God dreams for you to live.  You live in slavery when God yearns for you to become free. 

That’s why folks avoid creativity or risk-taking.  It’s not because they don’t want to be creative or take risks.  No, they’re hiding, fearful of the shame they’ll feel if they fail.    It’s the same reason folks worry about how they compare with others, with others’ looks or others’ wealth or skills or accomplishments and the list could go on.   They fear those comparisons will expose them, will find them out.   So how do you become free?    How do you live a life taken up with living joyfully and creatively, rather than hemmed in by hiding, enslaved by fear?

In these words, Paul is telling you.  Paul is saying.  In Jesus, God has already changed your inner reality.   After all, you hide for a reason.  You know something has gone wrong, that you are not the person you want to be, that you sense God created you to be.   And what can bring you out of this hiding?  To know that what has gone wrong has been made right.   That while outwardly you may still not be the person you want to be, that you were created to be, inside, you have become that.   You have been made right, and nothing can change that reality ever.   That’s what Paul means when he says that you are justified.   He is saying.  You have been made right. 

How did that happen?  How did God set you free?  It’s because in Jesus, God became the slave.  On that cross, God gave himself over to sin, to this power that binds you so that it cannot have power over you ever again.    In Jesus on that cross, God experienced the rejection you most deeply fear so that you can be free from that fear forever.   God took the infinite shame from which you hide so that you can be found, so that you can live free and unashamed.

And the more you realize what God has done for you, that on that cross God made you right, the more you will find the freedom to be found, to risk, to live fully and creatively the life God has given you.   And as you do, you will find Jesus taking the fears away, freeing you to live and create before an audience of One, the One whose love alone can bring you out of hiding, out of hiding into the glorious freedom of the children of God.    

Sunday, October 2, 2016

What is the Only Reality that Is Certain in an Uncertain World?

A few weeks ago my dad had a stroke, and then a week later he had another one.   Thankfully, he is doing ok.   But I feel shaky about the whole thing.  He seems fine now, but what news might the next call from home bring?   Someone once said that when it comes to life, we are all on a limited lease and subject to immediate eviction.  

And forget the uncertainty of life, so much in life is uncertain.   The economy seems to be better, but who really knows.   And no can tell you when and where the next terrorist might pop up and do something awful.    No one knows who will win the election, and what that will mean for our future.   Heck, is Hurricane Matthew going to hit us?  Who knows?  And that’s just the big uncertainties.  Every day brings all sorts of other uncertainties with our families, our friends, our work, our health.  The list goes on.   So many things feel uncertain around us, even the future of this church.   It can be crazy making.

How do you have confidence and calm in a time where so much seems so uncertain?   How do you find a place to stand when everything around you seems so shaky, so temporary even?   In these words from Hebrews, God shows the way.  So let’s hear what God has to say.

So much of life is uncertain.   And uncertainty has always been around.    Hundreds of years ago, Ben Franklin wrote this in a letter…. ...but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. How true that is!    So how do you live with confidence, even peace, in a world where so much can’t be counted on?    Here God tells you.   You gain that confidence the more you realize the truth in what you cannot see; the uncertainty of what you can see, and in the face of that, trust in the one certainty that cannot be broken ever.

Too often people get confused about what faith means.  They think faith means certainty.  But in reality certainty shuts you off to faith.  How is that?    Faith means you open yourselves to new possibilities, to a world deeper and more mysterious than what you can see.   And to do that, you have to let go of certainties.  

When the writer of Hebrews describes faith as the conviction of things not seen, that word conviction actually means a conclusion that you gain by looking at evidence.   In fact, in the old King James translation, they translated it as the evidence of things not seen.  What God is telling you here is that the more you ponder that evidence, the more you seek to understand it (as verse 3 puts it), the more you will see that truth, that reality goes far deeper than anything you can see.   What am I talking about?   
The great 20th century philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre put it this way.  He said.  Let’s say that I have a radio.   How do I know that I have a good radio?    To know that, I have to know what a radio is built for, right?    If I said I had a terrible radio because it didn’t open my garage door that would be ridiculous.   Radios weren’t built to do that.   To know it’s a good radio, I gotta judge it based on what it was built for.  Does it receive radio waves, and turn them into a sound I can listen to?   That’s how I know it’s a good radio, how well it does that.   But if I don’t know that, if I don’t what it was built for, then no way can I judge if it’s doing it well or not.

So now, let’s take it a bit further.  How do you know a human being is good or bad, that what they’re doing is good or bad?    Well, you can’t know that unless you know what a human being was built for, what the purpose of being human is.   But if the world you see around you is all that there is, that everything only has a natural cause.   Then there is no creator or anything beyond the natural world.   You are simply here by accident, which means you don’t have any underlying purpose at all.  And that means, you cannot evaluate if any human being is good or bad.   So, for example, you might feel that violence and oppression is wrong.  So what?  That’s just your opinion.  You don’t have anything to base it on. 

Yet, when your heart breaks at children ravaged by bombs in Syria, it’s not just a feeling.   You know. Something deep within you tells you.  This is not the way the world is supposed to be.   But if this world is all there is, then what basis do you have for that knowledge?  You’ve got nothing, nothing at all.

And if this world is all there is, then not only does it undermine any sense of right or wrong.  It undermines pleasure.    When your child smiles at you or heck any child smiles at you, you feel your heart leap.   It brings a smile to your face.   Now, if when that happened, you just thought, well, this is just an ingrained evolutionary response so that human genes keep reproducing, how does that rock your world?  Yet, at the level of what you see, that is exactly what is going on.   But does that give you pleasure?  No.    You know deeper than that explanation, something more is going on, something that touches you with joy.  

And the same goes for any pleasure, the delight in a good meal; the sense of transcendence you feel at a beautiful piece of music.   If that just gets reduced to some chemical response in your brain, it so minimizes what is happening.  Yet at the level of what you see, all of that is true.  But you just know that beyond that, something deeper is going on, something you cannot see  

And the more you see that, you more you realize that faith doesn’t give you certainty.  Instead, it will actually undermine whatever certainties you feel.     That’s what all these examples here in Hebrews have in common.   The faith they had did not make their life more certain, it made it less.   Look at Abraham here.  Abraham had a good thing going.  He lived with his father’s family on land they had owned for generations.  He knew his neighbors.  Everything was familiar, the language, the culture, the landscape.   Yet here comes God saying.  Hey, Abraham leave that all behind, and follow me.  And where is God going to take Abraham? God doesn’t say.  God says leave, and I’ll tell you as you go.

Why does God do that?  Why does God again and again in Abraham’s life, in the life of all these people here, throw their lives into radical uncertainty?    God is trying to free them from false certainty, from certainties that are not really certain at all.  

As a parent, you hear lots of advice on how to raise your child, and all of it seems so, well, authoritative, so sure.    But how sure is it, really?    Millions swore by a parenting expert named Dr. Spock, but now, what Dr. Spock said is questioned, and some even disproved.    And more likely than not, a lot of what experts are telling parents today, experts  a generation from now will be saying.  That was not right at all.  

In fact, so much of what seems certain knowledge now will, in a generation, be seen as inaccurate, maybe even completely wrong.  That’s why God is in the business of delivering uncertainty.  God wants human beings to realize that pretty much everything has the certainty of sand.   You can’t rely on it. Not only is it not permanent, but it can be swept out from under you like that.  God knows.  The more you realize that uncertainty, the more it will open your mind to the only actual reality that is certain.  And what is that?

Let’s go back to Abraham.    As Abraham journeyed into the unknown with God, he began to have some serious doubts.  God had promised descendants like the sand on the shore, and Abraham, now very old, still didn’t even have a son.    Abraham brought his questions to God.   And that night, as Abraham slept, God came to him in a dream. 

In this dream, Abraham was in the desert at night, and in front of him, he saw all sorts of animals cut in half and laid out on the desert floor.   Now this probably seems weird to you.  But Abraham knew exactly what it was.    These cut up animals were part of a standard method of ratifying an agreement, of sealing a deal in his day.   Basically, it worked like this.   Each party to the deal would walk through the animals.  And in doing that, they were saying.   May it be with me as it is with these animals if I don’t keep my end of the bargain.    And in this dream, God does two shocking things.  First, God comes in the form of a flaming torch and walks through the animals.  But then beyond that, he doesn’t ask Abraham to do the same.   Do you see what God was telling Abraham?
God was saying if I fail to keep my word to you, let me be torn apart.   But not only that, even if you fail to keep your word to me, I will pay the penalty.   God was telling Abraham.  Not only will I not fail you, but when you fail me, I won’t walk away.  No matter how badly you mess up, I will never give up on you.   I will never stop loving you ever, even if it costs me my life.   That is the one certainty you can count on, no matter what.   And that promise, Abraham did not see completed.  He only greeted it, as it says in verse 13, from a distance.  But what Abraham only greeted, you have seen. 

In Jesus, you and I see the God who paid the penalty, who was torn to pieces on our behalf.   We see God the source of all certainty experiencing excruciating uncertainty for us.   Do you think Jesus knew resurrection lay on the other side of that cross?   He believed it, yes.  But he didn’t know it.  In his humiliation, his suffering, his death, he was facing the ultimate uncertainty, that all of this pain could be for nothing.  When he cried out, My God, My God why have you forsaken me, it’s because in that moment, he felt that God had, that he was utterly alone.  God fell into the infinite cosmic abandonment and agony of that cross, so you might know you will never be abandoned, that you can know you will always be loved now and forever.   In Jesus, God left behind all security, all certainty to make you secure in his love no matter what you face.    And all that God asks is that you trust in that love, that you rest in it; that you make that love your firm foundation.  And the more you do that, the more confidence and peace you will have, no matter how uncertain your life or this world seems. Why? You know you don’t stand upon shifting sand, but on a solid rock.   For you will know that nothing in the universe is more certain than this, God’s love for you.            

Monday, September 26, 2016

How Do You Live a Life Filled with Joyful Contentment and Peace instead of Fear and Anxiety? Here's How.

Ok, I know the odds.   I have a greater chance of getting struck by lightning (especially in South Florida) than to have a terrorist attack me.   But here’s the difference.   I can see the lightning coming.   I can even get out of its way.  But some crazed guy (and it usually is a guy) with a knife or a bomb or a gun, that’s a lot harder to see coming.    So yes I know, I’m more likely to get killed in an accident on 95 than by a killer from ISIS, but the whole thing still rattles me a bit.   I guess that’s why call it terrorism.   That’s what they want to inspire, terror.

And if that doesn’t rattle your cage, take your pick.   You have mosquitoes carrying Zika.   You have the rising tide of climate change that make South Florida one of the most threatened places on the planet.  You have a Presidential election that hardly anyone seems happy about.    

But even so, let’s be honest.  No one is bombing homes or cities like in Syria. Unlike Venezuela, no one is dying because they can’t get basic medications.   You and I still live in the richest nation in the world, a place more stable, peaceful, and well provided for than pretty much anywhere else.    Yet, in the world, no one gets more anxious than Americans.   We are No. 1.   Roughly one in five Americans suffer from serious anxiety, and over a lifetime one in 3 will.   

Why is that?   More importantly, how do you not become part of that statistic?  How do you live at peace in a seriously anxious time?   How do you live content when so many are filled with such discontent?  In these words from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, God shows the way.   Let’s hear what God has to say. 

In a nation where so many get caught up in anxiety and fear, how do you not get caught up?  How do you find peace and keep it, even if your life may seem to be going off the rails?  In these words from the Apostle Paul, God shows the way.    Peace happens when you stop focusing on happiness, and instead rest in joy.    And how does that joy and peace come?   It comes as you ponder truth, as you give thanks, as you rejoice in what cannot change. 

How can a nation with such wealth, so many cool gadgets, so much diversion and entertainment be so unhappy and anxious?    It’s because so many believe that happiness is what they need instead of realizing that joy trumps happiness every time.   Now don’t misunderstand me.   Nothing is wrong with happiness.    But happiness has a problem.   It doesn’t last.  

The Greeks had a lot of wisdom in the words that they created.   And when it came to the word they used for happiness, and the word they used for joy, you can see their wisdom at work.   Their word for happiness, Makarios, they used to describe the rich’s freedom from normal cares and concerns or the luck of someone winning the lottery.   In other words, they connected happiness to circumstances, and circumstances come and go.    But the word they used for joy, chairo, they described as the good mood of the soul, as a fullness of being, in other words, something not affected by circumstance.   If circumstances can take away joy, what can?  The Greeks knew that.  It’s why they made the opposite of joy not sadness, but fear. 

And that’s why Paul almost immediately moves to focus on peace.  Paul knows that joy and peace always go together, and that fear and anxiety stand as their greatest enemies. 

In our culture, we think of peace often as an absence of something, of worry or stress.   But in the Bible peace always describes a fullness; a fullness so complete that it simply leaves no room for fear and anxiety to exist.   Instead, you become filled with joy and peace, a peace so great that it can even defy rational understanding. 

When my family lived in New Orleans, my parents became close friends with the DeZwaan family, a family that seemed so perfect they could have been candidates for a Crest commercial.   But no family, not even the perfect looking ones are immune to awful things.   The DeZwaans moved up to Baton Rouge, and the parents, Ken and Marjorie bought a weekend home on the lake.   One Sunday evening as they were finishing up there, Ken and Marjorie, asked their son, Gary to take his sisters and their friend in his new car to the church youth meeting.  They would follow behind a few minutes later.   And as Ken and Marjorie headed down the highway, they saw an accident.  Ken pulled over to see if he could help.   Then they both realized.  They knew the car.  It was Gary’s car, the one they had just given him as a high school graduation present.   A car driven by a drunk driver had crossed the highway median and hit Gary’s car head on.  No one in Gary’s car survived.   In one awful moment, Ken and Marjorie lost all three of their children.  In her shock and grief, Marjorie cried out. “Oh, Jesus, help me.”   And instantly in the midst of that horrific scene, she felt a peace she could not understand.   That peace carried Ken and Marjorie to the hospital rooms of the men who had killed their children so they could offer them their forgiveness.   It led them on the day when my father showed up for the funeral of their children (3 caskets lined up in the front of the church), for Ken and Marjorie, to ask about one of his, my brother Jes, who was going through serious health issues.    And to this day, that peace has carried them, and led them to tell the story of God’s faithfulness in the midst of their tragedy again and again.  Now how does that peace happen, peace that literally defies understanding? 

It happens when you rigorously ponder the truth, the deepest realities of life.  What do I mean?  I mean what Paul means when he says that whatever is true and pure and honorable, think on those things.   Now that sentence can seem somewhat generic unless you know what those words mean to Paul.   The words he uses here, he uses in other places to describe his core beliefs about God, about God’s love and grace, God’s purpose for the world.    In other words, Paul is telling the Philippians, when worry and fears hit, ponder the deepest truths of life.   Now why does Paul advise them to do that?   He knows.  The more you ponder what is most deeply and profoundly true, the more that truth will free you from worry and fear.  

Ironically many self-help books advise the opposite.  They don’t encourage you to ponder the deep questions of life.  Instead they often advise techniques to avoid those questions or at least to find ways to quiet them.   And that makes sense.  After all, if the only answers to the deep questions of life are that life has no purpose, that no being exists who can bring order out of chaos or good out of evil, that death is simply the end, no more and no less, well that doesn’t do much to foster peace or hope.   Those books actually a void facing the implications of those beliefs, but the Bible tells you when worry and fears hit, that’s when you need to see the implications of what you believe more than ever.   Why?   The truth that Christianity proclaims says.  Life does have purpose. God does have a plan, one that can bring good out of the worst evil.  Nothing will defeat God’s love ever, not even death.    And when you ponder those truths, reflect on them, gain comfort from them, it fills you with a peace and confidence that can withstand anything.  

And how do you best ponder those truths?  You do it by practicing thanksgiving.  I used to think that Paul when he said to make supplication with thanksgiving.   He meant that, before you ask God for something, remember all the things you already have to be grateful for.   That sort of thanking gives you crucial perspective.   But Paul was going further than that.  Paul was saying that when you ask God for an answer, go ahead and thank God for the answer even before you know what the answer is.   Now why would you thank God even before you’ve have any answer to your prayer?   You do so, so that you can remember whatever God’s answer will be, it will be the answer that you would have chosen if you knew what God knew.  

And if you doubt that, look at the cross.   On the day that the Romans killed Jesus, do you think his disciples saw anything good happening?   No, they left in despair.  They thought that God had left the building, when in reality on that cross, in that awful place, God was doing the greatest act of goodness and love ever.   Now if God can do that in the utter evil of the cross, do you think God is going to be stymied by any situation in your life? 

Over a decade ago, I had a dream of where I wanted my next church to be.   I dreamed of serving this church for years.   And guess what, my dream church wasn’t in Hollywood.  It was in Pittsburgh.  And I came close to getting it.  I was in the semi-finals so to speak.  But after my last interview, I knew it.   They didn’t even need to send me a letter.  I was not going to Pittsburgh.  And it bummed me out.  But I look back now, and I wonder.  What was I thinking?   I would have been miserable in Pittsburgh.  If nothing else, it’s one of the cloudiest places on the planet, and I love the sun.   God knew.   You don’t need to be in Pittsburgh.  You need to be in Hollywood, and thank God, God’s answers were wiser than my prayers.   

If God really cares about you, wants the best for you, and can even work that best out for you, than thanking God even as you ask makes perfect sense.    And the more you thank like that, the more you open yourself to a peace and contentment that nothing can shake. Why?  Because it is a peace and contentment rooted in the only thing that cannot change ever.    

In Paul’s day, the philosophers struggled to understand what truly would bring contentment, real peace.  And most of them had come to the same conclusion.   People failed to be content because they looked for the source of contentment in things not ultimately under their control.  So say, they found contentment in family, but family can change.  Divorces, death, divisions wreck families every day.   And the same could be said of success or wealth or popularity.  So what was their solution?  They said.  Don’t look to outward things, which you can’t control or depend upon.   Those things will change.   Look inside to your virtues, your character, which you can control.  There you have something that can remain unchangeable.   But Paul and later the great Christian thinker, Augustine, saw how weak that argument was.   They said.  “Don’t kid yourself.  Your virtue isn’t under your control.   How come you find yourselves driven to do things that you know are wrong, that in your heart of hearts you don’t really want to do. Yet you do it.  You can hardly control your virtues better than your family or success or anything else.   

In the end, only one reality in the universe does not change..  And what is that?  God, and not simply God, but God’s love; God’s unbreakable desire for your good;  for your well-being; for your fulfillment and joy.   In that and only in that will you find the peace and joy you seek, because only in that do you find what will never change

How can you know that?   You can know that because you know Jesus.   A God who loves you no matter what, that’s a nice concept, a comforting one.  But concepts don’t transform your heart.   But when you see that concept lived out in flesh and blood, God dying for you in flesh and blood, well, that will transform you.  

When God in Jesus went to that cross, do you think he had peace?  That he had joy?  No.  He lost his peace in that dark and despairing place.   He cried out.  My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?    He had no joy.  The brutality and pain of those hours emptied him of joy.  But he willingly gave up his peace so that you might know a peace that passes understanding   He forsook his joy to open the way to joy for you now and forever.   And God did all that willingly, freely, out of love for you.    At any moment, Jesus could have walked away, could have ended the agony.   But Jesus stayed on that cross, because even there, utterly alone and beset by evil at its worst, God’s love for you did not change.    And if God’s love did not break under that, then it will never break.  Death won’t break it.  Your failings won’t break it.  Your doubts won’t break it.  And the more you realize that unchangeable truth, the more joy will fill you and with it peace, a peace that pushes away fear, a peace that passes all understanding.   

Sunday, September 18, 2016

When Hard Times Hit How Do you Find the Hope to not just Survive but to Overcome even Triumph? Here's How

It makes me wonder.   What was the difference?  They both had the same mom.  They both had tough childhoods.   They both even got involved with drugs when they were young.   Yet one sister struggles with addiction for years and dies at 43 of a drug overdose.  The other goes on to appear on Time Magazine’s most influential list ten times, more than any other person ever.    One sister makes $19,000.00 by selling an ugly story about that sister to the tabloid.   And the other sister goes on to become the richest self-made woman in American history.

Have you guessed who I am talking about?   I am talking about two sisters, one was named Patricia, and the other named Orpah after a character in the Bible.  But since no one could pronounce it, they ended up just calling her Oprah.    How does that happen?   How does one sister never get beyond the demons that plagued her, while the other not only goes beyond them, but beyond them to become an extraordinary success.  

I was thinking about that question because again and again in life, you can find that pattern.  You see two folks encounter similar hardships and setbacks.   Yet one overcomes, even grows stronger through the tough times.  But the other, the other never gets past them.  Instead he falls further and further behind.    How do you become the one who overcomes rather than the one who falls behind?  How do you find the resilience, the strength to make it through the tragedies, the injustices, the losses that life brings you?   As one preacher put it, when hard things happen, you have two choices.   You can become better or you can become bitter.    How do you move towards the better?  In these words, written to followers of Jesus going through their own trials, God shows the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say.

Romans 5:1-5      

When hard times hit, how do you overcome?   How do you find the hope to carry on, to even move forward even in the face of tremendous suffering, of heartbreaking loss?   In these words of Paul’s, God shows the way.   God shows us that hope ultimately lies not in what we feel.  It lies in what we know.   And when you know the truth of who you are, of who God is, that truth, that knowledge will bring you through anything.  

But before we look at what that truth is, we need to see clearly what it is not.  You cannot overcome the suffering and setbacks of life by deadening yourself to them.   And you can’t overcome them by celebrating in them either.   What do I mean?  

Many years ago I met the father of a friend.  Bob was his name.  I noticed that one of his fingers was only partially there.   And once I saw it, I couldn’t help but ask.  How did that happen?   Then the story came out.   Bob had been changing a tire with a friend on the side of the road one day when the jack dropped.  And when it did, so did his finger.   And all Bob said to communicate that loss was.  “Oh, it got my finger.”   And then calmly with his friend, they found the missing piece, put it on ice and headed to the hospital.  Needless to say, they didn’t make it in time.  But what struck me was, at least as they told the story, that was pretty much all that Bob had to say about the thing.   Just, “Oh, it got my finger.”    I kind of admired that reaction.   It seemed so tough, so strong, but more and more I wonder if it was.    

A certain school of thought says that you deal with pain by not allowing yourself to feel it, by deadening yourself to it.   You keep the stiff upper lip.   You toughen up and live on to fight another day.    And as tempting as all that sounds, it leads to a seriously disturbing downside.  You can’t deaden yourself to the dark withoutdeadening yourself to the light.   The more you work at finding ways to deny the pain, to numb it, the more you numb the exuberance, the delight, the sheer joy that life can bring.    When Paul talks here about boasting in suffering, he is telling you that in your suffering God can bring good, endurance, character, hope.  But you don’t get that by acting as if the suffering isn’t really suffering, by denying the pain and hurt you actually feel. 

But not denying suffering doesn’t mean you celebrate it either. Paul doesn’t say we boast because of our suffering, as if suffering somehow qualifies you as a Christian.   Yet still many religious folks think it does.   

Have you ever heard that knock on your door, and seen some folks standing there and smiling, holding a copy of the latest edition of the Watchtower?  Do you know what I’m talking about?  How many here have had Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on their door?   Now before I go any further, let me say.   That sort of door knocking takes some guts, and as someone who has done it on occasion, God can use it in neat ways.   I’m might even do a little door knocking around the church in the coming months myself.   But what I’ve learned about the Witnesses is that the hard core ones get almost as excited as when you shut the door on them as when you let them in.  And if you happen to be rude, well, that really rocks their world. Why?  They figure that they’re getting to suffer for Jehovah, and that’s an awesome thing.  Some of them even look forward to the rejection.   And often lots of Christians have had the same attitude. 

Yet, in spite of what many Christians have thought over the centuries, Jesus didn’t celebrate suffering of any sort.   He didn’t avoid suffering, but he never thought it was good or right.   It’s why he spent so much of his ministry easing it, from feeding the hungry to healing the sick to freeing the spiritually tormented.

So if numbing yourself to suffering won’t help you and if celebrating it won’t work either, then what does Paul mean by boasting in it?   Paul is telling you.   You triumph through suffering not by not feeling it nor by welcoming it.  You triumph through suffering by knowing it never will have the last word. 

Many years ago, I read about something called the Stockdale Paradox.   It got its name from Admiral Jim Stockdale.   During the Vietnam War, Admiral Stockdale became the highest ranking officer in the infamous Vietcong prison known as the Hanoi Hilton.   In that role, he created ingenious ways for the prisoners to stand strong, to keep their dignity in the face of humiliating and devastating suffering.   For his efforts, our nation gave him the Medal of Honor.  And Stockdale went on with his wife to write a moving book of the experience called In Love and War, and become a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and for those who might remember even a candidate for Vice President.    

The business writer, Jim Collins, became intrigued by his story.  He wondered.  How did Stockdale and the other not only survive but triumph through years and years of torture and starvation?   Stockdale simply said. “I never lost faith in the end of the story.  I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail to the end and turn the experience into the defining moment of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”  

Then Collins asked.  “Well who didn’t make it out?”    Stockdale said.  “Oh that’s easy.  The optimists.”  Puzzled, Collins asked. Why?   “Well, they’d say, Oh, we’ll be out by Christmas, and then Christmas would come and go.  Then it would be Easter, and Easter would come and go.   Then it would be Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving would come and go.  And eventually, all that optimism led to utter despair.    

And with that Stockdale presented the paradox.   “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you cannot afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your reality, whatever those facts might be.”

What Stockdale was saying is what God is telling us here.   You can boast in your suffering not because it’s easy or even because God is going to get you out of it.   It’s not easy, and you don’t know if God will deliver you out of it or not.    But this you do know.  You know that because of what God has already done for you, your suffering, no matter how severe, can never have the last word.  

That’s why Paul begins what we just read the way he does.  How do you know your suffering will not have the last word?   Because, Jesus in his suffering and death guaranteed it won’t.  That’s what it means when Paul says that you and I are justified.   It means, all our suffering, even the suffering we bring on ourselves, on that cross, God made right.  God rectified it. God resolved it.  God paid for it.    In Jesus, God took on the full force of evil with all the senseless and unjust suffering it brings, and he did it for us.    And did evil get the last word there?  Was Jesus’ death the end of the story?  No, Jesus’ story did not end there.   It didn’t even end at the empty tomb.  It still hasn’t ended.   And it will not end until evil is totally banished and broken.  

You can know that your suffering is not the end of your story, because Jesus’ suffering was not the end of his.   And his story is now your story.   His glory is now your glory.   His love has now been poured into you.   And when you know that, then you know a truth that will empower you not simply to survive suffering, but to triumph in the midst of it, to even boast in it. 

Whatever suffering you face, you can know it will not write the end of your story.  God on that cross in his suffering wrote that.   And the more you know that, the more you will find in your suffering, endurance and character, and a hope that not even death can defeat. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Why Perfectionism will Destroy You but Perfection Will Save You

When I was growing up, I had a bizarre theory about the television.   I figured if I could see them, then they could see me.    And this created a huge problem when it came to the Brady Bunch.    For those who remember it, the Brady Bunch told the story of this blended family, where the house was always put together, the parents never got angry, and the kids had nothing but the nicest problems.   I loved that show, but I was terrified of what the Brady’s might think of my family, the McGowan’s.   So before the show, I’d clean up the area around the TV.  I’d ask my siblings to dress nice and behave well.  I wanted the Brady’s to see us at our best.   But something always went wrong.  My dad would come in his t-shirt on the way to his workshop or my sisters would get in a fight.  Somehow, some way my family would find a way to embarrass me in front of the Brady’s.  

Now you may never had any desire to impress the Brady Bunch, but somewhere along the way, you’ve been worried about impressing somebody.   Have you ever had someone come over to clean your house, but before they came over, you cleaned it first?   Now, I’m not talking a full clean, but you pick up things, maybe do the dishes; stuff like that.   You realize that the house will still be dirty, but at least they won’t think you’re a total slob.   Or maybe it wasn’t a house cleaner, but a neighbor or some worker who came to fix something.   Maybe you said something like, “I apologize for the house.  It’s normally not this way at all (when you knew it was this way all the time).”  

Now, is that so bad?  Who doesn’t want to make a good first impression?   But the deeper question is.  Why do you do that?   Why does it matter so much?   Underneath that drive to impress lies a deeper problem.  And that problem painfully limits your life, your relationships, your sense of joy and peace.    But in these words, Jesus offers a way out, a way that frees you to become who God created you to be.  And in these words, Jesus points to that way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.    

What’s wrong with wanting to make a good first impression?   Shouldn’t that be a worthy goal? It all depends on why you are doing it.  Too often what drives the desire to impress has to do with a deeper problem, one that leads you away from the fullness that God yearns to give.  What is the problem?  You are striving for the appearance of perfection, when what you need is the real thing.   And the real thing, real perfection is something very different from what you might think.    And once you’ve experienced it, it frees you as only true perfection can.  But first, you need to understand the problem that binds you up.   

Here’s the problem.   People mistake perfectionism for perfection.  But the two could not be any more different.   Perfectionism has nothing to do with being perfect, and everything to do with looking perfect.   When you are in perfectionist mode, you know two things.  You know deep inside that you are far from perfect.  And you also know that you can’t let anyone see that.    Why?   You fear that if anyone did see it, what would they think?  What would they think of you?  How would they react?  And a voice tells you that they would react badly.   So to avoid that condemnation and disapproval, to avoid the shame of that exposure, you cover it up with the appearance of perfection.   And then you tell yourself, this is what perfection looks like.   If I look perfect, then I must be perfect, right?

But in the words that came before the ones we just read, Jesus destroys that false belief.    In example after example, Jesus punctures the illusion of perfectionism, one that the religious leaders of his day were promoting.  Jesus said; so you say, you shall not murder, but I say to you if you cherish anger in your heart, then you’ve murdered.    You say, don’t commit adultery, but I say to you if you look at someone with lust in your heart, then you’ve done the deed.  Do you see what Jesus is doing?  He is laying out a painful truth. Perfectionism is not perfection.  Looking perfect ain’t perfect.  It’s just a lie you tell yourself to help you feel better about the mess you know you are.   And that lie destroys the life that God wants you to live.  Why?

In that lie, you can’t spend your life growing into the person God created you to be.  Instead you spend your life constructing an image of the life you think others want to see.    And that life isn’t a life.   It’s a lie, a lie that eats you up from the inside, and wounds you and often others in devastating ways.

When I first came to South Florida, I got to know the pastor of a large church nearby.  We went to lunch pretty regularly.   I began to believe that we had developed a solid relationship.   After the last lunch I ever had with him, he told me that he would email some information I was looking for.  And I waited, and I waited, and the email never came.  So after two weeks or so, I called his assistant to ask her about it.   After a long pause, she said, “Kennedy, you don’t know?  David doesn’t work here anymore.”    It turned out as we shot the breeze at that last lunch his life was falling apart by his own hand.    The ugly truth about a long affair had just come out, and at that lunch, he was only days away from leaving ministry, losing his marriage, and devastating a church that had placed their trust in his leadership and integrity.   But as we sat there at that table, you would never have known it.   Even there, as his life blew up around him, he was still trying to cover, trying to look perfect when he was anything but. 

Now you may not be hiding an affair, but when you get caught in the lie of perfectionism, you are hiding something.  And let’s be honest, aren’t we all hiding a bit like that?  But when you do, you aren’t just hiding some little flaw, you are hiding you.   And that hiding binds you, and it binds others, because we’re all living lies with each other, lies from which we can’t break free.   And nothing good will ever come from that hiding.  It will just bring more hiding, more lies.  It will spawn a life that is so far from what God intended our life to be.     

Yet here’s the question.   How do you break free of the compulsion to cover?  How do you gain the freedom and courage not to hide just how imperfect you are?  You gain that freedom by knowing what true perfection actually is.     

In these words, Jesus shows you.  And he begins by describing it in an unexpected way.   He talks about how God showers rain and sun on everybody from the worst to the best.  Then he says.  That’s the way you need to be.  If you are only nice to the people who are nice to you, then what’s the big deal?  Pretty much, everybody does that.   If you want to be perfect like God, be good to everybody.  Don’t hate your enemies.  Pray for them.   

Now how does that help?   It doesn’t if you think Jesus is just giving you something new to do. If you think Jesus is telling you to smile and be sweet to people who have done you wrong, you’re still stuck.   Because, then you’ll just be living another lie.  You’ll be smiling at folks on the outside, when inside you are not smiling at them at all.      

To get what Jesus is actually telling you, you need to understand what this word translated as perfect here really means.    When we think of perfect, we usually think of something that’s absent of flaws.  But for Jesus perfection didn’t mean an absence of flaws but a fullness, a completeness.   You could actually translate the words that Jesus says more accurately as; be complete, therefore, as your heavenly Father is complete.       

Jesus is saying what makes God perfect is not an absence but a fullness.  God has no lack, nothing missing.   And God showers that completeness on everyone.  Yes, God sees injustice and wrong.   God works to make it right.  But as God does that, he still showers rain and sun on everyone, the just and unjust alike.  Why?   In God’s completeness, God’s fullness, God can offer love to everyone.   God sees no one as unworthy of that love.   And that is the fullness that frees you from the lie of perfectionism.

You see, with all those examples about adultery and murder, Jesus was making it clear.  You are not perfect.  You are not complete.   And to try to live a life that denies that is to live a lie, a lie that will ultimately destroy you.    But if you instead acknowledge your incompleteness then you open the door for the very completion you need.  You can’t cause the sun to rise, so God raises it for you, no matter how good or bad you are.  You can’t bring the rain, so God brings it for you, despite anything you’ve done or not done.  And on your own, you can’t become complete, become whole, so God brings that completion and wholeness to you. 

That’s why God came in Jesus.  That’s why in that agony on the cross, he didn’t hate his enemies.  He prayed for them.  Don’t you see?   In Jesus, God came to make you complete.  He emptied himself so he could fill you.   He became utterly broken to make you whole.   So, yes, you are incomplete.   But in Jesus, all your incompletes are gone.   He, in that ultimate gift, that infinite sacrifice, made you complete, whole, even perfect.    And as you know that, you will find the freedom to be who you really are, warts and all.  Why? Even in your incompleteness, you will know in God’s eyes, you are already complete.  And in that freedom, you will grow.  You will grow past your warts more and more into the perfect creation God made you to be.   So, forget perfectionism.  Forget those lies.   Live into the truth of your incompletion because can you rest in the truth that in God’s eyes you are already complete.