Sunday, June 18, 2017

Here Is The One Truth You Have To See, and The One Truth You Need to be Free, and They're not the Same

It left me stunned.   I could hardly believe the whole thing had actually happened.  But it had.  Five people had all confessed to a terrible crime.    Some had even written letters seeking forgiveness from the family for the heinous act.   But all of them, all of them, had not done the crime at all.  In fact, only one had even known the victim to begin with. 

It all happened in the small city of Beatrice, Nebraska over thirty years ago. Somebody attacked an older woman, Helen Wilson in her apartment, and then suffocated her.   The police found the intruder’s blood and other body fluids throughout her home.   But for years, they never found the person who did the crime.    But then, a local farmer turned deputy remembered two peculiar folks who had lived in the town at the time, Ada Taylor and Joseph Wright.  He became convinced they had done the crime.  So since both had moved away from Beatrice, the Sheriff and two others flew across the country to arrest them, to Alabama for Joseph, and to North Carolina, for Ada.  

They did long interviews with Ada, and in those interviews, even though she got the details wrong, Ada became convinced.  She had done the deed, and Joe Wright had done it with her.   But the authorities had a problem.   Ada and Joe’s blood didn’t match the blood type in the apartment.  Then Ada thought that maybe her friend, Tom, might have been there.   When they brought Tom in, he too became convinced he had helped do the deed, but his blood didn’t match either.   Then Tom thought that maybe his friend, Debra, who was the victim’s grandniece, had been there too.  Debra then became convinced she had been there, but her blood didn’t match either.   So, she had a dream that her husband’s friend, James Dean, had been there.   So, they brought James in, and he too became convinced of his guilt, but guess what?  He didn’t have the right blood either.   So he thought maybe his friend, Kathy had been there, and lo and behold, Kathy had the right blood type.   Crime solved.

All of them but Joseph Wright pled guilty, and served years, even decades, in prison.  But then, when DNA testing became possible, Joe Wright got his DNA tested.   And that test cleared him completely.   He then convinced another of the six, Tom to get his DNA tested.   That test cleared him too.   That led the state of Nebraska to put together a task force to look into this further.  That’s when they found the match.  The blood belonged to none of the six.  It belonged to a juvenile delinquent named Bruce Smith, whose grandmother, had lived in the same apartment building.

As the assistant attorney general put it, not only were these six folks innocent beyond a reasonable doubt.   They were innocent beyond all doubt.   It became the largest DNA exoneration involving false confessions in the history of the United States.   Yet for years, beyond Joe Wright, they all believed that they had done it, that they had done this horrible thing. 

Why am I telling you this story?   It’s because these five weren’t entirely wrong.   In their false guilt, they saw something true about themselves that many folks don’t see but very much need to.   In fact in that painful truth, God tells you, lies the way to liberation, to the transformation that God yearns to bring.   How can seeing that truth free you when it literally imprisoned them?   In these words, God shows the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Even in the falseness of their guilt, these folks in Nebraska saw something painfully true, something every human being needs to see.    That truth, even as it may cause you pain, will liberate you.   But it will only liberate you when you see not only that truth, but the whole truth, the whole truth that will 
set you free.  

What is this painful truth that these folks in Nebraska saw?   They saw the acorn inside them. 
Over a century ago, the great London preacher, C.H. Spurgeon, first came up with this image.     Imagine a single acorn, Spurgeon would ask.   Do you realize what lies inside this acorn?  Now folks might say, well, an oak tree.   But is it really just one oak tree?  No. Spurgeon would say.  This one oak tree can produce thousands of acorns, and each of those acorns can produce trees with thousands of acorns of their own.     In just one acorn, he would say, you have the potential not just for one true, but for millions, for enough oak trees to cover an entire continent. 

And, so it is with the evil in every human heart.   Every human being has such an acorn inside them.  Now for most folks fortunately their acorn falls on hard ground.   They grow up in loving families, in safe neighborhoods.   They find decent jobs, get good friends, live in decent circumstances, and so their acorn of evil never grows into even one tree much less thousands.    But for others, their acorn falls into all too fertile ground.  They get born into chaos and trauma, in neighborhoods where crime is a way of life.   They get so-called friends that lead them down wrong paths.  Their acorn of evil grows and blossoms in awful ways.

Yet often, people, especially, good people, don’t see their acorn for what it is.   They refuse to see that the potential for great evil lies inside them, because it lies inside everyone.   But these poor wrongly accused folks in Nebraska got that.   Deep inside they realized.  Inside them lay the potential for awful things, even that horrible crime.    And in that, they were right.

It’s why John says here, “If we say that we have no sin, then we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”   But hold on a second, didn’t that truth, so to speak, get them imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit?   No, it didn’t.   

They suffered unjust imprisonment because too many good folks who had power and authority couldn’t see their acorn.    All of these folks accused didn’t fit in.  They fell in love with the wrong type of folks.  They lived on the wrong side of town.  They came from messed up families.   So, the good people thought.   Well, they must have done it.   After all, they’re not like us.  So even when those accused got all the details wrong, when none of them fit the evidence, these good people became so convinced they had done the crime, they even got them to believe it.   And the whole time what were these good people in authority thinking?   We are the good guys.  We couldn’t have this wrong.  It couldn’t be that our self-righteous certainties are leading us to commit a terrible injustice, to steal decades of life from innocent people.   No, not us, we have no sin.  

Here’s a painful truth.  In the world, it’s usually not the folks who know they’re in the wrong that do the worst things.   It’s the folks who have convinced themselves that they’re in the right, that they are the righteous, who do the greatest evil.    That man who shot Steve Scalise and so many others this week, thought he was in the right.   So do the folks from ISIS.   Heck, so did the good and righteous folks who killed Jesus.   The philosopher Pascal had it right.   Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.

And in your own life, do you know when you are most susceptible to do and say the worst things to the people you love?   It’s in those times when you have convinced yourself that they are so in the wrong, and you are so in the right.  It’s stunning what self-righteousness can justify.  
That’s why John makes it so clear that until you face up to your acorn, so to speak, you are deceiving yourself.   The truth cannot be in you.  

But if that is the only part of the truth that you see, then freedom will never come either.  Instead that part of the truth will deceive you in a different way.   It will lead you to believe that the wrongness inside you defines you, that it and it alone determines who you are. 

These folks falsely accused became convinced of their guilt because they thought just that.  They had to believe their brokenness alone defined them.   They could not see past it.   So, when someone came along and said you did this.   It only confirmed a belief that they had, one that was not the whole truth.     The partial truth will never give you life.   It will lead you instead into a death that will destroy your soul.   Only the whole truth frees you.  Only the whole truth brings you life.

So, if you ever hear a voice inside you that condemns you, that says you are broken beyond repair, it can never be the voice of Jesus.   It can only be the voice of the one that the Bible calls the accuser.   It is the voice of evil, which loves to take one part of the truth, and deceives you into thinking it is the whole truth.  

So, what is that whole truth?   Your acorn doesn’t define you. Your champion does that.   That’s how John can be so confident here.  After all, John says that God will not only forgive us our sins.  God will cleanse us from all unrighteousness.    Do you see what John is saying?  John is saying when you acknowledge the wrongness inside of you, your acorn so to speak, then God not only forgives that wrongness, he takes it away from you, like it was never there. 

How can God do that?  John tells you that too.   God can do it because you have a champion.  When John talks about an advocate that’s what he means.   Too often, people get an image here that Jesus is their defense attorney trying to get mercy from the stern divine father.    But advocate here doesn’t mean that at all.   It means that in Jesus you have a champion.

In certain ancient cultures, if you found yourself in trouble with the law, a champion could represent you.  He would fight for you and if he won, then you won.  His victory became your victory.   His righteousness became your righteousness.  And your trouble with the law went away forever.  

In Jesus, that’s what God did.  God became your champion, the champion who fought through death and beyond to set you free.      When John says that Jesus is your champion with the Father, Jesus is not opposing the Father.  No John is saying exactly what he means.   Jesus, the righteous one, stands with the Father to together bring you victory, to bring you the very righteousness you need. 
That means, even as you face the brokenness inside you, you have an even greater truth.  Your brokenness doesn’t have the last word.   Your champion does.   And your champion has overcome your brokenness.   Even now, his righteousness is making whole those broken places, until that brokenness is no more.           

So, Jesus will show you when your self-righteousness is blinding you.  He will show you when you are lying to yourself.    Jesus will call you to live into the victory he has won for you, to grow in the goodness and love that he has planted in you.   And above all, Jesus will remind you of who you are.

You are the one whom God so loved that God gave up everything to bring you home.  You are the one who God valued so ultimately that in Jesus, God himself became your champion.   You are the one who will never be defined by your brokenness.  No, you are the one defined by the love of the God who died to make you whole. 

And when you know that, you can face up to your acorn without fear.  You can see even the most broken and flawed with compassion.  After all, you know you carry the same seed within.  But that doesn’t scare you.  You know.  Your brokenness will never have the last word.  Why?  Your champion has that.   And His victory has become yours.  

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The One Thing You Need for Intimate Communion with God and That So Many Miss

When they told me, I honestly thought I had misunderstood.   They couldn’t be telling me that.   But they were.     They were telling me that.

At my old church in New York, I used to lead a course on how to share your faith.  One year, I only had two folks in the group, John and Doris. Both of them were leaders in the church.   Everything was going according to plan until the next to last session.   I was talking about how to explain the gospel to people who were curious to know more.   But as I explained it, Doris and John had these really puzzled faces.  

I asked them.  Is this making sense?   They nodded.   Then I asked.  Then why are you looking so puzzled?   Then John said it.   I don’t think I’ve done that.   And Doris nodded and agreed.   I still didn’t get it.   What haven’t you done?   They both pointed to the explanation of the gospel and said, that.    Doris and John had served for years in the church.   John had been on the search committee that first brought me to the church.   But they were saying to me that even so, they had never actually become Christians.

Now they thought they had been Christians until that night.   As I talked with them further, I asked.  How did you think you became a Christian?   They said.  We thought it meant trying to follow the ten commandments, to live by the teachings of Jesus.   They never realized. None of that would ever make you a Christian.   And so that night, Doris and John, after years of service in the church, finally became Christians.

How is it possible for people to worship years and years in a Christian church, to even become leaders there, and yet never become Christians?   It’s far more possible than you might think.   Why?  Because lots of folks, both in the pews on Sunday morning, and those who haven’t darkened a church door in years have the same wrong idea about what it means to become a Christian.   So what does it mean?   What has to happen for the intimate communion with God that the Gospel promises?  In these words, God shows you the way.   So let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

How can you think you’re a Christian, be absolutely convinced that you are, and still not be one?   You could even be serving actively, even become an elected leader, and still not get it.   How is that possible?   Here God tells you.   It happens because you don’t realize that the human problem isn’t ultimately with the things that people do.  It has to do with what people have or rather what has them.   Only when you realize that will you open the door to the intimate communion with God that God yearns to give.     

Do you see how John opens up this section we just read?  He says.  “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”   If you think about what most folks believe about sin, doesn’t that sentence sound a little weird?   You see.  Most folks think that sinning has to do with what you do.  If you lie or steal, if you cheat on your spouse, basically all the ten commandments stuff.
I mean.  You can’t have sin can you?  You can have a cold.   You can have a disease.   But can you have sin?   In these words from John, God is saying not only can you have sin, but everyone does.    Everyone has sin.

And you can think about that in the same way you think of a cold or any illness.   A few days ago, my son developed croup.   Now my wife and I found that out, when he began coughing one night, and it woke him up.   But that’s not when the croup happened.   He had already developed croup before that.  He already had the virus.   It’s only then that what he actually had became evident to us.   Before, the croup appeared as an outward condition, it was already working within.   In fact, that’s what scary about certain diseases.   You can think you are perfectly healthy, when inside you, unbeknownst to you a cancer is growing or an artery is clogging.  
In the Bible, God tells you again and again, sin works that same way.  You may not even know that you have it.  Why?  It’s because sin isn’t something you do.  It’s something you have.   You may see the symptoms of it in your outward behavior or not.   But even if you do, that’s not where it begins.   It’s not what it actually is. 

And then God goes further.  God talks about sin not as something you have but rather something that has you, that has taken over your life.   

When the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church in Rome, he made a stunning statement.  Paul compared devoutly religious Jews, striving to do everything right to Gentiles, doing, well, pretty much everything wrong, and do you know what Paul said?   He said that both the same problem.  Both are under the power of sin.  How can someone who is doing everything right be just as bad as someone who is doing everything wrong?  It’s because sin isn’t ultimately about what you do.   It’s about something that has you.

Think about it, even with a bad cold, isn’t it that way?  You don’t really have a cold as much as a cold has you.  It gives you pain you don’t want.   It drains your energy.   It hijacks your life.   
In the same way, at a much deeper level, this power that the Bible calls sin does the same thing.  It takes over your life, but unlike a sickness, it can actually deceive you into thinking you’ve got nothing wrong at all.

So, what is this power that captures every human being on the planet?   What does the power of sin actually do in you?   It captures you with the delusion that you not God are at the center of the universe.              

And if you think to yourself, I don’t think that.   Let me ask you some questions.  Do you get irritated when you hit a lot of red lights?   Why?  Is it because you assume that all the lights should be green when you drive.  When you hit a traffic jam, does it irritate you?  Do you think?  How can this traffic be so jammed when I need to get somewhere?   Now, you may catch yourself and think well somebody could have had a bad accident, and that’s a lot worse than my inconvenience.   But let’s be honest, that’s not your first thought.

How many times do fantasies rise up in your mind where you are the hero, where it’s all about you.   Do you ever have fantasies where you imagine someone else being the hero, where it’s all about them, where they win the lottery but not you?  
When you hit a health crisis, do you pray more and more fervently than before, probably more fervently than you’ve prayed for anyone else?   Why is that?  Because, it’s about you isn’t it?   Heck, when my son got sick, yes, I felt bad for him.   But part of me thought.  Sheesh how inconvenient this is for me.  Heck, when you are on a flight, and a baby starts crying, what’s your first thought?  Is it, oh that poor baby or is it, boy this flight is not going to be fun for me. 
Remember, what I mentioned a few weeks ago.   Have you ever worried what people are saying about you behind your back?    Do you realize how self-obsessed that is?  Not only are you focused on you, but you are assuming that everyone else is too.    

And the power of sin so captures you that most of the time, you don’t even realize how self-obsessed you are, and how it limits your life, and your relationship with God.  You see.   When sin captures you, you think about God the same way you think about everything.  You think in terms of what God can do for you, your joy, your fulfillment, your happiness, your well-being.    And when things don’t seem to be going good, you can get upset at God, because isn’t the whole thing about you anyway?

That’s why religion doesn’t work.   You see, Doris and John were doing lots of wonderful things, kind-hearted, generous things.   That actually made their sin problem worse.  How is that? 


The great 20th century church historian, John Gerstner, once said thisThe main thing between you and God is not so much your sins; it's your damnable good works.  What did Gerstner mean?   Doris and John were doing good things, but underneath it all, it was driven by this anxiety.   They thought.  If I do these good things, if I live as Jesus would want me to, then God will be happy.   That will win God’s favor.    But at the heart of this motivation lay the same focus, themselves.  As much as they were doing things for others, they were still trying to save themselves.  


But when you are doing the good works, doing the whole self-salvation thing, it can be so difficult to see that.   That’s why, often the folks doing the worst things got the message of the gospel before the religious folks did.   Those folks already realized that they had a problem, but the religious folks not so much.    


So how do you break free of this power in your life, this power that captures everyone, from the best to the worst?  You realize that you can’t.   You realize that without God doing something radical to rescue you, you will never be free.


That’s the radical message of the gospel.   It’s not the good that get salvation.   It’s the humble.  It’s those who face up to their need.  In fact, all you need is need.   As the second step of Alcoholic’s Anonymous puts it, salvation comes to those who realize that only a power greater than themselves can restore them to sanity.


And how does this power greater than ourselves do it?  How did God rescue you?  How did God rescue me?  


Before we get to the rescue, we have to see what this obsession with self, this sin power has done.  It has brought untold suffering.   It has destroyed God’s creation.  It has wounded others in countless ways.   It has damaged every relationship you have.   And all this damage came through us.  Even as sin captured us, we became a willing hostage.   We liked thinking that the world revolved around us, that God was there for me.  


So what did God do to rescue you?   God took the damage from our self-obsession on God’s very self.   In Jesus, God entered human existence, and from there did two things.  First, God freed you from this enemy that had captured you.  And as God did it by absorbing all the damage that this power did in you, and through you and through me in the world.    When everything had gone so horribly wrong, in one incredible act of infinite love that came at infinite cost, the crucifixion, God made everything right.   And that frees you and nothing else.


Do you notice what is unusual about what John says about confessing sins?  John says.  If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.    John doesn’t say, he who is faithful and forgiving.  He doesn’t say.  He who is faithful and merciful.   No John says, he who is faithful and just.    You see.  John knows.   When God in Jesus died on that cross, God made everything right.    Your forgiveness comes not as a matter of mercy.  It comes as a matter of justice.   God paid the price.   You are now free and clear.        


And when you know, really know this, it starts to free you from yourself.  That’s why that night, the gospel came as a huge relief to John and Doris.   It took the pressure off.   They still did the same things yes, but now out of a radically different motivation, one that liberated them rather than captured them.    


When you get the gospel, sure, you strive to live as Jesus desires you to.  But you don’t do it out of insecurity or anxiety or fear.  No, you do it because you know what God has done for you.    You love God not for what God can give you.   After all, now  you know God has given you everything that ultimately matters.  No, you love God for God, for how utterly beautiful God is in every way.    And as you grow less and less worried about yourself, you become more and more centered on the wonder of this God, who is living love, and on the people around you, whom this God loves.   And you realize.  You’re not thinking less of yourself.   No, you’re just thinking of yourself less.  And it is wonderful.       

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Two Things That Enable You to Overcome the Darkness Within

Do they have a secret network or something?  Is it built into the genetic code?  Could that be it?   Whatever it is, every kid seems to know all the techniques for delaying bed time.     In our house, there’s the whole drink of water excuse.   And of course, my son, Patrick has the one that is tried and true.  He needs to go potty.  But every night, something stands in the way of that last potty run.   It’s the darkness.   As much as he wants to go, he won’t go there until the lights are on, and on as brightly as possible.   That’s why he has to have the night light on too.  When it comes to the darkness, Patrick wants no part.  

Now people may deny it, but when it comes to darkness, Patrick isn’t the only one.   In fact, the older you get, the greater the fear becomes.   It just changes.   Before it might have been about the physical darkness, a dark room, a dark hallway, a dark alley.  And while that fear may still be there, now the fear has grown bigger.   It’s the darkness of the unknown.  What does the future hold for yourself, for your kids; your family?  The world can be a scarily uncertain place.   But beyond that, now you can fear the darkness not only out there, but in here.    Every human being has stuff in themselves, they’d rather not see, much less show to anyone else.   Who here would want to see a highlight reel of your darkest thoughts over the past week?   And those dark places, as much as you and I want to avoid facing them, they sabotage our lives.    They hold us back.  They limit us.   They wound us, and they wound others.  But how do you get free?  How do you find freedom from that darkness?  In these words, God shows the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.  

Darkness can grip people’s lives; dark thoughts that bring resentment or fear, that lead you to lash out or to close yourself off; dark desires that can sabotage your health, your relationships, your life; dark places that lead you to doubt yourself, to fall into despair.   How do you break free of that darkness?  How do you bring the light in?   Here God tells you.   Freedom comes only when you face the darkness rather than deny it.  Only when you face not only the darkness in you, but the darkness God faced for you will the light come.  Only then will the light conquer the darkness.

You see.  That’s why John tells you that if you say that you have no sin, then that’s a sign of just how 
in the dark you are.     It’s not facing the darkness that will destroy you.   It’s denying it. 

Years ago, I saw a joke t-shirt that went something like this.   I don’t have a problem with alcohol.  I drink, I get drunk, and I fall down, no problem.   But I gotta admit.  I didn’t find it all that funny.   It came too close to describing people I actually knew.

Last year, distributors sent over 700 million oxycontin and percoset pills to just one state, West Virginia.     That’s 443 pills for every man, woman and child in that state.   So now, you’ll see in West Virginia parents pass out from a drug overdose at their kids’ baseball games.  Or maybe they’ll do it at the wheel of their car, like Tiger Woods did this past week here in Florida.   

But the drugs only point to the deeper problem, why people take them in the first place.   They take them often not for some real physical pain but because they don’t want to face the pain inside them.    So the drugs deaden the pain.   They help them avoid facing that darkness.   But, it never works.    No, the darkness just takes over more and more of their lives.

But you don’t have to abuse drugs to find a way to deny the darkness.  You can eat too much.  You can indulge in way too much TV or the escape of your phone.   You can fill your life with so much distraction and activity that you never have to face your darkness.   Heck, you can even use your religion to deny it.  But whatever it is, it will never work.   Denial never does.

That’s why you won’t find in the Bible people who lived morally exemplary lives.  No, you’ll find people, who yes, often showed great faith, but at the same time, failed in stunning ways.   But when they did, they faced their darkness.   They didn’t deny it.    And when they faced it, they found the way to freedom.  

That’s how you can tell someone has found the light.   When they discover a fault or failing within that they never realized before, it doesn’t crush them, it liberates them.   Sure, seeing a painful truth about yourself doesn’t feel good.   As the preacher, Bill Coffin put it, “To paraphrase Jesus “The truth may make you free, but first it makes you miserable.”   But that misery only leads you to be grasped by the greater truth, the truth that no failing will ever have the final word.  God’s love has that. 

On the other hand, someone may have been coming to church their entire lives, but when they face a moral failing, a painful truth about themselves, it does crush them.   They can’t get past it.  Or they expend enormous energy to deny it is even there.  You see.  They may have sung about the light, but they still find themselves in the darkness.    Inside they still believe that they have to be worthy of that light, rather than simply willing to receive it. 

But to experience the freedom means not only facing your darkness.  It means facing Jesus’ too.   That’s why John says that it’s the blood of Jesus that cleanses from all sin.    When you see the darkness Jesus faced for you, it gives you the strength to resist your own dark places.    And even when you fail, Jesus’ darkness gives you the assurance that your failure will never have that final word.

How does the darkness Jesus faced give you strength to resist?

Well, As I shared a few weeks ago, I had a car accident, one I could easily have prevented if I had been less distracted.    And since 11-year-old mini coopers aren’t worth a lot, now we are looking at getting a new car, a few years before we planned.   Yet my family has been great.  My wife has been understanding.   My son has been sympathetic.   My in-laws have loaned us their car until we get a replacement.   And since my phone was part of the distraction that caused the accident, I have committed to put it away while I drive.  And that has not been easy.   It will begin to ring or a text will come.   I’ll be tempted to pull it out at a long red light just to check something.   But you know what keeps me faithful.   I remember how my carelessness cost my family, how gracious they have been.   And it moves me to put the phone away. 

Do you see how that works with Jesus?  When you see what it cost Jesus to rescue you from your darkness, to bring you home, it gives you the strength to resist.    You think.  Jesus gave up everything for me.  How can I go there to that dark place?  How can I look for satisfaction in something so empty, when I know Jesus emptied himself to fill me?   How can I judge that person or hold that resentment after Jesus has forgiven so much?   When you see how Jesus faced the darkness for you, it gives you the strength to resist your own darkness. 

And when you do fail, that same blood saves you again.   After all, what kept Jesus on that cross?   He could have walked away.  He could have ended the agony.   Why did he endure it? The Bible says that for the sake of the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross and disregarded its shame.    And what was the joy that was set before Jesus?  You were that joy.  You are that joy.  So, do you think after Jesus endured that, that your darkness will drive him away?   Do you think there is anything in the universe that will turn away his love from you?   That’s the power of the cross. That’s the power of God's sacrificial love.    That’s the power of the blood, of the God who bled for you.   As the song we’re about to sing says it so well.
Would you be free from the burden of sin?
There’s pow’r in the blood, pow’r in the blood;
Would you o’er evil a victory win?
There’s wonderful pow’r in the blood.

So, come and share in the power of this blood, the power of the One who bled and died for you, whose love no darkness will ever overcome.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The One and Only Thing that Will Free You from the Dark Places of Your Life

When I saw the picture of the eight year old girl, that’s when it hit me.   What sort of darkness drives a guy to strap on a bomb and blow up a little girl and twenty others?  What happens inside someone to bring them to such an awful place? 

As I thought about it, I remembered Dr. Robert Reza.   Almost thirty years later, I still can’t forget it.  Dr. Reza served as an elder at a church about a half hour from my own in New York.   His wife sang in the choir there.  Each Sunday, they went to church literally morning and night.   They seemed to adore each other.  But in reality, Reza was having an affair with the church’s organist.  And two weeks before Christmas, he traveled home from a conference in Washington.  And he shot and strangled his wife, Marilyn, while she slept.  He then went back to the conference to cover his tracks.  But that cover story unraveled pretty quickly.  And when it did, it shocked everyone.  After all, this man wasn’t a monster.  He was a caring father to his two daughters.   He taught students at the medical school.   He served as a leader in his church.  How does someone like that do something so awful?   What sort of darkness leads a person to where he can stand above his wife of 22 years while she sleeps and murder her?

According to the Bible it’s the same sort of darkness that that lives in each person on the planet.  That darkness may not lead you to kill someone, but that doesn’t mean it won’t sabotage your life in all sorts of other ways.   This is the darkness that wrecks families, that messes up friendships, that leads you to actions you regret.  This is the darkness that can overwhelm you with guilt or shame.  This is the darkness that discourages you, and leads you to doubt God’s love.   This is the darkness that can make your life so much less than what God intended it to be.   But how do you conquer this darkness?  How do you become free of whatever dark places live in you?   In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say. 

In every human being, there lives a darkness.   This darkness limits you.  It takes away the life you yearn to live.   It has the power to lead you down some truly awful paths.   But how do you break free of it?   How do you defeat the darkness?  Here God tells you.   God says.  If you want to defeat the darkness, you have to know where to begin.   You have to know that only beginning with God gets you there.    The path to darkness’ demise starts with God and nowhere else.    

Now what do I mean by beginning with God?  Before we get there, let’s get clear what the Bible tells you about darkness.    Growing up, I got the idea that getting away from the darkness had to do with stopping certain outward behaviors.  But darkness goes far deeper than a lie here or an ugly word there.   It encompasses everything you are.   It darkens your mind, confusing you about what you really need or what will truly fulfill you.   It darkens your soul with resentments and self-pity, with despair and guilt.    It darkens your heart with out of bounds desires that lead you to deep dissatisfaction, a life driven by appetites that never deliver what they promise.   And this darkness limits you.  It limits the entire world. 

Think about it.   Inside, don’t you have a vision for the ideal you, who you really yearn to be?  And you have a vision of what you yearn your family to be, your neighborhood, heck the whole world.  But why do the visions always fall short?   Your darkness, the darkness of this world gets in the way.  
But too often, when human beings try to defeat that darkness, they start at the wrong place.  They start with themselves.   They think.   If I can develop a new self-improvement plan, then I’ll get to a better place.   If I rally together with others, then we can make things better.   And, yes those things can, in some cases, push back the darkness a bit.    You become a little better.   The world becomes a little better.  But is that the best anyone can hope for?   Really?

In the Bible, God gives a very different message.  First, God says, this darkness that you see in you, in the world, you have no idea how bad it is.   It’s so bad that nothing you can do can ever defeat it. But then God says.  I haven’t come to just defeat this darkness.  I have come to eliminate it from existence, to end it forever.

But for that to happen, it can’t begin with you.  It has to begin with God.  That’s why John starts exactly there.   John writes that I have written this letter to give you complete joy, to give you communion with God.   But then where does John go next?   Does he focus on you, how you can get this joy, this communion.  No, he focuses on God.  This is the message. He says. God is light.   John makes it clear.  This joy has to begin with God.  Only God can destroy the darkness.    Now, why can’t it begin with you?

First, it’s because you don’t really know who you are, much less what you need.   Think about it. Have you ever heard a recording of your voice, and thought?  I don’t sound like that at all.  But here’s the truth, you don’t actually know what you sound like.   Only others know that.   Heck, you don’t even know what you look like.  That’s why you can look at a picture, and be a bit surprised.    I look like that, really?    And forget your voice or your looks, you don’t even know your own desires.   How many times have you regretted a dish you ordered at a restaurant, thinking I didn’t really want that?  Sheesh, if you don’t know your own desires there, what makes think you know them anywhere?        

More than that, when you begin with you, even this you, you don’t really know, you feed the darkness.  You keep it strong.   What keeps human beings in the dark is how we spend so much of our lives absorbed with ourselves, our appetites, our resentments, our joys, our hardships.   The last thing human beings need is to focus more on themselves.   They do that all the time already.   How many times have you worried about what others thought of you in a particular situation?   Do you realize the assumption?   Not only are you focused on you, you assume everyone else is too.  Sheesh, how self-absorbed is that?

And what does that self-focus do for you?   It doesn’t free you from the darkness.  It traps you in it. The psycho-analyst, Theodore Reik, put it well.    The secret of human happiness is not in self-seeking.  It’s in self-forgetting.

And how do you forget self?   You begin with God.   Why God?   First, if anyone knows you, it’s God.   After all, God created you.   Heck, God created everything.    More than that, the more you focus on God, the freer you become from the focus on yourself.    Why does the Bible command you to love God and to love others?   God doesn’t command this, just because it’s a nice thing to do.  God commands it because loving God and loving others frees you from yourself, from being trapped in your own darkness.

This past week, I was heading home, and I was caught up in the darkness, feeling self-pity, discouragement, all sorts of stuff.   Now I tried to get myself out of it.   But do you know what did it?   Oatmeal did it.    On the way home that night, I needed to buy some oats so that my wife could make oatmeal for our son’s breakfast the next morning.   And just going into the store, doing a little errand for my family shook me out of the darkness.  I went in all grumpy, but I came out grateful, grateful that I could meet this little need in my son’s life.       

In the same way, when I read scripture and talk with God, it shifts my perspective on everything.   It frees me from myself.    Why does it do that?   Because reading scripture reminds me that God isn’t a nice idea I have.   Reading scripture gives me a God I can actually know. 

You see.  It’s not just enough to begin with God.   You need to begin with the God you meet here in the Bible.   Before John says, God is, John says this.    “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you.”    You see.   John wasn’t sitting around pondering who God is, and then wrote a letter about it.  No, John is saying.   We thought we knew who God is.  But then we actually met God, and this is the message God gave us.

If you want to know God, then you’ve gotta begin here with the message God gave you.   If you don’t, then whatever God you believe in, it won’t really be God.   It’ll usually be a version of you.   St. Augustine put it well.  If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself.    That sort of self-created God keeps you trapped in the very last place you need to be, focused on yourself.

More than that, when you walk away from the God you meet here, you’ll never really have a God you can know.   After all, how can you know someone, unless they talk with you, communicate with you.   And here, this is what God does.    And until, you listen to what God tells you here, you’ll never really know God. 

Look, if you come to me, and say.  “Kennedy, I know that you told me that you were born in Virginia, and raised mainly in Tennessee.”   But you know, “I like to think of you as being born in Colorado, and raised on a ranch in Montana.”   Well, that’s a nice story, but it’s not me.  You don’t know me. 

And what is the message that the Bible gives you about God?  Let’s look at what John tells you here.   John says that God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.  Basically, John is telling you that God is holy, a being so perfect and complete that no darkness can be found in him at all.  And in those words, God is giving you the best news about the holiness of God that you could ever hear.
You see, when Jesus came, people had a certain idea of what it meant for God to be holy.   It went something like this.  God is clean, and in God no dirt, no uncleanness can ever be found.  But if God is holy like that, do you see what it means?   It means God can’t be around anything dirty.   That would besmirch God.  That would compromise God’s holiness.   That means you have a God, who can never really be with you.   After all, you aren’t so clean.  So, God has to keep away from you.

And that image of holiness will never free you from self-absorption, it will sink you deeper into it.   You will spend your whole life trying to get clean for God.    You’ll come up with rules to get there, ways of judging others to reinforce your own sense of cleanness.   And none of it will work.  It will only make you miserable, and others around you miserable too.    You will be caught in the bondage of a religion, rather than the freedom of the gospel.  

But when Jesus came, God gave a different picture of what holiness means.  It’s the picture John gives you here.  God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.  And in that image, God’s holiness doesn’t separate from the darkness.  God’s holiness invades it.   God’s holiness destroys it.  God’s light shines into every dark place until no darkness can be found.    And that is what Jesus did.    In Jesus, God’s light shone into the darkness.  God’s light’s even came into the awful darkness of the cross, as we tortured and killed God, and had the gall to do it in God’s name.  Yet, not even that darkness overcame the light.   Instead, God transformed that cross.    What had become a shadow of judgement now became the source of salvation.   What had once delivered death now became the deliverer of life.     This is what God did for you.  This is how far the light of God’s love and holiness went to bring you home.  And the more and more you realize what God has done for you, the more that light will free you.  It will free you from yourself.  It will free you from the darkness that holds you.   And it will bring you into the light, the light of God where there is no darkness at all.  

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Two Experiences That Tell You that You Really Know God

When I first saw this, I wasn’t married, so I only kind of understood it.  But now that I am married, boy, I see how true it is.    It’s a sentence by the poet, Kathleen Norris.  Norris wrote.
…..the mystery of faith – it’s like a marriage, in that only the two parties involved really know what’s going on - ……

Isn’t that true?  Have you ever seen a couple, let’s call them Bob and Sue, and everything seems to be going great.   They look happy.  Their kids look happy.   And a few months later, you’re talking to a friend.  They ask.  “Did you hear Bob and Sue got divorced?”    And you sit there shocked.  In a marriage, nobody but those two people really know what’s going on.

The mystery of faith works that way too.   You never really know what’s going on.   Somebody seems to have a deep and close relationship with God, and then well, they don’t.  Maybe a tragedy occurs, and he walks away from any connection.    Or maybe you see an old friend, who seemed so deeply connected to God, but now she calls herself an atheist.    And you wonder. What happened? 

More crucially, how do you stop that that from happening to you?   How do you know God so that even when things get dark around you or within you, God’s presence still shines?   How do you know God in a way that grows and grows rather than becomes less and less?   In these words, God points the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say. 

How do you know God more and more?   How do you not lose touch?  Here, God tells you.    Knowing me, God says, means you live in the light rather than in darkness.   And how do you know you’re living in that light?    God will do two things.  God will warm you up, and God will wake you up.    But experiencing the warmth and waking that God yearns to provide doesn’t just happen.  It happens when you ask, and it happens when you listen.
When John gives this image of knowing God by walking in the light, he isn’t just giving you a pretty picture.   John is actually helping you understand what God actually does.  God does exactly what light does.    God warms you up, and God wakes you up.   And if at some point, you haven’t experienced those things, than you really haven’t experienced God.  
Last week, I shared these four questions that the Christian sect, the Quakers came up with to help people get to know each other.  Just to remind you, the questions go like this…
What kind of heat did you have in your house growing up?
What was the warmest place in your house, physically or emotionally?
Who was the warmest person in your life growing up?
And finally, when did Jesus become warm to you.

This week, God reminded me of just how literal that warmth that Jesus gives can be. 

I was talking with someone I’ll call John.  He told me this story.  John had gone to church his whole life, but not until middle school did it become real.   The day that it happened, he had gone to worship and heard the preacher say how God loves you even at your worst, even when your life is at its ugliest.   That night as John entered his house, he saw the ugliness and chaos in his own family.  He remembers simply saying these words.  “Jesus, can you love this?”    Then he went to the bathroom to get ready for bed.  And in that bathroom it happened.   He felt a warmth envelop him, like a presence holding him in his arms.   And a light poured into that room so bright, he feared opening his eyes lest he go blind.   And there in those moments, John discovered.   Yes, Jesus can love this, and when Jesus does, it changes everything.   

Now, if anyone is thinking; “Sheesh, I never saw any bright light in the bathroom.  Do I really know Jesus?”   Just remember. When Jesus becomes warm to you, it will be unique to where you are, and to who you are.  You see. At that point, John needed Jesus to appear that powerfully to him.  So Jesus met him there at his point of need.   Where you are when Jesus meets you may not require something that dramatic.

And on top of that, that sort of drama may not work for you, not because of where you are, but because of who you are.    I remember once talking to a funeral director about how different folks grieve.   He said that with some funerals, people throw themselves on top of the casket.   They cry and wail.   Yet, with other funerals, you get none of that.   Folks will shed a few tears, but you may not even see that.    But then the director said.  “Don’t get me wrong.  I can tell that all these folks are going through real, even terrible grief.   They just have different ways of showing it, of experiencing it.”  

I’ve talked to a man, who when he sings certain hymns in worship, finds himself deeply moved.    He sees no blinding light, but have no doubt.  He is experiencing Jesus becoming warm to him.

But however it happens, it has to happen.   Knowing God means just that, knowing God, not as a fact, but as a friend, feeling his warmth within you. 

But God won’t just warm you up, God will wake you up.    After John had this encounter in the bathroom, he made that his regular meeting place with God.   As part of that time, he began to keep a journal.  He’d often write in it, not just in that bathroom, but whenever the spirit moved.   He even carried it to school.   But he was terrified that his friends might find it, might discover he was a Jesus freak.   So he only wrote his first name on the cover.   He knew that a lot of folks in his school shared the name, John, so if anyone found it, he could deny that it was his. 

But then one night, in his bathroom time, he asked God simply this.   “Can I have more of you?”
And that night, he had the strangest dream.    He found himself at what appeared to be the gates of heaven.    And he went up to a person who seemed to be checking folks in, and gave the person his name.    But when she checked, she told him.  “I’m sorry.  I can’t find you.”   Shocked, John said.  “I have to be here.”   And the person said, “Let me go back and check the archives.”   She came back, holding his notebook in her hand.   Puzzled, she asked.  “Is this yours?”   He said, “Yes, yes it is!”    And she said, “Oh, that’s the problem.  It only has your first name on it.   We had no way of knowing it was you.”  

Now God’s wake-up call doesn’t need to be as dramatic as a dream from heaven.  God can wake you up even in the gruesome words of a tow truck driver. 

This past week, I had an accident, and just in case, anyone is keeping count, this is my second accident in six months.  Needless to say, that’s not a good thing.  But God wanted to make sure I got the message.  So first, my wife, who was in the area, came by to check on me, with our son.   Patrick, as a kid who regularly crashes his toys cars, wanted to see what a real crash looked like.  But as they left, he realized that I was staying behind.  And for some reason, likely the need for a nap, that really bothered him.  His lower lip began to quiver.  The tears started to come.   I assured him, I’d see him soon, and off they went.     Then the tow truck driver arrived, a man with well, an unusual sense of humor.   When I complimented him, saying, “It’s clear you’ve done this before.”  He simply said, “Actually, it’s my first day on the job.  But if I act like I know what I’m doing it usually works”    It soon became clear, he had been making a joke.  He had been towing cars for 25 years.   He then proceeded to talk about all these idiots on the road, talking or reading or texting on their phones, how reckless it all was.   And while he assured me he wasn’t talking about me, let’s be clear, he was.   But then I asked the fateful question.  “Wow, in 25 years, you must have seen some things.”    A word of advice, don’t ever ask a tow truck driver that question.    I learned more gory details about fatal crashes in Broward, than I ever wanted to know.   But as he talked, all I could see was the quivering lip of my child.  All I could think is how my carelessness could have robbed my son of a father.  

When you know God, God doesn’t just warm you up, God will wake you up.  Jesus will point out the things you don’t want to see, but that you desperately need to.   And the more you let God warm you, and wake you, the greater your knowledge of God becomes, the deeper your relationship goes.  

But if you want the warmth and waking, you’ve usually gotta ask.  Jesus isn’t rude.  He will not barge in where he’s not invited.   But if you open the door, he will come. 

But opening the door only begins the relationship.  Only listening makes it grow.  Yet sadly, listening is often the last thing people do.

I was talking to a young woman recently, who while not yet a Christian, got this better than many Christians do.   She shared how folks simply don’t stop to listen.   She shared how for years, when she struggled with a question, she would go to the beach and simply sit and wait. She would not leave until she had an answer.   And I said to her, “Did you know the answer, because you recognized the voice?”   And she said, “Yes, exactly.”   This woman may not say she knows Jesus yet, but in those moments on the beach, she came to recognize his voice.

By the way, Christians have a word for this sort of thing.  They call it natural revelation, how God speak to us through the world around us, on a beach or in a tow truck.  But the great Christian theologian, John Calvin, said, natural revelation only goes so far.  It’s like looking at God without spectacles.   You can see God, yes, but he’s pretty blurry.   But when you look at scripture, you put on the spectacles.  What is blurred suddenly becomes clear.

But putting on those spectacles requires the same listening the woman did at the beach. How do you listen to the Bible like that?  Lots of ways exist, but I’ll share one that the preacher, Tim Keller uses, and that I have begun using myself.   To listen to the Bible, Keller asks himself these five questions:

1.      How can I praise or thank God on the basis of this text?
2.      What here convicts me of something wrong in my life?
3.      If this is true, what wrong behavior or harmful emotions or false attitudes result in me when I forget this?
4.      What should I be aspiring to on the basis of this text?
5.      Why are you telling me this today, God?
You see, the reality is when darkness enters your life, when you fall away from God, it’s because you’ve forgotten something you once knew.   And asking these questions can remind you of it. How does this work?   Let’s take the passage that is our statement of belief today.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were created through Him, and without Him nothing was created that was created.  In Him was life, and the life was the light of humankind.  The light shines in darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it
Here, you have so much to praise, the God who is life, whose life is your light, a light darkness cannot overcome.   And what might it convict you of?  Maybe, do you lose faith in the power of that light to shine in your darkness?   When I forget how God’s light shines, it usually leads to fear or self-pity, and the list of wrong behaviors, harmful emotions or false attitudes could go on.   So what do I aspire to through this text? To remember that no matter how dark things become, it can never overcome God’s light.   And maybe today, I need to hear this because well, between car accidents and chaos in Washington, I too easily forget it. 

Do you see how this works?   And maybe this questions will work for you.   But what matters, is that however you do it, you take time to listen, to look for this God in these words, in other words from scripture and in this world too.    And the more you do, the more God will show up, and the deeper you will know just how amazing and beautiful God is.   Do you want to know God, to really know God?    It begins by simply asking.    Say to God, I want to know you.   I want to know your warmth.   I’m even willing to hear your wake up call.   And when you ask, God will come.  And God will do in your asking, more than you could ever have asked or imagined or dreamed.  Let us pray.