Sunday, January 19, 2020

Why You Need to Face the Gaps In the World and In Your Own Life too

Have you ever heard the story of Fantastic Brown?   The story goes something like this.  Once upon a time, there lived a man named Fantastic Brown.  But his name really got to be a burden.  People would ask his name.  And he would reply.  “It’s Fantastic.”   And puzzled they’d say. Well, I’m glad that you like your name, but what is it?  And again, he said.  “It’s Fantastic.”  And again, they’d say, ok, I understand it’s Fantastic, but what’s your name?  And then frustrated, he’d say.  Don’t you understand?  You just said it.  It’s Fantastic.   And they would reply, “I know your name’s Fantastic, but what is it?”  Ok, you get the idea.  

And even when Fantastic Brown got through all that confusion, it still didn’t stop.   People would introduce him with a joke.  “Hey, you gotta ask his name. It’s Fantastic.”   Or “Trust me, this guy has a Fantastic name.”  By the time, he neared the end of his life, Fantastic Brown had had enough.   His dying wish to his family was simply to put “F. Brown” on his tombstone, nothing more.  And his family did abide by that wish, but they couldn’t just leave it there.   So, they decided to put a little more.  They wrote on the largest tombstone they could find.   Here lies, F. Brown, a loving husband for 75 years, a faithful, hard-working father who put all his eight kids through college, and a devout Christian who sacrificially gave funds to found three orphanages around the world.”   And as people wandered through the cemetery, they saw this unusually large tombstone.  Then they came over to read what was written there.   And after they read it, do you know what they said?  They said, “Wow, now that is Fantastic!”   I’ve always liked that story.  But it makes a powerful point.

At the end, your life will essentially come down to one sentence.  People will remember you that way.  They’ll say.  “Well, he was kind of a jerk, I can’t believe we put up with him all those years.” or “She never seemed all that happy a person, I don’t really know why.”   Now hopefully they’ll say something more like: “What a compassionate and kind guy he was and so much fun!”  Or “I just loved being around her, she always made me feel better about myself.”   But in the end, with pretty much anyone who knows you, your life will come down to just that, a sentence or two they will use to summarize your life.   And right now, whether you realize it or not, you are writing those sentences.  

And here’s the painful truth, as much as you and I intend to live lives to reflect those last positive sentences I shared, our lives can drift towards the sadder ones I mentioned first.  And that drift can happen before you even realize it.   And then as you get closer and closer to the end of your lives, you realize what sentences you’ve written.  And you know they are sentences you regret, but that now those are sentences it’s too late to change.  Talk about a blindside, about a hit that comes at you before you realize it, that’s a brutal one.

So, how do you make sure that doesn’t happen?  How can you make sure that the sentences by which people remember you will be good ones, ones that celebrate the impact you made rather than mourn the life that could have been?   In these few short words, Jesus shows you the way.  Let’s listen to what Jesus has to say.       

Matthew 5:4 - Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 

What does Jesus mean by blessed are those who mourn?  Keep in mind that blessed means, fulfilled, happy.  So how does mourning lead you to happiness, to fulfillment?  It leads you there when you are mourning the right things.  It leads you there when you are facing up to the grief that happens when you realize the gap between who you are and who you’re called to be.   

Years ago, I learned the original meaning of anger.   The word anger comes from an old Norse word that meant grief, a sense of loss.  But it meant a particular type of grief.    It meant the grief you feel when you see the gap, the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be.   

And likely in some way every day, you feel that grief.  You see a story in the news about some awful thing in the world, and you feel the grief.   Or you see that gap right around you.  You someone being unnecessarily rude in a store.  You see someone you are about struggling with an addiction and grieve the gap between what is and could be because of this drug in their life.    This past week, someone I know experienced violence at the hands of a man she once loved, and I felt the gap between what that marriage should be, and the awful thing it had become.     

Do you know what I’m talking about?  Have you ever felt that gap?   Have you ever seen some injustice, and thought, that shouldn’t be happening?    Have you ever experienced some injury in your own life, and thought, this isn’t right?   This is not the way it should be.   And feeling those gaps has power.   They can motivate you to work for change.   In the case of the woman who experienced that violence, it moved her to get the help and protection she needed.   People feeling gaps overturned slavery, began the civil rights movement, launched countless other movements for change in our world.  

But too often folks become numb to the gap.  They stop the mourning.  They accept the gaps or even ignore them.   And as painful and awful as that can be in the world, that same numbness can happen within.   You see. Jesus doesn’t want you only to face the gaps in what happens around you or even to you.  Jesus wants you to face the gap that happens within you, the gap between whom you are, and who God created you to be.   And when you ignore that gap, when you grow numb to it, that’s when you begin writing the sentences that you don’t want to define you but will.  And those sentences once they’re written, they can be hard, even impossible to erase.    

Have you been following all the drama in major league baseball?  I haven’t been keeping up with it too much.   I have a six-year-old at home so right now so I’m up a lot more on transformers and Legos than baseball.  But in the locker room at the gym this week, the sports channel was on, and that’s when it hit me.  

Now before I get to what hit me, ff you don’t know the controversy, here’s the deal.   Major League Baseball discovered that the Houston Astros, the 2017 World Series Champions, had been cheating.  As a result, managers and coaches have been getting fired all over the places, not only at the Astros, but also at the Red Sox and the Mets. I kinda knew all that. But what hit me in the locker room was when I realized the sentence that all those folks who had been fired had just written.  Each of them had great records as players, as coaches.  But now do you see the sentence that will follow them for the rest of their lives.   No matter what they accomplish, one sentence will always be there. He cheated.  And in the world of sport, that’s a pretty horrible word to carry to your grave.    

But do you know what?  They knew.  They saw the gap.  They saw the gap between what they were doing, and what they should be.  But they numbed themselves to it.  They ignored it.   And now their careers no matter how stellar will always be overshadowed by the dishonor and hurt they’ve brought to their lives, to the lives of others and to the sport they love.      

But you don’t have to be a major league player or coach or executive to ignore the gap.   You don’t have to cheat in the World Series to write yourself an awful end of life sentence for people to remember you by.   You can do it in far easier ways than that.

You can present one picture to the world, even as you hide the one that truly exists.  So, it looks like you are so loving to your spouse or your kids in public, but no one sees the anger, the bad attitudes, the ugliness that lives at home.   Or you say one thing, make a commitment, but when it comes time for action, you don’t follow through.    Or you hide things, like your internet browser history or what’s really happening on your phone or how you’re really spending your time.   And you can think.  No one is noticing.   Or you rationalize it.  I need this or I had a tough day.  But all you’re doing is numbing yourself to the gap.   But the gap it’s still there.  And the sentences, either good or bad, that will define your life they are being written, whether you want to see them or not.

But here’s the point that Jesus is making.   Jesus isn’t saying.  Don’t have a gap.  Everyone has a gap, lots of them.   No, Jesus is saying.  Notice the gap.  Grieve the gap.   Only then, does the gap grow less.  Only then, do the good sentences get written. 

A book by a preacher and writer named Carey Neiuwhoff has helped me in writing these talks. In that book, which is called Didn’t See it Coming, Avoiding the 7 Challenges that No One Expects and Everyone experiences, Carey tells this story. 

Carey and his wife Toni had traveled to Austin, Texas.  Carey was speaking later that week, but before that engagement, they had a Sunday morning off.  So, they decided to visit a friend’s church nearby.  Carey’s wife, Toni took charge of Google maps while Carey drove.  But Carey didn’t like being out of control.  He kept making snide or irritated comments about her navigation skill.   Finally, he grabbed the phone.  And he said in the most condescending and frustrated tone he could muster. “I’ll just read the map myself.”

At that moment, Toni broke into tears.  Carey pulled over.  And he thought.  I’ve gotta make this better quick or we’re going to be late.   And maybe if it had been the first time, that might have worked. But it wasn’t the first time.  Carey had pulled this stuff in the past, and Toni was hurt,   was angry.   This was going to take a while to work through. 

So, what did Carey do?  He faced up to the gap.  Beyond working to repair the relationship with his wife, he had to let his friend Buck know they weren’t coming.  What should he write?  He could say, hey Buck, something came up and we can’t make it or Toni isn’t feeling well this morning, so sorry.  And that would be kind of true.  But Carey didn’t write that.  He wrote this. “We won’t be at church this morning.  I was a jerk husband today, and it’s just not a good morning for us.  I’m so sorry.  I’ll explain later.”   A few days later when he and Toni met up with Buck and his wife later, he had to own his failure again and apologize.   Now, Carey writes. It stunk to write a text like that.  But it sure made him aware of the gap.   And it sure motivated him to work on fixing it.  He didn’t want to write a text like that again.  But Carey wrote that text because he knew only facing the pain would bring the gain.  Only when he faced up to how much distance lay between who he wanted to be, and who he actually was would change come.  

You see.  As hard as it is to feel that gap, Jesus is telling you, telling me.  You need to feel it.    For then, only then, can you see what you need to see.  Only then will you no longer be denying the gap that is really there.  And that means you can see more clearly that your life lies on the other side of that gap or at least lessening the distance between the two. 

But here’s the question.  Everyone, if they’re honest, sees their gaps.  Now, they may ignore them. They may numb themselves to them.  They may rationalize them.  Maybe they tell themselves.   Oh, other people’s gaps are worse than mine.  Mine aren’t so bad.  But why do all of that?  Why don’t people, including you and I face our gaps?  We fear.  We fear acknowledging to ourselves, just how flawed and broken we are, just how scared and insecure.  And we sure don’t want others to see that.  

Recently I read an article about Joe Biden, and how he struggled with stuttering for years growing up.   Now, for the most part, Biden, through a tremendous amount of work, has overcome his stuttering.  But folks who stutter notice the moments he hasn’t.   They see the little tricks that every stutterer knows, how to avoid an embarrassing moment, how instead of saying Obama in one interview, he said my boss.   He didn’t forget Obama’s name.  He just knew, in that moment, he would stutter over it.  So, he switched to something he could more easily say.   Yet when the writer, a stutterer himself, asked Biden about those moments, Biden had a hard time admitting he still struggled at times.  And I get that.  He doesn’t want anyone to see that gap, even a gap, like stuttering, that he inherited at birth.     

It's hard to face the gaps.  But when you do, comfort comes. Fulfillment happens.  How?  You realize. God already sees your gaps, even more clearly than you do.  God sees your flaws, your pettiness, all the stuff you and I work to hide.   And God still loves you.  In fact, God so loved you that in Jesus God came and became one of you.   And even when this God experienced the awfulness of the cross, that God still loved you.   In fact, because of that love on the cross, you know that no gap, no matter how deep or how wide, is too wide for that love to cross.  This God does love you, really love you, no matter what.  That is the sentence that defines you now and forever. 

And as you know that, as you experience it, comfort comes, comfort so powerful it frees you like never before.  It frees you to face your gaps, to acknowledge your brokenness.  And in the freedom of that love, those gaps grow less.  The fears lessen. The insecurities fade.   And the love and trust grow.  And in that love, God enables you to rewrite the sentences, to create beautiful ones by which others one day will remember you.  “He was so genuine, real, loving.”    “She was so authentic and accepting, so honest and grace filled.”   So….What sentences are you writing?   What gaps are you ignoring? Where does Jesus need to free you to face the gaps, that his love defines you not those gaps?   So, face them, and as you do, face them in the embrace of the one who loves you, who loves all of us no matter what.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

What Can Blindside You, Can Take You Out Before You Even See it Coming? This Can

You can get one so cheap.  And it tastes so good.   It’s still just $5.00 (I checked - just look for the Classic - it's still there)  Well, $5.30 if you count in the tax, but still.   That’s a deal!   But let me tell you, you eat one of those suckers every day or even every week, it could cost you a lot more than five bucks.  But just like the quarterback tackled on the blindside, you may not see it coming.  But then you go to the scale and see the damage.  Or worse, you go to the doctor and get the bad news.  Or worse yet, your heart seizes up in agonizing pain, and you know.  Something has gone very, very wrong.   That pizza can blindside you even worse than that poor quarterback is getting in the picture. 

You see.  I used to love Little Caesar’s $5.00 pizzas, but now not so much, and even more not so much after they started giving you the calories, over 2200 calories in that little pizza!  And of course, that tells you nothing about the fat or the cholesterol or the fact that it hardly has any nutritional value at all.

Yet go figure, people still buy them… a lot.  They make over 3 million pizzas every day.  And why?  Well, it does fill you up.  And all that fat and salt fills you with a sense of satisfaction too.   But let’s not pick on Little Caesars.   You can pick your poison so to speak.  Every time I go into Publix, I still have to pull myself away from their delicious Fried Chicken (by the way you have almost 2800 calories in that 8-piece carton of greasy delight.)

All those foods that taste so good yet can be so bad, we Americans eat a lot of them.  And it’s wrecking us by the thousands, even the millions.   But if food isn’t what you choose to wreck you, to blindside your life; you have all sorts of other choices.   You can look towards success or money or things or pleasing others or the love of your kids or spouse or even religion.   Those things aren’t bad.  In their place, they’re good.  But if you look for them to fill you up, well, that’s when things go seriously wrong.   You’re asking of those things what they can never give.   Yet folks still do it.    

People think fulfillment comes from having something.  How many of us, when we’re really honest, think that?  You think. If I had a better job or a more understanding spouse.   If I had less financial stress or greater success.  If I gained more peace or had less worries.  If I had a more positive self-image.  The list goes on and on.  Think about it.  Are there times that you think, if only this changed, then fulfillment would be one step closer.  

Some folks never give up.  They keep chasing the dream.  But along the way, a lot of folks get another message.  Fulfillment isn’t coming now or ever.  The whole fulfillment thing, it’s a big con.  Now, you may not think those words, but you can feel them.   You can sense them deep inside.  And as that message grows, it infects you in ways you hardly realize.    

A friend betrays you, and you become less trusting of everyone.  A leader disappoints you, and you begin to doubt that any leader exists who will do the right thing.  You take a risk and you fail, and you think, I’m never risking like that again.  And in its own perverse way, this sort of message, you think.  It does fulfill me.  It protects me.   It even makes me wise.  But it’s not. It’s blindsiding you.  And if you let it, before you know it, this message will bring you down.  It will wreck you.  It will take you away from ever experiencing the fulfillment that truly does exist.  And how does that fulfillment come?  Here Jesus shows you the way.   Let’s listen to what he has to say.    

Matthew 5:3 - Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

Do you get it?  Jesus is telling you.  Fulfillment does exist.   That’s what that word blessed means.  It means happy.  It means fulfilled.    But this fulfillment doesn’t come the way people expect.   It doesn’t come from having something.   It comes instead from facing up to what you don’t have, from what you will never have even.   Only then does the fulfillment come.  Because only then does your hand become open enough to be given what you can never have.

But lots of things get in the way of this fulfillment happening.  People run after all the wrong things instead.   And keep in mind even right things become wrong things if you ask too much of them.   If you look to your spouse or your kids for your fulfillment, well, that right thing becomes a wrong thing.   You place an expectation on your kids or your spouse or whoever that they can never fulfill.  Still some folks keep running after things like that all their lives. 

But other folks come to a different place.   They start believing.  This fulfillment, it doesn’t even exist.   And once they start doubting the fulfillment, they start doubting all sorts of things.  They start doubting people, sometimes even the people they’re closest to.  They doubt the future, the past, the present.   They start doubting everything.  

But you don’t have to start doubting everything, to have the doubt infect you.  No, it’ll infect you before you even realize it. 

It happened twenty years ago at least, but I still remember the shock of it like yesterday.  I had gone to visit my parents in Georgia.   My dad needed a new tire, and so I had ridden with him to his local tire place.   While he talked to the mechanic, I sat down on the curb outside the office just minding my own business.   That’s when it happened. This complete stranger just came up and started talking to me.   I immediately thought.  “What’s his angle?  What does he want from me?”   Then out of nowhere I realized the shocking truth.   He didn’t want anything.  He was simply being friendly.   Why did I doubt his intentions? Why did I get suspicious immediately?   I had become cynical.   

Over the years, I had had folks come up and be friendly with an agenda, with an angle, with something they wanted from me.  And I had come to believe that was everybody.  If I didn’t know them, I couldn’t trust them.   But if I had thought about it, I had encountered far more trustworthy people than untrustworthy people.   My cynicism made no sense. 

But here’s the problem.  Cynicism lies to you.  So, you get mugged by life in some way, someone betrays you, exploits you, takes advantage of you.  Then a voice rises up and says.  Don’t you see.  You can’t trust people.  You can’t hope for the best.  You’ve gotta watch out for you period.   Then on top of that lie, cynicism tells you a bigger one.   

It tells you that now you have the inside scoop.  It makes you feel that you see things as they really are.   You know.  Other people don’t know, but you know.  And that lie gives you a perverted sense of fulfillment.  It gives you a sort of twisted self-worth that you can unflinchingly look at the world as it really is.  But here’s the stunning truth.     It’s not the way the world is at all. 

And this lie, if you let it grow, it will make you harder. It will numb you to the world’s pain, to even your own pain.   It will lead you to live in a world far darker than the one that actually exists.  And when that happens, something happens inside of you, something that as it grows will destroy you.   I don’t know if anyone described it more chillingly than the writer C.S. Lewis.  Here is what he wrote.   

To love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.  If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal.  Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness (or I would say cynicism).  But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change.  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

Now how do these words of Jesus free you from the cynicism?  How do they lead you to fulfillment?  First, they puncture the lie.   They tell you the truth that cynicism doesn’t.  And what’s that truth?  You don’t know.   You don’t know anything really.   You don’t know other people’s agendas, their inner thoughts, their true motivations.  Heck, if you’re honest, you’re all that clear on your own.   And you have no idea what the future holds.  You don’t even have a clear picture of the past or even the present.   You are profoundly poor in spirit, as Jesus puts it.  You lack a lot.  But that doesn’t bum you or depress you.  Why?  Because you realize, everyone else lacks a lot too.  Everyone is poor.  Everyone is struggling.  Everyone lacks.  As a wise Scottish Presbyterian preacher put it, everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.   Everyone, everyone you meet is fighting a great battle, and a lot of days they feel like they’re losing it. 

But that’s not all that preacher said, he said two words before those words on fighting a battle that tell you what puncturing that lie brings.   He said.  “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”   And when you see that battle, that is what happens.  Kindness happens.  

For some striking reason, almost twenty years after he died, Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers fame has become huge.  He now has two movies about him, a bunch of books, even a hit podcast called Finding Fred.   And listening to that podcast this week, I heard this story. 

A lot of people don’t realize that Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian pastor, and like most pastors, Fred Rogers had some pastor friends, especially a pastor named George Wirth.   One day, George and Fred were having lunch.   And George was venting about this leader in his church who was doing whatever it took to get George fired.  And as George shared all the not so nice things this leader was doing, Fred listened.  Then he said something like this.  “I wonder what painful things happened in this man’s life to make him so bitter, to lead him to do such mean things.”   Do you get what Mr. Rogers was doing?  He was asking himself and George too.  Where was this man’s lack?  What was the great battle he was fighting?   

And when you see that, that even the worst of us struggles with that profound poverty, you see them differently.   Instead of getting captured by cynicism, you become free to see them with compassion, kindness even.    And you become free to do that because you know.  You’re poor too.   And you know.  Even as you grow, your poverty will always remain.   And that doesn’t lead you to feel bad.  It just leads you to become open to all that life still has to teach you. 

In that Finding Fred podcast, they took a whole episode to share the story of a young, very sick girl named Beth who Mr. Rogers touched in a particularly profound way.   Now I’m not going to tell you that story.  You can listen to it on the podcast, and let it touch you as it touched me.  But I do want to share one thing that happened in that story.   One day, Beth’s mom was home cooking and the phone rang.  It was Mr. Rogers.   He asked her.  “Do you have a few minutes?  Is this a good time?”  Beth’s mom said yes.   And Mr. Rogers said, “Good, because I noticed what wonderful self esteem Beth and her brother have.  How did you and your husband instill that in them?”   And Beth’s mom shared some thoughts and hung up the phone.   The whole time Beth was listening.   She asked.   “Who was that?’   And her mom replied, “Oh it was Mr. Rogers.”  And Beth stunned, said.  “You were giving Mr. Rogers advice on building self-esteem in kids?”  But as Beth’s mom said on the podcast with humor in her voice. “That was Mr. Rogers, always wanting to learn more, to grow, to be open to all that others had to teach him.”  He never forgot his lack. 

But how does all this poverty of spirit lead you to fulfillment?  It leads you to fulfillment because it makes you open.  It makes you open to receive what you can never get, what Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven.     It makes you open to love, to the love that saves you, the love that heals you, the love that fulfills you.   For ultimately that is what you lack.   You lack the love.  You lack the certainty that you are loved.   You yearn to know you have infinite value and worth.  You yearn to know that you are loved infinitely, without question, that nothing will ever take that love away.   That is the poverty you feel. 

And how does the love come?  Well, think about it.  If anyone has reason to be cynical, it’s God.  After all, God does know.  God knows all your thoughts, all of them, including the worst ones.  God knows every great thing you’ve done, and every awful one.  Yet, God never gets cynical about you, about me.  No, God still believes in us even when we don’t believe in ourselves.  God never gives up hope.  God never stops loving us.   Even as in Jesus, we brutally killed God, God never stopped loving.   And that love changes everything.  It shows you the world as it truly is, a world God loved so much, God gave up everything to heal it, to heal you, to bring you home, to fill you with the love forever. 

And here’s the wonder, once you know the love, you can’t find the end of it. It keeps going and going.  There’s always more.  That’s why poverty of spirit isn’t something you get over or get past.  The more love you have, the more love you realize is there.   There is no end to the abundance. And in that abundance, you realize how much more God still has to give.   And in that abundance, cynicism dies, and joy and hope and love grows, until your life becomes more than you could ever have dreamed or imagined.   For blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  

Sunday, January 5, 2020

In Life, What Truly Matters the Most? This Does.

This past year, one of my son’s friends gave him a telescope for his birthday.  And when I saw it, do you know what was my first thought?  Why?  You don’t see stars in Florida.  It’s not that the stars aren’t there.   It’s just all the other lights; the streetlights, the store lights, the parking lot lights, they all get in the way.  Here we generate too much light.  And all that light (the experts call it light pollution), it blocks out most of the stars.   So, if you look up here, you only see a few stars shining out of the billions that are actually there.   I miss those stars. 

It wouldn’t bother me so much if I hadn’t seen what I’m missing.  But I have.   Twenty-five years have passed, but I still remember.  I was staying at a Presbyterian Retreat Center called Ghost Ranch situated high up in the New Mexico desert.  And one night, walking back to my cabin, I looked up.  And there I saw it.  I saw the Milky Way, this breathtakingly beautiful band of stars that covered half the sky.   Those billions of stars, they stopped me in my tracks.  For the first time in my life, I got why they called it the Milky Way.   And, for the next few moments, I just stood and gazed at the glory above me.   Have you ever seen a night sky like that?   It’ll take your breath away.

But I don’t only miss the stars, I miss what they represent.  That night at Ghost Ranch,
I had slowed down.   I had finally slowed down enough to even notice what was above me.  But too often, your life can become like the night sky above south Florida.  Life gets polluted, so to speak, by all sorts of distractions.  And those distractions they obscure, they block out what is actually there.  And in all those distractions, you can begin to forget what really matters.   And can have way more impact than an obscured night sky. 

Years ago, I came across a prayer-poem by the poet Ann Weems.  Its first lines still haunt me.   Weems writes.  “O God, we confess that we forget who we are.  We don’t listen for a still small voice.  We walk with our heads down and miss all the stars that could be ours.”  We miss all the starts that could be ours.   How do you not live a life that that, a life where you miss all the stars that could be yours.  In this famous story, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.    

How do you stay focused on what really matters in the midst of life’s distractions?  How do you make sure that you don’t miss all the stars that could be yours?  In this story, God tells you.   You live your life with the right end in mind.  And whatever that right end will be, it will always have as its center one crucial thing.   And in this story God tells you what that is.   

Looking back, I am always amazed by these Magi, these astrologers from the East.  Do you realize how far they came?   It could have been what we know today as Iraq or Iran or even the Southern part of Saudi Arabia.   Wherever it was, they traveled almost a year just to get to Bethlehem.  We’re talking over a thousand miles, a lot of that through harsh, even dangerous desert conditions.    They had to prepare for weeks just to leave. 

Yet once these folks saw the star, they didn’t hesitate.  They made all those preparations, and they went.  What could have motivated them to do all that?  A star?  No, they didn’t do that for a star.   They did it because that star symbolized the birth of a new person into the world, a person destined to be a King.     

But still come on now.  It wasn’t even their King.  Why go all that way for a baby, who will, for all they know, just rule a country literally a year away from yours.  They go because they know.  People matter.   People change things.   In fact, one person, just one person, can change everything.    And somehow, they sense that this person being born will do that.   And so, they go. 

And they keep going, even when the star disappears.  They keep going, trusting that somehow, some way, they’ll find this one child born a thousand miles away.  It gets so bad that they even have to ask for directions.  It takes a whole lot for just one man to ask for directions.  And here you have three men.  Can you imagine how desperate they must have been? 

But they get there.   God even shows them the star once again to lead them to the exact house where Jesus is staying.   When God does, I love the words that describe their reaction.  They were overwhelmed with joy.  Imagine it.  You’ve traveled thousands of miles. You’ve faced who knows how many obstacles and dangers on the way.  But in that moment, they knew.  They had made it.  They were about to see the King.   And today, thousands of years later, across the globe, hundreds of millions of people still celebrate their journey.

But do you see how strange it all is?   These astrologers, the scientists of their day, travel all that way just to see a baby?   Come on now.  That’s a little much.  Or is it?  

About a month ago, a well-known art critic and poet named Peter Schjeldahl announced that the doctors had given him about six months or so to live.  Schjeldal made the announcement in a surprising way.   He wrote a powerful essay for the New Yorker, the magazine for which he has written for decades.  And in this article, he simply reflected on his life, his regrets, his joys, how he feels as he sees it all coming to an end.   One sentence he wrote hit me like no other.   He wrote. “Meeting Brooke, having Ada, and getting sober are my life’s top three red-letter days.”    Brooke is Schjeldahl’s wife, and Ada, his daughter.  

And reading that, I thought.  Here is a man who been friends with some of the greatest artists in the world.   He has written for prestigious publications, published books, even taught at Harvard.  Yet here he sits at the end of his life and what ultimately matters are two people, and the one thing that enabled him to keep them. 

You see, Schjeldahl only got sober because his wife kicked him out.  When he realized that he was about to lose the love of his life, he finally went to rehab and left alcohol and drugs behind.   But he still carried losses.   He writes.  “My daughter, Ada, has told me that in her childhood she spent years trying to interest me. I hadn’t noticed. She was sixteen when I got sober. She said, “Let’s see if I get this straight. Now you want to be my dad?”’  He almost lost that relationship, one of the most central in his life, and even as his life ends, he is still working to heal it.   

But do you see what happened?  For years, Schjeldahl lived his life for the fame, the achievement, the recognition, ambition fueled by alcohol.   And living for that end almost destroyed him.   But finally, he woke up and realized none of that mattered.   What mattered were ultimately just two people, his wife and his daughter.   And now as he his life ends, he sees just three red-letter days, the day those two people came into his life, and the day that one thing, alcohol, that stood in the way of those people, left his life. 

Scheldahl, the great art critic and poet, knows the truth.  What truly, ultimately matters is not success or fame or wealth.  What truly, ultimately matters is people.  And yet, we live in a world that often values people the least.  

The preacher Bill Coffin put it well.  To paraphrase his thoughts.  You have people and things in this world.  And you love people and use things.  And it’s more important than ever that we remember that, to love people and use things.  Why?  So much in our gadget-minded, consumer-oriented society encourages the opposite, to love things and use people.

And success is a thing.  Fame is a thing.  Money is a thing.  And none of those things, like all things, will ever last. But people, if you believe the Bible, they go on forever.  The Magi got that.

If those Magi had traveled to Bethlehem for money or success, we likely would never have heard of them.  But because they did all of that for a child, a child who not only did change the world, but is still doing it, their story lives on forever.   But more than that, that child changed them.  As Matthew puts it, when they saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with joy. 

When you live your life focused on people, not things, not only do you focus on what ultimately matters.   You also focus on what truly fulfills.   But we live in a world that will pull you again and again from just that focus.  Watch this show.  Buy this product.   Get this status symbol.  Achieve this goal.   And all those things aren’t bad.  But together like the lights of South Florida, they’ll pollute your life.  They’ll lead you to miss the stars, the stars that could be yours. 

After all, why did Jesus come.  He came for people.  He came for you.   And he didn’t just come as a little child.  He grew into a man, who healed others, who invited and welcomed everyone into his love, who even died for them.   And why?  In the book in the Bible, Hebrews, it saws this.   Jesus, for the joy set before him, endured the cross and disregarded its shame.  And what was Jesus’ joy.     You were.  Because people matter.   Every person matters.   They matter so much that the creator of the universe gave up everything to bring them home, to bring you home. 

As this New Year begins, remember what truly matters.  It’s never things.  It’s always people.   And living life so that you never get those two things confused.   That is the right end in mind, always and forever.  

Sunday, December 22, 2019

How Do You Overcome the Power of Fear in Your Life? Here's How

What would you most like to change about yourself?   Does something come to mind?   Last week, I asked that question at a Bible Study I lead.   Do you know how I answered?  I said that I would like to be less afraid.  I’d like to think that most folks would not find me a fearful person.  But I know. Deep inside fear can grip me.   I fear something won’t get done or won’t get done the way I want, and when I do, it drives the people around me crazy.  Or I fear that someone else is upset at me.  Or I fear that not enough kids will show up for Christmas Eve, and I’ll be embarrassed and feel like a failure.   I usually move past those fears, but boy, they still feel miserable.  They still hold me back, stress me out, fill me with anxiety. 

Do you get that?  My fears may not be your fears.  But do you know what I’m talking about?  Are there places where your fears hold you, limit you, even paralyze you?   Have there been times when your fears drove you into hurtful words or foolish actions?   Have there been times when your fears kept you in a bad relationship or a bad job or a bad habit?    Fears can so limit your life.  They can lead you in the wrong direction or keep you away from the right one.   But how do you free yourselves from them?  How do you wake up instead to trust, to peace, to a freedom from fear or at least fear’s power?  In this story of someone who literally woke up to such trust, God gives you an answer.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

In this story, God makes it clear.  You can’t let fear dictate your life.   When you do, your fears will prevent you from living the very life, God has created you to live.  But probably, you already know that.   That’s not the question.  No, the question is, how do you get out from under the fear?  How do you reduce fear’s power in your life?  How does that happen?  In this story, God tells you.  Freedom from fear’s power comes as you realize what’s not only real but true.    

Fears feel real, but they are rarely true.  But because they feel real, you give power to them, to your insecurities, your doubts, to the wounds from your past, the expectations of others and the list could go on.  And when you give that power, it doesn’t just limit your life.  It leads you to ignore what not only has real power but is also actually true.   And in this story, God shows you what that is, what has the power to free you from fear’s shadow.   Here God tells you.  Instead of listening to the fear, God says, trust in the love.   For, in that trust you will find the freedom to live for what truly matters, and the courage to walk away from what doesn’t.

It’s that trust that frees Joseph from the fear.   As the story begins, Joseph is doing the “right thing.”   It may not be what he wants to do.  We don’t really know.  But it is what he feels he has to do.   It’s the religious thing to do.  And Joseph is a righteous guy.  He can’t be associated with a fallen woman.  

But Joseph doesn’t want to make a big scene.  He wants to do it quietly.  That way, he’s not embarrassed, and hopefully, Mary lives.   You see. Custom prescribes that Mary bestoned to death for what she’s done.  But if he doesn’t make it a big deal, then likely no one else will.  She’ll be shunned and mocked, almost certainly cast out from the synagogue, but at least she’ll live.   But then God gives Joseph that dream.   And what does God say?  God says to Joseph.  Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.   Why does God say don’t be afraid? 

Because Joseph had fears.   He was afraid that if he and Mary wed, she wouldn’t be faithful, that she would break his heart.  That’s a valid fear, if it’s based on something true.  But here God tells Joseph. It’s not true.  No, this baby does not come from Mary’s faithlessness.  This baby comes from God’s faithfulness.  In this child, God is doing a wondrous new thing. 

But still, it doesn’t look that way.   Virgin births don’t just happen.   If Joseph stands by Mary, he’ll be tarred with the same brush.   People will think that he dishonored Mary.  Or they’ll think he’s being played for a fool.  

Joseph had to face the fear of other people’s opinions, what they would think, how they would react if he took Mary as his wife.  He had to overcome his fear of going against his culture, even his religion in standing by Mary.  Yet when Joseph woke up, even in the face of all those fears, he did what God had told him to do. 

How did Joseph do that?  How did Joseph overcome his fears?  How did Joseph become free of their power?   Joseph became free, when he realized how false his fears were.  That’s what God did.  God showed Joseph the truth.  God showed him that his fears, as real as they seemed, had no real power at all.   His fears were lying to him.  They weren’t giving him the truth.  They were taking him away from it.   Often, the very things that terrify you, they aren’t even true.  Do you know that old saying about what fear stands for?  It stands for “False expectations appearing real.”

And how did God show those fears for the false things they were?  God showed Joseph his love, a love that was now literally coming to earth as a human being.  And as Joseph trusted in the love, more crucially as Joseph experienced the love, he saw those fears for the false things they were.   

You see, that’s the stunning thing about most every fear.  They’re lies.  And if you let them dictate your life, they’ll prevent you from living the true life God created you to live.   Fears might tell you they’re saving your life, but in reality, they’re only limiting it.  And sometimes those fears might even end it. 

Years ago, I heard a story about a man who was exploring a huge cave.  As he climbed a cliff face in the cave, his foot slipped.  He found himself hurtling through the air.  At the very last moment, his safety line held.  He didn’t hit the ground. But his light had gone out.  It was pitch black.  He had no idea how far down he would drop if he unhooked from the safety line.  So, he decided to simply wait, to stay hooked to that rope for dear life.  And he hung on, even as he felt his strength failing, even as he grew weaker from no food or water.   Two days later when a rescue party finally discovered him, they found a puzzling sight.    They found a dead man dangling from a rope only a foot off the ground.    This man died, in the end, not because he fell.  He died because he let his life literally be dictated by a fear that wasn’t even true. 

Too often you and I can be like that cave climber.  You can have your life dictated, limited, even destroyed by fears that aren’t even real.  Now they can seem real.  They can feel real.  But they’re not.   And if you live as if they are, you will miss out on the very life God created you to live. 

Still, those fears can feel real, because at one point in your life, they were.   Somebody really did wound you in a certain way.  Something did happen that wrecked your life. 

This past week, I was listening to someone talk about a colleague of his who adopted a young child. And this colleague mentioned a challenge they faced.   Each day, they’d tell their newly adopted son, we’ll pick you up from school at 3:30.  And every day, the kid didn’t believe it.  Every day, he got filled with more and more anxiety as that time approached.   And it took a while for this guy to get what was going on.   The boy got filled with fear because again and again adults in his life had made those same promises. Don’t worry, I’ll pick you up.  I’ll be there.   But they hadn’t.  Instead, again and again, they had let their child down.    This kid was scared because he had reason to be.  For that little boy what was real is everybody fails me and doesn't fulfill a promise.  And so, until a new truth became real, that old reality of abandonment and loss would still be true.

Nothing they said would change that fear, because it wasn’t yet real.  The only thing that would change that fear is that child seeing day after day these commitments kept.  He had to know this love was not only true, it was real, that it could be counted on no matter what.  Only then would their new child find the shadows of his fears falling away.  No words of love could change that, but the experience of the love, the reality of that love would.      

You see.  In Joseph’s life, he didn’t just know the truth of God’s love, he had experienced its reality.  He had experienced this love in worship at the synagogue, in praying the Torah.  He had experienced this love showing up again and again in his life.  So, when that night, he heard in this dream God’s promise that this son was God’s deliverance come to earth, he trusted its truth because he had experienced its reality.  And the power of that reality freed him to move past the fear, to not give it power it didn’t have.  And the reality of that same love will free you.

This past week, I heard an interview with a Christian leader, Terry Wardle, who grew up in a painfully broken family in the coal fields of Western Pennsylvania.  By the time he was five, he had seen death happen five feet away from him.  By the time he was 7 or 8, he had seen his uncle shoot his aunt next door.  All through his childhood, he was repeatedly abused and abandoned.   And even after he became a Christian, he still carried all those wounds with him.   After great success as a Christian leader, because of those wounds he ended up in a psychiatric hospital, depressed, anxiety-ridden, paralyzed by fear.  People would quote scriptures like the one that says “perfect love casts out fear.”  And it would drive him nuts.  Those words never helped. Then he got it.  It’s not those words “perfect love” that cast out the fear.  It’s the experience of that perfect love.  He realized.  He knew in his head that God’s love was real.  But he hadn’t experienced it as real, especially in those wounded memories of his past.  So, Wardle literally in his imagination took Jesus there into those memories.  He experienced that perfect love of God grieving with him, comforting him, assuring him that God’s love was the truth not the abuse of his past that had wounded him and filled him with fear.     
As Wardle put it himself.  You live in a home like I did, in an environment with violence and crime and abuse, I had reasons to be afraid. It was real. Someone says, fear not. It might've been true but it wasn't real. What was true for me was what was real.  But then he said.  The love of God started coming in, even into those wounded memories.  And God made what I knew to be true, real even there.   And that reality freed him.  And now he lives his life sharing that same freeing power with others.

That is the reality that frees everyone.  Because everyone has those wounds, maybe not as deep as Terry Wardle’s.  But everyone has them, and from those wounds the fear comes.  But as you let God’s love come in, then that love shows you not only what is true, but what is truly real.  That is what Jesus brings.  You can’t outthink the fear.  But you can let the reality of Jesus’ love free you from it.   You can hear God say to you.   I accept you.  I don’t judge you.  You are precious to me, infinitely loved, infinitely respected.   You will find no condemnation here, ever.   And, as you let that love touch you, then what is already true, becomes real.  And in that reality, that ultimate reality, the fears start to fade away. 

That’s why we’ve made our vision at the church I serve come down to three simple words, invited, welcomed and loved.   Why?   Those words are true, but too often, for too many they’re not real.   And God has called our church to make them real not only for us, but for everyone who encounters this church.   Wardle tells a story of a young pastor he met.  And the pastor said, “When I was a young pastor, I had so many wounds from people. I kept everybody at an arm's length.  But there were two elderly women in that church that made up their mind that every time they saw me, they were hugging me I didn't like it, but I put up with it.  I put up with it until I started liking it and then it changed me." It changed him because what was true, God’s love, became real. 

Is what is true real to you today?  Is there a place where Jesus needs to make it real?  Then in those next few moments, I invite you to let Jesus do you just that.  Just imagine God's love entering into that place of fear.  Maybe you imagine God touching you or embracing you or speaking words to you or simply be present with you.   In those moments, let what is already true become real, and as you do that love will heal you. That love will free you from fear.  That love will invite you and welcome you into a life and a love more wondrous, more amazing than you could ever have imagined or dreamed.