Sunday, September 17, 2017

What Is the One Truth that Gives You Life the Way Life Is Meant to Be?

For the last two weeks, I have become intimately familiar with one guy’s face.   Normally, I wouldn’t notice him at all.   He’s not very charismatic.   But beginning two weeks ago, I held onto this guy’s every word.   Why?   He’s Ed Rappaport.  And Ed Rappaport directs the work of the National Hurricane Center, and as someone who was living in the path of the monster storm, Hurricane Irma, that Center had a lot to say to me.   So, when those four times a day bulletins from the Center would come around, I’d turn on the news, eager to see this face.

Now, if anybody could make a hurricane undramatic, even boring, Ed Rappaport could.  When Ed talked about the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic, you’d think he was talking about his grocery list.   Frankly, in some ways, that can be strangely reassuring.  But a moment came, when even Ed’s composure broke.
One of the newscasters mentioned to Ed folks he had spoken to in the middle Keys, who had decided to ride out the storm.   At first, Ed looked puzzled, as if this newscaster was talking about little green men or some other thing that could not exist.   Then he got it.   He realized that this newscaster was telling him that he knew of people who had not evacuated, who were sitting in their homes at the very point where this storm would make landfall.   Alarmed, Ed simply said.   This hurricane in that place is not a survivable event.    Those words chilled me.  I realized.  Ed was not giving an opinion.  He was as a scientist, stating a fact.  The combination of wind and storm surge in that place would destroy anyone in its path, no matter how experienced or tough they were.

In life, certain realities exist, and nothing you think about them will change the truth of their existence.   You don’t have to believe in gravity.  But your disbelief won’t stop gravity from killing you if you decide to leap off the top of that building they’re constructing in Young Circle.

Ed was saying much the same thing.   You don’t have to believe that Irma will kill you for Irma to kill you.   In life, certain facts exist, and whatever you think of them, will not change that reality.   And some of those facts, if you ignore their truth, won’t just inconvenience you, they’ll destroy you.    In the words you’re about to hear, God gives you one of those facts, one that if you ignore its truth, will take away your life in a deeper and more profound way than even Irma ever could.   What is that truth?   Here God shows you.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Some truths you can’t ignore.   If you do, not only won’t they go away, but if you ignore them or disbelieve them, they could kill you.    When the doctor tells you that you have blockages in your heart, she’s not giving you an opinion.    She is giving you a fact.  Nothing you think about that fact will change the reality that those blockages threaten your life.    In the same way, John is giving you a truth here, you can’t ignore.   John is telling you that in Jesus, God came to earth and died for you.   Why is that truth so crucial?   It’s because it’s truth goes deeper than any other truth that exists.   And when you ignore it, even if you live, at some deeper level than you realize, you will have missed what living is truly about.       

In life, people have a certain comfort with truths like a doctor’s diagnosis or when a hurricane expert tells you about storm surge.    Those truths you can see in an x-ray.  You can see their effects on the video reports on the news.   Yet even there, you have more and more people who are doubting even those truths.   And that is a scary thing.

But truth goes far deeper than simply those facts.   Life carries with it certain realities that if you ignore them will destroy your life in ways that go beyond anything a hurricane can do.   A quote from the filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille puts it well.   DeMille said: It’s impossible for us to break the law.  We can only break ourselves against the law.   Now DeMille wasn’t talking about jay-walking.   DeMille, who directed the movie classic, The Ten Commandments, was talking about law at a deeper level than that.   DeMille was saying. Certain deep realities exist, and you ignore them at your peril.   You can’t break them.  You can break yourself against them. 

Yet today, lots of folks resist what DeMille pointed out here.   And they have good reason too.  Too often, people have claimed something to be true like that when it wasn’t true like that at all.   They have even pulled in God to undergird their claim.    Susan B. Anthony, one of the leaders who help secure women the vote, said it well.   She said.  I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I know it always coincides with their own desires.    How often did Anthony hear people say as if they were declaring some objective truth that if women could vote, it would destroy the institution of marriage.   People, including Christians, have claimed as objective truth things that did not fit that description at all.    

But just because folks, including Christians, have misused these claims for truth doesn’t mean such truths don’t exist.   But if this truth does exist, what makes Jesus is God, a God who bled and died for you, a truth like that?    Why does John even call believers who discount it, not simply not Christian, but actually anti-Christs.   Isn’t that a bit much?

In John’s day, this idea of God becoming a human being didn’t play too well.  People didn’t think too much of the whole body thing.  They thought of bodies as unpleasant, nasty things, about as far from spiritual as you could get.   So, the idea of the creator of the universe becoming a body, a real, flesh and blood human being sounded not only ridiculous, but even disgusting.   Then the fact that this God not only became a human being, but actually suffered a humiliating death as a criminal, that just went beyond the pale. 

Yet even so, this message of a God who loved human beings, who came to give human beings life, even immortal life, lots of folks liked that.   So they said.  Let’s keep that part of the message.  Let’s even say the presence of God dwelled in Jesus.   But this whole Jesus is God thing; that has got to go.   And forget this God dying.  No, Jesus might have died.  But by that time, God had left the building so to speak. 

But this message John calls a lie.  Not only that, John has these people expelled.  He calls them anti-Christs.   Why can’t John tolerate a little diversity in the ranks?   Why does John see these people as so far from the truth that he even calls them liars?  I’m sure these folks would say that they were simply trying to get to the heart of the message.  John fights so hard against them because John has played the movie.  

Years ago, I heard an insight that I have never forgotten.  The psychologist Henry Cloud said that one thing successful people always do is they play the movie.   Cloud meant that when these people make a decision, they take time to play out the consequences.  They play the movie so to speak. 

So, let’s say, this person feels an attraction to someone at work.  They sense that this someone feel attracted to them to.   But rather than act on it, they play the movie.  They think. Let’s say I do some flirting, and this person flirts back.    And one thing leads to another, and we end up having an affair.   Then out of that affair, problems arise at work.  Maybe we lose our jobs.  Then, my marriage collapses.  Then my relationship with my kids gets wounded forever.  And I end up alone in an apartment, my life in shambles.   And once they’ve played that movie, this person doesn’t seem all that attractive any more.   Do you see how this works?

John is doing the same here.  He is playing out the movie. John realizes.  If God didn’t come to earth in Jesus, that not only changes everything; it destroys everything. 

What do I mean?   Well, why do Christians believe that God come to earth in Jesus?  Christians believe that God did that because nothing less than that could save human beings from themselves.  Nothing less than God becoming human, God even dying for you, could save you.   That’s how lost you had become, how disconnected from God.  

But if God didn’t really do that, then the human situation wasn’t that bad.   Instead, God didn’t come to rescue you.  God came to enable you to reach your highest potential, to even become a god yourself.  God doesn’t have to save you.  No, God came in Jesus to show you how you could save yourself.  Now, if you think about that, you can think that sounds kind of nice.  Those sorts of lies always do.

But here’s what happens.   First, this lie blinds you to the truth about yourself.  No one really wants to face their ugliness within.      And with this lie, you don’t have to.  You can live in denial about how deep the brokenness within you really is.   

But even so, you will have moments when that denial will break down, when the ugliness will pop out.  And when that happens, it can be terrifying. 

After all, when you start believing you can save yourself, how do you know that you’ve done it.   How do you know if your goodness is good enough, that your enlightenment is enlightened enough?   The answer is you don’t.   So, instead, you live with this underlying anxiety that maybe you haven’t met the grade, that you’re not good enough.  

How do you deal with that?   You look at someone you see as worse than you are.  Okay, you say, granted, I’m not perfect, but at least I’m not like that person.   I’m more enlightened than that.   You put yourself on a hierarchy, one that always put you above someone else.   And in that way, you ease your anxiety somewhat.   But still the anxiety is always there.   And this life, well, it becomes no life at all.   And this is the lie of religion, one that has led to all sorts of misery and pain. 

But John knows.  The message of Jesus as God breaks that lie.   It gives you the painful truth of who you really are.   It tells you.   Yes, you are as broken and messed up as, on your worst days, you fear you are.   You are really that lost.   And no matter what you do, you cannot save yourself.  But God has not left you there.  In Jesus God came to rescue you.   God came to bring you home.    And God loves you so deeply, so infinitely that in Jesus, God gave up everything to make this rescue happen.   God has saved you.  And what do you need to do?   All you need to do is to believe this beautiful truth is really true, that it actually happened right here on earth, in history, for you.  

And when you do, this truth comes to live within you.   It even starts restoring the divine image within you.    You begin to become more than you could ever have dreamed you could be.   And God becomes not only a fact you know, but a reality you experience.   And in the presence of that God, your judgments of others begin to fall away.  After all, you know that you’re no better than them.   And in the love of this God, the anxieties that bind you begin to break.  After all, you know that nothing, no mistake, no failing, not even death will take this love away.   And you start to live, even in your worst moments, a life that is deeper, richer, and more beautiful than ever before.   You know the truth, and this truth has set you free. 

If you’ve been caught in the lie, trying to gain approval from God, trying to be good enough, whatever that means, then leave that lie behind.   Let the truth embrace you.  Let the truth set you free.            

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Painful Truth That If You Don't See It will Lead you to Disaster

It’s a nice scene isn’t it?  Here you have something that is beautiful, good even.   It gets you places.   It nourishes the soil.   It even brings pleasure.  But this good thing can become a bad thing.  That beautiful river is the Natchez River in Beaumont, Texas. Over the last week, its waters have ravaged homes, businesses, and even taken away people’s water.   

When this good thing goes beyond its boundaries, awful things happen like this. 

Houston, a great American city gets brought to its knees.  People lose homes.   They lose their lives.   These waters that brought life, we have seen them bring such death and destruction.   And our hearts go out to the people of Houston, to all those folks in Texas and Louisiana dealing with this awful storm.  It’s stunning what happens when waters push beyond their boundaries like that.  

This tragic news from Houston, as it stirred me to prayer and to aid, also reminded me of an uncomfortable, even painful truth in my own life, one I have seen lived out tragically in the lives of others.   When people don’t see this truth, it brings awful things, even disaster and destruction.  

What is this painful truth?  In these words, God shows you.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

In these few short sentences, God is saying something terribly important.   God is giving a warning that if you heed it will bless your life.  And more crucially, it will you away    It keeps you away from a life that will cripple your life.   What is God telling you?   God is saying.  Beware the danger of desire.   

But before you and I can understand that danger, we need to understand what beauty and blessing desires bring.  

God created you to have desires.   Why?  Desires bring you life.  Desires expand your horizons.  Desires open you to new experiences.   Desires give you all sorts of good things, from delicious meals to romance, from success in work to joyful pursuits at home.  

In fact, God cherishes desire.  God cherishes desire so much that God put it at the center of Communion, the Lord’s Supper.   Do you know what Jesus said to his disciples before he broke this bread, and shared this cup?   He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; (Luke 22:15).    Jesus didn’t just kind of desire it.   Jesus eagerly desired it.   Desire drove Jesus to the cross; desire for our salvation; desire for our freedom; desire for our healing.  

So if God loves desire so much, how do you explain these words in I John? 

“For all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the father but from the world.”

Here’s the problem.  When the Bible talks about desire, it talks about in two different ways, but the way this translation puts it, you don’t get that.   The old-fashioned King James got closer to the truth.  It says.  

For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.

And that word lust gets closer to what God is telling us.   John intentionally uses a particular Greek word here; epithumia.   John could have just used, thumia.   That word means desire too.   But epithumia means a huge desire, an epic one so to speak.  In fact, that’s where we get the word epic from.  

Now epic desires can be good desires.  Jesus uses that word, epithumia, when he talks about desiring to eat the Passover with his disciples.    If you have an epic desire for God, that’s a good thing. 

So, what makes epic desire a bad thing here?   It’s because these epic desires will always derail your life.   Why?   They go beyond the boundaries of desire for which God created them.  Do you see how that connects to the awfulness of this week.   When those rivers and bayous stayed within their banks, they brought life and beauty to the world.   But when the rain drove them beyond those boundaries, omigosh, the destruction and death they brought instead. 

And what’s true of those waters in Texas, that’s true of certain desires.   For example, it’s fine to eat to live.   But if you live to eat, then your desire has become epic.  It has blown past the boundaries.  And it has taken over your life.  

That’s an example of an epic desire of the flesh.   And other things fall into this category.   Desire for sexual intimacy, desire for alcohol, even desire for leisure and the list could go on.   All of these desires, in their place, bring good things.   But when they go epic, when they go past the boundaries, they bring destruction, even death.  

But John isn’t finished talking about epic desires.  As bad as these desires of the flesh can be, he brings them up first because they are the least dangerous.   Even more dangerous is the epic desires of the eyes.   So what are these?  

It’s when you live your life for how you look, how you appear to others.   And this desire can lead you to plastic surgery or eating disorders.   But it goes beyond that.   Two years ago, the Federal Reserve did a study that showed almost half of Americans, couldn’t handle a $400.00 emergency.   Now some of those folks certainly have that problem due to serious financial hardship.  But in the most affluent nation in history, something more has to be going on.  Again and again, I see people spend money to keep up an appearance even when it risks financial disaster.   Maybe that’s why in another survey this past week, only one in ten Americans felt fully financially prepared for a natural disaster.  But this epic desire goes beyond finances. 

How many times do you get so caught up in appearances, how someone or something looks only to discover how that person or thing was far less than what they appeared to be?   Or how often have you lied or got defensive about something because you didn’t want to look bad, because you didn’t want to admit you were wrong?

And that leads to the worst epic desires of all, the pride of life.  
Have you ever had a martyr fantasy?  You feel someone has done you wrong or hasn’t appreciated me enough.   And you think to yourself.   What if I got some dread disease, or better yet keeled over from a heart attack while doing something nice and selfless for them.  Oh, then they would see, my goodness, my saintliness. How bad they would feel.   I admit it.  I’ve had something like that, more than I’d care to admit.   And when you do that, you are caught up in the pride of life.  

This epic pride leads you to self-righteous resentment at how others have mistreated you or simply not appreciated you.   This pride makes you smug at how clearly you are better than other folks around you.   Do you know what I felt when I first read that statistic about half of Americans not being able to handle a $400.00 emergency.   I felt superior.  I thought.  Well, that’s not me.  I’m better than that.   This pride leads you to gossip about others. It’s gets you caught jealousies and petty judgments. 

And what makes it deadly is it captures your heart and you don’t even realize it. You think you’re just fine.  Religious folks fall into this trap so easily.   This past week, our church elders wrote a pastoral letter to our city commission about the issue of certain street names in Hollywood, and the pain it had brought to members of our community.  If you’d like a copy, let me know, and I’ll send it on to you. 

The day after that commission meeting, I went to be part of a gathering of churches of all ethnic backgrounds uniting to make our county a better place, and give witness to the gospel.  I heard all the great things they were doing together.  But do you know what I was thinking?  Why didn’t any of them show up at that city commission in Hollywood like our church did?  Maybe they should have. Who knows?  But I wasn’t thinking that out of any sense of godly love or concern.   I was jealous of the church facility that I was sitting in.    So, I came up with something to help me feel that our church was still better than theirs.  But I cloaked my jealousy and my insecurity in righteous concern.   

Something similar happened with Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen this week.  People, including Christians, jumped to harsh judgments on why their church arena wasn’t open for flood victims.  Yet the picture was more complicated than folks realized.   During the last Houston flood, the church, then at a different location, housed 5000 flood victims.   During this crisis, the city did not request their help, possibly because they were aware that this arena has had flooding problems in the past, another reason Lakewood was reluctant to open its doors out of concern that they would create more problems if their building flooded.    As it was, no one who sought refuge in Lakewood Church was turned away, and as the week progressed, the church did open its doors to victims.  But that’s what epic pride will do. 

In your life, epic pride will blind you to your own faults.  It will lead you to judgments of others that completely miss what is actually going on with them.   Epic pride when it runs amok wrecks families.  It wrecks churches.  It even wrecks nations.   

So how do you escape from these epic desires that yearn to capture you, that desire to destroy you.   You look to Jesus, to the one who epically desires you, who broke through every boundary, even death, to bring you life.    And as you let his epic desire, his epic love for you, grasp and hold you, it will fill you like nothing else can.   Then, in that love, all your desires will find their rightful place.   You will not look to them to give what they can never give.  Why?  You will have already received that from this One whose epic love is always there to meet you where you are.   What desire or desires have become epic in your life?  Let them go.  Leave them with Jesus.   And let Him feed you until you want no more.          


Sunday, August 27, 2017

The One Lie That Will Mess Up Your Life Like No Other

I gotta admit.  It shocked me.   It’s not like I haven’t heard stuff like this.  I’ve heard it my whole life.   But it bothered me.  It made me feel a little self-conscious.   Still, I didn’t say anything.   I mean.  What would she think of me?  

It all began because I was talking with some other Christians about a big event our church and a bunch of others are doing on November 4th at the Arts Park, Hope4Hollywood.  And this woman said something like.   What a great date!   It will counter that awful event the week before.
And for a moment, I didn’t get it.   What is she talking about?   Then I got it.  She was talking about Boo Bash, the Halloween party in the Park. Now, what made that event awful?   It celebrated Halloween.  And Christianity and Halloween, they can’t mix.

Now, we raise money for our Learning Centers each October through a Pumpkin patch, so that view doesn’t fly here.  In my house, we love Halloween. We put decorations out.   We buy our pumpkins (from the patch, of course).  Our son goes trick or treating in the neighborhood.  We put out a lot of candy.  

But was she right?  In just a moment, you’ll hear words from the Bible that tell you not to love the world or the things in it.   Should that include Halloween?   What else should it include? 
Some Christians think it includes alcohol.  Do you know the three religious truths?   Number one is Jews don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah.   Number two is Protestants do not recognize the Pope as the head of the church.   And number three is Baptists don’t recognize each other in the liquor stores.    

Other Christians think it means you can’t wear makeup or you need to avoid certain movies or types of music.  Heck, when I was a kid, I trashed a Saturday Night Fever soundtrack because somebody told me it was evil.  I regret that.  I really liked that album.  What can I say?  I had disco fever.  
So, was this woman right?  No, she wasn’t.   But she had a point.  If you love the world, at least the way the Bible talks about loving the world, it will mess you up.  It might blow up your life.  So, what does it mean to love the world like that?  How can you make sure it doesn’t mess up your life?  In these words you’re about to hear, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

It doesn’t make any sense.   Right here at the beginning of what we just read, John says, as clear as day. “Do not love the world…”    But does anyone remember one of the most famous sentences in the entire Bible.  If you went to church as a kid, you might have even memorized it.  It goes like this…

For God so loved the world, that He gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.
John 3:16

What?   Here the Bible says that God not only loved the world.  Loving the world led God to come to earth, to create Christianity.    Yet here, the Bible tells Christians to not love the world.   And to make it even more confusing, the same guy, John, wrote both sentences.   

So, which is it, John?    Do you love the world?   God does.   Shouldn’t we love it too?   Or are you supposed to hate the world like you tell us here?   Here’s the answer.   Yes, yes to both questions.  

How can you love the world and yet not love the world?   It’s because in John 3:16, God is talking about the world in a far different way than God is talking about the world here.  What’s the difference?

Look at the focus in John 3:16.   God focuses on people, on saving them, on rescuing them, on loving them.   But in these words in I John, God isn’t talking about people.  God is talking about desires, desires for things.  

You see, in John 3:16, God makes something utterly clear.   God loves people.  God loves people, you and me, so much that God says.  I will give up everything, even my life, to bring you home, to heal you, to rescue you.   When God talks about the world here.  God is talking about the world God created, a world full of people, full of all sorts of wondrous living things.  

But in I John God is talking about a way that others see this world.    This way doesn’t focus on people, at least as people.  No, in this world, people become means to an end.    And what is the end?  The end is acquiring something. Nothing matters more than the things you get.    It’s the message behind this bumper sticker.  The One who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.  And that way of seeing the world, God hates.   Why?

It devalues people.   And for God, nothing matters more than people.  That’s why we have a value here that goes like this.   All people matter to God, and therefore they need to matter to us.  If you are a follower of Jesus, nothing should matter more to you than people.   That means when people are demeaned or disrespected, Christians should be the first to stand up, and say no. 

But this world in which you and I live, it often goes by different values, values that are lies.     

For the first three years I lived here, a day did not pass without me seeing one.   Every day, I saw at least one car that cost as much as my house.   Every day, I saw something that cost about 300 grand to drive.    And I started getting a subtle message.  This is where life lies.  Life in South Florida can do that.  You see multi-million-dollar mansions.   You see boats so big they have other boats inside them.     And even if you don’t have that stuff, it can start to twist you up.   It can lead you to value all the wrong things. 

My wife is a psycho-therapist, and when she sees kids do you know what they want the most?  They want time with their parents. But the parents seem to be working all the time, and when they’re not working, they’re stressed about working    But when she talks to the parents, and asks them about cutting back on work.   They won’t do it.  It’s not because the family would starve if they did.   It’s that they would have to sell their boat or move to a smaller place.   And that they just can’t do.   Why?  It’s not because they don’t love their kids.  Of course, they love their kids. But they’ve bought the lie.   Somewhere inside them, they hear this voice.  If you don’t have these things, if you don’t live in this place, in this neighborhood, then something is wrong with you.  You have failed. 

Do you know the joke?  In America, what do you call a multi-millionaire who has been married three times, and who has terrible relationships with his kids    You call him a success.

That’s how love of the world will mess you up.   It’s when you start basing your value on things that don’t have any ultimate value.   And it doesn’t have to be money or stuff.   You can base your value on how you look or how someone looks at you.  You can base your value on other’s approval, how well people like you.  You can even base your value in some sort of religious thing.   

So instead of acquiring things, you start acquiring a sort of moral report card.  I do these things and therefore I am good.  And usually that means, you start thinking those who don’t do those things are bad or definitely not as good as you are.     But if you’re doing even good things to gain some sort of value for yourself, then you’ve missed the whole point.  You’re as trapped in this twisted way of seeing the world as anyone. You’re still acquiring toys, things to give yourself worth.  

But these things never give you the worth you seek.   They never give you ultimate value because they’re not ultimate.   They don’t last.  As John puts it….the world and its desire are passing away.   Or to take a riff off the bumper sticker….the one who dies with the most toys..still dies.

But you don’t have to find your value there, as if you could.   Why?  You already have value.   You have infinite value simply because you are.  That’s the point of John 3:16.    You have such infinite value that the creator of the universe, the creator of all reality, came to you, became someone like you.    And as that person, as Jesus, that God gave up everything for you.    And when you know God loves you like that, that frees you.  It frees you to love, to love people, to love the world, to value it, to value others as God does.  And as you experience that love, as you live in it, you see the world for what it is, an amazing place where God’s love is playing in ten thousand places. 

That’s why Christians should love Halloween.  Think about it.  When do you see more of your neighbors and their kids than at Halloween?    Halloween gives you a chance to get to know people, to give to people, to share with people, to love people.   And that’s what this world needs.  It needs to know that love, a love not based on what you own or who you know or what you do, a love based in who you are, a person infinitely, immeasurably, incredibly loved by God.  

And if you want to be part of a community that is working to live into that love, to share that love with others, then this family called First Church; it’s a great place to be.   And if you got nothing else from today, get this.  You are loved.  You are loved.   You are loved.   And nothing can ever take that love away.  All you have to do is say yes to it.     

Sunday, August 6, 2017

What Are the Two Things You Need to Become Who God Created You to Be?

It happens more than you’d think.   And every time it does, it takes me by surprise.  It happened again this past week.

I was talking with a man I have known for years.  He has been a member of a church for decades.   But as we talked that day, I began to realize something.   This man, despite his dedication to his church, may not be a Christian.  He may never have gotten the gospel.    Now, let me make it clear.   This man outshines me in his righteousness.  In his medical practice, he was extraordinarily generous and compassionate.   He’s gone above and beyond for his family.   He’s done amazing things to support the community.   Yet, I sensed that he might never have grasped what the Christian message actually means for him, for everyone.  Now, I could be wrong.   We had never talked this deeply.   But I will keep talking with him, so that if I am right I can share with this remarkably good and faithful man the full measure of what God has given him.        

But, I don’t know why I’m surprised.   As simple as the Christian message is, lots of people still miss it.   I have known people who didn’t get it until they went to seminary!  Heck, my own father may not have really gotten it until after years as a pastor himself.  

Now how is it possible to serve in a church, even be a pastor of one, and still not be a Christian?   More crucially, how do you know that you that you have grasped the gospel, that you have become a Christian?   In these words from I John, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

How can you be involved in a church for years, decades even, and still not get it?  How can you even be a pastor, and miss it?   How can you be sure that’s not you?    You can be sure, when you realize that the truth doesn’t matter unless you’ve experienced the love.  If the truth has not led you to the love, then you haven’t yet experienced the gospel.

This past week, I read this description of what it felt like to experience the gospel.  This young woman from Cambodia said this. “I didn’t know what I was missing. I was like the frog in the well.”    What was she talking about?  You see. 

Cambodian culture has this parable of a frog, who, living in a well, can look up and see the sky.  The frog knows that a world exists beyond the well, but the frog has no idea how big or amazing that world is unless it gets out of that well. 

And if you know the truth of the gospel, but haven’t experienced the love, you are a bit like that frog.  

Or think about it the way the preacher Tim Keller does.   Let’s say you go to your doctor for this illness you have, and she gives you these pills to take.   Well, you take the pills home.  You even do research on how effective the pills are.   When others have the same problem, you tell them.   “You should really get this pill.”   But when it comes to you actually taking the pill that never happens. 
In the same way, you can know the message of the gospel, yet never experience it.    That’s what John means when he says, “Whoever says “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.”   

When the person John is talking about says that they are in the light, they truly believe they are in the light.   After all, they know what the light is.   They can see it clearly even.   But just because you know the light, doesn’t mean you are living in it.   And what is the key test of that living?  It’s whether you’ve experienced the love, the love that takes away your hate, the love that fills you with love for others. 

Now, how can that be?   How can you know the truth, and yet not be actually living in it?
Sometimes, it happens because you fell in love with the comfort.  You grew up learning all the stories.  You adopted all the beliefs.   But the church doesn’t bring you change as much as it brings you comfort.   You like the familiarity of it all.  When so much is changing, you like coming each week to a place that reminds you of home.   Now, of course, you can feel those things, and still be a Christian.  But if that’s all you feel, then you haven’t gotten it.

Or maybe you fell in love with the answers.  Christianity gives a lot of answers.  And maybe you fell in love with all that, how Christian answers gave you structure to a chaotic world.  But if that’s all you have, you don’t have the gospel.   And if all you have are the answers, and not Jesus, then you are in trouble.  

This past week, I was listening to an interview with the journalist, Bill Moyers.   At one point, he mentioned that he had no idea where he had come from or where he was going.   And the interviewer, who knew Moyers had gone to seminary, had even been ordained a Baptist minister, probed further.   Moyers said this.   “I went to seminary and got answers to all my questions, and then I want out in life and got all my answers questioned.”   The answers won’t sustain you.  Only the love will.

Or you can fall in love with a leader.   You encounter a great teacher, not even necessarily a famous one.  But he or she speaks with such certainty about faith.   And that attracts you.  You want what they have.  So you join up.  Christianity becomes your team.   And you really love being part of that team, that team that has this teacher you’ve come to love.       

Now, if you love the comfort of Christianity, see it as part of your family heritage, your culture, then you won’t like anyone to question it.   Oh no, you’ll resist that, maybe even be offended.   It’s like someone is attacking your family.

On the other hand, if you fell in love with the answers, you crave the questions. You want someone to question you.  That way you can drub them into submission with your answers.    And you may win some arguments, even as you lose a lot of relationships. 

And if you fell in love with the person, with their team, then God forbid that person fail you or the team fall short.   And if they do, you will either become bitter and angry or you will scramble to do whatever you can to rationalize the failure, so that you don’t lose that leader or your team.  

But in every case, you have fallen in love with the light around Jesus, but you haven’t actually fallen in love with Jesus.   You’ve put your trust in the truth about Jesus, but you haven’t experienced the love of Jesus.

Oscar Romero, the Catholic bishop, put it well.  Christianity is not a collection of truths to be believed, of laws to be obeyed, of prohibitions.  That makes it very distasteful. Christianity is a person, one who loved us so much, one who calls for our love. Christianity is Christ.”  

So how do you get Christ?  How do you get Jesus?       
First, you face up to your own darkness.   Folks, who have seen the light but not experienced it have not actually done that.   Yes, you see the world around you as dark.  You see the darkness in others.   But you haven’t really faced up to your darkness. You’ve let the light shine on others.  But you haven’t allowed that light to shine into you.    

When I first came here, a leader called me for help with a particular issue.  And at one point, he said, “You know, Kennedy, I’m pretty f----ed up.”   And I said, “Of course you are.   So am I.  That’s why we’re here.”  

When you really see your darkness, your pettiness, your anxieties, your self-centeredness, all the stuff you hide, even from yourself, then you are getting close to Jesus.  As the preacher, Bill Coffin said, “Jesus said, the truth shall set you free.”  But first it makes you miserable.”   If you haven’t felt that misery, then you’re missing Jesus.   Why do you need to feel the misery?   Only then, will you realize how much you need Jesus, how lost you actually are.

But when you realize it, it does free you.  Why?  You realize.  Jesus sees you just as you are, with all that ugliness you work so hard to hide.   And Jesus loves you.   I mean, he really, really loves you.  And that frees you.   A Benedictine nun put it well, “There is no freedom like seeing myself as I am and not losing hope.”   And that’s what the gospel brings. That’s why it’s good news.

But that good news may be so good, you find it hard to believe, that Jesus loves you like that.    Heck, you may not even love yourself that much after seeing all your ugliness.  But Jesus does love you, and has given up everything to take your ugliness away.   And you don’t need to do anything for Jesus to get that.  You simply need to believe Jesus has.  All you need is need.   That’s the beauty of it.  And in the beauty of that truth, you experience the love.   

And in that love, things change in you.  You start to look at everyone, I mean everyone with a sense of hope for what God can do.  You can look at a terrorist and see that, a murderer, a war criminal, anyone.   Why?   You are thinking.  If God can save me, God can save anybody.   Why not him?  Why not her?   You start seeing all the beauty in them that God sees.  And they sense that from you.  They sense that you see in them even more than they can see in themselves.  

And when you encounter people who aren’t Christians, but who are way morally better than you, you aren’t surprised or bothered by it.  After all, you’re not a Christian, because you’re better than others.   Heck, becoming a Christian means admitting that you are a moral failure.  That’s what makes you a Christian.  You know it’s not about your goodness.  It’s all about God’s grace. 

So, when people meet you, they don’t see you trying to put on a pose or hold up a mask.  No, they see a person who lives with no reason to hide at all.    They see someone who sees the very best in them, and who accepts them utterly and without condition.   They see you loving even the most unlovable, but not making a big deal out of it.              

And when you’re not living like that, then you are forgetting the gospel.  You are forgetting who you are by God’s grace, and who they are.  You have forgotten the beauty and wonder of God’s love and grace.   So, if you’ve been forgetting the love or maybe never even experienced it, then open yourself to the bounty of God’s love for you, a God who has given everything for you.  All you need to bring is nothing.  All you need is need.    

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Two Things That Once You Know Them Keep You Moving Forward No Matter What

I admit it.   I’m a bit addicted.   I want to know.  Will the Mother of Dragons seize the iron throne?   Will the awful Queen Cersei get her due?    Will Tyrion Lannister survive?   

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, then you may be immune to the addiction.  I’m talking about the TV fantasy drama, Game of Thrones.  It has now become the number one show in the world.

Now, when you watch Game of Thrones, two things become obvious.  First, the show takes a pretty brutal view of human nature.   The villains win more than the heroes.   And even the heroes can end up doing awful things.    And second, you get these plot interruptions, that turn out not to be interruptions at all.  No, they become twists that take the story in amazing new directions. 
So why am I talking about Game of Thrones?  It’s because I’ve been wondering.   Is the show’s view of human-beings right?   Are people that bad?   Interestingly the Bible might say yeah, people are.   But unlike the show, the Bible doesn’t stop there.   As bad and broken as people can be, the Bible makes it clear.  That’s not the end of the story. 

In the Bible, as one poet once put it: Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.  But how is that past overcome?   How does that future happen?  How does it happen for you?  How do you grow into greatness, the greatness for which God created you?  In these words from this letter of John, words that can seem to be an interruption, God shows you the way. Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.    

How does it happen?  How do you grow into the greatness God created you for?  How do you do that when so much inside you sabotages that greatness?   Someone once said that the only Christian belief that you can prove is original sin.  So how do you move past that, past the broken places everyone has. to become who God created you to be, who you want to be?  Here God tells you. God says.   To grow into the greatness means realizing that first key point.  It’s all about the growing. And growth doesn’t happen overnight.  It happens over a lifetime. But for that growth to happen, you need to realize two key things, what you have and who you are.    

Last week, after worship, someone came up and basically asked me.  “Ok, how does that happen?”  I had talked that Sunday about how radical the love that Jesus calls us to actually is?  But this man was wondering.   How do you get there?   How does that level of love actually grow in you?  It’s not enough to just tell people.  Something has to happen. And he was right.   But what happens doesn’t happen overnight.   Growth doesn’t work that way.  

I love a home-grown tomato.   You can get a decent tomato in the store, but nothing beats pulling a tomato off the vine.   That’s a tomato.   And of all the things in our family’s garden growing up, I looked forward to picking those tomatoes.   But they didn’t come overnight.   It took time, and it took work.  It took watering when the rains didn’t come. It took staking the vines when they got too heavy.  It took waiting till the fruit ripened.   But one day, you’d go out, and see those red orbs of juiciness ready for the picking.

And what’s true of tomatoes is true of experiencing the transformation Jesus brings.  Do you remember the story where through Moses God parts the Red Sea, and brings the Israelite slaves through?    When they pass through the waters, and see their persue-ers, the Egyptian army perish in the waves, they are free.   In that one dramatic act God has taken them out of slavery.   So, if God has made them free, why do they wander in the desert for 40 years before they get ot the promised land?    It’s because, God might have brought them out of slavery in an instant, but it takes years for God to get the slavery out of them.  Do you see the difference?   In one instant, God will deliver you out of slavery to fear, death, and your worst impulses.      But it will take a lot longer for God to get that slavery out of you.

The Christian life isn’t ultimately a product you get.  It’s a process you go through.    When John addresses these verses to little children, and then the old, that’s what John is referring to.   Just like your physical growth, your spiritual growth takes time.   And John puts these verses here because John knows that this process of growth can be discouraging, especially if you don’t remember what you have.   And what do you have?   You have forgiveness through his name.  Now, why is that important?

Well, you can begin to think that for God to forgive you, you need to be sorry first.  But if you need to be sorry, how sorry do you need to be?    And what if you’re not sorry?  Sometimes I’ve done things I know that are wrong, and I haven’t felt all that sorry.   When I went back for the third helping at the buffet line, I felt a little bad, but only a little.  So, do I get forgiveness or not?

Or sometimes people think that God’s forgiveness depends on God’s love.  God forgives you because God just loves you period.   In fact, God loves everybody no matter what.   And yes that sounds nice, and it is true. That’s why we say it every week.   But if you think about it you realize.  That can’t be the whole story.  If out of God’s love, God just forgives everybody, what does that mean?   Does God look down, and see the folks in Isis doing horrible things to people, even children, and just go, no worries, I forgive you.   That doesn’t sound right.  Shouldn’t somebody have to pay?   And if that’s the case for the evil inside an ISIS terrorist, what makes you so sure that God may not need you to pay up?  

That’s why people often get discouraged when they try to live the Christian life.  They can’t keep it up.     They think.  I’m just not sorry enough.   Or they wonder.  Can God really love me enough to let that pass?   But Christians know that they don’t have forgiveness because they’re sorry.   They don’t even have forgiveness because God loves them.   They have forgiveness on account of his name. 
Christians know.  You don’t simply have access to forgiveness.   You have forgiveness.(from a Tim Keller sermon on this passage)  It’s a done deal, bought and paid for.   And how did that happen?  It happened on account of his name.

Yes, God does love you.   And out of that love, God did something only God could   God put his name on the line for you.  God went into ultimate darkness, so that you might never need to.    God put himself under bondage, so he could set you free.   On the cross, God put everything on the line for you.  And when God did, God won your forgiveness forever. 

That’s why Christians don’t get discouraged when they mess up, even badly.  They don’t get nervous when they sense their sorrow for failings isn’t as great as it could be.  They don’t ever wonder if God’s love will cover this or that.  They know that out of God’s love, God did cover this or that.   On account of God’s putting in Jesus, his name on the line for you, you don’t simply have access to forgiveness.  You have forgiveness now and forever.

That means, even as you fail, you can move forward.   You don’t need to say when it comes to the Christian life, I can’t keep this up.   You know.  Keeping this up isn’t what makes you a Christian.  It’s Jesus’ name that does it, and how Jesus put that name on the line for you.  

You say as the Christian writer Kathleen Norris put it.   “When I fail, as I must, I can only recall the desert monk who told his disciple, “Brother, the monastic life is this: I rise up, and I fall down; I rise up, and I fall down; I rise up and I fall down.”   That isn’t just the monastic life.  It’s the Christian life.   And when you have peace about that, it gives you power to go and to grow, even on the days when that seems the hardest.   

And you can go and grow, because you don’t just have God’s forgiveness.  You have God’s power.  You have, as John puts it, God’s word abiding in you.  And what does God’s word do?  Think back to the Creation story.   How did God make the universe?  God spoke.  God’s word went out, and created everything.  And now that same word lives in you.  And that force empowers you to rise even as you fall.    Becoming a Christian doesn’t mean you just decide to do certain things.  Becoming a Christian means something from outside has come inside you, and that power is changing you from the inside out.

Years ago, a young woman was joining the congregation I served on Long Island.  And she said to the elders.   “I grew up in church, but still I don’t know what’s happening to me.   I want to pray all the time, to read the Bible.  I don’t know why.”   And a wise woman elder said to her, “That’s conversion, honey.”   God’s power lives in you. That means, even when you fall, you know you will rise.   Why?  The power of the risen one lives in you.      

But beyond knowing what you have, you need to also know who you are.   John says this somewhat cryptic thing.   He says.  Fathers, I am writing to you, because you know him who is from the beginning.   Well, who are the only people who you know from the beginning?  Think about it.  It’s your parents.   And in case you missed it there.  John makes the same point again just a sentence later.  “I write to you, children, because you know the Father.”

In your journey with Jesus, you start where everyone starts.  You start at the beginning.  You start as a child.   And God deals with you in that same way. 

Right now, my wife and I are trying to teach our son, Patrick the word please.   So, when Patrick asks for something, I use that phrase my parents used with me.  What’s the magic word.  And Patrick says, please.  Still, even so, Patrick, like every kid, can be bossy.  Pick me up.   Come, play with me now.   But I don’t get offended by his bossyness.  I realize.  He’s just a kid.   And I pick him up.  I go and play with him. 

In a story in the gospels, Jesus falls asleep on a boat with his disciples.   A storm rises up, and threatens to swamp the boat.  And what do the disciples do?   They freak.  They scream, “Lord, don’t you care that we’re perishing!”   And Jesus says.  “Oh how little faith you have,” which is true.   It’s a lousy prayer.  But then what does Jeuss do.   He calms the storm.  He responds even to their very little faith.  

And when you cry to God in your moments of doubt, of little faith, like any loving parent, God will respond to you too.    And even as you grow in faith, as you mature, God will still love you as only a parent can.

A few years ago, when my marriage hit a rough spot, I reached out to my parents for help.  And my father didn’t give me a lecture, though I might have deserved one.   No, he asked me.  How can your mom and I help?  What do you need?   

When you are discouraged at your failings; when you are disheartened by your lack of progress, remember who you are.  You are God’s child, a child for whom God has given up everything so he can bring you home.   And no matter what, you will always have a place in that Father’s heart.  

And when you know that; when you know what you have, his grace, his power, when you know who you are, his beloved child, then within you the love will grow, the peace will come, and you will discover God growing more in you than you could ever have asked or imagined.