Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Two Things You Have To Leave Behind to Make Your Marriage or any Relationship Great

Ever since I read just this one sentence, I can’t forget it.   It says something that pretty much everyone agrees with.  Yet at the same time, they resist living it out.   What am I talking about?  I’m talking about a quote that appeared on the screen this morning, one by the novelist George McDonald.   McDonald said; “The first thing in all progress is to leave something behind.”

That’s pretty obvious.   I mean.  If you want to go to Fort Lauderdale, you have to leave Hollywood behind.  You can’t be in both places at the same time.    Yet, when it comes to making significant changes, even in places where change so much needs to happen, you can resist.  Why?  You know.  If I move forward to the place I need to be, I have to leave where I am behind.   And that can be hard.   

Someone once was complaining to a friend about how awful their life had become.  But when the friend suggested changes, do you know what the person said.  She said.  “Yes, my life may be hell, but at least here I know all the names of the streets.”    It can be hard to let go, even of things that make your life miserable.

And what messes up relationships, including marriages, are what people won’t leave behind.   For any relationship to work, for it to become everything that God created it to be, God calls you to leave a lot behind.   And only as you do that do you unleash the power that will enable any relationship in your life to become great whether it be in your marriage or with your family or your workplace or with your network of friends.   So what does God call you to leave behind?   In these words, God tells you.  So let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

In these words focused on marriage, God actually gives you the two key relationships that you have to leave behind in order to make any relationship become all that God created that relationship to be.   What do you have to leave behind?   You have to leave behind yourself, and you have to leave behind your home.  

Now what do I mean?  To unpack what God is telling us, let’s begin by looking at the first of those two things, the leaving behind of yourself.   How can you even do that?   And even if you could, why would you want to?     Well, what God is talking about here is your preoccupation with yourself, and how that preoccupation hampers every relationship you enter.    That’s why at the beginning of this passage, God gives this command.  “Submit yourself to one another out of reverence for Christ.”   In that succinct sentence, God is simply saying this.   Get over yourself.  Leave it behind.    Your relationship will only work to the extent that you let your self get out of the way.   

As my car has gotten older, it has developed a slight oil leak, and so I am more diligent than ever about checking those oil levels.   I know.  That leak may be slight, but if my oil goes, then my engine goes, and without that engine, my car is kaput.   That oil provides the lubrication my car needs to run.  It reduces the friction that otherwise would stop it dead in its tracks.  

And when you let go of self in marriage or any relationship, it works like the oil in a car.   It keeps things moving.  It reduces the friction that every relationship has.   It provides the lubrication that enables any relationship to run, to become everything God created it to be.

Now what does that look like?   Here are three questions that as they are true of you show you how much you have actually left your self behind.   First, how well can you hear criticism and not be crushed or reactive?  Second, how good are you at giving criticism (if you even get up the gumption to do it at all) without crushing others?   Third, how good are you at forgiving people without having any residual anger? 

You see.  If you are crushed by criticism or react defensively, what does that that tell you?  It tells you that when someone criticizes something you did, you take it as a criticism of who you are.  It’s not.  And even if they intended it that way, who died and made them God?   But if you have left your self behind in that moment, you can hear the truth in their words.   Even in people who criticize you with ill intent, you can gain insight from their words, no matter how harsh.  Why?  You’re not taking it personally.  You have moved your self out of the way. 

And if you can’t give criticism, let’s be honest, it’s rarely ever about your concern for the other person’s feelings.  No, it’s really concern about how those feelings will negatively affect you.  It’s not about them.  It’s about you, about your unwillingness to let your self get out of the way of a truth that you need to say.    But instead of taking that risk, of entering into that danger zone, you avoid it.  And as the preacher Bill Coffin put it, Love without criticism it’s a kind of betrayal.   If you truly care about someone, then you have to find the courage to let your own self concern go, to be honest with them even about the difficult things.   And on the other hand, that focus on self can lead you in the opposite direction to deliver truth in a way that crushes.  It is hard to be right and not hurt somebody with it.   In fact, it only happens when you have let your self get out of the way.  It only happens when you are telling the truth not out of your own anger or self-righteousness but because you are absolutely focused on that other person, on their well-being not your own.

And do you tell others that you have forgiven them, that you have let that offense go?  But when you think about what you supposedly have let go, you feel your resentment rise up.   And if that anger sits there, it will poison that relationship.  It will linger below the surface of every interaction you have, where it can rise up at a moment’s notice.  Or maybe it will simply sit there, subtly undermining that relationship, maybe even killing it in the end.    And why does that happen?  It happens because you haven’t let your self get out of the way, because when you do then your resentment will go with it. 

But God doesn’t stop there.  Not only do you need to leave your self behind, you need to leave your home behind too.   It’s why Paul quotes that passage from Genesis.   “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife…”    But too often that joining can’t happen because one of the partners has never left home.    When you marry, you are creating a new relationship.   And you can’t create the new relationship until you’ve left your old relationships behind, and that can be harder to do than you realize. 

A few weeks ago, as we talked about Ephesians in the morning Bible study, one of the folks there, Bert told me a story.   He talked about a couple he knew that almost blew up over a television. 

In the husband’s house growing up, his parents had kept the television on all the time.  It served as background noise throughout the day.   And even when they had serious discussions with one another, they kept it on.  And that worked for them.   They could multi-task that way. 

But in the wife’s house, a whole different pattern occurred.  Whenever big discussions happened, everything got turned off.  That discussion had to be the sole focus, and nothing could be going on but that.  

So can you imagine what happened?  The wife wanted to touch base with her husband about something, and he was watching the game on TV.    But do you think he turned it off?  No, of course not.    And do you think she got angry?  Oh, you bet.    Now whatever you think of the best way to have a conversation, the reason for that conflict had little to do with that.  It had to do with the reality that neither of them had left home.   They came into that marriage with certain assumptions about how things needed to be, simply because that was the way it worked for their parents.  But if you’re married, you’re not living in your old family.   You are making a new one.  And what God is saying here is that you have to leave the ways of that old family behind if you want to make this new family work.  

More than that, God is saying that when it comes to your marriage, that marriage has to be your number one priority, over work, over friendships, even over your kids.    Think about it.   Your kids, if you raise them well, will eventually leave, but hopefully not your spouse.  Your marriage was there before your kids came, and it will be there after they leave, so that relationship has to have priority.              

And if you don’t leave the baggage from your family behind, it will drag down all sorts of relationships.   It will affect how you relate in your workplace or with your children. It will create issues in your friendships.   And let’s be clear, if you hate your parents, then you haven’t left home either.  Why?   It’s because even in your hatred, they still control you. If you say,   “I’m not going to do that, because my dad always did that and I hated it.”  Well, why are you not doing it?   It’s still because of your father isn’t it?    That relationship is still controlling you because of how you are reacting against it. 

In relationships for them to move forward you have to leave a lot behind.  You have to leave behind yourself, and you have to leave behind your home.    But it’s one thing to say that, but how do you gain the power to actually do it?   You look to the one who left himself behind for you.  You look to the one who left his home behind so that you would find it.   In Jesus, in his life, in his death, God emptied himself of everything for you.    And the more you experience that love that left it all behind for you, the more it frees you to leave what you need to leave behind too.

So no matter what criticism comes, it can’t crush you.  Why?  God has already shown you on that cross how infinitely valued you are.   And that same sense of worth frees you to move beyond the fear to share hard truths with others.   And when you share, you can do so without crushing.  Why?  You know the grace of God that saved you came as a gift that you did not earn, and so that grace humbles you even as it lifts you up.   And out of that grace, you become free to forgive, to let your anger go, because you know the love of a God who paid the ultimate price to forgive and let his anger go towards you.    And in the security of that love, you find a new home, a home that heals the wounds of your past that frees you from its baggage.    In the power of Jesus’ relationship with you, you discover the power to make every relationship in your life all that God intended them to be.    Where do you need that power?   What is Jesus calling you to leave behind today?   Where do you need to let Jesus free you, to free your relationships to become all that God intended them to be.   Let us pray.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The One Verb That Defines Marriage that Changes Everything About What You Thought Marriage Was

It happens all too often.   My wife, who is a psychotherapist, comes in from a counseling appointment sad and frustrated.  Why?  It’s because, in spite of weeks or even months of counseling, a couple looks headed for divorce.  And what makes her sad is that one of the partners wants to do everything he or she can to make it work, to resolve the issues.  But the other partner doesn’t want it.   What are the reasons?   Usually they come down to things like; I’m just not feeling the love.   Or I want something different for my life.  At times, it’s because that partner can’t let go of the anger, can’t forgive mistakes the spouse has made.  Instead, all they want is to get out. 

Beyond her sadness for the couple, my wife feels for the kids.   She knows that for these children splitting up, the break-up will be an emotional nuclear bomb.   Studies show that divorces, beyond those in seriously abusive situations, negatively affect outcomes for kids in almost every way from academic achievement to self-concept, from how they adjust internally to how they relate to others.   Now, in the Bible, God does give situations when divorce may be necessary.   But often, couples don’t break up for those reasons.  No, they break up because they have never really understood what a marriage is.   

They think that they know what marriage means, what it’s supposed to be, but they have no clue.   In fact, even a lot of couples who remain married don’t know.  And as a result their marriages become so much less than what God designed marriage to be.   Only when you know the true definition of marriage do you open the door for your marriage to be all that it can be.  And whether you are married or not, knowing that definition will give you insights that will make every significant relationship in your life all that it can be as well.

So what is the true definition of marriage?  In this passage, actually in just one key verb in this passage, God tells you.   And once you know that verb and what it means, it changes everything.  So let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

When lots of folks look at marriage, they think they know how a marriage is supposed to work because they think they know what a marriage is.  But here’s the reality. They don’t.   And because they don’t, their marriages don’t work.   Even if the couple doesn’t divorce, the marriage doesn’t become what God designed marriage to be. 

But here in these words, actually in just one verb, God gives you the core meaning of what every marriage actually is.   Now before we discuss that verb, let me just say something about the rest of the passage.   Too often, people have interpreted the words I just read as endorsing inequality between women and men.  We won’t be getting into that question today, but I want to make clear.  That interpretation is wrong, and when the time comes, you will see that clearly. 

Secondly, even if you are not married, understanding what marriage is will give you insights that will benefit every significant relationship in your life.   So what is marriage?   God tells you here in just two words, this compound verb, “be joined” as in:  For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”  

The verb to be joined is actually a technical term that literally means glued together.  People used it to describe a public covenant or agreement.    And that’s what a marriage is. It’s a contract, a public contract between two parties.    And when you know that, then you get how good marriages always work.    They don’t work from the inside out.  They work from the outside in. 

What do I mean?   Well, let’s unpack why in our culture, talking about a marriage as a contract comes off as a major downer.    Our culture has romanticized marriage as this powerful confluence of feelings that keep a couple together through thick and thin.   Every day, these partners wake up, and gaze into each other’s eyes, and fall in love all over again.  And yes, all that sounds wonderful, but so do unicorns.  And like those marriages, unicorn don’t exist either. But because too many couples have bought into this false inside out view of marriage, their marriages either fail or even if they last don’t become the amazing and fulfilling journey that God created marriage to be.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Emotions and attraction have a powerful role in any marriage, but they cannot define it.   Something bigger and stronger has to do that.   And that’s what a covenant is.   That’s what you are doing when you stand up publicly before others, and say those marriage vows to each other.  You are entering into a contract, a binding set of promises that says ten years from now, twenty years from now, thirty years from now, you get the idea; I’m going to be there, until death parts me from you.  

Now why is that bigger and stronger than emotions and attraction?  It’s because a promise doesn’t change, while your feelings do.   Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised in just in the time you’ve been in this room that your feelings have changed in some way.  You entered happy, and now not so much.  Or you entered worried, and now you’re feeling better.    So when you have a relationship that is designed to last for a lifetime based on your emotions, on how you’re feeling, how unstable is that?  
You can’t build your marriage on the feelings you have.  Those change way too much.  You have to build your marriage on the promises you make.  

But you might ask.  Isn’t marriage based on love?   Yes.  But at its heart, love is not a feeling.  Love is an action.  Love is a commitment you make to the well-being of someone else regardless of how you feel.  Love works from the outside in, not the inside out.  When the Bible says, love your mother and father, and love your enemies, it uses the same word.  Love is an action and yes, those actions lead to feelings, but love cannot begin there.  But when you don’t get this, when you think love is a feeling first, it poisons your marriage in deadly ways. 

The syrupy love language of our culture camouflages the transactional way we unconsciously think of marriage.   But the slang shows the truth.   You might say.  “Oh he married above his pay grade.”   Or “She got a real catch.”  

When you get married, whether you acknowledge or not, you are thinking of it as a bargain.  You are saying to yourself, “Hmm, she’s better looking than I expected to get, and yes, there are a few issues on this front, but overall, I think I made out pretty well.”   Or “Yes, he could lose a few pounds, but he’s cute, and he’ll provide well and be a good dad, so I’m feeling pretty good about it.”   What you are thinking is that I will get about as much or maybe more out of this relationship, then I am going to put in.   You are thinking about it as a bargain. 

But then you get married, and you discover that maybe he or she isn’t the bargain you thought they were.   They’re not giving what you expected, what you desire.   By the way, lots of folks think that’s what love is, what they desire from the other person. But that’s not love.  That’s emotional hunger.   Love is not about what you want.  It’s about what you are willing to give. 

But when your partner doesn’t deliver the goods, what do you do?  You withdraw.  You think.  Well, if he is not going to put the effort in to this thing, why should I?   Or if she is not going to be the wife she used to be, why should I be the husband I used to be?   And that begins a cycle that spins you further and further down.

But do you see how upside down this is?   Think about it with kids.  When children are first born, how much do they deliver?    Before three months, they don’t even smile at you.  Instead they poop on you. They pee on you.   They barf on you.  They keep you up to all hours of the night.    All you do is give and give and give, but as you do, do you know what happens?  Love happens.  Your actions lead to the love.  And the older they get, the more that love grows, until when that child is grown, it doesn’t matter how they screw up, you love them no matter what.  

But when your spouse acts like a baby, what do you do?   With your child, you act on the basis of a commitment you’ve made.  So the more you give, the more you feel the love.  But with your spouse because you think of it as a bargain, when they fail to give, you pull away.  And then you wonder why the love you felt when you first began has disappeared.   Love has to be an action first, and then a feeling.  The actions of love lead to the feelings of love.  Love has to work from the outside in, not the inside out.          

And when you love like that, over the years, your marriage just gets better and better, stronger, richer; deeper.   This week, I was talking to someone, who was happily celebrating her 30th wedding anniversary.    And as we were talking, she said.  After you get through those first ten years, things really start getting good.   But the feelings didn’t get her through those 10 years but the promises did.   If you follow your feelings, your marriage will crash and burn.  But if you follow the promises, then the sky’s the limit, not only for your marriage, but for you.

When you follow the promises in your marriage, it enables marriage to change you, to shape you into the very person God created you to be.  

Think of a bridge that has all these hidden flaws that no one realizes are there.  But then this huge truck rolls across and strains that bridge out.  All of a sudden, the flaws show up big time.   But that truck did not create the flaws. It just revealed them

“And when you get married, your spouse is a big Mac truck coming right through your heart.” (Tim Keller). And what that truck reveals ain’t so pretty.   Now before that, your parents might have tried to tell you about these flaws.  Your friends or roommates might have pointed them out.  But you could always walk away.  But in marriage, those promises bind you, and you can’t so easily walk away there.

Too often, you can think that the conflicts you have in your marriage are with your spouse.  But in reality, you are usually facing a conflict with yourself.  Marriage brings out the worst in you so you can confront it, so you can change it, so you can become free of it.  As the preacher, Bill Coffin put it.  The truth may make you free, but first it makes you miserable.  But the promises that bind you in marriage, give you the power to move through the misery to that freedom.   And the more you follow those promises in marriage, the more marriage grows you into the greatness God created you for.  

Now how do you live into this vision?  How do you hold onto the promises when you just want to tear it all down?  How do you love when you are not feeling the love at all?   How do you not run away when marriage shows you the ugly truth of who you are or who your spouse is?  You look to the One who kept his promises, even when you were tearing him down, who loved you even as you rejected him, who saw the ugly truth of who we all are, and didn’t run away.  

When God in Jesus was nailed to that cross, do you think he was saying to himself?  “Oh these people are so good looking and nice, I can’t wait to die for them?”    No, he was loving you from the outside in.   He had decided to love you, and nothing you did was going to change that promise.  He loved you no matter what.   His promises of love bound God so deeply not even death could break them.  The more he had reached out to you in love, the stronger that love grew, until on that cross the power of that love changed everything not just for you but for everything.   There on that cross, when Jesus saw you at your very worst, as you were murdering God, even then his love did not walk away.  But in Jesus, God stayed on that cross to bring you his lost children home.  

And the more you experience that love, the more it fills you with the power to love others like that, your spouse, your children, your friends, even those in the pews around you.   And as that love transforms you, it will transform your marriage, your family, every relationship in your life in ways more wondrous and more beautiful than you could ever dream.  

(This series is based on a famous series of messages by Tim Keller at Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, who has also written a book on Marriage that is certainly worth checking out.)

Sunday, February 5, 2017

The One Thing You Need to Sustain an Amazing Marriage

Today on the blog and with the sermons on which this blog is based, I am starting a new series on marriage.  But if you’re not married right now, you may be asking.  What relevance could this blog series have to me at all?  And the answer is.  A lot.

Why?   Every person here has relationships with someone.  And through the particular prism of the intense relationship called marriage, we will look at key factors that every human relationship needs.  Beyond that, God describes the relationship God wants with you as a marriage.  So knowing God’s vision for marriage tells you a lot about God’s vision for his relationship with you.   

And if you are married, whether you are five years into that journey or fifty, exploring God’s vision for marriage will make your marriage stronger wherever you are.    And if you’ve been divorced, it may shift your perspective in important ways.  As lonely as it can be to be single, maybe the loneliest place of all is in a marriage that is simply not working.   And after that marriage fails, the baggage from that loss can stick around.   Seeing God’s vision for marriage can lead you to leave behind that baggage, baggage you may not have even realized you were carrying. 

So wherever you are, this series will speak to you, not only in helping you with the relationships you have with others, but also in seeing more clearly the relationship God wants to have with you. 
And as we begin, I’ve been thinking a lot about a quote from the preacher Andy Stanley.   Stanley said. I have never seen an ugly wedding.  I have seen plenty of ugly marriages.   He’s right.   On that wedding day, it looks so good.  And the happy couple wants it to be good.   They want it to work.  But then it doesn’t.   What happens?  What drains the energy that existed on that day?   What is the source of power that sustains any marriage that makes it great?  In these few simple words, God shows you.  Listen and hear what God has to say.

In the sentence you just heard lies the answer to what enables any marriage to be all that God created marriage to be.  And let’s be clear, God did create it, marriage that is. 

Think about it.   Why doesn’t the Bible give you thoughts about how schools should be run or what the best economic system is?   Wouldn’t that be helpful?  When you think about it, God hardly gives any comments at all about human institutions.   Yet when it comes to marriage and family, God says a good bit.   Why is that?   It’s because human beings didn’t create marriage.  God did.   That’s why you find it mentioned at the beginning of things in the book of Genesis, right after God creates human beings.   

After all, if God is love, it makes sense that God would give you insights on how to live out loving one another.    And in the bonds between spouses, you have one of the key places where that happens.    And that means, when the Bible talks about what makes marriage work, you better listen. 

After all, you don’t pour maple syrup in your car, and expect it to work.  Why?  You know. The car’s maker didn’t design it to run on that.    And you know if you ignore those manufacturer’s instructions, your car is going to be in trouble fast.    And here in this verse in Ephesians, and the ones that follow, you get God’s instructions for marriage.    Now lots of folks have misunderstood these verses, and over our time together, we’ll clear those up.   But let’s be clear, the insights you’ll find here work.  They work for any marriage, anywhere, anytime.   Why?  You are reading the instructions of the One who created it in the first place. 

And the very first thing God tells you that you must remember about marriage is this.  You must submit.   A lot of folks don’t like to hear that word.  It seems a little harsh.   And that’s for good reason.  The Greek word Paul uses here for submit is one used mainly in the military, which makes sense.      

To be part of an army, you’ve got to learn to submit, to submit even at the risk of your own life for the good of the whole.   Without that willingness to submit, no army can succeed.  Instead, it will be every man and woman for themselves.     So when the fighting starts.  What will you have?  You’ll have a whole bunch of folks running in the opposite direction.  And that won’t work.

But what makes sense in the military, God is saying, makes even more sense in marriage.  Why?   Because nothing will destroy marriage quicker than self-centeredness.  For marriage to work, both parties have to be willing to submit themselves to the other.   And that is incredibly hard.    

Every summer now for 40 plus years, I’ve shared a beach house with other members of my extended family.   And do you know what I’ve learned over those years?  The ability to give yourself to another person, to give up your rights, the ability to serve others’ interests ahead of your own, the ability to submit your own concerns for the good of someone else, the ability to defer your desires to help someone else achieve their desires doesn’t come naturally.  Heck, there’s nothing more unnatural than that.    

Yet if we somehow don’t find a way to do that each year, then those weeks get ugly real fast.   And if two people in a marriage don’t find a way to do that, then their beautiful wedding will grow into an ugly marriage pretty quickly as well.    Nothing destroys a marriage quicker than self-centeredness.  Yet if self-centeredness comes so naturally, how do you break free of it?   How does the selflessness that marriage needs happen?

It happens when you decide that your partner’s wounds matter more than you own.  What do I mean?  

As you go through life, everyone gets wounded.   Parents wound you.  Siblings wound you.  Friends wound you.   You get the idea.   And generally, the more wounded a person is, the more self-absorbed they become.   Their wounds cut so deep that it’s harder for them to get past their own needs to see the needs of others.   And even when they do focus on the needs of others, it’s not really about those needs.   No, they’re simply meeting their own needs for validation or security by being there for others.

Now, many folks think that their self-centeredness comes about because of their wounds.  So, if their wounds get healed, so will their self-centeredness.   But their wounds did not create their selfishness. Their wounds only aggravated it.   The selfishness was there all along, baked into the cake, so to speak.   Now why is this important?

When you get married, three things happen.  First you discover that your spouse is way more self-centered than you ever realized.    And second, your spouse begins to say the very same thing about you.     And the third thing that happens is you don’t see how your selfishness is anywhere as bad as theirs.  Why is that? 

Well, you think, what you’re saying about me is true, but you just don’t understand, what I’ve been though, how I got to be this way.

Now when this pattern happens, you can take it a number of ways.   You can decide your wounds are more fundamental than your self-centeredness.  Therefore, that person’s job is to heal your wounds so that then your self-centered ways go away.   But of course those wounds don’t get healed because the other person is expecting the very same thing from you.  

And so two things happen.  Either the marriage blows up.   Or it stays together, but only because the partners make a deadly bargain.   It’s rarely done overtly, but it’s there.   Basically the bargain goes like this.   You don’t bug me about these things, and I won’t bug you about those things.      

And on the outside, the marriage may even look good.  But when that forty year anniversary comes, and the couple kisses, it looks a bit forced.  

Or you can make a different choice than that.  You can decide.   My self-centeredness has to be more fundamental than my wounds.  My flaws have to matter more than my pain.  So when your partner points out a place where your self-centeredness rises up.   You don’t make excuses.  You take action.  You focus your energy on breaking the pattern.  And you focus your energy there no matter what the other person is doing or not.

And when two people decide that, that their own self-centeredness has to be the focus, and not their wounds, then you have real potential for an amazing marriage.    And even if only one partner does this, and the other doesn’t, something extraordinary often happens.  Not immediately, but over time, the other partner softens, becomes more open to admit his or her own faults. Why?  Because you’ve stopped always talking about them. 

That’s what God is telling you in this sentence.   When each person decides that their own self-centeredness has got to be the issue, not their past, not their wounds, not what the other partner is or isn’t doing, then the possibilities for that marriage become endless. 

Yet as tantalizing as that vision is, how does it actually happen?  And that is where the second part of the sentence comes in, those words, out of reverence for Christ.  This sentence that we are focusing on this morning actually serves as a bridge sentence between two sections of Paul’s letter.   It ends a section focused on the new life followers of Jesus find in Christ, and it starts a section on how that life is lived out with your spouse, your kids, even your boss.   And Paul planned it that way.   Paul is saying, what I am proposing here, it can’t happen on your own.  You need a divine intervention. 

How does that intervention come?  It comes through the God who in Jesus was wounded for you.   On that cross, in Jesus God endured wound after wound.  He suffered abuse and torture not only in the name of the state, but in the name of religion too.  His friends rejected him and ran away.   In those brutal hours, he faced isolation so extreme that not even God could be found.    And why did God in Jesus do it?   God did it for you.   On that cross, God took on all your wounds, both the ones inflicted on you, and the one you’ve inflicted on others.    He was wounded for your transgressions.   And by his wounds, you are healed.   

On that cross, God lost all love, so that you will never lose it.    He lost his life, so that you could regain yours.    So trapped were you in your self-centeredness, that nothing less than the loss of God’s very self could free you.   But God in Jesus so loved you even in your self-involvement and self-absorption, he was glad to lose everything, even his very self to bring you home.   And the more you let that love, Jesus’ love grasp and hold you, the more he will free you to love others even as he loves you.   Then you will not need to look to your spouse or anyone else to heal your wounds.  Why?  You will know Jesus’ love is doing that.  You will know that by his wounds, he is making you whole.  


Monday, January 30, 2017

The Three Lies That Create Your Fatal Flaw and the Truth that Frees You from It

It doesn’t matter where you live.  It doesn’t matter what type of government you have.   Every language, every culture, even every religion, can’t avoid it.  It’s literally everywhere. Wherever you find human beings, bad things happen.   You’ll find human beings doing awful things to themselves; doing awful things to others, and doing awful things to the world.  Now in some places the level of awfulness rises higher, but wherever you go, you’ll find awful things happening. 

And yes, I know awful things happen in nature generally.  Animals eat each other.  They fight.  But human beings do things other animals simply don’t.  They murder.  They go to war.  And deep within, human beings feel an alienation from themselves, from each other, from even the world around them that no other creature does.  Is this the way it’s supposed to be?  Or has something gone wrong with the human race?   Because if something has gone wrong, then that means, it can be corrected.  It can be made right again.

But if so, how did it go wrong to begin with?   How can it be made right?  In this story, one of the most tragic and famous in human history, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Human beings have a big problem, a fatal flaw.   And it clearly has nothing to do with environment or upbringing, because the flaw exists everywhere in everyone.   Yet if that’s the case, where did it come from?   Is it simply naturally who you are, the product of evolution?    If so, how do you overcome that?   How can you overcome something ingrained in you over millions of years?   

Yet if it’s natural, why do human beings fight against it so much?  Why does every human being have this urge to become something better than who they actually are?  It’s because, human beings know.  This is not the way it’s supposed to be.   You were created for something more, something better.  But if so, how did it go wrong?   How does it keep going wrong?  In the words you just heard, God gives you the answers.      

This story doesn’t simply tell the tale of how two people lost the life God intended for them.  It tells how every human being loses that life; how the same three lies that trapped Adam and Eve continue to trap us.    But in those lies also lies the truth, the truth that if you let it, will set you free.  
So what are these lies?   You find the first one right at the beginning in the half-truth of the serpent’s question.   The serpent asks, “Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?”    Now, why would the serpent ask that?   It’s obviously not true, and Eve calls the serpent on it immediately.   So why ask it?  It’s because the question creates an atmosphere.

You see. The Serpent asks this question as a sort of sarcastic joke.  Did God really say that you can’t eat from the trees of your own garden?   The serpent is making a joke at God’s expense, but why?   It’s not that the Serpent wants to needle God.   No, the Serpent wants to needle Eve, to lead her to doubt herself, to doubt what she knows to be true.   That’s what irony and sarcasm does.  They poke holes in things everyone assumes to be true.   And that can be a good thing.  That’s why the prophets used sarcasm. It’s why Jesus used it.   But it’s one thing to use sarcasm as a tool.  It’s entirely something else to make it how you live your life, to make it the air that you breathe so to speak. 
And that’s what the serpent is trying to do, to literally create an atmosphere of sarcasm to choke out the truth.  And that sort of lie continues to live to this day. 

For example, if you tell certain folks about your beliefs in the gospel or God or Jesus, they may respond something like this.  “Oh you really believe that, huh?  Ok, great, if that works for ya.”   But what are they really telling you with their polite sarcasm?   Sheesh, I thought that you were smarter than that, but if you’ve gotta have a superstitious crutch to get through life, cool.”    And what do you do?  You begin to doubt yourself, to feel the fool even.   But here’s the irony.  Their sarcasm isn’t an argument.   It’s an attitude.  “Surely, nobody with any intelligence could believe that.”   Even so that attitude with its knowingness, its false authority will shake your belief in ways no argument could.   Yet almost always, behind the attitude, no argument even exists.  There’s nothing at all but an attitude. 

That’s where the spirit of sarcasm always leads.  It leads to nothing.  What do I mean?   Well, what’s the point of seeing through something?   You see through it in order to see what’s on the other side.   I see through this window in order to see the patio, right?  But what if you see through everything?  What is there left to see?    Nothing.  It’s what Oscar Wilde meant when he said cynicism knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.   When you breathe this air, it leads to a hollowed out life.  Your sophistication just covers the fact that inside you there’s hardly anything real to be found.   Others can often see that, but you can’t.  Why?  Well, here’s the ultimate irony.  So focused you are on seeing through all the purported falseness around you, you miss the very thing you need to see the most.  You miss seeing yourself.  

And that lie just prepares the opening for the next one, which is more deadly still.   What belief does the serpent attack?  Does the serpent question God’s existence?  No   Does the serpent even question God’s power?  No.  The Serpent questions God’s goodness.   He tells Eve.  This God is holding out on you.  This God doesn’t want the best for you.  You can’t trust this God.    

And in this lie, lies the taproot of the human flaw, the fear that God can’t be trusted.   It’s the lie that afflicts everyone from the most rigidly religious to those who detest religion completely.  How is that?  Let’s say that you have some incredibly religious person, who strives desperately to live the most exemplary life possible.  And on the other hand, you have someone that runs away from belief in God, sees it as something that limits their life; that holds them back.  These two types usually hate each other.  But they both believe the same lie.  They both believe that God can’t be trusted.   They just respond to that lie in different ways.    One strives to run away from God, believing that nothing God says leads to anything good or fulfilling.   But the other tries to win God over with righteousness, so that when the time comes, God will have no excuse but to let him in.  So yes that person believes in God, but trust God?  No way.

And this is the lie that undermines everything.   Erik Erickson, the famous child psychologist once said that the main thing a child needs is not to be dropped.   He wasn’t simply talking about a physical danger.   He was talking about an existential one.   Children need to be able to trust the dominant figures if their lives.  If that trust isn’t there, it will undermine their entire life, every relationship they have. 

And that’s why the serpent attacks Eve there.   If the serpent can undermine her trust in God, everything else will follow.  

After all, what do you do when you no longer trust God?   You look to something or someone you think you can trust.   You turn to the final lie, to the lie of the tree.   Oh, you can’t trust God, but this tree, God created, the Serpent says.  That you can trust.  That will give you what you really need. 
Why did God make a tree the big danger in the garden?   Why didn’t God say?  If you lie or cheat or kill, then you die.  Wouldn’t that make more sense?  No.  Because then you would think that the essence of your brokenness is breaking a rule, doing bad things.  But the essence of your brokenness isn’t a broken rule.  It’s a broken belief.

God picks a tree because a tree, well, a tree is so innocent.  And ultimately, it’s not the tree that destroys what Adam and Eve have.   It’s what they believe about the tree, what they believe it can do for them.   And that’s the essence of everyone’s brokenness, of the evil that infects the human race. 
What draws you away from God usually isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing that you make into an ultimate thing.  And when that happens, it opens you and this world to all sorts of awfulness.   For example, having pride in your ethnic heritage can be a good thing.  But when it becomes the source of all your meaning, where you put your ultimate trust, You get racism.  You get genocide.    

Is there anything wrong with making money?  No.  But if you make making money your source of security and meaning, ll sorts of ugliness happens.   Is there anything wrong with loving your spouse or your kids? No.  But if you say that if my spouse doesn’t love me, or my kids fail, then I am nothing, then that is a prescription for pain and heartbreak for you and the people you love.    Most of the pain and devastation in your life in the end doesn’t come from you doing bad things.  It comes from the false beliefs you have about your good things, from looking to them to give you what only God can. 

And what do these lies do for Adam and Eve?   They certainly don’t make them more.  No, instead they become so much less.   They don’t only become alienated from God.  They become alienated from themselves and from each other.  The first thing that Adam and Eve do after the tree is they cover themselves.  They move from being naked and unashamed to being the exact opposite.   And when they hear God coming, they hide.   And when God asks them why, Adam says that they were afraid.   That is the first time that word appears in the Bible, and that it appears here tells you everything.   And out of that fear, Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the Serpent.  And what is blaming but just another way to hide from yourself, from others, from God.    And from that day on, 
human beings have been hiding ever since.

But how do you escape?  How do you break free of the lies?  You look to the truth the lies tried to cover.  And to see that truth, God hasn’t just left you with this tree. God has given you another tree.  The stanza of a poem by the great poet, George Herbert, shows you that tree.   In his work called the Sacrifice, Herbert wrote these words.

O all ye who pass by, behold and see:
Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree;
The tree of life to all, but only me:
                                             Was ever grief like mine?

Who is saying these words?  Jesus is. 

O all ye who pass by, behold and see:
Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree;
The tree of life to all, but only me:
                                             Was ever grief like mine?

What breaks the hold of the serpent’s lies?  It’s that tree.  It’s seeing God in Jesus hanging on that tree at Golgotha.  In the face of that brutal reality, God nailed to a tree, sarcasm loses its voice.  At that tree, all doubts about God’s goodness and trustworthiness fall away.   After all, if Jesus didn’t walk away from you in the agony of the cross, then he never will.     In the face of that goodness, of that life given over for you, the lies get stripped away.    And in the truth of what that tree shows you, you will see the painful truth of your wrongness, but then you will see the beautiful truth of the dying yet undying love that has made you right.  And in that truth, you will see God’s goodness and God’s love.  You see the truth, the only truth that sets you free.   In the name of the God who loved you, who died for you, and who can do more in even the broken places of your life than you could ever ask or dream or imagine.  

Monday, January 23, 2017

What is the One Thing You Need Most to Live, and How Can You Receive it in All its Fullness?

It’s haunted me ever since I heard the story.   It happened about 800 years ago. The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick the Second wanted to discover what language Adam and Eve spoke, in other words, what was the original human tongue.  So he created a cruel experiment to find out.   

He took babies from their mothers at birth, and gave them to nurses who could not speak in their hearing.  But he did more than that.  Beyond suckling and washing, these nurses could not give any affection either.    And what happened?   The monk Salimbene de Adam, who made a record of the experiment tells us.   “But he (King Frederick) labored in vain, for the children could not live without clappings of the hands, and gestures, and gladness of countenance, and blandishments."   What happened is that all the children died.  

Modern medicine calls this phenomenon, “failure to thrive.”   But do you grasp what it means?  Human beings simply cannot live without love.    The medical doctor, Dean Ornish even wrote a book, Love and Survival, detailing all the studies that confirm this.   As he put it there: 
"I am not aware of any other factor in medicine that has a greater impact on our survival than the healing power of love and intimacy. Not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery."

In other words, the most powerful determinant to your health is relationships, is love and intimacy.  And none of the researchers know why.   Yet, here we are, beings who thrive on love; who cannot even live without it.

Why is that?  More crucially, what do you need in your relationships not simply to survive, but to live the full and vibrant life God created you for?  In the words you’re about to hear God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Why do you need love?  Why does every human being need it?   God tells you.  You need love, because love created you.   Love created everything.   And without love not only with God but with others, you can never be you.   And that you can never fully exist, until you grasp how far God went to love you.   What do I mean by love created everything?

Well, when you look at the Bible’s creation story, something weird happens.  At first, it has the same rhythms, God created this and God created that.   But when it comes to human beings, God says this instead.  “Let us create human beings in our image.”   And in those words, God is telling you something crucial about God.  God is not an I.   God is a we. 

For Christians God is one God created out of the loving communion of three persons.   What does that tell you?  It tells you. At the heart of everything, at the heart of reality itself, lies relationship.  Physics even confirms it.    Just look at this table.  When you look at it, you are not just seeing a table.  You are seeing billions of particles all relating to each other in such a way as to create a table.  Everything you see has billions, even trillions of these relationships.   And when it comes to you, this relational reality, this living love goes to a whole new level.   The story says that God created you in God’s image.   That means, if God can’t be God without relationship, neither can you be you.  You cannot be human without other humans.  It’s impossible. That’s why a baby who has everything else but relationship cannot live.

And when God talks about the relationships inside God, let’s make it clear.  God isn’t talking about some functional thing, like a team at work or how you know the person who delivers your mail.    This God was living together in intimate communion..    To get what that means, look at the other creation story, the one you find in the first chapter of John.   

It begins with these words:
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.   He was in the beginning with God.   All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being…..
But it ends with these words: 
It is God, the only Son, who is close to the Father’s bosom, who has made God known.
Do you get how intimate that is, close to the Father’s bosom?   You don’t let just anybody rest on your bosom, do you?    Your spouse or significant other can rest there, your child can, maybe even a close friend but that’s it.    Yet that’s how the Bible describes the intimacy within God.

Too often you can think that God created everything like some solitary artist throwing paint on a canvas.  

But that’s not what the Bible tells you.   No, the Bible tells you. Creation looked far more like this - a joyful dance. 

As one writer put it, You were created out of the laughter of the Trinity.   That’s the intimacy God has, and that’s the intimacy God created you not only with God, but also with others. 

It can never just be you and God.  It always has to be you and God and others.   Look at what the story tells us.   God says, “It is not good that the Man should be alone.”    But didn’t the Man have God?  Wasn’t Adam intimately connected there?  Yes.  And that’s not all.   This human being also had deep connection with nature, power, beauty, the richness of paradise, the list could go on.  And God is saying here.  That’s not enough.   This human being needs more.   This human being needs other human beings.  God is saying.  Not even paradise will satisfy you, not even God will satisfy you, if you don’t have relationships, if you don’t have friends.   In fact you can’t become who God created you to be without them   If God is an us, then you need an us too.   You can’t do this alone.  It’s impossible. Without relationships, you can’t even know yourself.   

Have you ever listened to yourself on some recording, and said?  “That doesn’t sound like me,” only to have a friend say to you.  “Yes, it does.”    And why is she right?  She knows what you sound like, and you don’t.  You can’t tell from inside.    It’s the same reason, when you look at a picture of yourself, and you say.  “That looks nothing like me.”   But your friends, they just get kinda quiet.  Why?  They know.  It does look like you.   Even when you look in the mirror, you don’t really look.  You look like this….

So if you come here and listen to the message without being in relationship with others hearing the same things, then you’re not really getting the message.  You need others who can speak into your life what you are not seeing or hearing.  On your own, you just won’t get it. 

The writer C.S. Lewis had two close friends, Charles and Ronald.    And when Charles died, Lewis was very sad, but he consoled himself by saying.  “Well, at least I’ll have more of Ronald.”    But he didn’t.  He had less of Ronald.   Why?   Because certain parts of Ronald only Charles brought out, and without Charles, Lewis couldn’t pull those parts out on his own.   No one person, he realized, can pull out the entire person.   So when he lost Charles, he lost not only Charles.  He lost a part of Ronald.    Then Lewis asked himself.  If that’s true of Ronald, how much more true is it of Jesus?  And he realized.  “I can never come close to knowing Jesus on my own.  I need others to show me Jesus in ways I can never see, that I could never bring out myself.”

You can’t know God.  You can’t even know yourself without serious relationship.  And without those relationships, your relationship with God will never be what it needs to be. 

A new follower of Christ came to visit an old friend who had been a Christian for years.  He shared how his connection to God had grown less and less, and he wondered why.  The old friend asked.   How deeply connected are you to a Christian community?  The man hemmed and hawed, but basically admitted, he really didn’t have time for that.   The old friend didn’t say another word.   He simply looked to the fire roaring before them, and pulled out an ember.   At first the ember glowed with fire, but fairly quickly, the fire faded.   And soon it became a cold piece of coal.  And then the old friend put it back in the fire, and it flamed forth again. His visitor got the message.

You are that ember.  But here’s the truth.   Many of you come here each week, to hear a nice talk, listen to some great music, get some helpful inspiration and insight.  But you don’t want to get involved.   That’s too complicated.  But this church only exists in order for you to get involved, to be in relationship with others.   Coming to worship like that is like an ember wanting to be near the fire but not in it.   If you want to glow, you gotta go in.   But this passage has more to say to us than simply go in.   It tells us some disturbing news about what we will meet there once we do.  

When God sees that Adam is lonely, what does God do?  God creates a suitable companion.  And who is that suitable companion?  It’s a woman.    Now lots of folks over the years have read many things into that choice.   But almost always those interpretations ignore the obvious.  

In creating woman, God is creating someone like Adam, yet not like Adam at all.   And when the Bible describe Eve as a helper, the Bible isn’t saying that God created an errand runner for Adam.   No, this word, helper often describes God, as in for example, God, our help and our salvation.   So God creates someone equal to Adam, yet at the same time, profoundly different from Adam.   And that tells you a lot about the kind of relationships you need. 

You don’t need relationships just with people who think like you, who act like you, who agree with you on everything.   You need people different from you, even perplexingly different.   For example, this past Friday, Inauguration Day, there are people here, who were elated, and there are people here, who were depressed.  And guess what.  If you were depressed, you need to get to know someone who was elated, and if you were elated, you need to get to know someone who was depressed.    After all, why do we call the church a family?  It’s because you don’t get to pick your family.   And you will find here people who are different from you in their thoughts, in their personalities, in their attitudes, and you need them more than you would like to admit.  Their difference will stretch you.  It will grow you.  It will help you to become the you God created you to be.

Yet, let’s be honest.   That may be the ideal, but it’s usually not the reality.   Even here, folks often stick with their own.  And even there, they likely hide behind facades of niceness, rather than get up the courage to lay those defenses down.    They have friendships yes, but do they go deep? Do they get intimate in the way God describes here?  Probably not.   And why is that?   It’s because of two words here that describe the relationship that Adam and Eve had.

The Bible tells us that they were naked and unashamed.   What that means is that Adam and Eve were utterly exposed and vulnerable with each other in every way.   And they had no shame about that, no discomfort, no fear at all.   But as you’ll see next week, a tragic fall occurred that changed all that.   And when it did, the first thing Adam and Eve did was hide.  They hid from each other, and they hid from God.   And human beings have been hiding ever since.   We almost never get naked with others so to speak, and yet even so, we often still find ourselves trapped in fear and shame.  But God didn’t intend you to be that way at all.  God made you for intimacy, even the liberating intimacy that God has with God.

How do you get that there?  How do you find the freedom to have that sort of intimacy? You look to the one who was stripped naked for you.  When Jesus went on that cross, he went naked.   And to be exhibited naked like that was utterly humiliating and shaming.   And in his nakedness, Jesus had no intimacy.  He lost in that dark place all relationship, all love, all connection even with God.   And why did Jesus do all that?  He loved you.  He did it to bring you back in the dance.    He did it to free you to be once again naked and unashamed.   And the more you let that love, his love grasp you, the more Jesus will free you.  And in his embrace, your fears and insecurities will fade.  In the fearlessness of his love, you will find the courage to come out of hiding.  In the power of his love, you will lay your defenses down, and you will discover the wondrous freedom that comes with being naked and unashamed.