Saturday, November 18, 2017

How Fear Holds You Captive, and How You Can Begin to Break Out

It haunted me for years.   I saw my friends do it.   They talked about how thrilling it was.  But when I looked, I could feel the fear clinch inside of me.   Now, I didn’t say that.  No, I just told people I wasn’t interested in doing it. 

I even came up with a substitute activity to show my courage.  I swam across the lake while my dad paddled along beside me in a canoe to make sure I didn’t drown.  I told myself.  Certainly, what I’m doing is harder than what they were doing.   I’m swimming over a mile through deep water.  They are just jumping off a small cliff.    But I knew the truth.   I was scared to jump.  So, I didn’t.

I carried that regret for years, until, I had another opportunity to take such a leap.  I was still scared, if anything more scared than I had been those years before.  But this time, I did not let my fear stop me. I still remember the relief, the exuberance, the sense of triumph I felt after that leap.    And it reminded me.  The greatest enemy any person faces is often their own fear.

Have you ever had a moment where you wished you had taken a risk and didn’t?  How did it feel?    And have you ever had a time where you did face your fear, where you took that leap?   How did that feel? 

Fear rarely helps you.   More often, it actually hurts you. Physically, it increases your risk of heart disease and other health problems.     It can even damage your brain, including your ability to remember.   Practically, it usually leads you to not make better decisions, but worst ones, even ones that can kill you. 

Before I came to the church I once served on Long Island, one of their former pastors had lost his wife, Marjorie, to breast cancer.  The loss devastated everyone, especially her two sons, who lost their mom right in the middle of their teens.   But years later, I heard a tragic twist to that terrible loss.  I was talking to the church’s music director, Lorna, about Marjorie’s death.   And as we talked, she paused, and said quietly these words.  “Kennedy, do you know that she knew?”   Puzzled, I asked.  “She knew what?”   Lorna explained.  “Marjorie was a nurse. So she knew to do regular breast self-exams.   That’s when she discovered the lump.  But she didn’t do anything about it.  And by the time, she did, it was too late.”   

When Marjorie delayed that visit to the doctor, she probably said to herself that the lump was likely nothing to worry about.   She may have thought that she didn’t want to unduly alarm the family.  But none of that was true.  She simply was too scared to discover the truth, and by the time she overcame that fear, it was already too late.    Fear can be that dangerous.  Not only does it rarely tell you the truth, it often stops you from seeing the truth you desperately need to see.    It does fit the acronym for FEAR, False Evidence Appearing Real.

That’s why the most common command in the Bible is simply this.  Do not fear.  Yet, fear can be so insidious that, like it did with Marjorie, it can capture you without you even realizing it.    So, how do you live a life where you conquer fear instead of getting captured by it?  How do you live a life where you take the risks that will enable you to grow, to blossom into who God created you to be?  In this simple story, Jesus shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say. 

How do you not let fear limit your life?   How do you prevent it from taking you captive?  In this story of the brave widow, Jesus tells you.   In this story, Jesus points to how fear can take control without you even knowing it.   And at the same time, Jesus shows you the path out of the fear.  Jesus tells you.   Freedom with fear begins with one step, one step that then leads to many.  

But before you and I look at that first step, we need to look at how subtle fear can be, how it can decide things in your life, without you even realizing it. 

This story that we just heard occurs in a strange place.   Before Jesus talks about this woman, do you know what he’s been doing?  He’s been arguing.   He’s been having one argument after another with people who have questions about who Jesus is, what Jesus is doing.   Then in the midst of all these arguments, Jesus turns and notices this widow throwing two pennies into the collection plate.

It almost seems as if Jesus got distracted from his main job, facing down his opponents.  But in reality, Jesus was showing his opponents what lay behind every argument that they laid out.   Yes, one had this objection, and another, had this concern.   But no matter what differences each opponent had, their opposition had one common source.   They were scared that Jesus was right, that indeed God had come in the flesh.   And if this was true, then that would force them into a decision they’d rather not make.   Deciding to follow Jesus meant all sorts of sacrifices, all manner of disturbing change in their lives.   So, what did they decide to do instead?  They decided to come up with all sorts of excuses, all sorts of rationales to avoid taking that risk, all sorts of reasons why Jesus couldn’t be right.

So, what does Jesus do?   He points to someone who is taking a far more radical risk than simply believing.   He points to a poor woman, bereft of anything but a half penny, but who takes that minuscule amount, and lays it before God.    And Jesus sees her sacrifice for what it is.  Now, what Jesus saw, even the translators have difficult facing.  They soften Jesus’ actual words.  In the translation we heard this morning, we read “she gave all she had to live on.”   That comes close, but it doesn’t give Jesus’ description full justice.   Jesus says that she gave more than what she had to live on.  Jesus says that she gave her bios, the Greek word for life.  This widow in those two pennies was risking her very life.   She was placing everything on the line. 

And in pointing out the radical courage of this widow, Jesus was pointing out what lay behind all his opponents’ objections, their fear, their fear of taking anything close to the step of faith this woman did.   

Yet Jesus’ doesn’t simply call out those opponents, Jesus calls out pretty much everyone.  How many of us have come anywhere close to the courage of this widow?

When I think of her story, I remember the popular business fable of the chicken and the pig.  Do you know it?

A pig and a chicken were walking down the road. As they passed a church, they notice that a potluck charity breakfast was under way. Caught up in the spirit, the pig suggested to the chicken that they each make a contribution.
“Great Idea!” the chicken cried. “Let’s offer them ham and eggs!”
“Not so fast.” said the pig. “For you, that’s just a contribution, but for me, it’s a total commitment.”

When it comes to giving, almost everyone falls far more into the chicken category than the pig.  You and I may believe that God will provide, but we’re not so interested in testing that belief out too strongly.   So yes, we give, some of us more generously than others.   But do you give like the widow?   Does your gift take away from your ability to put food on your table or to pay your rent or mortgage, or even to take the vacations you desire?   And sure, you and I might say, that such giving would be reckless or foolish.  But beyond that rationale, is there a deeper reason?  Are we scared to trust God that much?       

On June 30th 1859, the great tightrope walker, Blondin, did his most daring feat ever.   He walked on a two inch rope across Niagara Falls, a distance of over a quarter of a mile.  25,000 people witnessed the sight.  Blondin, being the showman he was, didn’t just walk across.  No, in the middle he sat down, and called for the ferry boat Maiden of the Mist to park below him.   He then pulled up from the boat a bottle of wine on a rope, and after a nice swig continued his journey to the Canadian side of the Falls.   On his way back, he hauled a camera with a tripod on his back, and in the middle, set down his balancing pole, and setting up the camera took a picture of the crowd on the American side.

But Blondin wasn’t finished.  Five days later on July the 4th, he went again, this time without a balancing pole.   Halfway over, he lay down on the cable, flipped himself over, and began walking backwards.   On the way back, he took it one step further, wearing a sack over his body the whole way. 

Every two weeks or so, Blondin would go again, each time doing something crazier than the time before, like somersaulting and backflipping his way across or pushing a wheelbarrow across.  When he reached the other side with the wheelbarrow, he invited someone to jump in, but go figure, nobody took up the offer.  In fact, while everyone believed that Blondin could carry someone across, no one but his own manager, Harry Colchord, ever had the courage to take him up on the offer.

Now, you may not have the dream of crossing Niagara Falls, but your fear can stop you from fulfilling the dreams you do have.  And you often won’t even realize it is your fear that is stopping you.  No, you will come up with some other reasonable explanation for your reluctance to risk, but if you’re honest, it will be rarely that.  It will be your fear, lying to you, holding you back, giving you false evidence that appears real. 

And if you’re honest too, when it comes to your giving, it will be your fear speaking to you there.    But what would it look like to take a step through that fear, one step closer to the faith of that widow.  What would it be like to take an honest look at what you are giving, not simply as an amount, but in the same way, Jesus looked at the widow’s gift in terms of proportion.   Out of what God has provided you, what percentage do you give back to God, 1%, 2%, 5%, 10%?   Whatever that amount is, what about giving more, maybe instead of 1%, it becomes 2% or even 1.25%, or instead of 5% it became 6 or instead of 10, it becomes 12.  Or if that math gets too complicated, let’s make it simpler.  Just give more, enough more that it makes you a little nervous.   Why?  Because in that step, you will be taking a step through the barriers of fear that hold you back not only here, but in other areas of your life too.    And you will be doing it for the sake of the One, who has broken through every barrier, to shatter those very fears. 

In Jesus God went beyond even the gift of that widow.  In Jesus, God didn’t risk his life.  God gave his life.  He gave his life for you.   God gave his life to free you, to free you from your false fears so you can live in the freedom and security of a love that knows no bounds.  Let God give you that freedom.  Let God show you his faithfulness.   And what better place to begin than with one small step of faith with our money, one of the areas where many of our greatest fears live. 

God isn’t asking you to become the widow today.  But God is asking you to trust, to trust just a bit more in this God who has given everything for you.    As the writer Ruth Senter puts it:

God’s call to you, his child, is not to safeness, but always to something more – always upward, higher, further along.  To bypass the call is to settle for mediocrity, complacency, and dormancy.  And should you choose not to risk, you will more than likely wake up some morning with the haunting question on your mind, “Could God have had something more for me, if only I had dared to trust?”

Dare to trust today.   Take that step in your giving to God that moves you a bit further from the limits of fear into the freedom of faith.  And see how God will use that step to break you out from the fears that hold you captive.         

Sunday, November 12, 2017

What Is the One Truth From Sutherland Springs that Applies to Everyone?

Who could have imagined it?   Here you are living in a town about as far off the beaten track as you can get.   And into that quiet, even peaceful place comes something that puts your town on the map in an awful way.  Your little town joins a painful list of other names from Columbine to Sandy Hook, from Vegas to Pulse in Orlando

It’s hard to wrap your head and heart around the senseless violence that took 26 lives in Sutherland Springs.   Now, we, as a church, are doing what we can to make our worship gatherings as safe as they can be.  But, in spite of that, what happened there can’t help but be a little scary.  It reminds you of how vulnerable life is. 

Years ago, someone said to me: When it comes to life, we all have a limited lease and are subject to immediate eviction.   I admired the cleverness of the phrase. But more than that, I couldn’t deny its disturbing truth.   Every day, things can happen that put your life in crisis, that threaten your existence.   Each time you get in a car, you open yourselves to all sorts of danger.  But you don’t even have to go anywhere.   It can be your body that gets you right at home.  A cancer comes out of nowhere.  Your heart seizes and squeezes the life out of you.

What do you do when life is that uncertain; in the midst of a world that can be so terrifyingly unpredictable?   How do you find stability there, security, peace?    In these words, Jesus shows you the way. Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.    

Life can seem at least somewhat certain, until, well it’s not.  Then, you remember.   No matter how secure you make your life, that security only goes so far.   And that’s disturbing, scary even.  But in these words, Jesus reminds you of what is certain, of what you can trust, when everything else falls apart.    And the more you get what Jesus is telling you, the more your life will rest on something that can never be shaken. 

So, what is Jesus telling you?   Jesus is telling you that as precious as the gifts can be, true certainty isn’t found there.   True certainty never lies with the gifts but always with the Giver.
That’s the point Jesus makes with all those woe statements, we just read.   I never liked these statements.   Jesus’ words seemed so petty, mean even.   Woe to you rich, you’ll get yours.  And if you’re full now, someday you’ll be hungry.   And if you’re laughing now, just wait, your crying will come.   And if everyone likes you, you’re just a sellout.

But Jesus doesn’t say those words out of anger or resentment.  Woe isn’t mainly a word you use to condemn someone.  Woe is a word you use when you feel deeply sad for someone.   

Jesus isn’t saying either that you can’t be rich or full or enjoy life or have someone speak well of you.   Yes, with one rich guy, he did tell him to give away his wealth.  But with Nicodemus, who was rich too, he didn’t address money at all.   And when he fed the 5,000, you can bet those folks were full.   When Jesus turned the water into wine, he certainly stirred up some joy and laughter there. 
And while certainly not everyone liked Jesus, lots of people did. 

So, what is Jesus saying?  Jesus is saying that if you put your trust in these things, wealth, desires, success and recognition, then you are headed for trouble. 

When Jesus tells the rich they have received their consolation, he uses a very interesting word for consolation, Parakletos.  It’s the same word he’ll use later to describe what the Spirit of God does, that the Spirit, your comforter, your consolation.    Jesus is warning people who are making wealth their ultimate source of security and comfort.  He is saying.  When you do that, not only will it not give you the comfort you seek, it will lead you to miss where that comfort actually lies.

In the same way, Jesus say, if you make fulfilling your desires the end all and be all of your life, it will never be enough.   You will always be hungry.   Satisfying your appetites might fill you a bit, but it won’t ever fulfill you.  It may give you what you want.  It will never give you what you need.
But still what about laughing?   Why does Jesus hate laughter?  But this Greek word for laughter means something else here actually.  It means the laughter of gloating, gloating because you’ve won.   Jesus isn’t warning you against telling a good joke.  Jesus is warning you against making success what you prize most in life.  That, Jesus says, will only lead you to grief and regret. 

And finally, Jesus warns you against making recognition what you aim for.  Why?  When you aim for that, you will find yourself making compromises that haunt you.  You will find yourself putting up a false front that only imprisons you.   And in the end, like it did with the false prophets, the truth, ugly parts and all, will always come out. 

Jesus is warning you.  All these things, wealth, pleasure, success, recognition, they don’t give you the comfort, the security you need.   In fact, if you center your life on these things, they will make you more insecure than ever.

Wealth can come and go.  So can pleasure.  Success can disappear too.  And recognition, forget about that.   One year, you’re a household name.   And a few years later, Oprah is featuring you on that show, where are they now?

This can all seem obvious right?   It’s even fashionable for rich and famous people to say that it’s not about success or fame.  They’ll say.  It’s about the art or making a difference, something high-minded like that. 

But Jesus warns you.  You can tell yourself that; that you’re not making these things the center of your life.   But how do you really know? 

One way is to ask yourself this question.   Are you a giver or are you a trader? 

Now, when Jesus talks about that here, when he says things about giving when anyone asks of you, you can get the wrong idea.   You can think that Jesus is talking about that guy you see panhandling by the freeway.  But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here at all. 

In Jesus’ day, you didn’t have banks.  Nobody took out loans to buy land or anything really.   You bought with cash.   So, if you were looking for a loan, it meant, you were desperate.  Something awful had gone wrong in your life, and you needed someone to bail you out.  But if someone came to you with such a need, you didn’t just dig into your pocket and give them a loan.  No, you assessed the situation.   You thought.   Does this person have something that that one day they can give me in return for my help?   It could be the repayment of the loan.  It could be some other favor.   Maybe they have a relative who you can count on a for a future favor.   Maybe they had a skill or talent you could use one day.   And if they didn’t have anything to offer you, that person didn’t get your help.   Everyone did this.  That’s the way things were done.

But Jesus blows that whole system up.   He says to people.  When you give, just give.  When you loan, don’t look for a return.   And why?  Because that’s how God deals with you.   Not only does God not expect anything back from God’s gifts.   God gives blessings to even the folks who most disappoint him, the ungrateful and the wicked.  But here’s the problem with Jesus’ advice.   People don’t naturally go this way.   People aren’t natural givers.  No, they’re natural traders.

Last week, my son experienced a bit of a trauma.  We went to the store to get a birthday present for a friend of his.   I was surprised about how excited Patrick was.   He really wanted to pick out this gift.   And he picked out a perfect one.   But then, he asked me.   “Can we go home and open it now?”    And I said.  “No, this present isn’t for you.  It’s for your friend.”   At first, he didn’t comprehend it, this whole idea of giving a gift.  And when he did, you could see the shock and dismay.  This whole gifting thing seemed so unfair.  He tearfully questioned me.   If my friend is going to get one, why aren’t I getting one too?  Finally, I told him that at the birthday party, there would be cake.   It still didn’t seem fair, but at least he was getting something for this gift. 

That’s where people naturally go.   We’re all natural traders.   If you go out to dinner with friends, and pick up the check, you’re not giving them a free meal.  At some point, you expect something in return.  Maybe next time, they’ll pick up the check or they’ll help you out in another way.     And if they don’t do that, that could put the friendship on the rocks.

Human-beings like to keep score.   It lies behind a lot of conflicts in marriage, all sorts of relationships.  One partner senses that one partner isn’t doing their part.   One family member feels that they’re doing all the work.   It even leads to wrong ideas about God.  You think, if I do my part, then God has to do his.  

Now what’s wrong with that?  Isn’t that just fair.  Well, let’s lay out a few of the problems.  First, you think you’re keeping accurate score, but you’re not.   You’re always giving yourself way more credit, than you’re giving the other person.   You remember everything you’ve done for them, but some of the stuff, they’ve done for you, you conveniently forget.  How do you know that?   Well, it’s because when you calculate the score, aren’t you always winning?    

But beyond that, let’s say, that even if you are skewing the score, it’s still clear, you are doing way more than they are.   Where does that lead you?   It leads you to resentment, to bitterness.  You give power to this person to shape the attitudes of your life, usually in negative and hurtful ways.     

But more importantly than that, Jesus is saying, when you do this, you are insulting God.  If God were keeping score, none of us would be close to winning.   Just by living, you owe a debt you can’t repay.  But God doesn’t expect you to.   Why?  Because God doesn’t trade with you.   God gives to you.   So, when you go around trading with others, God is thinking.  After all, I have given to you, you’re doing this.   You have got to be kidding.  And it’s even more ridiculous, when you try trading with God, as if that’s even a possibility.

More than that, when you focus so much on what others need to give you, you insult God in a deeper way.  You say to God.  After all, you’ve done for me.  I still don’t trust you.   No, I’ve got to look out for myself.    I’ve got to focus on the gifts, what I have.  If I give it up, I’ve got to get something in return.  But God is thinking.  Are you nuts?   Where do all your gifts ultimately come from?   They come from me.  Yet you are so tied up in the gifts, you have forgotten completely about the One who gave them, who gives you everything.  

But here’s the clincher.   At some point, all your gifts are going away.  If nothing else, death will take them.   Even if you die wealthy, you can’t take it with you.  You don’t see u-hauls on the backs of hearses do you?    But before death comes, losses will come your way.   Family members will die.  Relationships will founder.  Financial setbacks will befall you.  Health losses will hit you.   But if you are living focused on the giver, then even as you grieve and cry, you have a foundation that cannot be shaken.   You will know, that while the gifts come and go, the One who gives them doesn’t.  And you know that, because that Giver, in Jesus, gave everything for you.   God sealed God’s promise of faithfulness to you with God’s very life.

And if you doubt the power of that, look at Sutherland Springs.  As the New York Times put it:
One minute the Holcombes were a tight-knit family praying in the tiny church on Fourth Street. The next, eight of them were gone.  Bryan and Karla Holcombe, a guest preacher and his wife, were dead.   Their son Marc Daniel Holcombe, gone. Their pregnant daughter-in-law, Crystal Holcombe, gone.  And four of their grandchildren — Noah, Emily, Megan and Greg — gone.
The gunman nearly wiped out the Holcombe family, leaving Joe Holcombe, 86, Bryan’s father, to mourn the loss of the generations he had raised. “We know where they are now,” he said in an interview, his voice strained by exhaustion. “All of our family members, they’re all Christian. And it won’t be long until we’re with them.”
Or hear these words from the pastor of that church, who lost his 14-year-old daughter that day.

"You lean in to what you don't understand, you lean in to the Lord," Frank Pomeroy told reporters during the press conference. "I don't understand but I know my God does."  

Even in the awfulness of their losses, these people have a foundation that cannot be shaken.  Why?  They know.  The Giver, stands with them, the One who in Jesus, gave everything for them.  They know. If Jesus didn’t abandon them on that cross, he won’t abandon them now.  They know.  God’s love has the last word, not the violence of that day.    And if you trust in this One who has given everything for you, you have that same foundation.   And it will free you to give because you know the source of every gift.  And when loss comes, that God will give you the strength to get through, to know that whatever you face, this God never leaves you nor forsakes you.     Do you want that?  Then leave trading behind.  Cherish the gifts, yes.  But trust in the Giver.   Trust in the One whose love you will never lose.  

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The One Thing You Need to Know to Become Free of the Burden of Guilt

Oh, how it gets me.   I was waiting this week to turn behind this other car.    But when the traffic cleared, the car just sat there.   I tried to be nice about it.   I thought.  Maybe this driver was distracted for a moment. It happens.  But then the traffic cleared again, and guess what did not happen?   No turn again!   That’s when I lost it.   I started yelling “Turn, just turn!!”   Eventually the driver did turn of course, but that sort of thing drives me nuts!

Now that may not bother you, but you probably have something that does?  Do you have something that pushes your buttons; an annoying habit; a certain noise that sends you around the bend.     It could be anything.    And when it happens, oh how it can irritate.

Still, life goes on.   On the scale of problems, these things, they’re irritating, but they don’t really mess up your life.   But in your life, you have something else, something that pushes your buttons in a different way that will mess you up, that could even destroy you.  

When it comes to doing wrong things in life, let’s be honest.  Some of the wrong you and I do, it doesn’t bother us that much.   Maybe it should, but it doesn’t.   You don’t feel that much guilt or regret about it.  Heck, you may not feel any.  But not every mistake you make is like that.  In your life, you probably have one that really pushes your buttons.    When you mess up here, that failing stays with you.  The guilt follows you, the regrets.   You find it so hard to let it go. 

Normally, with my son, Patrick, I’m the more patient parent.   But a few times, I’ve lost it.   I can’t even tell you why I lost it, but I remember that I did.  It wasn’t pretty. Afterwards, I went to Patrick and apologized. And he, like 3 year olds do, let it go and moved on.   But I carried it.  I carried it for way too long.  

Now that particular screw-up may not push your buttons, like it pushes mine.  But do you have something that does?  Do you carry regret over a mistake, maybe one from years ago?    Do you have a failing that you hope no one finds out about ever?   That stuff weighs you down.  It holds you back.   It can even eat you alive.  Some have found such stuff so hard to live with, they kill themselves.   They’d rather die than carry it another day.   But here’s the truth.   If you’re carrying that, you’re not supposed to.  You can let it go.  You can be free of it.   In these words, God shows the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

You can carry regrets, guilt about things for years and years even.   You can even think you’re supposed to, like it’s a virtue or something.  It’s not.   But even if you know that, it’s hard to let it go.   So, how do you?   How do you leave it behind?   How do you get free of it, really free?   God tells you here.   God says.  I am greater than your heart.

And it’s that, your heart, that is holding you back.  When John talks about your heart here, he doesn’t mean that big red muscle beating in your chest right now.  John means what you mean, when you say; That guy was really speaking from the heart.  John means what Selena Gomez means when she sings, The Heart Wants What It Wants.  

John is talking about the forces that drive you, for good or for bad.   For sometimes your heart will not only lead you to do something stupid.   It won’t let you forget it.   It will torture you with it, condemn you for it, burden you with it.   And you can think that all this bad feeling even comes from God.   But if that’s true, why does John say when our hearts condemn us, God is greater than that.  God not only doesn’t condemn you, John says, instead he reassures you. 

Now, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care when you do something wrong.   But God doesn’t condemn you for it.   Now, God may convict you.   You may hear God saying to your heart.  What you did there wasn’t right.   That thought you’re carrying it leads nowhere good.    But do you see the difference?  When conviction comes, it wakes you up to something wrong.  Then it encourages you to go a different way.   It is saying something like: You are better than this.   It gives you hope.

But condemnation offers you no hope.  Condemnation just locks you up and throws away the key.   So when condemnation comes, it never comes from God, even if you hear it in a church.   God doesn’t condemn.  Evil condemns.  That’s why the Bible calls the Devil, the Accuser.  That’s part of the evil of evil.  It gets you coming and going.  It tempts you to do wrong. And then it condemns you for what it tempted you to do in the first place. 

So how do you get free? You realize. Your heart is lying to you.  It is telling you something isn’t true.  God is bigger than your mistakes.  God is greater than your failings, no matter how bad.   Instead, God has taken all that for you.   He carried your guilt so you can be free of it.  God paid the ultimate price to set you free from your lying and condemning heart.   And the more you believe that, the greater your freedom becomes. 

The preacher Tim Keller tells a story about one of the old Czars in Russia.  One of the Czar’s nobleman was dying.   So, he asked the Czar to adopt his little son, as his mother had died also.  The Czar adopted the boy into his household, gave him everything.   The boy grew up and took a commission in the army.  But he had some issues, a big gambling problem.  And he began to embezzle from his division, as he was the bookkeeper.  Eventually it got so bad, he couldn’t hide the stealing any longer.  It was going to come out.    So, one night he looked at the books and saw the mess he created.  Then, he drank as much as he could, trying to find the nerve to kill himself.  But he drank so much, he passed out.   Now, the Czar had a practice of dressing up as a soldier to see what was really going on.  And that night, he was doing just that.  He went to look in on his adopted son.  And he saw the revolver, the open books, the passed-out man. He realized everything.  So, the Czar wrote a note, and sealed it with the Czar’s seal.  Then he left.   When the young man woke up, he saw the note.  It read, “I, the Czar will make good all the debts in this book.”   And he realized, the Czar had come and seen everything.  But the Czar hadn’t condemned him.  No, the Czar out of love had taken all the debt on himself. 

In Jesus God came as one of us.  And God saw everything, all the messes you and had made.  But God did more than write a note.  In Jesus, God offered up everything, even God’s own life, so that you might be free forever.    Let Jesus free you from your lying and condemning heart.  Receive the liberation from guilt God has given to you.  What do you need to do?  All you need to do is believe that it’s true, that God's love is greater than your heart.       

Monday, October 30, 2017

Lots of Loves Bind You, But Here is the Only One That Sets You Free

Has it ever happened to you?   You are going along through your life, minding your own business.  And out of the blue, it comes, without warning.   But once it does, it doesn’t go away.  No, it stays, tormenting you for hours, days even.   Has a song ever done that to you?  No matter what you do, the tune sticks with you, rambling around in your head, whether you like it or not.

That happened this week, but here’s the strange part.   I didn’t hear the song.  No, I just heard the words.  As I thought about the words we’re about to hear, the words of this song kept popping into my head.   It’s fairly old, but most folks know it.  In fact, the movie, Boss Baby, used it this year.  It goes like this. 

What the world needs now is love, sweet love
It’s the only thing that’s there just too little of…..

The song goes on from there.  Now, why did those words pop into my head?   It’s because, I began to think.    The world doesn’t have too little of love.    The world has way too much.  That’s the problem.   Too much of the love in the world doesn’t bring you life.  It brings you the opposite. 

I’m not saying that the world doesn’t need more love. The world does need love, at least the kind of love, that song proclaims.   But do you know what stops that kind of love?   It’s other kinds of love.   And those other kinds of love, if you let them take root in your life will twist you up. 

They twist up your relationships.   They twist up your health.   They certainly twist up the world.  But these loves have such power that they can trap you, and you don’t even notice it.  How do you become free of that power?  How do you find the way out?  How do you find the only love that truly frees you, that truly enables you to become who you most deeply yearn to be?  In these words, God points the way.   Let’s hear what God has to say.

Love, the wrong kind of love, never brings you what it promises.  It never brings you life, at least for any length of time.  In the end, it brings you discouragement, emptiness, even death.  But this love can bind you up before you even realize it.  But here, God offers the way out.  God opens the door to the only love that gives you life.  But here’s the twist.  Before you get the life, you gotta have the death first.    

But before we get there, let’s talk about this wrong kind of love or rather wrong kinds of love.  You see.  You can’t stop loving.  If you are human, you’re going to love.  Over 1500 years ago, the writer of the very first memoir in human history, Augustine put it well.   To be human is to love…We are cast into love.  We are born and destined to love.  It is our nature to love.  We can choose what to love; we cannot choose whether to love.

You’re going to love.  That’s not the question.  The question you gotta ask is this.  What are you loving, really? 

That question prompted the writer David Foster Wallace to give my favorite commencement speech of all time.   Wallace said this to the graduates of Kenyon College:

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such things as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.  And the compelling reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough…worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly.  And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you…Worship power, you will up feeling weak and unafraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear.  Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.  But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is…. they’re unconscious.  They are default settings.

When Wallace uses the word worship he is pointing to the same thing Augustine was talking about with love.  In life, the human problem isn’t that we love.  It’s often not even that we love bad stuff.   It’s that you can love even good stuff way too much, so much that you could even say you worship it.   And when you do, that love will eat you alive.  And it will take you away from the very love that you most need.

That’s why John brings up the ancient story of Cain and Abel.   In that story, Cain took care of the garden.  He grew awesome fruits and vegetables.  His brother, Abel, took care of the animals, the sheep and the goats.   All seemed to be working out well, until, one day, God made a request.  God said to Cain and Abel.  “I’d like you to bring me a gift, some animals would be nice.”  But Cain felt disrespected.  What was so wrong with his fruits and vegetables?.  So, Cain ignored God’s request, and brought a nice fruit and veggie basket instead.   And what did God say?  God said, “No thanks.  Please go get the animal like I asked.”    But Cain still didn’t listen.  In fact, he became so angry, so hurt by God’s rejection, that he actually killed his brother, Abel. 

What was going on?  Cain loved what he made in that garden.  He loved it so much that made it the source of his value.   So, when God asked for something different than that, Cain couldn’t do it.  To turn his back on what he produced would be like turning his back on himself.   And when God rejected that produce, in his hurt and pain, he lashed out and murdered his own brother.   Do you see the insanity of it?   Cain loved what he produced so much he valued it above his relationship with God.  He even valued it above the life of his own brother.    Yet the whole time, he had no clue how much that love bound him, how much it had captured him. 

And it hasn’t stopped.  People still sacrifice their families and relationships for what they produce.   And the out of control loves don’t stop there.   People get addicted to relationships, to substances, to sensations, to appetites, to stuff. 

Human beings are idol making machines.  We’re always getting trapped in the wrong kinds of loves. And those loves twist everything up.   They are what, as John puts it, makes too many human beings children of the Devil.   After all, the Devil loves.  That’s not the problem, it’s what the Devil loves, and how much the Devil loves it.  The Devil is the source of twisted love, and Through that twisted love, evil enters the world and binds up people left and right.

But John offers a different way, a way out from that twisted love, a way that leads you to love as God created love to be.   This true love frees you.  It frees you to love yourself without condition, to love others that same way.   This love frees you to live so intimately with God that you become God’s very child.  But for that true love to come, the twisted loves have to go.  They have to die.   And that can be very hard. 

You could hear this talk, and resolve to do better.  You could say.  I will love the people around me more.  I want to become that child of God.  But you will still be placing your trust in what you can produce.   You’ll be no better off than Cain.  It’s just instead of producing fruits and vegetables, you’ll be producing good deeds, loving acts.  Even religion becomes a twisted love. 

 So how does the love come?  It comes when you realize that this love has already come. to you.  In Jesus, this love has come.   This love has come and offered up everything to free you.   And when God in Jesus did that, he shattered the power of every twisted love forever.   Why?  God showed you.   You don’t need them.  You don’t need them to give you value, to give you worth.  You already have it.   All you need to do is believe it, is to let that love in.   And as you do, Jesus will wither away the twisted loves that bound you.   Jesus will free you to love, to love yourself, to love others, to love this world like never before. 

Christianity should not have survived, much less become a movement that transformed the world.   It had no powerful patrons, no entrĂ©e to the inner circles.  What did it have?  It had a love that the world had never seen before.  This love shattered every social barrier. This love included everyone, rich and poor, male and female, no matter their race or culture.   This love sacrificed for everyone, whether they believed in the love or not.  And this love changed the world.  This love continues to change it. 

It’s why next Saturday, guys at the church I serve will gather to make sandwiches for the homeless in our community.  It’s why that same day, folks from all sorts of different churches including ours will come together to bring hope to our city.   It’s why folks will gather next Sunday to celebrate pumpkins and the community they bring about.  It’s why the following day, many of those folks will show up at a Methodist church in Fort Lauderdale to see justice happen in our community with our sister churches in Bold Justice.  And as the church I serve lives the love that God has given to us in such places and times, God will work in ways we cannot even imagine.    And if you let that love live in you, this love will work and change you too, in ways you could not even imagine.   Are you letting that love live in you?   If not, will you let that love live in you today?  Let us pray.   

Sunday, October 22, 2017

What Is the One Key to the Growth that Truly Changes You For the Better?

Have you seen these images from California lately?   That sort of destruction, it’s hard to comprehend, how fast it all happened.   One day everything seems fine.  Then before you know it, someone is knocking on your door in the middle of the night.  They’re telling you fire is bearing down on your house, and you gotta get out.   And you come back a few days later to this. 
Seeing that destruction reminded me of something.   In life, some things you don’t want to ever grow.  You want your kids to grow.   You’d like it if your income grew.  You want to grow better in areas of your life.   But when it comes to fires like those, you want them to die away not grow into the awful force they became.   You want that little tropical depression in the ocean to stay just that, to not become a storm or God forbid a hurricane. 

Lots of people talk as if growth is an awesome thing.   And lots of times, it is.   We’d like to see our economy grow.  We’d like to see our church grow.  But not everything that grows is good.   Cancers grow great.  That’s part of what makes them scary.   In life, lots of things can grow in your life that don’t bring you life.   Instead they destroy you.   Desires grow that sabotage your marriage or your bank account.   Resentments grow that turn you hard and bitter.    Fears grow that paralyze you, that hold you back from living the life God intended for you. 

Yet, even so, God wants you to grow.   In the words, we’re about to hear, God makes it clear how seriously God wants that.   Yet, you can think you are growing in your life the things God wants, when you are doing the opposite.   Instead what is growing in you won’t bring you or others life, it will bring the opposite.    How do you grow in your life those things that will bring you the life you deeply need?   How do you grow into the abundant beautiful life God wants you to have?      In these words, God points the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say. 

Does God want you to be perfect?  More than that, does God expect it?    Does God expect you to never make a mistake once you become a Christian?    If you take literally the words that we just heard, you can think that.    But God isn’t telling you that.  So, what is God telling you?   God is telling you that while God does not expect perfection, God does expect progress.   But the progress God expects looks quite different than what many people think, including many Christians.    
Still, you can think that God wants perfection.   Look at what God through John says here: “No one who abides in God sins; no one who sins has either seen God or known God.   That seems pretty clear.   And just in case, you wondered if you had it right, a few sentences later, you read this.  “Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them.”

But that doesn’t make sense.   Right at the beginning of the letter, John wrote this:  If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.    Then a few paragraphs later, he says “Don’t worry when you sin, because in Jesus, God himself will be your advocate.”   Has John changed his mind?   Did someone take over the letter, maybe John’s older, more uptight brother?   No, the same guy wrote both things.  That’s not the problem.  

The problem is that John wrote this letter in Greek, and in Greek what John says sounds much different.   Greek has a way of saying things that language experts call the present progressive.   So basically, what John is saying, comes down to this.  Those who have been born of God do not keep on sinning or as the pastor/translator Eugene Peterson puts it: they do not make a practice of sin.  

In other words, if you experience God’s love in Jesus, it starts to change you.   God plants a new seed within you, God’s seed.   And that seed starts growing.  It starts developing in you a new way of life, a new way of seeing things.    But what does that growth look like?   What does the seed of God grow in you?    Too often, people have gotten the wrong idea about that seed, including Christians. 

For years, when I was growing up, I had a certain idea of what that seed grew.   It meant.  I didn’t drink, smoke or chew or associate with those who do.   And lots of folks still have a version of that idea.   They think.   That seed means you have to have certain external markers.  Certain behaviors set you apart.   So, if you read the Bible regularly, go to church, avoid certain “bad things.” (the list can differ), then that seed is growing.   And they’re not entirely wrong.   But they’re only picking up on one part of the seed.  And if that is all you have, then you won’t grow any God fruit so to speak.   All you’ll grow is weeds.  

Think about any relationship you have, if that’s all you have, a set of right behaviors, that relationship is not growing into what it needs to be.   If in my relationship with my wife, all I do are my duties, if I just do the right chores, run the right errands, avoid being unfaithful, sure, it may be hard to find fault with me.    But will it feel like a relationship, like what a marriage should be?   But what if I don’t do those duties, that won’t be good either.    

And it’s the same with any relationship in your life, with friends, children, family members.   Every relationship has to be more than simply the things you do or don’t do.  Something more has to be there.     And that’s even more true with God.

So, what does this full seed look like?  John tells us.   He doesn’t tell us here.  But in his account of Jesus’ life, the Gospel of John, he does.     John writes about Jesus.  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

In those last five words, John gives you a picture of the seed that God plants.   God plants a seed full of grace and truth.   If all you have are the duties, then all you have is the truth part of the seed.   And half a seed won’t grow anything, at least anything good.  It may grow self-righteousness, judgment, legalism, guilt.   But it sure won’t grow what God desires. 

No for the seed of God, the grace has to go with the truth.  But what does grace even mean?  It gave us some good songs, like Amazing Grace, but what’s so amazing about grace really?

If you’ve paid any attention to the car I drive, you’ll notice my red mini convertible has disappeared.  I’m driving a beige car with a license plate from Quebec.  How did that happen?   Several months ago, I totaled my mini cooper in an accident.   To make it worse, that was my second accident in three months.  And in both I was at fault.    But when I called my wife to tell her what had happened, she did something amazing.   She commiserated with my loss.  She got her parents from Quebec to loan us their car.  She offered me support and compassion.  And let’s be honest, after my screw ups, I didn’t really merit that.  Do you know what my wife gave me.  She gave my grace.  She gave me unmerited favor.

That’s what grace is.  It’s unmerited favor.   It’s those times, when someone gave you far, far more than you deserved.   And when you experience that, you know how amazing that can be, how powerful, how life-changing.   That’s the power that God plants in you.  Why?  Because in Jesus, that’s what God has given you.  God has given you unmerited favor like no one else could. 

In the most random moments, my son will say to me, with the heartfelt-ness of an almost 4-year old “I love you.”  What is going on in those I love you moments?  He’s sensing the wonder of what he has received, two people who regularly extend to him blessings he doesn’t merit at all.   I recently heard a comment from a parent that a child is both overwhelming and under-stimulating at the same time.  That parent was right.  Parents, good parents, give favor to their children not because of what they can give back.  No, they simply extend that favor because they love them, and they are theirs.   

And when you know God loves you like that, and even beyond that, when you know that God gave up everything to bring you home.    When you know that you have received that level of unmerited favor, so much so that you have become God’s very offspring, it plants a seed within you, a seed full of grace and truth.   And as that seed grows, your capacity to give grace to others and to yourself grows.   And out of that grace, the desire to live the truth, to do the right thing grows as well.   But it begins with the grace.   In that grace, you do change. You become free of the broken places that bound you in the past, the out of control desires that dragged you down, the long-held resentments that held you back.   You become more and more like this One who has graciously adopted you, who has joyfully and at infinite cost brought you home.   You become more and more the offspring of God, not in name alone, but in reality.   And, you know, it is not your own doing.  It is the beautiful, wondrous, amazing gift of God.

Do you want to know that grace?  Do you want to experience that truth?   Here’s all you need to do.   You simply need to believe it.  You need to believe that grace, that God’s grace is true and real for you.  Why.  Because it is.          

Sunday, October 15, 2017

What is the One Practice That Will Bring You Wholeness Like Nothing Else?

I honestly thought.  I had heard it all.  After all, even with the best of them, I don’t get shocked by a little hypocrisy.   After all, politicians, like all of us, they’re only human.   But a few weeks ago, what one politician did, shocked me.

Since coming to Congress in 2003, Christian politician, Representative Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, spoke forcefully against abortion.  He had led fight after fight against it in Congress.  Every pro-life group had given him a 100% approval rating.

But last month, a text message became public, one from Murphy’s mistress.  She wrote the following.   “You have zero issue posting your pro-life stance all over the place when you had no issue asking me to abort our unborn child just last week when we thought that was one of the options,”  

This anti-abortion congressman was not only having an affair.  He actually asked his mistress to have an abortion.    Now I’ve seen my share of hypocrisy, but that has to rank in my top ten.
Still, when I came down from my high horse, I asked myself some hard questions.  If Christians have been transformed by God’s love, what do examples like Murphy’s say about how real that transformation is?     The atheist philosopher Nietzche said it this way.  “I might believe in the Redeemer, he said, if his followers looked more redeemed.” That critique has a painful truth.  I have to ask myself.  Am I really letting Jesus transform me?   By God’s grace, I haven’t fallen into the sort of mess that Murphy did, but I can’t cast any stones either.   I have my own supply of hidden stuff, failings that I’d don’t want to see in the light of day.   I imagine you might too.  

Are there places in your life where you are stuck, bad habits you cannot break, ugly attitudes that keep coming back.  Do you have things that that you regret doing or saying or thinking yet even so, those regretful things rise up in your life again and again?   How do you become whole there, in those broken places?   How do you become more and more the person that God actually intended you to be?  In these words, God points the way.    Let’s hear what God has to say.

Did you just hear what John said?  He said, “No one who sins has either seen or known Jesus.”  Wow.  If you take John literally, then how could anyone meet that standard?   Only a chapter before, John admitted Christians did sin, saying that if anyone does sin, they have Jesus as their defender.  So clearly, John isn’t being literal here.   But while you don’t need to take John literally, you do need to take him seriously.  

If the presence of Christ has come to live in you, it should redeem you.   It should change you.  But how does that happen?  How do you become transformed?   How does God change you not only on the surface, but all the way through?   In these words, God tells you.   You can’t try your way into transformation.  But you can train your way into it.  The more you train yourself to apply more and more God’s reality to your day to day life, the more transformation will come.

What does it mean to apply God’s reality to your life?  Well, before we go there, let’s unpack why trying doesn’t work.  Trying doesn’t work because trying doesn’t really work anywhere, at least in the long run.  

Several times a week, I do a short run on the treadmill at the gym.   But with those short runs, I can’t run a marathon.   Now, I could try to run a marathon.  But no matter how much I tried, that marathon won’t happen.    Why?  My trying wouldn’t change this simply reality.   My mile and a half runs a few times a week have in no way prepared me for a race that goes over 26 miles.  And no amount of trying on my part will change that fact.  

In pretty much every area of life, trying just won’t get you very far.  Trying has to move into training, into some regular habits that help you get better at whatever it is you’re trying to do.

And religion is no different.  Every religion has certain practices that they expect folks to do.  And every religion says that the more you do these practices, the more transformed you will become.    So, do you want change?   Well, one religion would say meditate more.  Another says keep bowing to Mecca 5 times a day.  Another says eat these things or do these rituals.       

And Christianity has practices too.   And here in what we just read, John points to the central one.   He lays it right out in the third verse when he says.   “And all who have this hope in God, purify themselves just as he (God), is pure.”  

John says.   Do you want to clear out the junk in your life, the stuff that blocks you from becoming who God created you to be?  Well, have this hope in God, and that’ll do it.   It will clear out the junk.  It will purify you just as God is pure.   It will change you utterly from the inside out.  
But how can having this hope in God do that?  Heck, what does that even mean?  It means this.

God brings transformation into your life through the transforming power of truth.  When you hear the truth of the gospel, when you see the reality of what God has done for you, that changes you.  It changes you as nothing else can.

So how does change happen.   It happens as you regularly apply the truth of the gospel to your day to day life.    You see.   Christianity doesn’t just give you things to do.   It actually tells you why you do these things in the first place.

For example, Jesus says forgive.  Forgive not just a few times.  No forgive again and again and again.   But Jesus doesn’t say do this because it’s good or become I told you to.  No Jesus actually tells you why; why you need to forgive.

In one story, Jesus explained it this way.   A certain king had a servant who owed him an astronomical amount of money.  This servant owed so much, that if he worked for 10,000 years, he couldn’t even begin to pay it off.    But the king forgives that debt.   The king writes the whole thing off.  But then as soon as this happens, this same servant goes out and runs into a fellow servant who owes him a hundred bucks.   And do you know what he does, he throws this fellow servant into prison until he can pay the debt.    When the king hears of this, he goes ballistic.   He tells his soldiers.   Find this guy who owed me all this money, and throw him into prison.  I tell you.  He won’t get out until he has paid every last penny.

Do you what Jesus is telling you?   Jesus is saying.   Why do you forgive again and again?   You forgive because God has forgiven you for far, far more than whatever wrong anyone has ever done to you.   And whatever you think your lack of forgiveness does to the one who wronged you, it actually does far worse to you.   That person doesn’t become the prisoner.  You become the prisoner.  That’s why the writer Malachy McCourt once said.   Holding a resentment (in other words not forgiving someone.) is like you drinking poison, and expecting the other person to die. 

So, when you struggle to forgive, what do you do?  You apply the truth of the gospel, the reality of what God had done for you, to your life.   Then you think.   How can I not forgive, after all the forgiveness God has showered on me?

Do you see how this works?      

In my life, I can get tripped up by a certain attitude that leads me to all sorts of bad places.  You could sum up my attitude in this one phrase: I do and I do for you, and this is the thanks I get?  When this attitude takes hold of me, it makes me self-righteous and resentful.   And it will lead me into some bad behaviors of my own, because it makes me think I have an excuse.   After all I do all these good things, shouldn’t I get a little something too, shouldn’t I get cut a little slack?

But when I think about the reality of the gospel, this attitude gets blown away.  Yes, I’ve done for others sure.   But I have not come close to doing what God has done for me.   God has given me in Jesus his very life.   And I’m copping an attitude over a few good deeds.  Gi’me a break.                     
The more you apply the truth of the gospel to your life, the more through that truth, God will change your life.    And if you don’t apply that truth, it opens you up to the sort of ugliness that Congressman Murphy finds himself in now. 

Years ago, I heard a preacher talk about a colleague of his in ministry who had crashed and burned.  He had been caught out in some actions that had destroyed his ministry and deeply wounded his family.   So, this preacher sat down, and asked him.   How did this happen?   It looked like your ministry was going great. 

The colleague just looked at him, opened his Bible and said this.   I used to preach like this. And the colleague put his hand from the Bible to his heart and then out like he was giving something out.   But then I started to preach like this.   And this time, his hand went to the Bible, but it didn’t go near his heart.  No, it just went out.   When this pastor stopped applying the truth to his own heart, it opened the door for his own fall.   

And here’s the truth.   By God’s grace, you hopefully will not end up where that pastor or Tim Murphy did.   But at some point, you will likely face something you regret.  You will find yourself caught up in your own painful place.   What do you do then?  You apply the reality of the gospel to your life, the reality that John so powerfully lays out here.

Lately our son, Patrick, has begun testing the boundaries a bit, seeing just how far he can push his mom and dad.   And yes, he has found out, that his actions have consequences, and those consequences aren’t always good.   But more crucially, he has found out this.   No matter how much he tries our patience or pushes our boundaries, we will always love him.   He will always, always be our child.  

And John tells you that same thing about God.   If Congressman Murphy came across my path that would be the truth that I would apply to him, that first verse that we read.  “See what love that the Father has given us that we should be called children of God.”   That’s the love that God has given Tim Murphy, has given you; has given me.   God has called you his child.   And that means, no matter how far you fall, you will never fall so far that God’s love cannot reach you.

The writer Corrie Ten Boom survived the Nazi death camps, but her sister Betsie did not, but before she died Betsie said something that Corrie has shared again and again, something I have never forgotten.  Betsie was talking about the evil of others done to her, but it applies as well to the evil we might author ourselves, the pits we put ourselves in.  Ten Boom said.   “There is no pit so deep, that God is not deeper still.”  

And when you know that truth, it changes you.  It frees you from getting paralyzed by your own failings.  It frees you to freely give grace when others fail you.    And it leads you to become more and more that child of God that God has destined you to be, a being purified inside and out; someone made holy, or what that word truly means, someone made completely whole, a wholeness that will one day be so complete that you cannot even conceive of how wondrous it will be. 

Do you want that change?   Do you want to not only be called a child of God but to actually become one inside and out?  Then let the truth of the gospel live in your heart.   Let Jesus change you as only Jesus can.