Sunday, August 28, 2016

What You Need to Know About God that Will Change How You View Yourself, Others, and Everything

It nearly killed me, but it was worth it.   Many years ago, when I visited the Grand Canyon, on a whim, I got the crazy idea to hike into it and back out in one day.    And if not for the help of a very experienced German hiker, I might have come out of that canyon on a gurney rather than my own two feet.    

But beyond learning the importance of carrying enough water in desert conditions, I learned that seeing the Grand Canyon from the top and actually seeing it all the way down are two very different things.   As amazing as I found the view, it could not compare to the awe I felt as I walked through it.   It was one of the most amazing days of my life.   Now, why am I sharing that story?

Because the words we’re about to hear reminded me of that day at the Canyon.  You see, when most folks say or read the Lord’s prayer, it’s a bit like looking at the Grand Canyon from the top.  It can be impressive, but it can’t compare to the power you feel when you hike in, when you dig into the reality of what Jesus is actually saying.   Now most of the time, none of us has the time to take that hike, so to speak but once you do, even once, it changes you.   You never look at anything the same way again.  

Too often, people who are seeking God don’t even really know what they are looking for.   So it’s no wonder that they get disillusioned or cynical about the whole search.  But in the words of this prayer, in one word in particular, Jesus shows us who God is.     

And when you see that, it does far more than give you a nice memory.  It changes your conception of yourself, of God, of everyone and everything for the rest of your life.    How can you know who God is, who you are?   In the words of this prayer, Jesus shows us the way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say. 

The world has many folks, including a fair number who may even be fairly religious, who don’t really get who God is.    And because they don’t know that, they end up not really knowing who they are, or, in a way, who anyone else is either.   But in these words, Jesus not only shows you who God is, but how knowing that changes everything.        

Yet this key reality of who God is, can easily be missed, so much so that even folks who you think would know, the religious, don’t get it either.    And that’s where Jesus goes first.  He warns his followers about two religious mistakes.  He tells them.  First, don’t make your prayers a performance.  And second, don’t make them a technique.    

Now why is Jesus so concerned about the whole performance thing?   Jesus knows.  The real reality of any relationship almost always happens behind the scenes.  The poet Kathleen Norris put it this way.   “…..the mystery of faith”, she said “– it’s like a marriage, in that only the two parties involved really know what’s going on.”   Do you see how true that is?   How many times have you seen a couple you know, let’s call them Bob and Sue, and their kids at some event, and they look so happy, so put together?   You think to yourself.   Wow, what a great family!    Then a few months pass, you’re talking to a mutual friend.  And they mention it.  “Did you hear about Bob and Sue?  They’re getting a divorce”    And, shocked, you say, “But they looked so great together!”  Your friend replies, “Hey you never know.”     On the other hand, you may know of other couples, who have been together for years, and you still can’t figure that out.  Here’s the point.   With any relationship in our lives, we can make it look very different on the outside than it is on the inside.   We can all be great fakers.     And in a relationship with God, it can be the same.  You can attend worship regularly, give generously, pray publicly, carry your Bible wherever you go, but the true reality of your relationship can’t be found there.    It can only be found, when it’s just you and God, where no one else can see, where no one else can hear.  That’s where it gets real.    And if you aren’t living it out there, then Jesus is saying, then all that other stuff doesn’t really matter.   

On the other hand, you can be there in that one on one time, and even then, still not be getting it.   When Jesus talks about the Gentiles and their many words, he is talking about just that.   He is talking about folks who are trying through their words to manipulate God, to win God over.  You know it can be a nice thing if someone you know gets you a gift or says some kind words about you.    But if you begin to realize, that it isn’t real, that he or she is just trying to work you, to get on your good side.  Well, that just can’t work long term.   It sells both of you short.   It sells your friend short, that you don’t value them enough to just like them for them not the words they say or the gifts they bring.  And it sells you short, that you would be that shallow to begin with.  

Yet folks can be exactly that way with God.   If I pray hard enough or long enough, if I say just the right things, then God will finally see it my way.   But it doesn’t work that way.  It doesn’t work that way, because that’s not who God is. 

And that’s why Jesus, when he talks about praying, gives a name to God, that totally changed the reality of who God is forever.    And you’ve heard the name before.  Heck, it’s even in the shorthand we use for the prayer.  We call it the Our Father.   

But the word that Jesus uses here for father isn’t just any word.  It’s the word, Abba.   And every language has a word like it.  Why?   It’s because no matter where you are, when a child first comes up with a word for their parents, it’s something like Abba.  Those are the only vowels they can say.  So it may be Dada or Mama or Papa, but it always has that aah aah sound.   And Jesus uses that word to tell us something profoundly true in how God relates to us.   God really does see you as his child,  and not just any child but a small child, a child who can only say Abba.   

You see, whatever folks call God, often they look to God more as a boss than as a parent.   And the difference between those two images is huge.    You may have an awesome boss.  You may even be good friends with your boss, but here’s the reality.    If you stop doing your job, no matter how awesome your boss is, no matter how deep your friendship, at some point, they’re going to have to let you go.    In the end, your relationship is conditional.  

But with a parent, it’s completely different.   They care about your performance too, maybe more than your boss does.  But if you screw up, do they fire you?     If they’re good parents, they don’t.    If they’re good parents, they don’t push you away.  They draw even closer.

A few years ago, I hit a rough spot in my life.   I was having trouble at my job.  I was struggling in my marriage.   I had a few months where I was even living at La Quinta, if you get what I mean.    But in those times, my mom and dad rallied to my side.  They helped with hotel bills.  They listened to my sad tales.  They didn’t always like the way I had handled things, but they never walked away.   Instead they came closer.   

And Jesus is saying to his disciples, to you.  That’s who God is.    Don’t you get it?  You’re not talking to your boss.  You’re talking to your dad.    And let me just interject a word here on this term father.   Jesus isn’t talking here about the gender of God, as if God even has one.  Jesus is talking about the nature of the relationship between God and you.    So please don’t get hung up on that word.   If you want to use another parental term, you’ll still be talking to God.  But if you had a lousy father, so that word carries some baggage, still try to use it with God.   You might say.  “Well, I had such a terrible father; I don’t really have an image of what a good one is.”  But is that true?   You have to have an image somewhere of what a good father is.  Otherwise, you wouldn’t know your own dad was such a lousy one.  You have to be judging him on the basis of something.    And in God, you have the ultimately good father, one infinitely better than even the best human ones.   So, using that word for God could bring you healing, healing you very much need.     

But whatever the term, the key truth remains.  God doesn’t relate to you as a boss.  God relates to you as a loving parent does with his or her child.   And when you get that, when you really get that, it changes everything, not just about how you view God, but how you view yourself.   You are God’s child.  You are the one whom God loves like that. 

During the Civil War, a certain soldier was injured during battle.  But because of some bureaucratic snafu, he and his family weren’t receiving the benefits due them.  So the soldier went to Washington to appeal his case.  But he had no luck.    Discouraged, he went to Lafayette Park across from the White House to think it through.  As he sat there, he started crying.   A young boy was playing in that park.   He saw the soldier crying.  He asked him.   “What’s wrong?”  The soldier was so discouraged, that he told the boy the whole story.  After he finished, the boy looked at him.  He said, “Come with me.”   They crossed the street.  They went to the White House entrance.   The guards let them walk right through.  They went down the hall to the President’s outer office.  Everyone let them pass.   They walked straight into the oval office.  President Lincoln was meeting with his generals, but when they walked in, Lincoln told his advisors to be quiet.  He knelt down and took the boy in his arms, and asked him. “What’s wrong, Tad?”  And Tad, Lincoln’s beloved son, said “Daddy, this soldier needs your help.”   Do you understand that you’re a Tad?   You are God’s child.   You are the One whom God loves like that.

And once you get that, really get that, do you see how it changes everything?   Do you see how it even changes everything about this prayer?  For example, when you pray, God’s will be done, you can know that whatever that will is, it will be for your best.  Why?  Because, God’s your dad.    
Sometimes, in a busy parking lot, my son gets tired of holding my hand.  I’m cramping his style.  But I tell him.  Little man, you gotta hold daddy’s hand.  Why do I tell him that?  Because I don’t want some big SUV to run him over and kill him.  But, just because he can’t always see the truth of that, doesn’t make it less true.      

And every good parent has to make calls like that every day, not because they hate their child, but they because they love her more than she’ll ever know.   And here’s the humbling truth, with God, we’re those kids. 

A while back, I read this article about the possibility that human beings might develop computers hundreds of time more intelligent than ourselves.   And if that ever happens, well, it will be a huge blow to our self-esteem.    Among human beings, our intelligence lies across a pretty narrow spectrum.   The village idiot has an IQ of say 85, and Albert Einstein had one of 130.   But what if you had a computer with an IQ of 12,000?    We don’t even have a word for that.    As one writer put it, superintelligence of that magnitude is not something we can remotely grasp, any more than a bumblebee can wrap its head around Keynesian Economics.     And if that’s true of a computer, imagine what it means if you’re talking God, the highest intelligence in existence. Suffice it to say, God really does know better than you, as humbling as that may be.  

But how do you know this is who God is, a God who loves you as only a father or mother could?   Because Jesus not only told you, he showed you.   In Jesus, God not only become the parent, God became the child.    He became a human being, with all its painful limitations.    He became so vulnerable, that like us, he had to pray too.   And right before his awful end, in one final agonizing prayer, he prayed the words we’re about to pray.  He said to God, your will be done, even if that will leads me to the cross, to that utter agony and death. 

And God in Jesus went there for you, because God know only then could he bring you home, could he make the family whole.   So in Jesus, God gave his life for you.  Because his love went even there, you know you are loved no matter what.   You can know you are forgiven, no matter what mess you’ve made of your life.  Even to those nailing him to that cross, Jesus made that his prayer.   “Father, forgive them.”     And that means even as God has forgiven you, you can’t withhold it from others.   Why?   Whatever hurt they caused you, they’re family. If God’s your dad, your mom, then they’re your sisters and brothers.   You are all in this together.  

So as you pray this prayer, don’t just pray it, believe it   Believe that you are God’s child, that God loves you like that, that God forgives you like that.   And as you trust in that profound truth, it will change not only how you look at God.  It will change how you look at yourself, how you look at everyone, how you look at everything.    

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Delusion that Infects us All and How to Become Free of It

Did you know that more Americans believe in the afterlife today than did 40 years ago?   People are looking to have a connection beyond themselves.   But are they finding what they are looking for?   If they were, wouldn’t we see people who are happier, more at peace, more full of love?  But when I look around, I don’t see that.  I see fear, anger; people who don’t seem very happy at all. 

Here we are in the richest society in human history, yet so many seem so unhappy.  Why is that?   It’s because we live in a culture caught in a delusion, a delusion that promises happiness and fulfillment that it can never provide.  In fact, it provides the exact opposite. 
What is this delusion, and more importantly, how do we free ourselves from it.  In this powerful prayer from, David, one of the Bible’s greatest figures, God shows us the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say.

No society in human history has had more luxury, more wealth than ours.   Yet people don’t seem to be content.   Lots of folks are more discontented than ever. Why is that?   In this passage, God shows us why.   Our discontent comes because too many trust in what cannot be trusted, rather in the One who can.   And they don’t see how utterly addictive and deadly their false trust is.  But in David’s actions, God shows us the path to freedom, a path out of the delusion that binds up our world. What is that delusion?    To see that, we need to understand first, what David does here, and more importantly, why David does it. 

If you read all the stories about King David in the Bible (and after Jesus himself, no one gets more attention than David.) one thing becomes clear.  David had one overriding desire for the people he led.   He yearned for them to experience the presence of God as intimately as he did.   That’s why the very first thing David does after he becomes king is to bring the Ark home.

Centuries before, God had told Moses to build this container, this Ark of the Covenant, to hold the Ten Commandments that God had given to Moses, to have it as a sign of God’s presence among them.  But by David’s day, the Ark had become more of a divine good luck charm, than anything else.   In fact the ark had ended up in a remote town on the outskirts of Israel.   That geographical distance said everything about the people’s relationship with God.   God had become remote, distant, more a boss or a lifeguard, than a friend or a lover.   You do what God says, sure.  You call upon God when you are in trouble, definitely.    But you’re not all that close. You don’t really have a relationship. 

A few weeks ago, I had a little daddy-cation.  My wife, Chantal, went, with our son, Patrick, to visit her parents in Canada.    And I liked having the time, just to do guy things, to eat food I shouldn’t eat, watch sports and Netflix to late in the night, but very soon it began to wear pretty thin.   I missed the companionship.  I missed my wife’s smile, my son’s exuberant play.   The house felt empty, even lifeless.  I missed them.  I really missed them.  I couldn’t wait for them to come home. But how sad it would have been, if that had not been the case?  It would have been painfully clear that whatever our marriage license said, whatever the names on my son’s birth certificate, the reality of our relationships had become something far different.   

That is exactly where Israel is.  God has been away so to speak, but the people of Israel have hardly missed him.  How can they? They hardly know him.   So, what does David do?  He brings God home, by bringing the ark home, to Jerusalem, the center of the nation.  In that act, David is declaring.   God can’t be somewhere over there.  You’ve got to have God close.  God has got to be personal or he’s nothing at all.    But David didn’t want to stop there.   He wanted God not just to be home.  He dreamed for God to have a home right in the midst of the people, a temple where God could become up close and personal. 

And now, decades later, at the very end of David’s life, it’s finally happening!  God is becoming real and personal.   But it’s not happening because of the temple.  That’s not built yet.  It’s happening because of what David does here to build the temple.

What does David do?   He empties his pockets.   He says, not only is the government going to give, I’m going to give.  In fact, I’m going to give everything, every ounce of gold and silver that I have. Now just to give perspective on what David gave.   A talent represented ten years wages for a worker, and David is giving thousands of talents.  In today’s dollars, he is giving billions and billions.   And David isn’t simply giving to a building. David is giving to a ministry.   The temple not only served as the center of worship, but as the center for care for the poor, for the widow, for the orphan.
And this act of radical generosity so blows away the people, that they start giving like never before.   Their giving, thousands and thousands of talents, means that a good bit of the entire nation’s economy is going to ministry, to worship of God and care for the poor.  

But more than what they give is what the Bible tells us about how they give.   It says that they gave freely and whole-heartedly.   Do you get what that means?  Their giving actually liberated them.  It freed them from some sort of bondage.    And this word whole-heartedly, literally is shalom-heartedly.    Shalom means a sense of utter fulfillment.  These people are giving out of a deep sense of joy, of satisfaction.    What has happened to them? David’s radical gift has broken the delusion that bound them, the same delusion that binds us.  In giving up their wealth, the Israelites had realized.   Wealth did not hold the meaning and security that they thought it did.   In fact, it promised security and meaning, but all it really gave them was the opposite, meaninglessness and insecurity.

The heart of the human problem comes down to this.   We trust in the wrong things to give us significance, and a lot of that wrong trust comes down to money.   Let’s say, you think that people liking you, approving of you gives you significance.  Well, money helps out with that.     Or let’s say, your significance comes from a sense of control, of safety.  Well, having money can seem to help with that too.     Heck, that’s why they call it financial security, right?

But don’t you see that’s actually a delusion.   Money can’t provide love.  Money can’t even provide security.   Can money stop cancer?  Can money stop divorce?    Money can’t really stop anything.   But because we think it can, because we buy into that delusion, money has power over us.   We don’t really have money.  Money has us. 

How much does money have us?  We spend more on our garbage bags, than 90 nations in our world spend on everything. We have twice as many malls as we do high schools.  And parents spend six hours shopping each week, not even counting on-line shopping.  And they spend 40 minutes playing with their kids. 

Our families are smaller today, but our houses are bigger.  So how do we pay for them?  We work more hours than anyone else.  so we get bigger houses, but we don’t spend much time in them, because we are working so hard to pay for them.   And even then, we still don’t have enough room for all our stuff.   So now we have 30,000 self- storage places where 40 years ago we almost had none.   Our households now contain and consume more stuff than every other household in history combined.  

And what has all our stuff gotten us.   More Americans declare bankruptcy every year than graduate from college.   And forget the financial bankruptcies, the family and relationship bankruptcies blow that away.   American couples talk to each other just 12 minutes each day.  And then because a lot of those minutes are fights, often over money, they work longer hours to avoid the drama.    And so the divorce rate has tripled in the last 50 years.   And teen suicide has tripled along with it.  Tens of millions take pills for anxiety or depression.   And with all our gadgets to save time, we have less time than ever.   We even sleep less, 20% less than people did a hundred years ago.

The more people fill their lives with things, the emptier they become.  "More than ever we have big houses and broken homes, high incomes and low morale (David Myers). We excel at making a living but we fail at making a life. We celebrate our prosperity but can’t find our purpose. We cherish our freedoms but we can’t find connection. In an age of plenty we are hungrier than ever."
Yet we still don’t get it.   Jesus talked about greed way more than he did adultery? Why?   Because you know if you’re committing adultery.   But if you’re caught up in greed, a lot of times you don’t.  

It’s like no one thinks they’re selfish.   But let me ask, if someone takes a group photo, where do you look first?  And how do you judge if the picture is good?  If you look good, right? In fact, if you look bad, don’t you want to take another?   And so it is with greed.   If you don’t think you’re caught up in greed, it’s guaranteed that you are.  That’s how you can live in the most affluent society in human history, and still complain you don’t have enough. 

But on that day, when David emptied his back account, his radical gift freed his people from that.  Instead of hoarding their money or spending it on themselves, they gave it away to glorify God, to care for the poor.  Money became just money, so God could finally become God.   

But how do you and I become free?   Our wealth makes it even harder.  That’s why the wealthier people become, generally, the stingier and more selfish they get.   That’s how powerfully wealth enslaves you.   So how do you break free?

The answer lies in a question.  Why did David, who dreamed of this temple, even funded it, never build it?   God told him not to.   God said.  You’re a man of war, and I need a man of peace to build this temple.   I need this temple to point to a time when wars will cease, when my peace, my shalom, will fill the entire world.   And so God said to David:  When your days are fulfilled to go to be with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. I will not take my steadfast love from him…but I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever. (1 Chronicles 17)

Now David thought this had to be Solomon.  And Solomon did build a temple, a house for God.  But Solomon’s kingdom did not last forever.   It lasted a few centuries.  So who is God talking about?  God is talking about a Son to come, who will call God his father, whose kingdom will last forever, who not only will build a temple.  He will become the temple. 

When Jesus was beginning his ministry, he said something strange.  Standing in front of the temple in Jerusalem, he said.   This temple will be destroyed, and in three days, I will raise it up.   And people thought he was crazy.   This temple took decades to build, they said, and you’ll build it again in 3 days?  But Jesus wasn’t talking about that temple.   He was talking about himself.   

What is a temple?   It’s a bridge between God and us.  In the temple, human beings encounter God up close and personal so they can know God not as a boss but as a lover, as a friend.  And, in Jesus, God was giving the ultimate temple, the ultimate bridge.    And to build this temple, God didn’t just empty his bank account, he emptied his life.   He became utterly poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich, rich in security, in peace, in fulfillment.   And as you grasp how radically, how infinitely, God has given everything for you, everything, you’ll realize you don’t need money for security or safety or approval or fulfillment.  You already have all that and more in the God who has radically given it all up for you.    And as you let the reality of that radical gift live in you, it will shatter the delusion that money has.  And you will give to glorify God, to care for the poor.   You will give so radically, so generously that it will stun you.  But you’ll give it freely because you have become free, free so that money can be just be money, and God can finally be God.        

Sunday, August 7, 2016

How Do You Experience the Reality That Will Enable You to Handle Anything?

Do you remember how it felt to fall in love, where you could hardly wait to see your beloved again, where your heart beat faster just thinking about them?   Do you remember how it felt as a child, when your mom or dad held you, when you cuddled into their lap, how warm and secure that felt?  

Why am I asking you to remember that?  Because a relationship with God can at times feel like that and more.  These intense experiences of God’s love, of God’s presence are open to anyone, not just a saint or a mystic.    When people yearn for a spiritual experience, that’s what they want a sense of something beyond themselves, something life-changing.  And they should want that.  Because what they want can actually happen.   But how do they?

Here in the prayer of a man, who had felt the rapturous joy that comes from such intimacy with God, God shows us the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.   

Do you know what’s striking in this prayer?   Paul is writing to people facing all sorts of hardship, who are confronting a society hostile to them, and this is what he asks God to give?  He could have asked for protection, for provision for their needs, but instead he prays for this?  And not only does he pray for it, he prays for it on bended knee. In ancient times, people prayed standing up.  To actually kneel to pray meant a prayer of utmost intensity.   So why does Paul pray so passionately?  Paul knows.   This sense of God’s presence, this deep experience of Jesus’ love will do more for them than anything else.    When you know in the deepest part of who you are that love, you can handle anything.   And in the power of that love, there is no limit to what God can do.     

Last week, I talked about the painfully sad prayer of Psalm 88.   I shared how a walk with God can bring you into some pretty dark places, places where you have no sense of God’s presence at all.   I shared how Mother Teresa went through decades where she lost that presence.   But that only tells part of her story.   Teresa yearned so deeply for God’s presence because she had felt it once so deeply.   God’s love became so real to her that God gave her actual visions.  Those visions changed her life.  They led her to begin the Missionaries ofCharity, an order that now has over 4,500 sisters serving in 133 countries!  Encountering the presence of God this deeply not only changes your life.  It can change the world.   

But how does such an experience happen?   Before we get there, let’s take a moment to understand why it doesn’t happen that often.   In this prayer, Paul is doing something strange.   He is praying for things that Paul has already told these people they have.  They already have strength in their inner being through God’s Spirit.   Christ already dwells in their hearts by faith.  They already know the love of Christ; already have the fullness of God. So why is he asking for these things here?   He is asking because, it’s one thing to have these things.  It’s entirely another to grasp them.  And that sort of grasping just doesn’t happen every day for anything. 

I’m a citizen of the United States.   And I know what that means.   I know our nation with all its faults has been the greatest beacon of freedom in human history.  I know that countless people yearn to come here for that reason.  I know that I belong to a nation that inspires the world like no other.  There has been no other nation like us ever.  I know that.  But every now and then, I grasp it.    
For example some time during these Olympics, when I see American athletes of every color, gender, orientation, class wrap themselves proudly in the stars and stripes, and cry unashamedly as they hear the national anthem play, I’ll grasp it.   I’ll probably start chanting USA, USA!  I might even cry.   Why?   I’m feeling something deeply that I’ve always known.  To be an American, to be part of this wondrous experiment that is our nation, that’s an amazing thing.

But most days I don’t feel that.  In fact, no one does with that intensity about anything.   For those of us who are married or have kids, we have moments when we grasp the intensity of our love for them, how grateful we are to have them in our lives.  But every day do we feel that intensity?  No.  Yes, we know it’s there.   But that intensity of feeling can’t be a normal thing.  We couldn’t even function if it was.     

But what you feel that deeply, it stays with you.  It sustains you.  Whether it be your love of nation or spouse or child or any special person in your life, those intense feelings lead you deeper into that love.  They feed it.  They strengthen it.    And if you are married or have a child or even live in this nation, and never grasp the power of what that means, well, how shallow and sad that is.    

And that is why Paul is praying with such passion. He yearns for the believers in Ephesus to feel the deep reality of what they already have.    He knows, grasping God’s love like that, not just knowing it, will root that love deeper than ever.   And everyone needs that 

The English preacher, Martin Lloyd Jones, when he counseled troubled Christians, asked them this question.  “Are you a Christian?”   They’d often respond.  “Well, I’m trying to be”   And he’d respond, “You don’t get it, do you?”    What makes you a Christian is knowing that you have God’s love, that God has given it to you freely and unconditionally.  Being a Christian isn’t something you try to be, it’s a status you already have.    But Jones realized. Those struggling Christians knew that truth, but they hadn’t really grasped it.    Too many Christians, don’t realize, in the depth of their deepest being, the reality of just how much God loves them.   And if you’ve never felt it, it can be hard to trust it’s there, especially when you struggle or doubt.  

But Paul knows that if these Ephesians do experience it, that the power of that love will carry them through anything.  They will discover the courage not to deny in the darkness, what they have seen in the light.   That’s why he prays for this experience to strengthen them in their inner being.   Paul is telling them.  I don’t want you to simply have some emotional experience of God that fades in a day or two.  I want you to experience God’s love so deeply that you, not only, never forget it, but the power of it changes you forever.       

Paul is telling them.  I don’t want you just to get infatuated with God.  I want you to fall in love.  That’s why he prays that they be filled with the fullness of God.   Paul isn’t giving them some mystical mumbo jumbo.  He is saying, I want this experience to so fill you that it changes you.   So instead of being filled up with insecurities and fears, resentments and self-righteousness, God starts to fill you, to you, to create in you a love that can withstand anything. 

So how does this experience happen?   You ask Jesus, and as you ask, you seek, and you don’t do it alone.

Why do you ask for it?  Because it’s a gift.   You don’t earn it.  It comes as you ask.   And you keep asking until it comes.   The great mission pioneer, Hudson Taylor, kept one prayer in his Bible as his bookmark.  The prayer’s first line went like this.  "Lord Jesus make thyself to me, a living, bright reality."  And every day, several times each day, Hudson Taylor made that his prayer.  He asked.  That’s where it begins, with asking, simply saying, God, make yourself real to me.  

But as you ask, you seek.  You seek as Paul puts it to comprehend the love of God.  But comprehend doesn’t do this word justice.   In Greek, this word literally means to wrestle someone to the ground and rob them.    Now why does Paul use this word?  It’s because as you go through life, you can miss the power of God’s love unless you literally grab it and wrestle its reality into your very heart. 

A good bit of the time, when I am with my son, I am just doing the job, feeding him, changing his diaper, playing with him, and that’s all good.  But every now and then, I look at him and realize that what a miracle he is, this little child my wife and I brought somehow into this world.   And the reality of that just blows me away.  And when I am doing that, I am wrestling down, grasping a reality that too often I miss.   But when I do, it gives everything, even a diaper change, more depth than ever before.  

Paul is asking you to do the same with comprehending God’s love.   And in Jesus, God has given you a way to grasp that love like no other.  

In the last two weeks, if you’ve been paying attention to the news, you’ve probably heard of the Khan family.   And I am not interested in stepping into the mess of those current events.  But I haven’t been able to get the story of Captain Khan’s death out of my head.  You see.  Khan was inspecting a guard post when a taxi began to speed right towards him and his soldiers.  But Kahn didn’t run away from the car.  He ran toward it, a car that was literally a bomb.  And he took the blast, a blast meant for a mess hall just inside that gate where hundreds of soldiers were then eating.   On that day, he made the ultimate sacrifice for his soldiers.  And those men and women know they owe a debt to Khan they can never repay.  That moves me. 

It moves me not only because of the nobility of that sacrifice, but because it reminds me that’s what God did for me.   In Jesus God took the destruction speeding towards me.  And in Jesus God did it, even though I was his enemy, even though I had done nothing to deserve the sacrifice.  But he did it because he loved me.     And that is a debt I can never repay.   And as I think about that, I begin to grasp just a little bit the height, the depth, the breadth of God’s love for me.

But to experience that love, you can’t do it alone.  That’s why Paul says, that you comprehend this love with all the saints.  This sort of experience happens in community.  Growing up, it happened for me in my church youth group.  At other times, it’s been monks in Georgia or young people in France, but it always happened with others.  That’s why we gather in community.   And in that community, we usually just get a little hint, but as we ask and seek, then God will give us far more, a moment when it hits us, when we grasp just how deeply God loves us.    And when those moments come, they will carry you through.  They will carry you through darkness.  They will carry you in joy, and in sorrow, in sickness and in health.   And they will create in you, something new; something wondrous;  the fullness of God.   So ask and seek, that you might grasp the height, the breadth, the depth of the love God has for you.    

Sunday, July 31, 2016

When You Face Real Darkness in your Life, How Do You Hold on Until the Light Dawns?

We live in a world where so many crave spiritual connection.   And why do they?   What do they want?    Maybe they want peace or contentment.   Maybe they yearn to find a sense of meaning in a world where things can seem so empty of meaning.    Heck, maybe they just want to feel better, happier; healthier.    And heck, why not?    Who wouldn’t want to have all of those things and more?  And yes, connection with God can and will bring you all of that, and more. 

But here’s the reality that many don’t want to face.   A lot of times, the path to that more will take you though some really hard places along the way.    You may need to go way down before you can rise up.   You will have times that you go through a lot of darkness, before you even see a glimmer of light.     

So what do you do when those times come?   How do you hold on till the light dawns?  How do you let God work even in the dark, even when you have no sense that God is even there?   In this the darkest, most downcast passage in the entire Bible, God shows you the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say.

How do you hold on in the midst of the deepest darkness?  How do you not only survive such times, but come through stronger on the other side?   How do you hold on to hope, to faith, to a sense of God’s love when you wonder if God is even there?    In these very dark words, God shows us the way.   You hold on by remembering that darkness comes, but that darkness cannot last, that in the deepest places of despair, where even God seems gone, that God has not; that in those moments, just the desire for God can be enough.

In the Bible’s songbook, called naturally the Psalms, out of 150 songs, you have one that offers no hope whatsoever.   You have lots that talk about hard times, but always you have a turning point, where hope, even deliverance comes.   But in this psalm, you get nothing.  If anything, it gets worse and worse as you go along.   In fact, did you notice? It literally ends in darkness.  The word darkness is the very last word of the song.  

What is going on here?  How can such a song even be in the Bible?  It can be there, because life can and does carry such darkness.   The Bible never takes you away from reality.  It gets you in deeper touch with reality.   And this song reflects reality, even though it’s a reality, that we’d all like to avoid.    But how does it help us?  

It helps us first of all because it punctures any illusion that we might have that a life with God always abounds in sweetness and light.   It tempers our expectations, and that’s a good thing.   Yes, you can pray and pray, like this man does here, and still find yourselves in a very dark place.    And in this song this writer finds himself in that place both outwardly and inwardly.    He is facing terribly hard things in the circumstances of his life.   He has lost friends and family, and on top of that, he himself is coming close to death.   But beyond that, inside, he has lost touch with God.   You can almost withstand whatever hits you on the outside, if you at least feel connected to God on the inside.  But to lose that on top of outward loss and heartbreak, I can’t even imagine.  I don’t want to.  But this man is dealing with exactly that, devastation around him, and devastation inside him.   He is praying to God, and getting absolutely nothing in return. 

What is God telling us through this man’s awful despair?  God is saying.  This can happen, even to Christians.   Yes, the Bible tells us that God works everything, even the hardest things in our life for good.  But the Bible also tells you that this side of heaven you may never know what that good is.   You can do everything right, and still, as far as you see it, everything goes wrong.   Now how does knowing that help?  

It gives a reality check to your expectations.   If before you went into a regular hotel room, somebody told you it was a honeymoon suite.   Well, you’d go in, and think, this is awful. But if they told you, it was a prison cell, then, you’d go in, and think, well….this ain’t so bad.   Here’s the point.   It’s still the same room.   It’s only your expectations that have changed.

And if you think that having a deep connection to God means your life is going to always be awesome, well, when hard times hit, it’s going to hit you, really, really hard.   If you think, well, I’m a good person, why is this happening to me?    Well, Jesus was a good person. And what happened to him?  What makes you think it won’t happen to you? 

False expectations can hurt you as much as any hard thing that happens to you.  But when hard things happen, this song shows you God can and will take your anger and despair.  This song rips into God.   The writer throws everything he has at God.   And as he does it, he throws himself a huge pity party.   Near the end, do you see what he says?   From my youth, I have been close to death.  Is that true?   Probably not.   But when you’re down in the dumps, you can end up seeing your whole life from that very dark place.  And this guy is there.  He is pretty much saying.  God, you have never been there for me, ever.     And then he goes further.  He tells God.  Heck, even darkness is a better friend than you.   He is probably saying, the darkness of sleep, gives me more comfort than you ever have, God.  That’s pretty harsh. 

But that’s the point.  In this song, God is telling you.  Look, I get it.   When your life really hits the skids, you’re likely to get really mad at me.   You may even end up saying awful things to me.   But guess what, when, it’s all over, I’ll still be your God, and you’ll still be my child.  Nothing you can do or say will ever change my love for you ever. 

But more than that, in those moments, even though, God’s love might seem to have gone.  In reality, God’s love may be becoming greater than ever.    When you’re in the dark place that this guy is, what does God’s love bring you?   It brings you nothing.   And that’s the point.   In such a time as this, you’ll learn the answer to a crucial question.   Will you love God for nothing? 

You see, when anyone first comes to God, we come looking for something.  We have a need, whatever it might be.  And we yearn for God to fill it.   And so God does.  We find more meaning or hope.  We get deliverance from a problem.  We experience his love.   But in the midst of that, one big question remains unanswered.   Did we marry God for his money so to speak, for what God could give us?   Or did we marry God for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow until death and beyond?   Are we serving God out of love or are we serving God out of self-interest?   When times like this guy is facing come, that question gets answered.  

And how does this song answer it?  It’s presence in the Bible tells us.  Yes, this man is getting angry.  Yes, he’s lashing out.    But he’s lashing out to God.   He’s bringing all this anger and bitterness to God.    He has not walked away from the relationship.   He still yearns for God, still desires God.   He is loving God even when he has nothing to show for it. 

Do you remember Mother Teresa?  Whenever I saw her on the news or in some report from Calcutta, even through the screen, I could sense God’s presence shining through her.  So when the priest who served as her spiritual advisor shared how for years she had lost any sense of God’s presence, it shocked me.  He told of how Teresa yearned desperately for that presence to return, how deeply she mourned that loss.     But still, even in that darkness, she never walked away.  She never walked away from the rejected and poor of Calcutta.   She never stopped praying and loving God.   And in doing so, she showed how deep her love went.  She loved God period.  She loved God for nothing. And that level of love did something extraordinary in her and in our world.     

And if you love God like that, it will do something extraordinary in you.   Your prayer may be nothing but complaints.  But it will still be prayer, and that will make all the difference.   In times like that, even your desire for God, however flawed and feeble it is, will be enough.   
And even in your darkness, God will be at work, even though you can’t see it.   After all, the writer of this song didn’t see it.   He acts as if this darkness will never end, that God has left the building never to return.  But we have a perspective he didn’t have. 

At the beginning of most of the psalms, it tells us who the author is.  And this one does too.   It tell us that a man called Heman wrote this song.   And I Chronicles 6 tells us who Heman was.  He was the leader of the Korahite guild of poets and musicians, who composed many of the most beautiful psalms of the Bible.   So if Heman helped write these magnificent poems, he helped write some of the world’s greatest literary works.  He wrote songs that have helped millions and millions of people over thousands of years.   And that means that even in Heman’s darkness, God was at work, so much so that 2,500 years later, his darkness is still helping us.   Heman thought his darkness was absolute, but it wasn’t.   He thought God had utterly abandoned him, but God had not.   

But in your darkness, you have more than just the perspective of Heman’s song.   You have the perspective that comes from the One who did enter absolute darkness, who entered that darkness for you.    You know the reality of the One who was utterly abandoned by God, who was utterly abandoned out of love for you.   You see.  Jesus got the ultimate darkness that Heman thought he got.  Why did Jesus get that darkness?   He got it so that you never would.   He became utterly abandoned so that you would never be.   Our self-centeredness, our selfishness, opened the door to a darkness that would destroy us.  But in Jesus, God took that darkness on himself, so that even in our darkest moments, we can know that the light of God’s love has not left us. 

Think about it.  On that cross, the ultimate darkness descended on Jesus.   And he could have walked away.   He could have said, “No way.  I’m not doing this. It’s not worth it.”  But he didn’t.   He stayed on that cross.  He stayed in that darkness for us.   If Jesus didn’t walk away from you when he faced his darkness, why would you think he would ever walk away from you when you face yours?

You know, as Mother Teresa struggled with her darkness, she came to see it as a gift.  She felt that God had given her a chance to identify with Jesus so fully that she had been given just a glimpse of the abandonment he had faced on the cross for her.  She felt that her suffering helped her identify more deeply than ever with the sick and wounded people she served, to see Jesus more than ever in their faces.   And while she may not have sensed God’s presence, anyone who encountered her, even if was through a TV screen, could see how profoundly it was there. 

In the middle of this prayer, in his despair, Heman asks this question of God.   Is your steadfast love declared in the grave or your faithfulness in the place of the dead?    And because of Jesus, we know the answer.  Yes, God’s love is declared even there. Even the darkness of death cannot overcome the light of Jesus’ love for you.   And because of that love, stronger than death, you can know.  No matter how dark your life becomes, the light of Jesus’ love still shines.   The Holocaust survivor, Corrie Ten Boom, said it profoundly.  She said.  There is no pit so deep that God's love is not deeper still.    

Sunday, July 24, 2016

How Does Change Come? Here Are the Two Key Steps that Bring Change

Five thousand dollars for six days or seven grand, if you want the Diamond plan.  And that’s before you’ve paid for your travel and hotel.  That’s what you’ll need to pay to have your Date with Destiny.    For me, it would be more like a Date with Debt.   But every year, 2500 people fork over that money to Life Coach Tony Robbins.   Why?  Tony tells them that in those six days their life will change. 

Well, I don’t have 5 thousand lying around, but I do have Netflix.  So I watched a film that chronicles those days in Boca.   And I did learn a few things.  Tony Robbins cusses a lot.   And he has a gorgeous oceanfront home in Palm Beach.    If you are taking in 15 million dollars in six days, that buys some nice things.  

But more than that, I learned this. People pay that money because they desperately want to change.    And they’re willing to take a five thousand dollar flyer to get it.   And whether you like Tony Robbins or not Tony sincerely wants them to change.   For six days and nights, he pours everything he has into helping that to happen.  

After all, the people in that ballroom in Boca look great.  They seem to have it all together.  But then you hear the stories, some of them heartbreakingly awful, and you get it.   A lot of these people are barely holding on, even to life.   And they know.  Something has to change.  Something has to change inside them.  

And let’s be honest, who doesn’t have something in their life they want to change.  And I’m not talking an outward circumstance.  I’m talking inside where nobody sees but you.   But what you see, you don’t like.  What you see, you don’t want.   Yet, you wonder.   How does it go away?   How do I become free?     How do I really change? 

In the words of this painful and heartfelt prayer, God shows the way.   Let’s hear what God has to say. 

Daniel 9:1-19

Everyone at some level has something, something they want to change.   It may be a habit.  It may be a way of thinking.  It may be a fear that holds you back, a wound that won’t heal; a belief that limits you.   But how does that change happen?   In this prayer of Daniel’s, we see how change happens.   It happens when humility and hope come together.  It happens when you humbly face the source of your pain, but even more, experience the hope that only God can bring.     It happens when instead of looking out, you look in, when instead of looking down, you look up.  

But reading this prayer, you can wonder.  How could these words bring about change?   They seem, well, so depressing.   But the words don’t so much bring the change. They point to the change that is already happening.    What Daniel is experiencing in this prayer, in his life, the Bible calls repentance.    And too often what this word means gets obscured by misperceptions that it simply means a type of remorse.    You did something wrong, and now you feel bad about it, really bad.  But anyone who has experienced that sort of feeling knows that it rarely leads to change.   Often, it leaves you stuck in the same bad place where you already were. But repentance actually means change.   The Greek word that the New Testament writers use literally means a change of mind, a transformation in the way you think.    And in Daniel’s words, that is what we are seeing.  We are seeing evidence of a transformation of mind and heart that has literally changed Daniel.        

And that change does begin with sadness and grief, but a sadness and grief that instead of paralyzing you, frees you.  Why? It actually connects you to the truth that you need to see.  The preacher Bill Coffin put it this way.   Honesty does not come painlessly;  As Jesus said, “The truth will make you free.”,  but, Coffin said, first it makes you miserable!    So how does the misery Daniel feels lead to freedom?

It happens first in where Daniel looks.   Years ago, I heard the leadership guru Jim Collins share a saying that’s stuck with me.   Collins said that good leaders when something goes well, they look out the window.   They celebrate those who helped make the good thing happen.   But when things go bad, good leaders look in the mirror.  Where did I go wrong?  In contrast, poor leaders did the opposite.  When things go well, they look in the mirror (Yea, look at me!), but if something goes bad, they go to the window.  They look for someone to blame.    And Collins’ words don’t simply work for leaders, they work for everyone. 

And they are working here in Daniel’s life.   It would have been simple for Daniel to blame the Babylonians for the destruction of Jerusalem.   After all, it was the Babylonians that destroyed it.     But Daniel knows that the weakness that led to that destruction began within.    It began when the nation lost its way, when they started putting their belief in power, success, wealth, things that didn’t ultimately matter instead of the God who did. And those false beliefs planted seeds that led to their demise.   That’s the truth he needs to see.  

And only in seeing that truth, in looking in the mirror at the failings of himself and his nation, can Daniel find the freedom that leads to change, to the return from exile for which Daniel yearns.  After all, he can’t do anything about the Babylonians.   Those leaders have already gone, conquered by the Medes and the Persians, that new leader to which these first verses refer.   

But more than that, if the problem began in the mirror, if the problem began in Daniel and his nation, then it can end there too.   He realizes that the way to change lies within them, within what they decide to do.    Only with the humility that comes with looking in the mirror, do you see that.     

Many years ago, I went to a sort of Tony Robbins type experience.   And one of the exercises that the leader did with us kind of rocked my world.  He asked each of us in the room to remember a time when we felt utterly powerless and alone.   I didn’t have to struggle for that memory.  I knew it right away.  

When I was in my early teens, I got bullied pretty badly.   A group of kids my age would gang up on me, and do things that well, terrified me.  I’ll never forget how scared I felt when they thought it would be fun to dangle me by my feet from an open window.

But the leader asked us to remember those times, and ask ourselves honestly.  Were you really powerless?  Were there things you could have done?   In my case, he asked me.  Did you ever talk to your parents about it?   Did you ever share the issue with a teacher?   Did you ever reach out to anyone for help?    I realized.   I had done none of those things.   I did have power in that situation.  I simply had not taken it.   Now as we did that exercise, he reminded us do so without judgment.  This wasn’t about beating yourself up.   This was simply about reframing the reality of your situation.   This was about, instead of looking out the window, to start looking into the mirror.

And when I did, I realized that even there I had more power than I realized.   But do you realize what power I had?   I had the power to ask for help, to look to a power larger than myself.  So why didn’t I?  

To be honest, I didn’t reach out because of pride. I didn’t want to acknowledge that I couldn’t deal with that situation on my own.   And in our lives, often what prevents change begins there.   We fight the battle alone.  Not because we need to, but because we don’t want to admit that we need help, that we can’t handle it on our own.    So we suck it up or we minimize the problem or maybe even deny it’s there.   We do whatever it takes to avoid facing the fact that what we face is bigger than us. 

But here’s a reality of life.  Bringing significant change often only happens when we bring someone in to help.  It’s why people hire trainers or go to Weight Watchers or see therapists and the list could go on.   But in life, you will face some changes that require far more than that.   

It’s why in 12 step programs, after you admit that you have a problem that is making your life insane, the very next step you take is face the truth that this problem you can’t handle alone.  And for this problem, other people can help but they’re not enough.  You need a power greater than yourself, greater than others, to restore your life to sanity.    And as millions of recovering alcoholics and addicts can attest, when you reach out beyond yourself, that help comes.  Healing comes.  Change comes. 

At times at night, our son Patrick has a bad dream.   And when he wakes up, what does he do?  He cries out.   And what do we do?  We come running.   We come to comfort, to assure him that he is not alone.  We come to make it better.   Yet how often the wisdom that my child exhibits, we fail to practice.    When change needs to happen, when problems hit that are too big for you, do you cry out for help?  Or do you hold your pain in rather than bring it someone, much less the only One who can truly heal it, who can bring the ultimate change you need?

But Daniel doesn’t go that route.  He cries out to God, to the only One who can bring the change he needs.    But why would God help?   After all, even though Daniel and his nation have suffered in exile for 70 years, they still haven’t gotten it right.   Even Daniel, who has risked death again and again for his faith, admits even he hasn’t gotten it right.   Yet still he asks.  Why?    It’s not because he hopes in his nation to get it right.  He clearly knows that won’t happen.  No, he hopes in God’s mercy to make it right.   But what Daniel could only hope in, we can trust in.    

For, while Daniel risked his life for love of God, in Jesus, God gave his life for love of us.  And Daniel could not ask for forgiveness on the basis of his righteousness, but on that cross, God in Jesus could and did, even as we nailed him there.   And because he did, because on that cross, he got no mercy, you now have mercy without end.   You have the mercy of the ultimate grace, the ultimate undeserved gift, the love of a God who brings you back, even from the exile of death itself.   And in that mercy, in that grace, anything is possible, not simply resurrection in the life to come, but resurrection, right here, right now. 

At the end of that Netflix movie, Tony Robbins tells this story.  When he was growing up, he tells the interviewer, he was simply trying to survive in a household with an unstable, abusive mother, doing whatever he could to protect himself and his siblings.   But as a sophomore in high school, he took a speech class.  He wasn’t so interested in the class as in a beautiful senior he wanted to impress.   So, to do so, he became the class clown, trying to crack everyone up.   One day, the teacher, Mr. Cobb, said some dreaded words.   Mr. Robbins, he said, please stay behind.  I need to talk with you.   Tony thought.  I am so busted.   But Mr. Cobb looked at him.   He said, “You think you know why you’re here. But you don’t.   I know you’re just trying to impress her.  I don’t care about that.  But I see how you can hold everyone’s attention.  You aren’t just a speaker, Mr. Robbins.  You are a communicator.   And I know about your home life too.  Tony was thinking. How can he possibly know about that?   So I am going to give you a speech called the Will to Win.   I want you to read it, and if that speech says what I think it does about your life, then I have this letter about a contest in persuasive oratory. I want you to enter that contest, and deliver that speech.   Robbins said. I read that speech, and it was all about not giving up, no matter what you face.  And that was me, a man just clinging on by sheer force of will.   And I entered that contest, and I won.   And then I entered more, and I won those.   And I realized. I had found a way to reach people, to connect.   As Tony tells the story, the tears start to come.  The interviewer asks him.   Why is it still an emotional experience for you to even tell that story?  Tony says. Because, I see it as a moment of grace.  That man, in my life, handing me that letter, seeing who I was in that moment, that was grace.  It was a lot I’ve done, but that was grace.  I didn’t create that….It’s a connection to the Divine, that it’s more than you, and I think that’s a healthy thing. 

Do you realize that?  It is more than you?  It is a God who has given everything in Jesu for you, so you can have abundant life, not just when you die, but right here, right now.   Where do you need that life? Where do you need change?  Where do you need God to bring you resurrection?   Wherever it is, let him work.  Let Jesus work his grace in you.