Sunday, March 18, 2018

How Good Words Change Your Life, and Especially the Life of Kids

Special note - Today the blog is geared toward children as it was my congregation's annual Easter Egg hunt Sunday, but the words are relevant to everyone.  

Today I’m going to tell you the story of Esau and Jacob.  Jacob and Esau were twin brothers.  That means, their mommy, Rebekah, had them almost at the same time, one right after the other!   But these twins didn’t look alike!  Esau had big hairy arms and Jacob didn’t.  They didn’t act alike either.  Esau liked to hunt wild animals.  Then he’d bring what he’d hunted to his daddy Isaac to eat.  Isaac loved it!  He was always telling Esau how great he was.   But Jacob didn’t like to hunt.  He liked to cook with his mommy in the kitchen. So, he hardly ever heard his daddy, Isaac say good words to him. That made Jacob very sad. 

As Jacob and Esau grew up, the day came for their daddy, who had become very old, to deliver a blessing, super-special good words to the oldest child.  Since Esau was the oldest, he alone would get these extra special good words.  That made Jacob very sad because daddy Isaac hardly ever said good words to him.

So, Jacob and his mommy came up with a crazy plan.  They would steal the blessing from Esau.  They could do it because daddy Isaac could hardly see at all.   Jacob made a big plate of all the food his daddy liked.  He dressed in Esau's clothes Then, he put a piece of fur on his arm.  And he went in to see daddy Isaac.   Jacob said.  “Daddy, it’s Esau.  I’ve come for my blessing, my good words!  I’ve even brought you your favorite foods that I hunted for you.”   But Isaac was puzzled.   He said.   “You don’t sound like Esau, but when I touch your arm, you feel like Esau.  So, I guess you are.”    Daddy Isaac gave Jacob the special blessing.  He spoke good words over Jacob, and Jacob felt so good. 

But the good feeling didn’t last.   When Esau came and found out that Jacob had tricked daddy Isaac out of his blessing, he got so angry.   He got so angry that Jacob had to run far away to live with his cousins.    And Jacob never saw his mommy and daddy again.   But still, God watched over Jacob.   God gave him a big and beautiful family.  And he and his brother, Esau eventually made up and became friends again. 

But why did Jacob do it?   Why did he trick his father?  He had to know that was not a good thing, that his father would find out, and he would get in big trouble.    Jacob did it because everybody needs a blessing.   Everybody needs someone, even a bunch of someone’s to say good things over them.     

That’s why years later, after God had changed Jacob's name to Israel, God gave the words linked below to be the last thing the children of Israel heard when they gathered to worship God.   God wanted them to hear a blessing, a good word. For that’s what a blessing is.   It’s a good word.  And here is that good word from Numbers 6:22-27  

When God made the world, that’s what he said, again and again, literally good words.  He said.  It’s good!! Now God already knew it was good.  After all, God made it, and everything God makes is good.    No, God was saying, how happy all that goodness made him.   Like today at the picnic. You might eat some of the treats in those Easter eggs, and say.  Mmmmm, that’s good!

And when God sees you, that’s what God does.  God goes.  Ooooo, you are looking good!  God says a good word over you.   But God does more.  God also says.  I will do all I can to keep your goodness going, to make your good better and better and better.  That what it means when it says God is blessing you and keeping you.

And everyone needs good words said over them.   That’s why we’ve given everyone this bookmark for something called Faith 5.   For on this bookmark, it reminds folks to bless one another and to help others bless them too.   That means every day, you take a moment to say good words to people in your life, your children, your spouse, your brothers and sisters, your friends.   It’s important that we say good words over each other.   If I say, I’m good or smart or wonderful, it feels ok.   But when you hear someone else say that to you, it feels awesome.    

Everyone needs good words said over them, especially kids, but also even my cat.   When my cat gets hungry, I feed him.  But do you know what he does then?   He keeps meowing at me.   He wants to sit on my lap and have me pet him behind his ears and scratch him under his chin. He loves that!  Then he looks up at me, and he’s so happy. 

That’s why in the blessing, it tells you that God will shine his face upon you.   Sure, you need God’s hand to help you, to feed you, to watch over you.  But even more, you need to see God’s face, to feel God’s delight in you, to know how much God loves you.   We need that from one another too. We need hugs and kisses.   We need to hear words of love.  We need good words spoken over us.  

And God so wanted to show us God’s face that you know what God did?  God came in Jesus and God became one of us.   So, he could eat with us, and laugh with us, and hold us in his lap just like that picture here.   

In a few weeks, we’ll remember that Jesus loved us so much, he did something amazing.  He gave us the greatest gift ever, so we could see God’s face forever.   And Jesus did it just because he loved us so much.   That was the best blessing ever!   

So, say good words over each other.   Moms and dads, say good words over your children.   Say good words over your spouses and family members.   And above all hear the amazingly beautiful good words of love that God is saying to you every moment.    And remember in Jesus, those words became real like never before.   Because they did, you have God’s face forever.  All you need to do is but turn and look and receive it, receive the gracious, good word God has paid everything for you to hear.  And when you hear that it brings you something amazing.  It brings you what the Bible calls, shalom.  Shalom means joy, happiness, peace, a life, whole and complete.      

So, The Lord bless you and keep you.  The Lord make his face shine on you, and be gracious to you; The Lord turn his face toward and give you shalom.   Amen 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Does Prayer Change Anything? Here Are Three Ways It Does

Thoughts and prayers.  Thoughts and prayers?   Why would anybody get upset about that?  But people do.   An awful event happens, like what happened in Parkland.  Then the tweets start coming, thoughts and prayers, thoughts and prayers.   And folks go ballistic.  Why?  It’s not that these people hate thoughts and prayers.   It’s that the words don’t seem sincere, at least coming from certain people.   From these people the words seem ploys to avoid action, ways to avoid uncomfortable realities.  That’s because they come from the people who could take action; who could change those realities.  And I get that.  I honestly do.   I understand why folks react that way to those words.

In fact, when Parkland happened, I more than understood.  I became one of them.  When I heard thoughts and prayers, the words rang hollow.   I prayed.  But when it came to praying with others, I couldn’t do it.   In the face of those lives lost, of those traumatized children and families, such prayers felt useless. 

I’m ok with how I felt.  Sometimes, you feel what you feel.   That’s not the question.   The question is, were my feelings telling me the truth?  Just because you feel, doesn’t mean the feelings are telling you the truth.  When it comes to prayer, especially in the face of senseless violence, does it do anything?   Do prayers have the power to change something like that?    In these words, God tells you.  So, let’s hear what God has to say. 

Does prayer actually change things?   If so, how does prayer do it?  In these words, from James, the brother of Jesus, God tells you.   Before prayers changes anything, it first changes you.  Then it changes your community.  And yes, then, it does change the world.

How does it change you?  To understand how it changes you, you need to see what James has been talking about before he gets to prayer.   All through this letter, James has been ranting against injustice, how the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.   Yet even as James rants, in his closing words he tells people.  Be patient.  Trust in the end, God will act.   And right before these words on prayer, he tells them, above all things don’t do this.  Don’t swear oaths.  Isn’t that a little weird?   Why does James get so worked up about that?   It’s because in oaths people use words to manipulate, to get what they want from God and others.   “I swear by heaven and earth, God, if you don’t do this thing, I’ll stop believing.”   Or, “I swear on a stack of Bibles, I won’t do it again, honey.”   At the worst, swear words even carry a certain violence to them.  And James knows.   Words that carry violence often lead to violence.  

So instead James says to people, when trouble hits, don’t swear, pray.  James gets more explicit than that really.   Literally James say this: Is anyone among you suffering from evil?  Then pray.   Heck, that covers everyone.  Who hasn’t suffered evil?   In fact, right now, everyone here is probably suffering from evil in one way or another.   Maybe, you’re paying a price for someone who did you wrong.   Or it could be anything really.  Evil is simply something that isn’t what God intends.  And since God intends fullness of life, anything that doesn’t bring you that fullness qualifies. 

So, whatever the evil is, when you bring it to God, what does God do?   God gives you a little glimpse of God’s perspective.  And that changes something.  It changes you. 

When someone does me wrong, and I bring it to God, God does two irritating things.  First, God points out ways I might have contributed, even in a small way, to the evil happening. I realize.  I have some responsibility, even if it is small.   But then God gives me perspective on that other person, to their frailties and pain.  When I start praying, I can’t pray just for revenge.  I have to pray for change, change for the situation, change in the person or maybe institution that did me wrong, and yes, change in me too. 

For the same reason, when good things happen, James tells you to pray too.   If you sing songs of praise, you’re not singing songs of praise to yourself.  You’re singing them to God.  And when you do that, that gives you perspective.   You can’t act as if you alone created whatever good thing happened.   God moved through lots of people and events to bring that about.  It’s not all about you.  

But in prayer, God doesn’t only change you.  God changes your community.  That’s why, James tells you that when you are sick, don’t keep it to yourself.     In the same way, when you mess up, don’t keep it to yourself either.   Bring it to someone.  

James doesn’t just tell you to do this because it helps to have people pray for you, though it does.  James tells you to do this because when you do it, it creates a community. 

Many years ago, for four months, I traveled the world studying churches doing extraordinary things.   On one of those trips, I ended up sitting in a men’s group that was part of a church in Chicago.   As the time for prayer came, one of the guys shared this.  He said.  “You guys know that I got married a year or so ago.   Well, at my job, I work with this other physician’s assistant.  We get along great.  I really like working with her.  That’s the problem.  I like working with her too much.  I’m scared if I don’t watch it, I could blow up my marriage.”  When he asked for that prayer, he was getting help for a real issue sure.  But more than that, he was creating a community.  He was saying.  I trust the people in this room enough to share honestly what’s going on with me, even the parts that aren’t so pretty.  And his honesty freed others to risk doing the same.

When that sort of honesty happens, it changes a community.  It makes it more real, more intimate, more powerful.   The folks who created, Faith 5, the 5 family practices you can find on the link and that are the focus of this series, knew that.   It’s why these practices begin each night with sharing your high point and low point of the day, and then later with bringing those things to God in prayer.   When a family does that, night after night or week after week, it builds intimacy, a deeper connection in that family than before.  

But as powerful as how prayer changes you, how it changes families and communities, James knows.  Prayer’s power goes far beyond that.   Prayer doesn’t only change people, it changes the course of nations.   That’s why he brings up Elijah.  When Elijah prayed for the rain to stop, it  changed the direction of a nation.  It defeated the agenda of an unjust and evil leader named Ahab, who was exploiting the people.   And James makes it clear.  If God could do that then, God could do it now. 

In fact, God did not so long ago.   He did it in 2003.

In Liberia, 18 years ago, slaughters like what happened in Parkland were happening every day.   In a nation torn by civil war, the government and rebels massacred entire villages.  They kidnapped boys and made them killers.   They kidnapped girls and made them slaves.   In two years in a country of only 4.5 million, 200,000 people died.   To put that in perspective 200,000 people had died in a place with the same combined population as Dade and Broward counties. 

But in the third year of that war, 2003, something happened.  A Lutheran women’s leader, Leymah Gbowee, called together hundreds of Christian women to pray for peace.  At one of those meetings, a Muslim, Asatu Bah Kenneth, said that she would bring Muslim women to join in praying too.
On April 1, this group of Christian and Muslim women dressed in white and gathered to pray for peace at the fish market in the center of the capital city, Monrovia.  They picked that place because the country’s president, Charles Taylor, could see it from his house. Every day, his motorcade passed the women. Before the week was over 2,500 women had gathered there to pray. 

Those prayer led to some pretty interesting actions.  They agreed to not have relations with their partners until the war ended.  (That’s some leverage!) Then, creating a joint statement calling for peace, they marched through the streets of Monrovia and demanded a meeting with President Taylor. And they got it.  On April 23, the women visited Taylor. Gbowee presented him with the statement onstage while the women sat in the audience, holding hands and praying.  And Taylor agreed to peace talks.

Next the group targeted the rebels.   They found out their leaders were meeting in Sierra Leone.  So, the women traveled there.  And they refused to stop sitting in front of their hotel until they agreed to peace talks too. 

On June 4th, those talks began in Ghana.  And the women showed up there too, to sing and pray.  It wasn’t easy.  During the negotiations, an international court indicted Taylor for war crimes. He fled back home.   War broke out in Monrovia even as the peace talks continued.   And in the midst of it all the Liberian women continued to pray in Ghana and at the fish market.

But by July 21, the women in Ghana had had enough.  They surrounded the building where the negotiations were taking place and they refused to let the delegates leave until a settlement was made.  When guards came to arrest them, their leader, Leymah Gbowee threatened to take her clothes off.  And the guards backed off.   Finally, the Ghanaian President, the chief mediator, agreed to meet with the women if they would stop surrounding the building.  The women agreed, but only if they would be allowed surround it again if the meeting didn’t go well.

Three weeks later, on August 11, the negotiators announced the terms for peace.  That very day Taylor resigned, and went into exile in Nigeria.  The Liberian women returned home and held a march of victory.

And over the next two years, these women aided the government in getting democratic elections. They registered voters.  They set up polling stations.  And on November 23, 2005, the Liberian people elected their country’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.  And in 2011, Sirleaf and Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize.  And you can see the inspiring documentary that tells their story, and if you have Amazon Prime it's even free

When these women prayed, it changed them.  They discovered through their prayers that they had more power than they ever imagined.    It changed their community, breaking down the barriers between Moslems and Christians as they prayed together for peace.   And in their prayers, they stopped a war; they sent a dictator to exile; and helped elect the first woman President of their country.  That’s not bad, huh?

So, were my feelings telling me the truth?  No.  Prayer has power. 

After all, when you pray, you never pray alone.   As James puts it, the prayers of a righteous person is powerful and effective.  And, Jesus, the ultimate righteous one is always there praying with you.   And as you pray, Jesus will change you.   And as you get honest and ask prayer from others, Jesus will change your family, your church, your community.   And in those changes, Jesus will lead you in ways that will change the world.  

So, what do you need pray to God about today?  What do you need to share in prayer with others?  What ways will God lead you through your prayers to change the world.   Let us pray. 



Sunday, March 4, 2018

What Keeps Your Feet on the Ground When So Many Are Losing Their Footing?

I avoid it as much as I can.   It used to be because when I went there, 15 minutes disappeared before I knew it.  But now, I avoid it because I don’t know what I’m going to find.   Inevitably someone, somewhere will be having a fight about something.   And usually the fight has gotten ugly.  All of that depresses me.   In the past, people used Facebook to show off their holidays; brag on their kids or grandkids; maybe show you a cute cat video.   Now, many use it just to have fights.

I don’t simply see it on Facebook alone.  I see it on the road, in the stores, on the sidewalks.  No matter how much money people have or how many things they can watch on TV or the internet, so many seem so unhappy about everything.   It’s led millions to get addicted to painkillers, so much so that their overdose deaths have lowered life expectancy for everyone.  That hasn’t happened in 25 years.  You have children afraid to go to school because someone might shoot them.   It feels as if people have lost their footing.  And, it feels that way because clearly lots of people have. 

In the midst of a world like that, how do you keep your feet on the ground?  How do you not let your life get highjacked by all the things that can twist it up?  In these words, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.   

How do you keep your footing when so many things are happening that can easily push you off?  How do you stay rooted in what really matters, even know what really matters?   In these words, God points you what will always keep your feet on the ground, this book   But, here’s the problem.  Lots of people have no idea how this book does this.  So how does it?  The Bible does two main things.   It orients you and it confronts you.

But before we get to that, let’s ask an even more pertinent question.  Why should you pay attention to the Bible at all?  

Why should anyone take time to regularly read an ancient text, most of it well over 3,000 years old?  Yes, it’s been around a long time.  That counts for something.   But no one is guiding their life with stories about the Egyptian gods, and those stories are older.     And sure, the Bible counts as great literature.   But just because you appreciate Shakespeare, doesn’t mean you base your life on it.   So why focus on this book?

In the first sentence we read, you find the answer.  The writer exclaims.  “Oh, how I love your law!”  He’s not just talking about the ten commandments.  He’s talking about the whole book.  He calls it law, because all of it has that authority.  And when you think law, don’t think about law like the speed limit.   No, think about law, as in the law of gravity.   The film-maker Cecil B.DeMille put it well.  “You don’t break the ten commandments.  You break yourself against the ten commandments.”

After all, whose law is this?  This is the law of God, the creator of reality itself.   When you pay attention this book, it’s reality you are paying attention to because the creator of reality inspired it.   Here, God speaks to you.  God speaks to you very, very personally.    So, what is God saying?  

When I was growing up, one of my youth leaders, described the Bible as like the owner’s manual to your car.   It contained the manufacturer’s instructions so to speak.   I appreciate his intent.  But he still got it wrong.  The Bible hardly even gives you practical tips like an owner’s manual will.  
Don’t think of the Bible like that.   Think of the Bible as a compass.  Do you notice in just the few verses that we read all the allusions to a journey?   Three times in just nine verses, the writer talks about feet or a path, including the most well-known verse.  “Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.”          

God is telling you.  I am speaking to you here, to keep you from getting lost, to keep your feet where they need to be. 

When my dad was learning how to fly a plane, his instructor early on taught him a valuable lesson.   They flew into this huge cloud, and as they went through it, the instructor asked him.  “So, tell me.  Are we flying right side up or are we flying upside down?”   My dad looked at him wondering; why had he asked such a ridiculous question?  Of course, they were flying right side up.  That was obvious.   Except they weren’t.   In the few seconds they were in that cloud, the plane had turned upside down, and my father had not noticed it.   How did the instructor know?  He looked at the instruments.   He said to my dad. “Your eyes will fool you, but the instruments will always tell you the truth.”  

Many years ago, I remembered that when John F. Kennedy Jr. died flying to his family home in Martha’s Vineyard.  No engine malfunctioned.  No lightning struck that plane.    JFK Jr. had not yet learned to read his instruments.  So, as he flew, he got confused by what he saw.   He thought he was flying up.  Instead he flew his plane directly into the ocean.    

In the world in which we live, all sorts of things will throw you off course, have the power to crash your life.    But when you come to the Bible, it has the power that those instruments had in my father’s plane.  Here, God keeps you oriented, keeps your feet literally on the ground. 

And God isn’t giving you a huge spotlight to guide your steps.  God is giving you a lamp.   Growing up, I went to church camp in Tennessee.  At night, I would take the trail back to my cabin.  It didn’t matter how often I had walked that trail, without a flashlight, I’d either get lost or stumble over a root I had forgotten was there.   If you don’t keep coming back here, you’ll find yourself off the path before you know it.

And even if you do come here, you still can miss the path.  So, what does God do then?  God confronts you.   

A few weeks ago, I was talking to my wife about the challenges our church is facing.  She said to me.  “You can’t figure this out on your own.  You need to talk to someone ahead of you, who has insights you don’t have.”    I was offended.  But after I got over my offense, I had to admit.  She had a point.   The next day, I booked lunch with a pastor in Miami to learn how he had led his church to growth. 

I did not like what my wife said to me, but I needed to hear it.  At an elders’ meeting this week, an elder raised a concern about my work that I didn’t appreciate.   But, afterwards, when we talked further, I first told him that I appreciated his comment.   Then I caught myself.  I said, “No, I didn’t appreciate it, and that’s why I needed to hear it even more.”

If you don’t appreciate what the Bible has to tell you, don’t dismiss it.  It’s often the thing you need to hear the most.   And if you think, “Well, we’ve advanced far beyond that thinking.”   Realize this.  You don’t know what you think you know.   Do you realize half of the things your grandparents believed or knew, people now see as not only wrong, but often offensive?   And a hundred years from now, folks will be thinking the same thing about a lot of things you think you know.    When the Bible confronts you, listen to it.  Wrestle with it.  Pray over it.  But whatever you do, don’t ever dismiss it. 
Don’t ever dismiss it, because what you read here, didn’t stay here.   When you read this psalm all the way through, you might notice something disturbing.  It’s almost like the writer doesn’t just study the law.  He worships it.   What is going on?   Maybe he is sensing that this word will become more than the written page, that this word will come to life.  Or as the gospel of John puts it, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” 

You don’t dismiss this word, because this word became flesh.  After all, what do you use words for?  You use them to communicate.   And God far more than words to communicate his love to you.  God became one of us.  In Jesus God died for us, went through agony for you.  Why?   He did it to bring you home.  He did it so that so that even when your feet left the path, you would never be so lost that God could not find you.   And when God came in Jesus, he listened to these words.   He guided his life by them.  And he fulfilled them on that cross.

So, listen to these words.  Read them.  Study them. Meditate on them.   Let them guide you.  Let them confront you.    If you ever wonder why you can trust them, look at this God who made them flesh and out of love laid that flesh down for you.   If you can’t trust a love like that, what can you trust.       

Sunday, February 25, 2018

When something like Parkland happens, 3 things you need to do to understand where God is in such awfulness

It’s happened.   Oh boy, has it happened.   It makes me nervous.   He is listening to everything.  I know because I hear him repeat it back to me.   Those of you who have had young kids, do you remember when that happened, when your children started picking up on everything you said?  

That time has come with our son, Patrick.  And I worry about it.   I mean, every now and then, I forget he’s listening.  I think.   “Oops, did I say a bad word?  I sure hope he doesn’t repeat that.”    After all, kids can pick up on stuff we’re doing and saying even more than we can. 

It reminds me of a joke my dad told when I was growing up.  It goes like this. This family had invited their pastor over for Sunday dinner.    The father of the family wanted to impress the new preacher.  So, he asked his daughter.   “Honey, bring that book that we all love to read together as a family each week.”   The girl looked a bit puzzled.  Then her eyes lit up, and she dashed out of the room.   A few moments later, she came back, bearing the precious book, the Sears and Roebuck Catalog.   It’s a bit dated, but I like it anyway.  I can still see how my dad’s face broke into amusement every time he told it. 

But over the past several days, I’ve had to worry about a different sort of telling.  I've had to be careful about what I say in front of my son because of something almost unspeakable.   When it comes to Parkland, my wife and I cloak our words.   We hide that terrible reality from him.   But I know the day will come when we can’t hide those things; when he will come to know just how broken our world is.  

When that day comes, how will I answer his questions?  How will I explain to him where God is, what God is doing, when such awfulness happens?  But who am I kidding?  Not only do kids struggle with those questions.   Everyone does.   From the blood in the halls of Stoneman Douglas to the children buried in the rubble of Damascus, ugliness and senseless brutality runs rampant in our world.   So, what do you say to your kids, to your grandkids, to yourself in the face of that?   In these words, God points the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

When terrible things happen, what do you say?  How do you understand what God is doing in the midst of awful acts, of senseless tragedies, of immense injustices?    In these words, some of Moses’ last words to his people, God shows you the way.  God shows you that the way to understanding lies in doing three things when it comes to God: listening, acting and remembering.

And that first thing, listening, God tells you right at the beginning in the very first word we read.  In fact, that first word became the shorthand for the most important statement of belief in all of Judaism.   When Jews talk about this faith statement, they simply talk about the Shema.    And what does Shema mean.  It means to hear.  For years, I did not get the significance of that one word, of how crucially important that word is to everything.    To get that, a Hollywood movie director had to teach me.

It happened late one night as I watched James Lipton host a show called Inside the Actor’s Studio.  Lipton, a well-known acting coach, interviews top actors and directors before his students and the cameras of the Bravo cable network.   That night, he was interviewing Steven Spielberg.   At the end of every interview, Lipton asks the same set of questions.  And the last one is always this.   “If heaven exists, what would you like God to say when you arrive at the pearly gates?  When he asked this of Spielberg, Spielberg thought for a moment, and said this. “I’d hope God would say to me, thanks for listening.”  

Spielberg explained his answer with the words we just read.   As a Jew, he said, the core belief of my faith, the Shema, calls me to do just that.   Before anything else, even before the command to love, God commanded him to listen, as in: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”  Do you know why God put that at the beginning?  God put it there because you and I are so bad at it. 

When I first started in ministry, I had this leader, Ed Robles, on the church board, who used to drive me nuts.   Every meeting, he would bring up some thing he was concerned about.  We would address it, and then move on.   But you could almost set a clock by it.   15 minutes would pass, and he would bring it up again.   We would again address it and move on.   Then 15 minutes later, he would bring it up again.   Finally, I got it.   Ed wasn’t an idiot.  He hadn’t forgotten that he had brought it up.   No, he brought it up, because as far as he was concerned, we had not addressed it.   And he wasn’t going to give up until we did.   So, I stopped the meeting, and we all actually listened to what Ed was telling us.   And two amazing things happened.  First, we discovered that Ed had a very important issue that we had missed.   And second, after we had listened and really dealt with the issue, Ed never brought it up again. 

Yet, what I learned with Ed about listening, I keep forgetting.   I forget it with my wife, with my son, with my staff, heck with everyone.  I imagine that a number of you might even be thinking.  “Yeah, he forgot about it with me too.”    God understands that forgetfulness.  That’s why God spends the next several sentences here giving you ways to remember to listen (recite them to your children, talk about them when you are at home etc); to not let prosperity and wealth dull your hearing (take care that you do not forget the Lord…). 

God knows.   Too often, you and I simply don’t listen.   How often when someone talks to you are you formulating your response while they’re talking?  How often when someone confronts you about something are you already developing your defense even before you even know what the problem is?    One of the painful revelations that has come after the awfulness in Parkland is how many people weren’t listening, weren’t listening to a young man who was going into a terribly dark place.   And what you and I do with others, we do even more so with God.  

When if you visited the doctor and did the following?   You carefully shared all that was bothering you, and then said.  “Wow, thanks doc, I feel so much better.”   And you left the room without giving the doctor a chance to say a word.   Would that make any sense?   Isn’t the point of the visit to hear what the doctor has to say about what you tell her?  Yet what would be ridiculous with a doctor, people do all the time with God.     

This series that we are doing during Lent takes its inspiration from something called Faith 5, a way for people, either families or family like groups to connect with one another and with God.  And wisely, the creators of Faith 5 have put listening right at the top of the process.  First, you share your joys and concerns.  You listen to one another, a place where often God will speak.   And then, you read scripture, a place where God is always speaking.  You begin with listening. 

Life, especially life with others and with God, has to begin with listening.  And listening becomes even more important when awful things happen.   It’s why so many rightfully commended our President for what he did on Wednesday.   What did he do?   He simply sat in a room with a bunch of heart-broken and often angry people and listened.  

But it course, what begins with listening has to go further.   It has to move towards action.  Yet, if you move to act without listening, you’ll almost always go wrong.   And often where you go wrong, is without the listening you end up blaming God.

That’s why Moses warns the people to not put the Lord your God to the test, as they did at Massah.   To understand what sort of test Moses means, you need to understand what happened at Massah, which by the way is a word that actually means test.   The Israelites were running out of water.   And they went to Moses and said.  “You and God have led us out in the desert to die.  So, we’re going to kill you, and go back to Egypt, where at least we’ll have water.”    Basically, through Moses, they were saying to God.   “God, if you don’t deliver us, we’re taking our marbles and heading home.” 

And they presumed the worst about God.  They presumed that somehow this God who had powerfully delivered them from slavery to a superpower was now abandoning them in the desert to die of thirst.   Does that make any sense?   But that’s what they thought.   And on top of that, they had a slavery mentality.  They still behaved as if it was God’s job to do everything for them, that they couldn’t figure it out for themselves. 

And when you test God the same things happen.   You presume that God doesn’t care.  Then in your anger, you say God if you don’t deliver, then forget about me trusting in you.  And the whole time, you’re often not acting as if you have any role in solving the problem yourself.

Years ago, I heard a story about a couple who were walking down the street, and they saw a homeless
family with young children begging on the sidewalk.   The whole thing troubled them so much they went home and prayed to God.  “God, what are you doing about that poor homeless family?”  Do you know what God said?  God said, “I created you.”

The great preacher, George Buttrick put it this way.   God’s providence is not in baskets lowered from the sky, but through the hands and hearts of those who love him.  The boy without food or shoes made the proper answer when a cruel woman asked, “If God loved you, wouldn’t he send you food and shoes?”  The boy replied, “God told someone, but they forgot.”

When the unspeakable hit Parkland, what did Parkland do.  They acted.  And yes, those actions included helping the wounded, comforting the grieving, and praying for one another.  But it also included a lot of moves toward change.  They realized their elected leaders could have done things to prevent those senseless deaths.   And so, they’re challenging those leaders to do those things now.   

That’s why the church I serve works with other churches in Bold Justice, to change things.  The very things we’re fighting for will help make Parkland’s vision of never again happen.  We’re fighting for civil citation that effectively diverts kids from lives of violence and crime.  We’re fighting to get every officer training to understand the mentally ill so that those who are vulnerable get protected, and those who might harm themselves or others get the help they need.   And we’re fighting to change assisted living in Broward so that the deaths at Hollywood Hills never happens again either.     Do you want to know how you can help make those changes happen?  Walk a few feet into the chapel after worship today.   You want to help Parkland, show up in that room after worship. 

But in this acting, how do you know?  How do you know God does have your best interests at heart, that God does care?  That’s where the remembering comes in.   What does Moses tell the people to do when their children ask.  “Why do we do all these things?”   Moses tells them to tell the story, the story of how God delivered them.    And as we get ready to celebrate Easter, the children of Moses will be telling that story again at Passover.   On that night, they will remember how when God’s judgment took out the Egyptians, it passed over them.   That judgment passed over the Israelites not because the Egyptians were so bad and they were so good.   It passed over because God told each family to slaughter a lamb and place its blood upon their doors.  And when they did, the judgment passed over.   Why did a lamb have such power?   It didn’t.  But it pointed to the One who does.  Thousands of years later, when John the Baptist sees Jesus coming, he says.  “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”  

In the story of Noah, God puts a sign in the sky to mark God’s promise that such death and destruction will never come again.   What sign does God put?  God puts the sign of a bow, of a weapon of war.   But which way does this bow point?  It points to the heavens, to what folks thought of as the home of God.  God is saying this death and destruction will not come, because I will take that hit.   I will take that death and destruction into myself so that you will never have to.  

And when you remember that story of a God who kept that promise on the cross, who, there, became the ultimate Passover lamb, then you know what to tell your kids, your grandkids, yourself.   This is the God I know, the God who gave everything so that the evil in Parkland will never have the last word.  No.  God’s grace will.   God’s justice will.   God’s infinitely powerful love will, a love sealed with God’s very life.  And before that last word, no evil, not even death itself will stand.   So, when evil strikes, listen, and act, and remember.  

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Here Are the Two Things that Everyone in a Family Needs to Understand

I love my family.  I'm grateful for them.   But this family thing gets complicated.  As the writer Donald Smith put it once: The family seems to have two predominant functions: to provide warmth and love in time of need and to drive each other insane.

Maybe Smith exaggerates, but he’s got a point.  How many of you have a great relationship with every person in your family right now?   Is there a family member you’d rather not see at Thanksgiving dinner?  

Still, whatever the complications of your family, none of us would be here without them, right?  And beyond that, family or having something like family literally keeps you alive.   If you have strong relationships, your odds of living longer increase by 50%.  That’s 2x times better than the benefits you get from physical exercise.  Do you get what that means?    You need connection and community even more than exercise to live.

And after the horrors of this week, as I saw parents embracing their children, and other parents realizing that very embrace had been torn away, I realized just how precious family can be.   Then I read that the young man, who made this horror, hardly had a family, had become an orphan at 18.  I heard him described with that word heard again and again after so many of these awful acts; he was a loner.      

And here’s the painful reality.  In his loneliness, he wasn’t alone.   Almost 1 in 3 Americans describe themselves as lonely.  Some studies say it is closer to 1 in 2.   And those numbers tell a tragic story. 
Family often is not being what family needs to be.  But how does family become that?  And if or when your family fails or falls away, how do you find relationships that give you that family-like intimacy and connection that you need, that everyone needs.  In these words written to a different sort of family, God shows the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

In the world today, often family doesn’t mean all that family needs to mean.   People get disconnected, isolated.   But how does family become all that family needs to be?   And if family fails or falls away, how do you find a community that fills that family need?  In these words, God tells you by reminding you what family needs to mean.   Family means a community you don’t choose, and one that calls you on things others won’t.  And in those two things, God points you to the ultimate family that everyone needs.                

At the very beginning of Paul’s words here, God tells you what type of community God is creating among Christians.   God isn’t creating a club or even a movement.  God is creating a family.    That’s why God begins with not one but two family-oriented words. In most translations, you can miss it.   What you see here in verse 10 as love one another in mutual affection, literally translates like this, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.”    Now the first family word there, you can see pretty easily.   It’s the same Greek word as the city that the Super Bowl Champs hail from, Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.   But the second, you find right at the beginning, and that word is Philastorge, brotherly devotion.  God is saying the devotion I want you to have is the devotion that families have for one another.  

But what sort of devotion to families have?  What does it look like?   Well, first, in families you find yourselves devoted to people you’d never choose.   I have a brother, who is a great guy.  We get along great.  I’m grateful to have him in my life.  But we honestly don’t have that much in common.  If I met him at a party, we’d never become friends.  It simply wouldn’t make sense.   My family is full of people like that.   Your family probably is too.  Families put you together with people that on your own, you would never choose.   Sometimes that’s because you have an Uncle that’s obnoxious or a Cousin that drives you nuts.   But lots of times, it’s simply folks that are a bit different than you.   Families at their best expand your horizons, open you to new perspectives, help you understand different viewpoints. 

Twenty or so years ago, my family, the McGowan clan had a gathering during the Democratic National Convention.  One night, we happened to be watching Jesse Jackson, deliver a powerful keynote speech.   Something fascinating happened in that room.   Every time Jackson delivered inspiring words on what the government needed to do.  Half of the room exclaimed.  “Preach it, Jesse!  Amen, brother!”   The other half exclaimed, “How is he going to pay for that?  Our taxes are going to go up!”    It was clear.  Our family did not all share the same political perspective, but do you know what?  We were family.   We had a bond that went deeper than that.

In the same way, God is saying to these Christians in Rome.  In this community, you don’t get to choose either.  These folks who gather with you here, they need to become your brothers or sisters.   And that’s not because, you always think the same or enjoy the same things.  It’s because you belong to each other, because you all belong to me. 

And when a family is working the way a family needs to, you have folks there that call you on things others won’t.  Sometimes, I worry that I have bad breath.  But I never worry about that when I am with my family.  Why?   If I have bad breath, they’ll tell me.  “Kennedy, your breath stinks. Go brush your teeth.”   In this world, you don’t have many folks that will do that for you.  And it goes deeper than that.   When you are messing up in far bigger ways than bad breath, a family has folks that will call you on it.   Now sometimes, you may disagree on their perspective, but you’ll hear it, whether you agree or not.   Why?  They care enough to tell you the truth as they see it, even if they know it might make you mad.   And as irritating that can be, everyone needs that.   Why?  None of us see ourselves as we really are.   That’s why you’re shocked when you hear a recording of your voice.  “I sound like that, really?”   You need people who will see things that you can’t and will not only see it but say it to you.

That’s why this passage begins with the words, “Hate what is evil, and hold fast to what is good.”   That includes hating what is evil in your sister or brother, and calling them on it, helping them hold fast to what is good.   And in this family God is creating, God calls for that level of honesty, that level of love.   As the preacher Bill Coffin once put it.  Love without criticism is a kind of betrayal.   And God is saying, in this family, I don’t want that betrayal.  I want people who love you enough to tell you the truth, as they see it, even when that’s hard.   

Through Paul, God tells these Christians in Rome.   Be devoted to one another like that.  And all the words that follow proceed from this call to devotion, including that words that make it clear how difficult this sort of devotion can be.  Just hear them again.   Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.   Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.   Do you see what God is saying?    God is telling you.   This sort of love won’t be easy.   So, don’t lag in zeal.  Be patient in suffering, like when that sister or brother drives you nuts.   And keep praying to me to help you love folks that don’t seem all that lovable.    

For these things are hard, harder than you can realize.   Let’s take weep with those who weep; rejoice with those who rejoice.   If we’re honest, the weeping part usually comes easier.  When tragedy strikes members of my family, my heart goes out to them.  But when I see that cousin who has become way more successful than me, rejoicing in that, not so much. 

Or, even more profoundly for this week, these words.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil....Beloved, never avenge yourselves,... No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; .... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

In this new family, God isn’t calling people simply to love those in the family, but to do good to those far outside, even those who do great evil.  God is saying.  This is what I created family to be.   
But sadly, the Bible tells the story again and again of how this vision of family failed.   The first murder in the Bible tells you everything.   It’s Cain killing Abel.  A brother kills a brother.  The disasters that happen in families keep rolling down.    Jacob deceives his brother Esau and flee so Esau won’t kill him.   King David’s son, Absalom, tries to kill his father and take his throne.   And the list of family messes in the Bible goes on and on.

So, what does God do?   God doesn’t give up.   No, God gives up in Jesus everything to shape a new family, a family that breaks down every barrier, every prejudice, everything that divides people against one another.  

When Cain kills his brother, God says to Cain.  The blood of your brother, Abel, cries out to me.  That blood cried out division, brokenness, a world where families fell so far short of what God wanted families to be.   Yet, amazingly, in the New Testament, the book of Hebrews says thisYou have come to Jesus, the One who brought the new agreement from God to his people, and you have come to the sprinkled blood that has a better message than the blood of Abel.

For that blood cries out a love that will conquer every division, every jealousy, every broken place, that will heal every broken relationship; a love that defeats even death itself.   And in that love, God is saying, that even when your family fails, I won’t.   And by my grace, in communities like this one, I will create a new family, one that even in its brokenness will bring a new vision of love into the world and a new sense of family that will change history forever.   Wherever you are, whether your family is amazing or far from that, let that love of a God who in Jesus gave everything for you, bring you into a new family, where you become God’s beloved child, and part of a community, a family that by God’s grace is not being overcome by evil, but overcoming evil with good.