Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Two Experiences That Tell You that You Really Know God

When I first saw this, I wasn’t married, so I only kind of understood it.  But now that I am married, boy, I see how true it is.    It’s a sentence by the poet, Kathleen Norris.  Norris wrote.
…..the mystery of faith – it’s like a marriage, in that only the two parties involved really know what’s going on - ……

Isn’t that true?  Have you ever seen a couple, let’s call them Bob and Sue, and everything seems to be going great.   They look happy.  Their kids look happy.   And a few months later, you’re talking to a friend.  They ask.  “Did you hear Bob and Sue got divorced?”    And you sit there shocked.  In a marriage, nobody but those two people really know what’s going on.

The mystery of faith works that way too.   You never really know what’s going on.   Somebody seems to have a deep and close relationship with God, and then well, they don’t.  Maybe a tragedy occurs, and he walks away from any connection.    Or maybe you see an old friend, who seemed so deeply connected to God, but now she calls herself an atheist.    And you wonder. What happened? 

More crucially, how do you stop that that from happening to you?   How do you know God so that even when things get dark around you or within you, God’s presence still shines?   How do you know God in a way that grows and grows rather than becomes less and less?   In these words, God points the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say. 

How do you know God more and more?   How do you not lose touch?  Here, God tells you.    Knowing me, God says, means you live in the light rather than in darkness.   And how do you know you’re living in that light?    God will do two things.  God will warm you up, and God will wake you up.    But experiencing the warmth and waking that God yearns to provide doesn’t just happen.  It happens when you ask, and it happens when you listen.
When John gives this image of knowing God by walking in the light, he isn’t just giving you a pretty picture.   John is actually helping you understand what God actually does.  God does exactly what light does.    God warms you up, and God wakes you up.   And if at some point, you haven’t experienced those things, than you really haven’t experienced God.  
Last week, I shared these four questions that the Christian sect, the Quakers came up with to help people get to know each other.  Just to remind you, the questions go like this…
What kind of heat did you have in your house growing up?
What was the warmest place in your house, physically or emotionally?
Who was the warmest person in your life growing up?
And finally, when did Jesus become warm to you.

This week, God reminded me of just how literal that warmth that Jesus gives can be. 

I was talking with someone I’ll call John.  He told me this story.  John had gone to church his whole life, but not until middle school did it become real.   The day that it happened, he had gone to worship and heard the preacher say how God loves you even at your worst, even when your life is at its ugliest.   That night as John entered his house, he saw the ugliness and chaos in his own family.  He remembers simply saying these words.  “Jesus, can you love this?”    Then he went to the bathroom to get ready for bed.  And in that bathroom it happened.   He felt a warmth envelop him, like a presence holding him in his arms.   And a light poured into that room so bright, he feared opening his eyes lest he go blind.   And there in those moments, John discovered.   Yes, Jesus can love this, and when Jesus does, it changes everything.   

Now, if anyone is thinking; “Sheesh, I never saw any bright light in the bathroom.  Do I really know Jesus?”   Just remember. When Jesus becomes warm to you, it will be unique to where you are, and to who you are.  You see. At that point, John needed Jesus to appear that powerfully to him.  So Jesus met him there at his point of need.   Where you are when Jesus meets you may not require something that dramatic.

And on top of that, that sort of drama may not work for you, not because of where you are, but because of who you are.    I remember once talking to a funeral director about how different folks grieve.   He said that with some funerals, people throw themselves on top of the casket.   They cry and wail.   Yet, with other funerals, you get none of that.   Folks will shed a few tears, but you may not even see that.    But then the director said.  “Don’t get me wrong.  I can tell that all these folks are going through real, even terrible grief.   They just have different ways of showing it, of experiencing it.”  

I’ve talked to a man, who when he sings certain hymns in worship, finds himself deeply moved.    He sees no blinding light, but have no doubt.  He is experiencing Jesus becoming warm to him.

But however it happens, it has to happen.   Knowing God means just that, knowing God, not as a fact, but as a friend, feeling his warmth within you. 

But God won’t just warm you up, God will wake you up.    After John had this encounter in the bathroom, he made that his regular meeting place with God.   As part of that time, he began to keep a journal.  He’d often write in it, not just in that bathroom, but whenever the spirit moved.   He even carried it to school.   But he was terrified that his friends might find it, might discover he was a Jesus freak.   So he only wrote his first name on the cover.   He knew that a lot of folks in his school shared the name, John, so if anyone found it, he could deny that it was his. 

But then one night, in his bathroom time, he asked God simply this.   “Can I have more of you?”
And that night, he had the strangest dream.    He found himself at what appeared to be the gates of heaven.    And he went up to a person who seemed to be checking folks in, and gave the person his name.    But when she checked, she told him.  “I’m sorry.  I can’t find you.”   Shocked, John said.  “I have to be here.”   And the person said, “Let me go back and check the archives.”   She came back, holding his notebook in her hand.   Puzzled, she asked.  “Is this yours?”   He said, “Yes, yes it is!”    And she said, “Oh, that’s the problem.  It only has your first name on it.   We had no way of knowing it was you.”  

Now God’s wake-up call doesn’t need to be as dramatic as a dream from heaven.  God can wake you up even in the gruesome words of a tow truck driver. 

This past week, I had an accident, and just in case, anyone is keeping count, this is my second accident in six months.  Needless to say, that’s not a good thing.  But God wanted to make sure I got the message.  So first, my wife, who was in the area, came by to check on me, with our son.   Patrick, as a kid who regularly crashes his toys cars, wanted to see what a real crash looked like.  But as they left, he realized that I was staying behind.  And for some reason, likely the need for a nap, that really bothered him.  His lower lip began to quiver.  The tears started to come.   I assured him, I’d see him soon, and off they went.     Then the tow truck driver arrived, a man with well, an unusual sense of humor.   When I complimented him, saying, “It’s clear you’ve done this before.”  He simply said, “Actually, it’s my first day on the job.  But if I act like I know what I’m doing it usually works”    It soon became clear, he had been making a joke.  He had been towing cars for 25 years.   He then proceeded to talk about all these idiots on the road, talking or reading or texting on their phones, how reckless it all was.   And while he assured me he wasn’t talking about me, let’s be clear, he was.   But then I asked the fateful question.  “Wow, in 25 years, you must have seen some things.”    A word of advice, don’t ever ask a tow truck driver that question.    I learned more gory details about fatal crashes in Broward, than I ever wanted to know.   But as he talked, all I could see was the quivering lip of my child.  All I could think is how my carelessness could have robbed my son of a father.  

When you know God, God doesn’t just warm you up, God will wake you up.  Jesus will point out the things you don’t want to see, but that you desperately need to.   And the more you let God warm you, and wake you, the greater your knowledge of God becomes, the deeper your relationship goes.  

But if you want the warmth and waking, you’ve usually gotta ask.  Jesus isn’t rude.  He will not barge in where he’s not invited.   But if you open the door, he will come. 

But opening the door only begins the relationship.  Only listening makes it grow.  Yet sadly, listening is often the last thing people do.

I was talking to a young woman recently, who while not yet a Christian, got this better than many Christians do.   She shared how folks simply don’t stop to listen.   She shared how for years, when she struggled with a question, she would go to the beach and simply sit and wait. She would not leave until she had an answer.   And I said to her, “Did you know the answer, because you recognized the voice?”   And she said, “Yes, exactly.”   This woman may not say she knows Jesus yet, but in those moments on the beach, she came to recognize his voice.

By the way, Christians have a word for this sort of thing.  They call it natural revelation, how God speak to us through the world around us, on a beach or in a tow truck.  But the great Christian theologian, John Calvin, said, natural revelation only goes so far.  It’s like looking at God without spectacles.   You can see God, yes, but he’s pretty blurry.   But when you look at scripture, you put on the spectacles.  What is blurred suddenly becomes clear.

But putting on those spectacles requires the same listening the woman did at the beach. How do you listen to the Bible like that?  Lots of ways exist, but I’ll share one that the preacher, Tim Keller uses, and that I have begun using myself.   To listen to the Bible, Keller asks himself these five questions:

1.      How can I praise or thank God on the basis of this text?
2.      What here convicts me of something wrong in my life?
3.      If this is true, what wrong behavior or harmful emotions or false attitudes result in me when I forget this?
4.      What should I be aspiring to on the basis of this text?
5.      Why are you telling me this today, God?
You see, the reality is when darkness enters your life, when you fall away from God, it’s because you’ve forgotten something you once knew.   And asking these questions can remind you of it. How does this work?   Let’s take the passage that is our statement of belief today.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things were created through Him, and without Him nothing was created that was created.  In Him was life, and the life was the light of humankind.  The light shines in darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it
Here, you have so much to praise, the God who is life, whose life is your light, a light darkness cannot overcome.   And what might it convict you of?  Maybe, do you lose faith in the power of that light to shine in your darkness?   When I forget how God’s light shines, it usually leads to fear or self-pity, and the list of wrong behaviors, harmful emotions or false attitudes could go on.   So what do I aspire to through this text? To remember that no matter how dark things become, it can never overcome God’s light.   And maybe today, I need to hear this because well, between car accidents and chaos in Washington, I too easily forget it. 

Do you see how this works?   And maybe this questions will work for you.   But what matters, is that however you do it, you take time to listen, to look for this God in these words, in other words from scripture and in this world too.    And the more you do, the more God will show up, and the deeper you will know just how amazing and beautiful God is.   Do you want to know God, to really know God?    It begins by simply asking.    Say to God, I want to know you.   I want to know your warmth.   I’m even willing to hear your wake up call.   And when you ask, God will come.  And God will do in your asking, more than you could ever have asked or imagined or dreamed.  Let us pray.                  

Sunday, May 14, 2017

What Is The One Relationship That Rewires Your Mind Like No Other?

Have you ever experienced this?  You’re driving along, and you accidently cut into someone’s lane.  Or maybe you’re simply too slow for someone’s liking.  Whatever the case.  You upset someone on the road.  And boy, do they let you know it!   They make a gesture not suitable for worship.  They yell at you, give you a loud blast of the horn.  And the whole encounter, it upsets you.  It rattles you.   And it takes you a while to get over it.  

But how can one person, a complete stranger, affect you so powerfully, so quickly?  It’s because relationships have power.   Their energy, either positive or negative, impacts you.  Why?   Because that relational energy that a person puts out there doesn’t stay out there, it goes in here.  It goes into you.   You internalize it.   That’s how a random stranger’s anger on the road can affect you like that.   And if a random encounter can do that, think about the deeper relationships that are part of your everyday life.

According to the neurobiologist Daniel Siegel, your relationships, either positive or negative, actually change your physical brain.  Your relationships literally have the power to rewire your neurons.   Isn’t that why we honor the people that we do today; our mothers? 

Yes your mother gave birth to you, but she did far more than that.  She shaped who you are.  The messages she gave you, hopefully good ones, have shaped who you are.   Even if your mother has passed away, she remains with you.  Why?  How she shaped you, remains.   The preacher Frederick Beuchner put it this way.  “You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you.”..a world that those relationships created in you. 

But as crucial as your mother’s relationship is, it pales in comparison to the relationship we talk about today.    No relationship will rewire your mind like this on.   No relationship will transform your life like it.   What is this relationship?   How can you have it?  In these words, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Here, God points you to the one relationship compared to which, all other relationships pale.  And since you are sitting in a gathering focused on God, you’ve likely guessed what that relationship is.  But what makes a relationship with God so transforming?   Here God tells you.  That relationship changes who you are.  And as it changes who you are, it expands what you see.  It enables you to even hear the thoughts of God.             

In the last two times I’ve been with you, I have focused on these same four sentences at the beginning of this letter.  And today, we get at the one word to which this whole paragraph points.
John tells how he and his fellow apostles actually saw Jesus how they heard him, how they touched him.    John makes this point because lots of folks in his day had lost touch with the simple reality that God had actually entered into human existence in Jesus.    But why did God do this?   Was God simply bored, wanted a little earthly diversion?

No, John tells you that God did this because God wanted a relationship.  God wanted a relationship with you.     And there you got it.   You’ve got the whole purpose of Christianity in a nutshell.   God wants an intimate, an incredibly intimate relationship with you.  And God went to death and beyond to make that relationship possible.  

So if you don’t have that relationship with God, you’ve missed the whole point.  Every Christian belief, every Christian practice has one sole purpose, to bring you intimately in relationship with God.  And if you don’t have that, then you don’t have Christianity period.

It’s not about simply believing in Jesus, knowing the stories, memorizing the scriptures.  Sure, that’s all good stuff to do.  But if you believe in Jesus, but don’t know Jesus, intimately, well then, you’re not much better off than a demon.   I mean.  A demon believes in Jesus.   But a demon sure doesn’t have any intimacy with him. 

Now this might seem obvious, but to many folks who attend church their whole lives, it isn’t.  
For years, I’ve been asking a set of four questions developed by the Quakers to get to know people.   The questions go like this.
What kind of heat did you have in your house growing up?
What was the warmest place in your house, physically or emotionally?
Who was the warmest person in your life growing up?
And finally, when did Jesus become warm to you.

This week, I was talking to a guy, who grew up in a fundamentalist independent Baptist church in the Midwest.    His family showed up at church every time the door opened, and he went to the church’s school all the way through high school.    Later, after he left that church, he started going to a Presbyterian church.  He sang in the choir there.  He worked in Vacation Bible Schools.    And then he even served a year as a Presbyterian mission worker in Chicago.  There someone suggested that he should really think about seminary.   So sure enough, he enrolled, and that’s when it happened.  That’s finally where Jesus became warm to him. 

Get this. This guy went to a conservative Christian school from Kindergarten through high school.  He became an active leader in not only that Baptist church but a Presbyterian one too.  He even served a year as a missionary.    But he was in love with religion.  He was even in love with church.   But not until seminary, until seminary mind you, did he fall in love with Jesus.   And his story, it’s more typical than you think.

Because, when John talks about the relationship God wants, John makes it clear.  What God wants is something incredibly intense.   You can tell how intense by the word John uses, a word that the writers of the New Testament use a lot.  John uses the Greek word, Koinonia.   It usually gets translated as fellowship, but that term hardly does it justice. 

Literally, koinonia, means communion. It means that you share in something or someone.  For example at this table, we share in this bread and this cup, and in doing so, we share in the very presence of God.   We are communing with God, and thus we call this communion.
But what does it mean to commune with God, like John talks about?    What does it mean to share in the communion with the Father and his son, Jesus Christ?  

It means first that God isn’t just out there anymore.  God is in here.    As 2 Peter puts it, you become a partaker of the Divine nature.    Or as Paul puts it.  I live, yet not I but Christ lives in me.   Do you get this?   To become a Christian means you start sharing in the very life, in the very nature of God.

Now, don’t get any big ideas.   Sharing in the very life of God, doesn’t make you God.  But it does make you kin.   You literally become a relation of God.   In fact, that’s a helpful way to think of it.

In some ways, I look like my mom.   I have for example her nose, what she calls the Westbrook nose.   In other ways, I look like my dad.     But still we are different people.    But we are different people who share many characteristics in common.  Why?  We are related.
What does it mean then to be related to God?   It means you have become far more than you could even have imagined.    And maybe the writer, C.S. Lewis, came closest to describing that more.  He wrote.
The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. God is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. He said (in the Bible) that we were ‘gods’ and He is going to make good His words. If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful, but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. God meant what He said.

Now Christians are not there yet, but even now, the effect of the transformation begins to take place.    And it begins with how you see.    When I was growing up, I loved this song by the Christian singer, Amy Grant.    And even though, the writer, Gary Chapman, obviously wrote it for her, it still gets me to this day. 

The song goes something like this
I may not be every mom's dream for her little girl, 
And my face may not grace the mind of everyone in the world.
But that's all right, as long as I can have one wish I pray:
When people look inside my life, I want to hear them say, 

She's got her father's eyes, Her father's eyes; 
Eyes that find the good in things, When good is not around; 
Eyes that find the source of help, When help just can't be found; 
Eyes full of compassion, Seeing every pain; 
Knowing what you're going through and feeling it the same.
Just like my father's eyes, My father's eyes, My father's eyes, 
Just like my father's eyes.

That song still gets me.  Why?  It gives us a vision of what can happen when God’s presence starts living in you.  It changes the way you see.   You start to see as Amy Grant put it through your father’s eyes.  Your heart begins to get broken by the things that break the heart of God.

Now, your sight isn’t perfect, because you’re not perfect.   But still something happens. 

Growing up, my mom nurtured in me certain ways of seeing the world.  For example, in our household, it was always Kraft Mayonnaise, there could be no other.   And to this day, that’s where my eyes go when it comes to Mayonnaise.  Now have I strayed from the path, and used Hellman’s or even Duke’s at times, sure.  But still, my eyes always go back to Kraft.   Why?  What was once outside, my mother’s thoughts on mayonnaise have now come to live in me. 
And in the same way, you begin to see the world as Jesus sees it.   The same things bother you that bother Jesus.   The same things move you that would move Jesus.   Why?   Because Jesus is no longer out there.  He is in here.   He has come to live in you. 

And for the same reason, you start recognizing his voice.  Now our phones make it easy.  When someone calls you, the phone usually tells you who it is.  But if it didn’t, most of the time, you’d still know, wouldn’t you?   You’d recognize the voice. 

And when you start sharing in Jesus’ life, the same thing happens.  It doesn’t mean you hear some audible voice, but still when certain thoughts come into your mind, you recognize the voice.  You know, that’s Jesus.  

Now a lot of times that voice gives me insight about something I share here.   Other times, it points out a failing in my life, one I’d rather overlook.  But I know the voice.   And frankly, I’m usually carrying on a conversation with that voice throughout the day.   And for those sharing in Jesus’ life, that becomes pretty typical.  You may have set times when you talk to Jesus, when you make time to hear back, but prayer never stops there.  It grows and grows until that voice becomes just a beautiful, integral part of your life, a conversation that never ends. 

That’s why God came in Jesus to give you that, to give you the divine nature; to give you eyes to see as God sees; ears to hear God’s very thoughts.   So how do you get this?   Is there an esoteric practice that gets you there?    No.   It’s as simple as opening a door.  God doesn’t hide from you.  God pursues you.  But like any relationship, you have to be willing to open the door.    

If you go to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, you’ll see this famed painting, by the English artist, William Holman Hunt, hanging in the chapel there.   Hunt based the picture on a verse in Revelation that we’ll say together in just a few moments.   

You may not be able to see it here, but the door on which Jesus knocks is all grown over with vines.   Yet, that isn’t the most interesting detail.   If you look on the door, you won’t find a handle.   Hunt painted it that way, to make clear the tragedy of what he called “the obstinately shut mind.”   You see.  Jesus is knocking, always knocking.  That’s not the question.  The question is.  Have you opened the door?   Will you open the door?  

If you have, you already know how it has changed your life.   If you haven’t, why don’t you make this the day you do.  

Sunday, April 30, 2017

The Two Ways That You Need to Have to Actually Know God

289 million.  That’s a lot.    But that’s what I got when I put in this question to Google, “How do you know God”    That means lots of folks have lots of answers to that question.   But is it really that hard to know God?     Yes and No. 

And in the words you’re about to hear, you’ll find out why knowing God can be both surprisingly easy, and at the same time, not all that easy at all.   

Why is knowing God both surprisingly easy, yet at the same time not easy at all?   Well, first, If you get almost 300 million results to the question, how do you know which answer is the closest?   Now if you put anything into Google, you get a bunch of results.  If you want to know how to make lemonade, you’ll get 28 million    But still, this question of knowing God generates 10 times more than that.  And if you simply put the word God in, forget about it.  That gets you 1.8 billion!
So how do you really know God?   In these few short sentences, God tells you what knowledge of God has to look like.     Put simply, God tells you.  If you really want to know me, you have to know me both ways.   Only when you do that, will you really be on the road to knowing me. 

What do I mean by both ways?   Well, you see both ways in the words we just read.   How does John start out?   He starts out by talking about how he and the apostles know Jesus.  But how does he do that?    He gives you objective realities.  We heard Jesus.  We saw him.  We even touched him.    

Only then does John talk about having communion with God, about knowing God at a subjective level.  

Now, why does the letter start out that way?   Because in these words of John, God is giving you a crucial insight on what you need, to know God.    To know God, you have to know God both ways.  You have to know God as both an objective reality, and as a subjective experience.  
You see.   In the end, human beings don’t change too much.   And all through human history, when people want to grasp what the world means, what ultimate reality is, they go in one of two directions.   In one direction, they decide that what the world means can only be what I touch, see and feel.   If I can’t measure it, then it can’t exist.   They become in the word of the philosophers, materialists. If it ain’t material, then it ain’t anything basically.  But in the other direction, folks decide that you can only grasp what the world means, what ultimate reality is, through some sort of subjective experience.     It’s what you feel that matters.  Who cares if you can’t measure it?   It doesn’t make it any less real.   In fact, that stuff is more real than anything.    In John’s day, these folks called themselves Gnostics, from the Greek word for knowledge.   They were always looking for some sort of esoteric experience to discover God, one that would give them that special knowledge of God and everything.    Today you might call them New Agey.  

But to be honest lots of religions move towards this way of seeing the world, but not Christianity.  Christianity actually says that you have to see the world both ways.   And that means, you have to know God both ways too.    

Christians believe in a God who actually became a real human being, a human being whose life and death, and yes, even resurrection can be verified.   Christians believe in a God who came as someone you could actually see and touch, who is a verified fact in history.   That’s why Christian researchers do archeological digs to learn more about Jesus and the early followers.  For Christians, the material matters.   As important as subjective experience is, you can’t just know God only that way.   

A few weeks ago, I was in the car with my 3 year old son, Patrick, and we were talking about Jesus.   And Patrick just spontaneously said as he sometimes does.  I love Jesus.   I said I love Jesus too.   Then, Patrick asked.  He’s make-believe?   You see, Patrick loves Lightning McQueen, from the Disney movies, but he’s beginning to figure out that Lightning might not be real.    So, he was asking, is Jesus that way too.   And I replied, No, Jesus is real.   And that kind of blew Patrick away.  And it kind of blew me away too.  What that meant hit me all over again.   Yes, Jesus is real.   God became a human being, who walked actual roads in actual places that you can still visit to this day.  

For Christians the material matters.   That’s why Christians study science, and even fund it.  Do you realize that the Vatican has an observatory?   In fact, it has had one for a hundred and twenty five years.  And I’m not talking some little rinky dink think so the Pope can look at the stars.   No, the current director of this Observatory, has a Ph.D in Planetary Science.  He received the Carl Sagan Award from his fellow astronomers.    And he’s also a Jesuit brother.    Think about that.   The Pope spends serious money each year on scientific research.  

Because the material matters, Christians do all sorts of things to alleviate human suffering from starting hospitals (in fact Christians invented them) to hunger and disaster relief.   And it’s why John starts out his letter by talking about the God that he actually saw and heard and touched.  But just knowing that cannot be enough.   Knowledge cannot stop there.  

Many years ago, I remember attending a church service on Easter with my family.   And let’s just say that the preacher’s message that day left us underwhelmed.   As we drove away, my sister nailed what bothered us.   She said, “It was like he was talking about flying, but he had never flown before.”    Sure he knew about flight.   He could tell you how it all worked.   But at least the way he preached that day, you would never have thought he had experienced it. 

That’s why John moves in these sentences from talking about knowing the facts of Jesus to actually knowing Jesus, to as he puts it, to having fellowship with the Father and the Son.  

It’s like the difference between saber and conocer in Spanish.  You see, Spanish doesn’t just have one word for “know.”   It has two.    One, saber, means you know the facts.   For example, if I use saber and I say, I know Donald Trump, that would be true.    I know who Donald Trump is.  But if I used conocer, and said I know Donald Trump.  That means something quite different.   That would mean I’ve been hanging out with the President at Mar a Lago, that I know Donald Trump.   

And when it comes to Jesus, you can’t just saber know Jesus.  You’ve got to conocer know Jesus.  But how do you know that?   I mean, how do you know that you really know Jesus like that, not just as a fact, but as a friend. 

Two things will tell you.   First, do you yearn for everyone to know God like you do?   Does it make you sad that others do not have this relationship in their life?   Do you feel a desire to share the love that Jesus has shown you with others?  

Do you know the magician duo, Penn and Teller?   Beyond being incredible entertainers and illusionists, the vocal one of the duo, Penn Gillette, has become a well-known atheist.   Yet something happened to Penn that he found so compelling, he shared the experience on a video on the internet.  
After one of his shows in Vegas, Penn had gone out to greet the crowd as he often does, and he noticed this guy just hanging back and waiting for him.   After the crowd had moved away, the man stepped up and sincerely shared how much he liked the show.   Then he said, “I brought this for you” and he pulled out a Gideon pocket edition New Testament.  As he looked Penn intently in the eye, he told Penn, “I wrote in the front of this, and I wanted you to have it.  I’m kind-of proselytizing.  I’m a businessman.  I’m sane not crazy.”   And Penn as he reminisced about it on the video said with real emotion in his voice simply three words.  “It was wonderful.”   He talked about how the man had written not only a note, but 5 contact numbers and an e-mail if Penn wanted to get in touch.   And Penn went on to talk about how it bothered him how folks who professed belief often didn’t share it, because they felt it might be socially awkward.   And then he said words I don’t think I’ll ever forget, “How much do you have to HATE somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

Now we all know folks who have mishandled sharing the Good News of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean you don’t share it.   And if you don’t have any desire to do that, even if the prospect of it intimidates you, then you need to ask yourself.  How well do I really know Jesus?

And secondly, beyond this desire, if you know Jesus, you will discover that your experience of him transcends culture and time.    What do I mean?    Do you remember that prayer we prayed about half an hour ago?  It went like this:
Come, O Christ, our Light and illumine our darkness.  Come our Life, and revive us from death.  Come, Our Physician, and heal our wounds.  Come Flame of divine love, and burn up the thorns of our sins, kindling our hearts with the flame of your love…” 

Did those words resonate with you?   Has Jesus ever brought you light in your darkness or healed a wound?   Have you ever felt your heart kindled by the flame of his love?”  But get this.  That prayer comes from an Orthodox monk who lived almost 400 years ago in Czarist Russia.  What do you have in common with someone like that?   Simple.  You have a mutual friend.  The same Jesus saved you both.  And that sort of knowledge, it transcends every culture and every time.

When you know Jesus like that, not just as a fact in history, but as your faithful friend, it changes you forever.   When you know Jesus, not simply as a story in a book, but as the one who has rewritten your story, it moves you like nothing else.   Then you know what John means when he talks of the fellowship of the Father and the Son, because you have become part of it.   And like John, it has brought you a joy, a joy that sustains you, even on your worst days.  

Do you know Jesus like that?  If you don’t, do you want to?   All you need to do is ask.  

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Two Realities that Give You a Joy that Nothing Can Take Away

If you were here last week, you heard me say all sorts of exciting things about living in Resurrection Time.   You might remember the riff. 

It isn’t evil has the last word time.  It’s God’s love has the last word time.   It isn’t Jesus is dead and gone time.  It’s Jesus is alive and at work time.   Because it isn’t despair time.  It’s hope time.   It’s isn’t fear time.  It’s faith time.    Whatever you face, God will love you through it.  God will give you triumph over it.  Because it’s not death time.  Sisters and brothers, what time is it?  It’s resurrection time. 

Now that makes for a powerful Easter message, but how does it happen?   How do you actually live in Resurrection time?  How do you live with confidence and peace, even joy on a daily basis?   Can you live that way not only on your best days, but on your worst?   Is that even possible?
In the words you’re about to hear, and the words we’ll explore over the coming weeks, God shows you the way.   So, today, let’s start to explore what God has to say.

How do you actually live in Resurrection time?  How do you live with a profound sense of confidence and joy even on your worst days?  Is that even possible?  Here God says.   It is.  You can live with joy and peace.  But how?  It comes when you know the two realities that change everything.  But before you get to the realities, you need to understand the joy. 

As the apostle John, finishes up the words we just read, he tells them.   We are writing these things to make our joy complete.  He’s not saying.  I’m writing to you because it makes me feel so awesome to tell you these things.   Now, it certainly does make John feel awesome, but that’s not what he’s saying.   He’s talking about a joy they all can have.

You see.  As John begins the letter, he tells them.  I and my fellow apostles, we actually saw and experienced Jesus.  We saw it all.    But then the “we the apostles” switches to a “we” that includes not only the apostles but these folks too.   So when he gets to this last sentence, he is saying.  I am writing so that all of us, you and me, can have this complete joy that Jesus brings.  But what is this joy? 

The preacher Tim Keller paints a picture that describes it well.   When Keller and his family lived in Abingdon, Pennsylvania, outside of Philly, they lived in a neighborhood where all the houses were built into the slope of this huge hill, a small mountain really.  Soon after they moved in, Keller noticed something weird.   No matter how little or how much it rained everything in their yard, stayed green.  And whenever it did rain, their basement always flooded.    One day, Keller was talking about how weird that was with one of his neighbors.   And the neighbor said, “Oh, I thought you knew.  All our houses are built on a huge river.”   Underneath Keller’s house, all the houses of that neighborhood actually, he learned, flowed a huge underground river.   So even when a drought came, the lawns stayed green.   And sure enough, when the rains did come, the water didn’t just come down.   It came up too.

And that’s what God is telling you here.   God is saying. You can have a subterranean river of joy like that in your life.  Whatever you are going through, even the hardest things, this joy will be there, flowing underneath it all.   Now God isn’t saying that you’re going to go through life, with a blissful smile on your face, never crying or feeling pain.   That’s not joy.  That’s denial.   That’s detachment from reality.   Jesus felt grief, sadness, discouragement, all the painful emotions of life.   But like Jesus, whatever pain you face, you will have underneath it all, a powerful river of joy and peace welling up from inside you.  

Do you know the name of Helen Keller?   At one point, she became one of the most famous people in the world.   What was her first claim to fame?  She graduated from college, something no one like her had done before.   And when she did, she changed everything for those with disabilities forever.   When Helen was not even two years old, she experienced a brain illness that completely took away her hearing and sight.   But through the work of a remarkable teacher, Anne Sullivan, she learned to write and then to talk, and became one of the most celebrated writers of her generation.  

And when I was looking for quotes on joy, her words kept popping up.  In fact, I found more quotes from Helen Keller on joy than from any other writer.    And when I looked to understand why, I found accounts of this joy that characterized her life.    A newspaper reporter wrote this about a talk she gave in 1916;

According to those who attended, Helen Keller spoke of the joy that life gave her. She was thankful for the faculties and abilities that she did possess and stated that the most productive pleasures she had were curiosity and imagination. Keller also spoke of the joy of service and the happiness that came from doing things for others.

Just to give you some idea of what she did for others, among other things, she founded with the businessman George Kessler an organization to combat blindness and malnutrition around the world.  Today, that organization, Helen Keller International still exists. It has a budget of almost a quarter of a billion dollars.  And in 120 programs in 22 nations around the world, it works to eradicate blindness, hunger, and disease   

Helen Keller described the joy that led her to do these things and more as this.   She wrote.  “Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow.”   Helen Keller went through more than her share of pain but underneath it all, lived that holy fire, a fire lit by a profound experience of Jesus’ presence in her life.  How do you experience that joy, a joy that led a deaf and blind woman to this life of deep fulfillment and remarkable joy?

It comes from knowing the two realities of which John speaks, the two realities that Keller knew intimately.   It comes first, from a living day to day relationship with God, and second, from a deep certainty of how tightly God’s love holds you.   

You see.   When John uses this phrase “making our joy complete,” he wasn’t just making up.  He was quoting Jesus. 

Jesus before he died, said to the apostles, I am the vine and you are the branches.  You need to abide in me like that, with the intimacy that a vine has with its branches.  Why did Jesus tell them this.  He said.  “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” – the same phrase John uses here.

Jesus in those words isn’t simply talking about saying your prayers.  Jesus is talking about an almost constant interaction with God’s presence, one that connects you with this river of joy, this holy fire.  What does this look like?

Let me ask.  Do you sense God guiding you, restraining you, encouraging you as a normal pattern in your life?   For example, how did I know about this vine and the branches connection?  As I was working out this Wednesday and doing my devotions, I was mulling over these words on joy in John.  And as I read through the scriptures preselected for that day, there it was; these very words from Jesus on the vine and the branches. God was guiding me there, but other times, I sense God keeping me from my worst impulses or calling me on my own self-righteousness.   And trust me, I am not special.  Any person can have this connection.   And when you have this sense of day to day intimacy, it taps you into that river, so that no matter what you face.   You know.  You are never alone.

But God gives you more than just this intimacy.  God gives you a certainty that no matter how badly you mess up, his love will never let you go.  

It always stuns me when I hear people say something crazy like, “Well, it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you live a good life.”   Why in God’s name would anybody want a belief like that?   Who the heck knows what a good life looks like?    I mean. What’s the passing grade for a good life?   Every religion and philosophy has a different idea.  So do you just have to wait until you die to know, if you’ll even know then?   I can’t imagine a more anxiety producing belief than that.    

This is why when anyone tells me that they’re not religious, I agree.   I tell them.  I’m not religious either.   You see, religion tells you that it’s your life that saves you.  You do these things.  You obey these rules.  You live by these rituals.  And you experience fulfillment, joy, peace, salvation.  But the gospel tells you.  You’re not saved by your life.  You’re saved by his life.  

If when someone asks you if you’re a Christian, and you say “Well, I’m trying to be.”   Then you don’t get that.   “You can’t try to be a Christian.  Nothing you do make you a Christian.   God makes you a Christian.”    Your life doesn’t save you.   His life does, God in Jesus giving his life for you does that.    And when you know that, really know that, you have a confidence that nothing can defeat.   And it has nothing to do with arrogance or pride.   Yes, you know.  You are so right with God. But you also know.  You had nothing to do with it.  God did it all.   You know.  You are a frog on a fencepost.     Why?  Because when you see a frog on a fencepost, you know that frog didn’t get there by itself.   But it’s there now, and it’s riding high.   And that’s you.

And when you know that, it frees you from anxiety and it opens you up to joy.  It leads you into a life lived with God not just on Sunday, but every day, every hour, every moment.   And no matter how badly you mess up or how hard your life becomes, you know.  God will never leave you.  God’s love will never abandon you.   You know the joy of which John speaks, a joy that flows underneath you, like a mighty river, a joy that lights your path, like a holy fire.   And in that joy, you realize, you are only getting a foretaste of the joy still to come, a joy that will bind you to God’s beauty and love forever.  Do you want that joy?  All you gotta do is ask.  

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Power of Living in Resurrection Time

Did you see it?  Did you see the pictures from Syria a few weeks ago?   Those images only paint a small part of a more awful picture, one full of more sadness and suffering than I can even grasp.    
Last week, in Egypt, people were just going to worship God.  And for that, someone decided to blow them up.   And the bombers said they were doing that in the name of God?   What is up with that?

You don’t need to go to Syria or Egypt to see it.  Every week, you can hear another story of the horrible things people do to each other, not in some place far away, but right down the road.  What is going on?    

How do you see God in the middle of that?   How can God even be found?   It can seem that God has left the building.  But has God left it?   And if God hasn’t, what is God doing?   How does God give hope when things seem hopeless?   How does God provide peace when so much can scare you to death?   In these words God shows you the way.   God shows you the way not only to hope and peace.  God shows the way to a life lived in the confidence that nothing, not even death, can defeat God’s love.   Let’s hear what God has to say.

When you see a world where so much is going wrong, how does God set it right?  How does God bring hope, bring peace to this world, to this community, to your neighbors, to you?  In these words written to folks going through horrors of their own, God tells you.   Where is God in the mess of the world?  God says.  I am there in the middle of it.   Because that’s where the battle lies, that’s where the enemy lurks, that’s where the victory is won.   And that means, whatever mess you face, God is there too.   And nothing will ever defeat that.    

These people in Rome to whom Paul was writing had begun to doubt that.  And you can see why.   Soldiers were arresting their friends, killing them even, simply for what they believed.   That’s why Paul quotes that verse from the Old Testament, “We are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”     That’s how they felt.   And they wondered.  Where is God?   And Paul told them.  God is there with you.   God has not walked away.  God is working even if you can’t see it.    And no matter what happens to you, even death, God will win.

But how did Paul know that?   How can Paul be that confident?  It’s because Paul hasn’t forgotten what time it is.  Now what do I mean by that?  Surely these people knew the time. They knew the date, the day, the year.  But that’s not the only time there is.  

That’s why the Greeks had two words for time.   One word, Chronos, describes the time you see on a clock.   But the other words, Kairos, describes the time a clock will never catch.  Kairos timing sends a ball into a goal, makes a joke funny, makes a story powerful. 

Have you ever seen a great hitter hit a baseball out of the park?  He doesn’t set his watch and when the alarm goes off he hits the ball.   No, he waits for that perfect moment when his bat will slam it into the stands.  He hits by Kairos time.  When you look at someone you love, and you know that it’s time to kiss them.  Do you check your watch to know when?  No, you check your heart.   Kisses live in Kairos time. 

And Paul knows that time.   Paul knows.  It isn’t Rome wins time.  It’s Jesus wins time.   It isn’t Death has the last word time.  It’s God’s love has the last word time.   And Paul doesn’t know that because he heard a nice sermon about it one day, and signed onto the team.  If you know Paul’s story, then you know.  

He had been the guy arresting their friends, even killing them.  And he did it all in God’s name.  But one day, as he headed into the Syrian city of Damascus to do that deadly work, Jesus showed up.    The Jesus he thought was dead and gone, that Jesus showed up, and asked.  “Why are you persecuting me?”  But get this.   Paul wasn’t persecuting Jesus.   He was persecuting his followers, his friends.  But Jesus was telling him.  You hurt others.  You hurt me.   And from that moment, Paul got what time it was.  It wasn’t Jesus was dead time.   It was Jesus is alive time.   It wasn’t violence in God’s name time.  It was turn back from evil time.   It wasn’t death time.  It was resurrection time.
And so every time Paul got discouraged, he remembered that.   When evil ruled his life, Jesus had turned it around.  So when that evil led others to beat him down, to imprison him, he trusted Jesus to work again to bring good out of that evil.   And Jesus did.

So he can write, God will work all things together for good, for those who love and trust.  Now Paul knew.   That doesn’t mean evil things don’t happen.   Nor does it mean God deletes what evil does like a bad file.    Evil still leaves casualties on the battlefield.  But Paul is saying.  Evil will not have the last word.  God’s goodness and love will have that.  

That’s how the Cambodians came to my childhood church in Chattanooga.   A member of that church went to the pastor, who happened to be my dad, and said.  “We have a chance to bring Cambodian refugees to Chattanooga, but they need places to go.”   You see, that was the refugee crisis of that day, hundreds of thousands fleeing the wars of Southeast Asia.   So our church put out the word, and families across the congregation, across the community stepped up.   They took whole families, mom, dad, kids, often grandma and grandpa too, well over a 120 folks before it was all done.   Folks came together to help feed and clothe them, and get them jobs so they could stand on their own two feet.    And then, we decided to invite them to church.  But they didn’t know English yet, though they had one man who understood Chinese. So the church found John Ang, a pastor who spoke Chinese.  And the church began a worship service for them, and they showed up, with John speaking Chinese, that then got translated into Cambodian. It made for a long service, but it worked. 

Then a few months later, John came to my dad, and told him. “They all want to be baptized.”   Now, we were a little concerned.  Were they doing it just to make us happy?  And they said.    Yes, you had something to do with it.   When we lingered for months in squalid refugee camps , we had lost hope.  We had lost so much already.  Then you showed up, and brought us here.  You weren’t family.  You weren’t even Cambodian.   And we didn’t even share the same religion.  Yet you opened your homes to us.  You sacrificed for us.  You loved us.    And we wanted to know why.   And John told us.  It wasn’t you.  It was Jesus working in you.   And so we want Jesus to work in us too.   We did have a problem.    John Ang was Baptist.  That meant these folks wanted to be dunked when we Presbyterians sprinkled.  So we just found a big swimming pool.  We invited a bunch of other folks to help us.      And one Sunday afternoon, we baptized 120 joyful Cambodians in the name of Jesus.

Because it wasn’t war has the last word time.  It was welcome has the last word time.  It wasn’t refugees are strangers time.  It was refugees are Jesus calling us to love time.   It wasn’t it’s too much trouble time.  It was Jesus will make a way time.   It wasn’t evil wins time.  It was Jesus wins time.  Because, it wasn’t death time.  It was resurrection time.  

That’s why, this church years ago welcomed Cambodian refugees into our midst.  They lived in our church apartment, and one of them became our custodian.  And when that family moved on, we welcomed Bianca, our current custodian and her family. Ironically, the war they were fleeing in Bosnia was one where mainly Christians were killing mainly Muslims.  Evil exists everywhere.     

But evil doesn’t have the last word.  God’s love has that.  That’s what Paul knew.  Paul knew because evil had not had the last word in him.   And in resurrection time, even when evil kills; even when death comes, even then; God’s love lives.  

About 23 years ago it happened in the small community of Goshen, Alabama.   The folks at Goshen United Methodist had gathered for a special Palm Sunday drama.    And when the sirens went off, they didn’t hear them.  So when the tornado struck, and the roof came down, they had no warning.   Of the 145 gathered  that day, twenty perished, including the pastor’s four year old daughter, Hannah.   Twenty years later, that pastor, Kelly Clem returned for a service to mark that day.    

Here is some of what she said, “That evening, the world began to join us to make sense of it all, but Holy Week doesn’t make sense….But -- here and there -- in spite of the “why?” there would be a gleam of hope. ‘Where was God?’ people ask. But a hundred little gifts reminded us that God is here, that it’s God’s story we’re living; that, as Jesus promised his disciples, he will not leave us orphans in this storm.”

One of those gifts was a video.   A church member, Brenda Formby, had been recording the service when those walls came down.   And her camera caught something. Diane Molock had been sitting next to her 3-year-old nephew, Tyler.  And as the walls came down, she cuddled him into the safety of her arms.  Diane Molock would die that day. But Tyler would live.

TV shows offered her thousands for that video, but she refused it.   One by one though, survivors came to see it.   And when they came, that image of Diane giving her life for Tyler helped them heal.   Why? Her death echoed the death of the One who had died for them, who had died for everyone.  Her sacrifice reminded them that just as Jesus was there for them on that cross, Jesus had been there for them on that day. 

The church never rebuilt on that site.  Instead it made it a memorial park, and planted a dogwood tree for each life lost.    And in the outline of the old church, they made two stone walls.   One stands broken with rebar curling out of the top, to mark the devastation of the day.  

But another wall stands beside it with a cross shaped opening cut into it.  

And they positioned it so that when the sun sets, the light of that cross shines through the whole site.

You see.  That church knows, what time it is.   It isn’t Jesus died for no reason time.  It’s Jesus died to destroy death time.   It isn’t Jesus is dead and gone time.  It’s Jesus is alive and at work time.   It isn’t Jesus is in the tomb time.  It is Jesus is risen and at work time. It isn’t death has the last word time.  It’s God’s love has the last word time.  It’s not death time. It’s resurrection time.  
But let’s give evil and death it’s due.  It’s brutal and it’s ugly.   After all, what happened to Jesus?  The great early Christian preacher, Melito says it well. 

This one was murdered.   Why? Because he had healed the lame.  He had cleansed the lepers. He had guided the blind with light.   He had raised up the dead. For this reason he suffered….

But is that the last word, Melito?  No.  Melito of Sardis preaches.   But Jesus arose from the dead and mounted up to the heights of heaven. When the Lord had clothed himself with humanity, and had suffered for the sake of the sufferer, been bound for the sake of the imprisoned, been judged for the sake of the condemned, buried for the sake of the one who was buried, he rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned free; I gave the dead life; I raised up the ones who had been entombed.  Who is my opponent? I, he says, am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death.  I triumphed over the enemy. I trampled Hades under foot.  I bound the strong one, and carried off humanity to the heights of heaven.  I, he says, am the Christ.

Therefore, come, all families of women and men, you who have been befouled with evil, and receive forgiveness for them. I am your forgiveness, I am the Passover of your salvation, I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you.  I am your ransom. I am your light, I am your savior. I am your resurrection.  I am your king. I am leading you up to the heights of heaven. I will show you the eternal Father. I will raise you up by my right hand.

How can Melito, a persecuted preacher in the second century be so cocky?  He knows what time it is.   It isn’t evil has the last word time.  It’s God’s love has the last word time.   It isn’t Jesus is dead and gone time.  It’s Jesus is alive and at work time.   Because it isn’t despair time.  It’s hope time.   It’s isn’t fear time.  It’s faith time.    It’s not death time.  What time is it?  It’s resurrection time. 

And if you want to experience a God who brings hope like that, who defeats evil like that, who loves you like that, then make this the day, you figure out what time it is.  Whatever you face, God will love you through it.  God will give you triumph over it.  Because it’s not death time.  Sisters and brothers, what time is it?  It’s resurrection time.