Monday, November 24, 2014

Freedom From Anxiety - Making the One Thing the One Thing

I knew it was bad but I didn’t realize how bad.   It’s one in five?   One in five people really?  But that’s what the study shows.   One in five people in our nation are takingsome psychiatric drug.   Now some of those are for things like ADHD or schizophrenia.  But most folks are taking them because they are either depressed or anxious or both.    40 million Americans alone have some form of anxiety problem.    And lots of them aren’t even doing anything about it. 

What about those that are?  Well, more and more we’re finding out that the medications don’t work so great.   Now, yes, a fair number of folks do need medications.  But for a lot of folks the drugs aren’t doing much of anything.  In fact, they may even be making them worse. Yet since 1985, the sales of just those drugs haveincreased by 5,000%.  That’s a lot! 

And let’s be honest, whether we have a diagnosed problem or not, who doesn’t get anxious?  Terrorists are out to kill us.   Who knows what the next test at the doctor’s office might show?   And it seems all too easy to lose a job these days, and all too hard to find a new one.   And heck, what about the day to day worries of life, running late for an appointment, getting stuck on 95, dealing with our kids or grandkids or our parents or spouse?   Heck, how many of us are a little worried about Thanksgiving, anxious getting everything ready or wondering if so and so will make a scene?  

So what do we do with all that?  How do we find peace in a world of anxiety?  How do we live lives more free of worry and all that comes with it?  In the words of this psalm, God shows us the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say.

What’s up with this song?  The writer, David, ignores one of the basic rules of eliminating anxiety.  What is that?  Well, think about it.  What often makes you and me anxious?  We are thinking the worst.  We are catastrophizing.  We are creating in our heads disasters that haven’t happened and probably won’t.  Yet we’re creating them, and worrying about them too.

But what does David do.  He thinks the worst.   Though an army encamp against me, though my mother and father forsake me.   Sheesh!  Why does David imagine the worst, awful scenarios that haven’t even happened?  Why?  David wants to have a strategy against fear and anxiety that can stand against anything the world can throw at him.    He wants to know that if even the worst he can imagine happens to him, he will still be okay.   And let’s get real, David did have some real problems, including folks who wanted to kill him.  That’s probably more stress than any of us are dealing with.  So what is the strategy that David develops?

Well, he lays it all out in verse 4.  He says.  “One thing I asked of the Lord that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.”  What?  That’s the secret?    Going to church 24 hours a day?  Really? 

But David isn’t asking that at all.   David is telling us.   I want to experience the presence of God, every moment of my life.  I want to behold the face of God.   If I have that, I know, even if an army camps against me, I won’t fear. But what does it mean to be in the presence of God?   I mean.  Isn’t God everywhere?  Aren’t we always in the presence of God?

Well, yes and no.   Right now, as you heard Robert play and the choir sing, you were in their presence.   But do you really know them?   Well, you only know them if you’ve come up and met them, if you’ve been face to face with them.  That’s how we really know folks, only when we see them face to face. 

And that’s what David wants from God.   David wants to know God personally and intimately.   Sure, you can experience God looking at a sunrise, but will you know God personally?  No.   Look, Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.    And if I look at a light bulb, sure I’ll experience the genius of Thomas Edison.   But if I go, Thomas, are you there?  Hello, Thomas!  I won’t get much.   The only way I will know Thomas Edison personally is if I meet him face to face.

But why does knowing God personally and intimately give us the key to a fearless life?   David gives us the answer right at the beginning of verse 3. He tells us “One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after…”   David knows.   If I make God my one thing, then I need never fear anything ever again.  Why? 

Well, where does anxiety come from?  It comes when we make anything else our one thing.  And that anything else could even be a good thing.    For example family is a good thing.  Financial security is a good thing.  Health is a good thing.   But these good things can’t be ultimate things.  They can’t be the one thing.   They can’t be the one thing that we depend upon to make us happy, to keep us secure.   We can’t live in that house so to speak.  Why?  Well, that house can collapse.   And if it does, where is our security then?  

Now I’m not talking here about every day anxieties.   A certain low level of anxiety just shows we care about things.   I’m talking about when our fears paralyze us, when our anxieties threaten to overwhelm us.  When that happens, we know. A good thing has become an ultimate thing.  And we sense how insecure that thing is.   And that insecurity leads us to fear and worry. 

Don’t you see?  Our anxieties are only the smoke.   And if we follow the smoke, it will lead us to the fire.   They will show us what has become too important, what good things have started to become ultimate things, the central things; the little idols of our lives.  Don’t you see, our worries help us.  They help us see what are the things that are starting to enslave us, the good things that are becoming ultimate things.

But if God is the one thing, then David knows that he has nothing to fear.  After all, David knows that nothing can take away God’s presence.   God is the one unshakeable reality of life. 

So what happens, even if his father and mother forsake him, what does he say?  The Lord will take me up.   And let’s be honest.   In all of our cases, our mother and father will forsake us.  It could happen while they are alive, if we have parents that are not faithful to us.   But even the most faithful parent dies.   All parents eventually forsake their kids in that way.   Yet, have you ever run across someone who can’t get over the wounds of his childhood, who can’t let go of the bitterness to a parent who injured them.  Those folks will never have peace.  In their bitterness, they have made their parents’ failings an ultimate thing, and it is destroying them. 

Don’t you see these words can be true of everything we have?  If my money forsakes me, if my spouse forsakes me, if my health forsakes me, the Lord will take me up.   If God is my one thing, that one thing can never be taken away.   And if I have that one thing, then nothing, nothing will ever be able to shake me. 

Ok, so now, here’s the question.  How do we make God the one thing?  How does that happen?  How do we live in the house of the Lord?   David tells us that we do two things.  We behold the beauty of the Lord, and we inquire in his temple.    And he splits the rest of the psalm to talk about those two things.  In verse 8, he says,  “Come, my heart says, seek his face!”   That’s beholding.   Then in verse 11 he says.  Teach me your way, O Lord.” That’s inquiring. 

So how do we seek God’s face?    Well let’s take that first image in the psalm.  The Lord is my light.   Take a moment, and think about what light means to you.   How comforting it is.  How warm it can be.  How it pushes back the darkness.   Ponder for a few moments the light of God’s love pushing back every dark place, every dark thought, every dark emotion you have.  Imagine that light of God just filling you up.       

Now before you think, woah, that seems a bit deep, just realize you’re probably already doing it, just not with God.  Let’s say you see a new car that you really like or a beautiful piece of clothing or a person you’d like to meet.     What do you do?  You fill your mind with dreams about that thing or that relationship.  You fantasize about it.  How awesome driving that car would be.  How terrific that piece of clothing would feel.  How wonderful a relationship with that person would be.  Don’t you see, it’s the same process?  It’s just that none of that stuff will ever give what you imagine they will.  But God will actually give you more than you could ever imagine.  God will lavish upon you a beauty, a peace in your life that you could never have dreamed on your own.       

So do that with God.  Take images like God is my light or God is my refuge.  Fill your mind with what that means.   Contemplate the wonder of it.   When you do that, you will be beholding the beauty of the Lord.  You will be living in the House of the Lord. 

Now what about inquiring of the Lord, what does that mean?  The word here actually simply means seeking advice.   You ask God.  God what do you want me to do?   What’s your will for my life?
Now to live in the House of the Lord, you need both these things.  If you just seek God’s will for your life, but don’t gaze on his beauty, you’ll just be uptight and legalistic.   But if you only gaze at God’s beauty and never seek what God wills for your life, that won’t work either.  Why?  Well, it never works in any other relationship, why should it work here?

Think about it with marriage.   When you fall in love with someone, sure, you gaze upon their beauty.   And if a marriage is to stay strong, you’ve gotta have some of that beholding the beauty going on.  But if that’s all you got, then that marriage will head south fast.  In marriage, much of what you do is learn how to please your partner.  You do what gives them joy, what best serves them.   If you enter marriage thinking, oh, sure, I’ll behold your beauty but you want me to do stuff for you, find out what your desires are and meet them? Sheesh, I can’t do that.    That’s way too inconvenient.   Will that marriage be a good one?   If you want to keep gazing on the beauty, then you better find out what gives your partner joy, what meets his or her needs and then give it.
If you want to gaze upon God’s beauty, then you gotta find what will give God joy, what God’s will is for you.   And the more you do that, the more you’ll experience God’s beauty.  

Several weeks ago, we looked at these lepers that wanted to be healed by Jesus.   What did they do?  They heard what road Jesus was coming down, and they hung out there.   What road do you hang out on to see Jesus?  You hang out on the road to obedience.   Jesus will meet you on that road every time.  

That’s why I ask you to read the Bible, to pray, to live a simple lifestyle, to forgive others.  That’s the road to obedience.  And the more you hang out there, the more the beauty of Jesus you’ll see.  And what is the beauty of Jesus?   Well, it said David inquired in the temple.  What did David see when he inquired at the temple.  He saw a bloody mess.   He saw animals slaughtered and sacrificed.  But David grasped what that meant.  He saw a God who could not look the other way when it came to the wrongs people did.   To clean up that mess, then another mess had to be made to make it right.   But David saw a God willing to make that mess, to find a way to forgive, to love, to draw people back into intimacy with him.   In that bloody mess, David saw the love and beauty of God.

Now if David could see that in a lamb slaughtered on an altar, how much more can we see it in Jesus, the lamb of God hung on a cross?  How much more can we see God’s beauty in the face of Jesus, who to clean up our mess, literally became a bloody mess for us.   How beautiful is a God who goes that far to love us, to forgive us, to draw us back to him.    

When you get caught in worry, when you feel paralyzed by fear, ask yourself.  What good thing am I making the ultimate thing?   Then let it go.  And start gazing at the beauty of the One who is the One and the Only, the bright and morning star, our light and salvation.  Ask God what do you want me to do?  What will give you joy?   And as you do so, you will find your love and peace becoming more and more, and your anxieties and fear less and less.   You will discover the peace of God, a peace that surpasses all understanding.  And in Jesus, that peace will guard your heart and mind, so that if even an army encamp against you, you will not fear.  

Monday, November 3, 2014

Freeing Ourselves from Money Sickness

When I saw it for the first time, I knew.   People are going to remember this speech for a long time.   I certainly remembered it. Or at least I remembered its three key words.   No great figure of history made this speech.   In fact, the person who made it doesn’t even exist.  Gordon Gekko is a character in a movie called Wall Street.  Does anyone remember that movie, that speech?   Gekko’s famous words were: Greed is good!  

Is Gekko right?   The Bible says no.  The Bible tells us.  Greed is a cancer that eats away at you from the inside out.   Greed blinds you to what really matters in life.  But why does the Bible think this?  Why does greed have to be so bad?   Couldn’t greed motivate you?   Couldn’t it lead you to success?    Why does the Bible see it as deadly?  

And if it is so deadly, how can we make sure we don’t get it?  How can we avoid coming down with a deadly case of greed.   In these words, Jesus shows us the way.  Let’s hear what Jesus has to say.   

Why is greed so deadly?    First, greed is a silent killer, and second, we don’t have to have a lot of money for it to kill us.  Greed, money-sickness, has nothing to do with how much money we have.  But it has everything to do with how we view it. It’s when we look to money to give us only what God can. So how do we view money rightly? How do we avoid the sickness?   We let what God has already given us hold us more and more.  As we do, the hold of money-sickness on our lives will become less and less.  

When I was a teenager, I competed as a distance runner. One of my running heroes was a guy named Jim Fixx.   Jim had written a huge bestseller called The Complete Book of Running.  It had made him America’s running guru.   Yet only seven years after writing the book, at age 52, Fixx died of a massive heartattack.   How could that happen to someone so physically fit?  For the same reason, folks call heart disease the silent killer.  It can take you down before you even know it’s there.
Greed works the same way.  That’s why Jesus tells the crowd.  Be on watch against all kinds of greed.  Why do you have to be on watch?  Because greed can capture you without you even realizing it.   A lot of things that get us in trouble, we know when we’re caught up in them.  If you’re stealing something, you know you’re doing it.   The same with lying or adultery.   But with greed, you can be caught up in it, and not even realize it.   It’s sneaky like that.

The Harvard economist Juliet Shor discovered that only one third of American households making over a hundred thousand dollars a year thought they could afford everything they needed.    Do you realize what that means?  It means 2/3s of the wealthiest people in the wealthiest nation on the planet don’t think they can afford everything they need.   Do you see how sick that is?  Can you imagine what folks from Latin America or Africa would say to that, heck even folks from Europe or folks right here in the U.S.?    Yet, I bet that very few of those folks would see themselves as greedy, as money-sick.  That’s what greed does.  It blinds us to our own money-sickness, to our own materialism.         

Let me make it clear.  Greed and wealth don’t always go together.  In the Bible, Abraham was wealthy, but he wasn’t greedy.  On the other hand, even with a little money, greed can capture your life.  Greed has little to do with how much money you have.  It has everything to do with how you view it.   So what are the warning signs that we might have money-sickness?  How can we catch this sickness sneaking into our lives before it does great harm?  In what we just heard, Jesus shares six warning signs that we have to watch out for.

First Jesus asks.   Does your money make you gloat?   That’s what the prosperous farmer does.  He says.  Look at me!  I am rich!   I can build bigger barns!  That will impress my neighbors.   So when our wealth leads us to gloat, to feel superior because of our nice car or the bigness of our house, it’s a warning sign.    Now that one seems obvious, but Jesus doesn’t stop there. 

Jesus gives us another warning sign.   Jesus cautions us against worry.   Now why does Jesus start talking about worry after the story of the rich fool?  Because Jesus is warning us against all kinds of greed, and if you are worrying about your money, about your lifestyle, about your stuff, then you have set your heart on money just as much as the gloating farmer.   After all, when do we worry?   We don’t worry if we have all the stuff we desire.   We might gloat, but we won’t worry.   We worry only when we don’t have it.   Do you see what Jesus is telling us?   You can have a lot of money and not have money sickness.   And you can have only a little money and be eaten up with it.   That’s why Jesus says, don’t worry about that stuff.   Doing that will make you just as money-sick, just as blind to spiritual reality as that rich fool of a farmer.   You see, we can look at one type of greed, and come against that, but not realize how another kind of greed, of money-sickness is infecting us.

That’s why Jesus talks about ravens and lilies.  Jesus isn’t pulling these examples randomly.  He is pointing out two other kinds of greed, two other types of money sickness. With the ravens, Jesus shares how the ravens have neither storehouses nor barns, yet God makes them secure.  And with the lilies, Jesus talks about how God arrays them in beauty.  What is Jesus trying to tell us?  He is pointing out two other types of greed.   In one, we look to money for our security, to make us safe.   And in the other, we look to money to make us attractive.

When it comes to the security sickness, Jesus gives a powerful example in the rich farmer.  What does the farmer say?   He says, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat drink and be merry.”   He is telling himself.  “Aaaah, now I am safe.  In an uncontrollable world, I have control.”   But how secure is he really?  Not at all.   Why?  Because money can’t give you security.  It can’t even make you safe.  

It’s been almost twenty years, but I haven’t forgotten that call.   Gerry, one of my classmates from school called me one morning and asked.  “Did you hear the news? Giovanni died.”   I was shocked.  Giovanni?  How could that be?   He was only thirty-three years old.  I asked.  How did you find out?   He said, “I saw it in the Wall Street Journal.”   So I looked up the story.   Our classmate had come down with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and even while he had gone to the best doctors in the world, it had still claimed his life.  As tragic as all that was, what shook me wasn’t just his death, but that it was Giovanni who had died.   Giovanni’s last name was Agnelli.  His family owned Fiat.  They were one of the richest families in the world, and Giovanni was their anointed heir.  But all that money had not saved his life.  You see.  When it comes to life, we are tenants, and tenants with a limited lease and subject to immediate eviction.  That’s what that rich farmer tragically found out. 

Think about it.   The truly difficult things in life are accidents, death, sickness, broken relationships.  Money can’t save you from that.  In fact, money might even contribute to broken relationships.  Money can’t make you safe, and if you hold on to it because you think it can, then we’re infected.   Ultimately, only in God are we truly safe, even from death. 

On the other hand, you can look to money as your beauty.   You can look to money to make you beautiful, worthy, attractive to others.   That’s why Jesus talks about the lilies.  Jesus is saying only God can truly give you worth.  But folks who have this sickness look to money for that.   The ones who look to money for safety may not spend much at all, but these folks spend a lot.  The researcher Thomas Stanley has even given these folks a name.  He calls them the Aspirationals.   They often make a lot of money, but they spend it all.  Why?  They want to look like the glittering rich.   So they buy houses in rich neighborhoods, drive high end cars, drink expensive liquors, all to show themselves and others they’ve made it.  But in reality, they’re in debt to their eyeballs.   They do this because money is their way of making themselves attractive and desirable.   But the irony is they’ll never know.  Do people like me for me or because of the car I drive and the money I spend?    And secondly, when you look to money like that, it’ll probably turn you into the sort of arrogant person that nobody really likes.        

But here’s the funny thing.  Those with saving sickness, look at these folks and go, “Spend-thrifts!”   And the spenders look at those with saving sickness, and go, “Misers!”   But both are sick.   They are both looking to money for something only God can do.  

Jesus then shares two final warming signs.    Jesus says:  “Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and to drink….it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things”   If you find yourself, running after money, striving to make more of it, working yourself to death for it, then you’re infected.   But it’s not only running after money that makes us sick.   It’s storing it up.  All through this passage, Jesus warns again and again about it. 

That’s why Jesus tells people to sell their possessions and give to the poor.  We can misread this because we don’t grasp how possessions worked in Jesus’ day.   Banks didn’t exist nor did the stock market.  So how did people save wealth?  They bought stuff, houses, furnishings, land, etc.   Jesus is asking folks.  Don’t just give out of your income.  Give from your wealth, from your savings.   Put your treasure in heaven and not on earth.  And if you have difficulty lowering your net worth to give to God, then you’re infected.

Do you get what Jesus is telling us?  Do you worry about money?  Do you resent people who have it?  Do you spend too much of it?   Are you working yourself to the bone to get it?     Do you have trouble giving it away, including from your savings?  Then Jesus says.  You’re infected.  You have money-sickness.  You are looking to money to give you what only God can.   Do you see how pervasive greed can be, how it can get us before we realize it?   And if you see one of these warning signs, you’re probably minimizing its effect.  You’re not seeing how bad it is.  It’s like when we have a weight issue.  We often don’t see how bad it is.  Why?  We’re looking at the other guy.  I’m not as heavy as he is.  That guy has a problem not me.  We do the same with money sickness.   So how do we get free?

We grasp what God has already given.  We lay hold of the grace that is already ours.   Does Jesus say to us?   If you sell your possessions and give to the poor, then God will give you the kingdom.  No.  Jesus says.  God has already given it to you.  It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.  Only when you see, you have already been given the kingdom, will you become free of money-sickness.   That’s what Jesus means when he talks about being rich towards God.   When you realize the inner wealth you already have, then the outer wealth will lose its power. 

What is this inner wealth?   It is what Paul told the Christians in Corinth.  “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”   Do you see what God in Jesus has done for you?  God bankrupted himself for you.   He not only gave up the riches of heaven, he even gave up his own life, to make you rich in grace, rich in mercy, rich in love.   He paid everything for you.   If you knew, really knew how much God treasures you, your money wouldn’t be your security or your beauty or whatever.  It would just be money.    

Every one of us has something at our center that we are tempted to make our ultimate treasure, what we look too to give us value and meaning.   But every treasure except Jesus will demand that you die to purchase it.  It will drive you.  It will say. You have to run after me.   You have to do anything to get me.   Every treasure except Jesus will demand that you die to purchase it.  Only Jesus is the treasure that has died to purchase you.  (Tim Keller).   Jesus is the only one who could.    Only when you see Jesus as the only treasure that matters will your money-sickness be cured.   This is the treasure of God given at infinite cost for you.   Let it free you from the false treasures that can never deliver what they promise so you can fully receive the only treasure that can.  

Sunday, October 12, 2014

It's All About the Gratitude

Why do you and I give?   Do we give out of obligation, because God tells us to?   Do we give out of guilt or because it makes us feel good or because we love this church?  The Bible tells us its gratitude.   We give because we are grateful.  That’s where this comes in.   As with a lot of Bible stories, at least the ones we have heard many times before, we actually don’t hear them anymore.  They get too familiar.   But every now and then, someone will tell a familiar Bible story in a way where you almost hear it for the first time.  And you don’t simply see the story; you see your whole life in a new way.  A preacher named Steve Eason did that for me as he spoke on this passage: Luke 17:11-19, and I share his incredible take on this story.   

In this story, ten lepers get healed, but only one comes back?   What happened to the nine?  Jesus asks.  Weren’t they grateful?  More importantly, who is this guy?    Who is this one grateful leper?  We don’t know his name.  Luke doesn’t tell us anything about him.  So what follows is not true, but it could be. 

We’ll call him Eli.   Now Eli was born in the region of Samaria.  That’s north of Jerusalem, and east of the Sea of Galilee.   It’s not big, about 45 miles long and 35 miles wide.   Eli grew up in this hilly country knowing this.   Jews and Samaritans hate each other.  They’ve hated each other since probably 780 B.C.    That’s a lotta hate, hundreds of years of hate.   When Jesus tells the Good Samaritan story, and he makes the hero be a good Samaritan, that’s a joke to a Jew.  There is no such thing as a good Samaritan.    Eli remembers his grandfather telling the stores of Jews and Samaritans, how the Jews saw the Samaritans as traitors and imposters, a race of half-breeds with a half-breed religion to go with it, but who claimed to be the rightful heirs to Israel’s religion, people who had tried to steal the covenant from Israel.  Now the Samaritans had a different story.   They saw themselves as cousins to the Jews.   And they should be treated with respect.  They should have all the full rights that the Israelites have.  

So Eli grew up a Samaritan, yet he learned the Jewish Torah.  He went to synagogue.  He celebrated Passover and Pentecost, all the holy days.   He observed the Sabbath.   He grew up in a devout family.   He got his education down south in Jerusalem, and came back to Samaria to work as a merchant.   He got married to a beautiful woman named Rachel.   They have two boys, Jacob and Ezra, seven and nine.    Eli had a good life.  

One day, he was at work.   And Eli noticed a small, scaly, rough patch on his right arm.   Throughout the day, it began to itch.  That night, he put some cream on it.   And the next day, there were more patches.   After several days, he finally went to see his doctor.  That’s when things changed.  He saw the doctor’s concern.  And he heard the carefully chosen words.   Eli, I think you need to go see the priest.   The priest?  You only go to see the priest if you possibly have leprosy.   “Yes, I have itchy patches but leprosy?  How did I get that?”  

The next day Eli and Rachel go to see the priest.  And the news wasn’t good.  He placed Eli in confinement for seven days as required by law.   And on the 7th day, the priest came back and examined him.  Eli had swelling in his skin that turned his hair white, and in the swelling was raw flesh.   The disease had spread to his head, his back, to his chest, and parts of his legs.   According to the law written there in Leviticus, the priest said the painful words.   “You are unclean.   You must now live outside the camp.”    Wait a minute, I’m a businessman.  I’m educated.  I’m married.  I have two boys.   They all depend on me.   This cannot be happening.  

Rachel asked, even though she knew the answer.  “Is there a cure?”   And the priest said, “Rachel, no, there is no cure. I’m sorry”    In an instant, their lives were crushed.   Eli did not go home with Rachel.  He would not sleep in his bed.   He would not hold his boys.  He would not eat at his table.   Everything he touched from now on would be unclean.   By law, in Leviticus, he would have to wear torn and tattered clothes so you could identify him as a leper.  He could not groom his hair.  And in public, when he spoke, he would have to cover his lips.  When others approached him, by law, he must cry out.  Unclean, Unclean!  In other words, don’t come near me. 

He smelled stench all day.   He ate what little food was available.  Nobody touched him.  He lived void of any human touch.    He couldn’t help but wonder as you might.  What sin have I done that God would punish me like this?   What have I done to deserve this?  He thought about killing himself, as I would.   But he couldn’t do it.   He held out a crazy hope that one day he might get better. 

One day he and nine other lepers were in the village begging for money.   They heard how this carpenter named Jesus who claimed to be the Messiah was going to pass by.  They had heard about this Jesus.   They had head how he had healed the sick, even once cleaned a leper.  That got their attention.    He had caused a paralyzed man to get up from his mat and actually walk.   They had heard the story of how this Jesus had raised a widow’s son from the dead.  They had heard how he had walked on water and calmed a storm.   He had cast demons out of a man who was naked and in chains and living in a cemetery because the community had no idea what else to do with him.   But Jesus had freed him and restored him to his right mind.   If they could get this man’s attention, maybe he would do for him what he had done for others.  Eli thought.  If I could just get Jesus’ attention, would he touch my life? 

Jews would not even walk through Samaria.  They would walk around that 35 mile strip of land to get to Jerusalem.  They would not even walk on Samaritan soil.  I’ve got to really hate you to not drive by your house ever.    So Jesus is abiding by that tradition, and skirting the border of Samaria.   So he comes to this village right on that border.  Eli and his friends have gathered with the rest of the crowd on the main road.  They have sat there all morning waiting for Jesus to come.   The word comes.  Jesus is coming!   Everyone stood up.   And the lepers did too, standing far off, covering their lips, bowing their heads, but their eyes searching for Jesus in the crowd.    Finally, they see him.   Eli’s heart is racing.    He can hardly breathe.  The lepers begin to cry out.   “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”    They do it over and over again.  They beg for Jesus’ attention.    And Jesus sees them. 

No one sees a leper.   Nobody looks at them.  But Jesus did.    Out of that whole crowd, Jesus paid attention to the lowest of the low.    And just as quickly as that rash came on his arm, Eli’s life is about to change again.   Jesus is walking there in the midst of his disciples, in the midst of the crowds surrounding him.   He is going to Jerusalem to die, though no one knows that.   And in the midst of that, he sees this ratty band of lepers in rags, crying out to him.   And he looks out at them and throws this out.  “Go show yourselves to the priests.”    And the lepers go, “What?  What did he say? Did he tell us to go show ourselves to the priests?”    The only reason a leper goes to show himself to the priest is if he thinks that he is cured.   But they don’t look seem cured?  Go show yourselves to the priest? 

What would you do?   I’d go and show myself to the priest.   And they did. Now, if you’re a leper, you can hardly walk.  Your joints are frozen.  Your toes are gone, most of your fingers.  So they are hobbling to the synagogue.   And on the way, their leprosy falls off.   All the stench of my life in the dust.  The foul order of who I am, the stiffness, the rigidity, the disease I carry with me.  It’s in the dust.  Go show yourselves to the priest.  Because the priest has to say the words.   You are clean.  Just go do that.  And they begin to run.   But lepers can’t run.  But they are no longer lepers are they?   All ten of them are healed, but Eli stops.    It makes sense why the other nine don’t stop.   If I had leprosy and somebody healed me, I’d run to the priest before it came back.  But what about this guy who stops and turns and says, “I have to go thank him.   I’ll get to the priest, but this man has given me my life back.   I get to go home to Rachel and my boys, to sleep in my bed; to take a bath; to eat at my table.  This man has done that for me.   I may never see him again.  I will not miss that opportunity.”  What about that guy>

Luke tells us that he comes back praising God with a loud voice.  If Christ has touched our lives, sometimes we’ve gotta getta a little loud and out of order. That’s why Luke gives us this information about the loud voice.  It’s important.    Then Luke adds one last tidbit.  This man was a Samaritan.  In other words, everything was wrong about this man.  He was a Samaritan.  Everybody hates them.  He was a leper.  No one wants to touch them.   And here he is laying down in the main road before God and everybody, speechless, prostrate before Jesus’ feet.   And that is the proper position in life.    

Whatever Eli does after he gets up is gratitude.   I’m not just talking about giving.  I’m talking about everything, money, life, talents, marriage, children, business, career, everything.  You think that guy went home and left a selfish life?  No way.   I know he’s made up.   But no way could he do it.  No way.  He went home and he lived a grateful life.  Everything about him was grateful.  He never took anything else for granted again.  He never looked at a leper in the same way again.  He was changed.  And Jesus did that.

Now we may never have leprosy.  In fact, we won’t.   But every person in this room, every person in this city, is unclean.   All of us need healing.  All of us need to be touched somewhere because of something in us that is alienated from God, that is broken and sick, that needs to be healed, something that keeps us from the table; something that keeps us from really being home; something in us that is like leprosy.   Many of us will never experience this sort of instantaneous, miraculous healing but every one of us were instantaneously healed at the cross and the resurrection of Jesus.    Jesus has given our lives back.   There is only one motive for being a Christian.  It’s not duty, and it’s sure not guilt.  It’s gratitude.   That’s your life.   Gratitude is everything you are.  It’s gratitude for this grace that has stopped on the main road for you, for you.    Gratitude.   Go show yourselves to the priests.  You are healed.   

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Three Steps to Deep Personal Change

Years ago, I read this quote, and it has stuck with me to this day.  Why?  I found it to be painfully true.    The writer Bill Owens said.   People are not resistant to change.  They make changes all the time.  They are resistant to being changed.   Isn’t that true?   We can adjust our schedules.  We can change our hair styles or the clothes we wear, all sorts of things.   But when it comes to deep, inward change that is far more difficult. 

Often even when we want that deep inward change, when we’re not resisting it, it doesn’t happen.    We can see changes that need to be made. Yet still they don’t happen.  Why?

After all, the Gospel says that we can be changed.   By God’s grace, we can overcome anything.   We can have the victory.   We can never fall so far that God cannot reach down, pick us up, and set us on the right path.  But why does that not happen?  How can we get to a place where it does.  How does real, lasting inward change come?  

We can learn from someone whose refusal to change blew his life up, David, the great king of Israel.   He coerced a close friend’s wife to sleep with him, and then killed that friend, one of his own soldiers and several other soldiers with him to cover up his misdeed.   He thought he had even gotten away with it, until God, through the prophet Nathan, called him out.   And when God did, David woke up.  He saw the great evils he had done, and it threw him into deep despair. 

When all of a sudden, you see a wrong, a failing that you had been willfully blind to before, it can be pretty devastating.  You don’t want to face yourself after something like that.  You’re ashamed.   And forget about facing other people.  After this blew up, David wondered how he could have the credibility to lead anyone much less a nation.   And he wondered too how God could use him after he had fallen so far.  Yet in the words we are about to hear, David found a way out.  He emerged from this disaster, one of his own making, to become an even greater king, and stronger servant of God.   He did experience deep, inward change.   How did it happen?   In these words, God shows us the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

How did David do it?  How did David not only recover from his deep despair, but use this huge failing in his life as a springboard for transformation?     David does it by repenting.   Now if you hear that word, repent, and go what?   How can repenting change me?   Repenting just makes me feel bad -.   If that’s the case, you’re not getting what repenting is.   Repentance means change, and not just surface change, but change at the deepest part of who we are. 

And that brings us to the first step in the experience of change that repentance brings.   First, we’ve got to go deep.   We’ve got to cut down far enough to get at what actually is creating the problem.    And David does two things to get down that deep. 

First, David sees his wrong as God sees it.   As he puts it in verse 4.   I have sinned, O God, in your sight.   Often, that’s the biggest problem with us not experiencing change.  We’re not truly seeing the real issue.   All of us likely have a favorite picture of ourselves, and why is it our favorite?  We look good in it.  And why do we look good?   Probably because it covers or obscures some unpleasant part of us that we know is there.   If you have a big nose, you can come up with a camera angle where the nose isn’t that big or if you’ve got a little paunch like me, you can find a way to get a shot that covers that paunch up.    Just like those pictures, when it comes to the messed up stuff in our lives, all of us can find a point of view that hides that reality; that obscures that truth.   That’s why we need the one view that doesn’t hide the truth. And that view is God’s view.   Why do we look to the Bible for guidance on moral issues, to discern truth?  In it, we find the viewpoint of the One who created us.   On our own, it’s way too easy to deceive ourselves, to justify whatever we want to justify.    Sure what the Bible tells us may make us uncomfortable, but that’s what truth often does. 

But beyond seeing his wrong from the truest viewpoint there is, God’s, David doesn’t avoid the truth of why he did the wrong.   Again and again, he uses words like my transgressions, my iniquity; my sin.  He makes it clear.  I did this.  No one else made me do it.   Yet too often, when it comes to the wrong stuff in our lives, we cop out.   We avoid that painful truth.  For example, no one can make you mad.  Sure people can do infuriating things.   But we don’t have to react to them in anger.   We choose to do that.  The only person who makes you mad is you.   In fact, whatever we choose to do in life, including the wrongs we commit, we choose because in that moment that is what we most wanted to do.    For example, someone might say, I didn’t want to lie but if I hadn’t lied, I would have lost my job.   The circumstances forced me to lie.  But is that the truth?   No, the truth is you wanted money and security more than honesty.   You did it because in that moment, that’s what you most wanted. (Tim Keller)  Circumstances or other people don’t make you mess up.   They might help shape how you mess up, but they don’t cause it.  You cause it.  If you did wrong, you did it because that’s what you most wanted to do. 

I remember years ago, I was talking to my sister about some bad habit I was struggling with and how I so wanted to stop it.   She asked me.  “Well, Kennedy, what’s the pay-off?”   I asked, “The pay-off”   She said. “You wouldn’t be doing it if there wasn’t some sort of pay off.   It may be a negative pay off, but there is a pay-off.   So find the pay off, then you’ll be on your way to freeing yourself of the habit.”   When we do wrong, nobody makes us do it but us.  And we do it, because that’s what we most wanted to do in the moment. That’s the pay-off we most wanted.           

And David realizes. This is the simple but difficult truth he had avoided.   That’s why he talks about how God desires truth in the inward being.  David knows now, in his inward being, there had not been truth.   And if we are to truly change, we have to have that same deep inward truth.  We have to face the fact that the only person who caused our wrong-doing is us.   David does no blame-shifting.   He takes it fully on.    So often we can think we’re repenting when we’re really complaining.   Yes, God I did that, but I did it because my spouse did this or my friend did that or the pressure got too great.   Whatever.   In the end, you did it.   Own that.    So now that we’ve gone deep, now that’s we’ve gotten close to the root of our problem, how do we cut that tumor out.  How do we heal ourselves?    We let our heart be melted.  

If you have a piece of metal that is cracked, how do you fix it?   You can’t take a hammer to it.   If you do that, you’ll dent it or maybe even break it, but no way will you fix it.   So how do you fix it?   You melt it.  Why?  Then you can mold it.  Then you can fill in the cracked or weakened places.  You can make it usable again, maybe even better than before.   

In the same way, when we mess up, we can confront our failure in ways that simply makes it worse, that breaks us down even further.   Or we can confront it in a way that truly restores; that actually heals.   Both will cause us some pain, but only one actually makes us whole.   The hammer way so to speak is that we make ourselves miserable through fear.   And the melting way is that we make ourselves miserable through mercy.   And that is what David does here. 

Right at the beginning, David says, Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.  When we read steadfast love, we are seeing a translation of a very unique Hebrew word, Hesed.  It’s such a unique word that we struggle to find a way to translate it that really gets its meaning.   I don’t know if steadfast love gets there.   It might be better to say, according to your unbreakable love, according to your love that will never walk away from me ever.  That’s what Hesed means.  And when David starts off like that, he is reminding himself of who God is.  

Why did David mess up?   He lost touch with this love, with the God who loves him more than he can even grasp.  When he writes, restore to me the joy of your salvation, we can think that David lost it because of the wrongs he did.   But, no, it was his losing of joy that first started him on the path to those wrongs.  When we do something wrong, ultimately, it’s because we have lost touch with this unbreakable, irrevocable love of God.  We have lost the joy of our salvation.   That’s why David writes.  Against, you God, you alone, have I sinned.  My sin doesn’t begin with Bathsheba or with Uriah.  My sin begins with you, with my losing touch with the ultimate reality of my life, your love for me.  Until we see that, we’re not down deep enough.  We’ve got to humbly place ourselves before the One who would rather die, than walk away from us, whose love for us is unbreakable, who loves us no matter what.

If you mess up, and just beat yourself with a hammer.  “Oh, God, please don’t punish me for doing wrong.  Please don’t walk away from me.”   You are never going to get healing.  You will just break yourself down more.  You won’t end up hating the sin, but you will end up hating yourself.   Your fear and shame will restrain you for a while, but the sin will come back.   Why?   Nothing has changed.  You might even be more broken and beat up then you were before. 

But if you see the truth, how radically, how utterly God loves you, you will start hating the sin, and loving yourself more.  Why?   You will see more clearly how deeply, how profoundly, God loves you.  And that will change you.   It will lead you to walk away from the things that mess you up.  Why?  You won’t crave the false gods anymore.  You won’t desire the junk that promises fulfillment but never delivers, but instead leaves you empty and alone.  You’ll want the God who seals his promises with his very life.   And like David then, you will then stop living in the past and start looking to the future.  After verse 11, that’s what David does.  He begins to rebuild his life.  He begins to joyfully sing.    So see your sin and own it.  And as you do, see the One whose loves frees you from it.  And you will be changed, so much so instead of grieving, you will even sing!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Keys to Healing Wounded Relationships - Getting Honest, Getting Real

Was it a good thing?  I guess at times, it was.  But a lot of times, it just bugged me and others, but I didn’t know how to stop.   Growing up, I had an overactive conscience.   If I did anything remotely bad, I had to tell somebody.  So if I broke something, even scuffed my shoes, I had to confess it.   If I said a bad word, even if it was only dang, I had to come clean.   Nothing was too small to drive me to unburden my heart.

And if it wasn’t enough for me to confess my wrongdoing, I felt compelled to confess others’ too.  I remember in elementary school, a classmate showed me a pen with a pretty lady in a dress on it.  I thought.  Oh, that’s nice.    Then he flipped it over.  Well the pretty lady was still there, but not the dress.   I was appalled.   I had seen something that I know I shouldn’t have.  I had done wrong.   So I had to tell the teacher, and soon that pen was long gone.  My overactive 
conscience certain didn’t put me in the running for most popular. 

And at home too, if I saw my sisters doing something wrong, I couldn’t let that wrong go either.    I had to do my brotherly duty and share the sad news.   One day my sisters thought that the pasta our mom had cooked for dinner would make a wonderful decoration for the big pine tree in the front yard.    As they hung the stands of pasta like tinsel on a Christmas tree, I warned them that I would have no choice but to report them.    Granted I could have called out to mom before they hung all the pasta, but I felt.  They should suffer the full weight of their wrong doing.   They were picking sticky pasta off that pine tree for a good bit of the afternoon and glaring at me the whole time.

Looking back, in some ways, my conscientiousness was admirable.  But it usually made me anxious and miserable.  And it led me to be pretty self-righteous with others.  But reading the words we’re about to hear this past week, I began to wonder.   Is this what James wants from us?   Should we be going about unburdening our wrongdoing to one another?   Should we be examining others for their own failings, and then alerting them to their moral lapses?   What does it mean to confess our sins to one another?  How will that heal us?   And what about these words about bringing back the wanderers?  What does that mean?  

But what James is trying to tell us goes far deeper than reciting our wrongs or those of others.  In these words, God is giving us a chance to have deeper, richer relationships, to heal old wounds; to live into the sort of honest and authentic community that can change the world.   How does that happen?   In these words, God shows us the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say.

What does James want from us here?   Should we go about sharing all our moral failings with each other?    Should we be calling people on what we see as their moral failings?   It can seem that way, but in James’ words, God is calling for something deeper.   God is asking us to do something more difficult and profoundly more powerful.     James is calling us get honest and get humble.  James is calling to do what will make our relationships deeper and richer, what will heal the wounds between us; what will shape a community that will change the world.

When in James God tells us to confess our sins to one another, God isn’t asking us to go to one another, and confess all our failings.   God isn’t talking about establishing a confessional booth for each other.   No, James uses a very particular Greek word, exhomologeo, that we translate as confessing.  The word literally means to come to the same words.   It means we affirm our sins to one another, we come to agreement about them.  We affirm them, come to agreement about them?  What does that mean?  If you think about it, it becomes pretty clear.  

Let’s say someone feels that you’ve sinned against them, but you didn’t see how you did.  Then later, you realized.  “Gosh, I think that person was right.  I did do them wrong.”   So you then go and affirm that they were right.   You come to agreement about your wrongdoing, and you seek forgiveness. (Tim Keller)

The preacher Tim Keller tells a story about the 19th century evangelist, D.L. Moody.   In his day, Moody became the most famous preacher in the world.  Tens of thousands came to hear him speak on a regular basis.  He was a huge deal.    At the height of his fame, he was giving a lecture to a group of theological students.   At the beginning, he did a question and answer time.   And this one student threw him a smart-aleck sort of question, one really meant to trip Moody up.  This student was basically using his question as a way to take a shot at Moody, to bring him down a peg or two.   What did Moody do?   He came right back at the guy, gave him an answer that put this guy in his place.   He shot the guy down, sort of humiliated him.    And pretty much everyone thought Moody was justified in doing so.   Moody went on with his talk, but near the end he paused.   He said, “Friends, I have to confess at the beginning of this meeting, I gave a very foolish answer to my brother.   I ask God to forgive me, and I ask him to forgive me.  And he looked down at the student, whose face began to beam.   And within a few moments, the two men were in each other’s arms.”  
Now today people seem to go on TV all the time to confess some wrong-doing.  But it’s almost always when they have to, when they’ve been caught.  And it’s always something big that they have to own up to, to save their career in politics or sports or whatever.    But for someone in that day, of Moody’s fame, to voluntarily humble himself like that, it was unheard of.  Even today in most of the world, the idea of losing face, of admitting you were wrong is considered almost unthinkable.

And do you notice how Moody did it?  He didn’t confess the student’s mistake.   He didn’t talk about how the student disrespected him.  He just shared his own failing.   And secondly, he confessed his mistake in public.  Why?   Well, if he had shot down the student in private, he would have then confessed his failing in private.   But he had done so publicly, so he needed to acknowledge his failing in public also. 

As a general rule, if you sin only against God, confess only against God.  If you sin against only one person, then confess to that one person.   And if you sin against or before a whole community, then confess before that whole community. 

So for example, if you go up to someone, and say to them. “I have to confess that for years I’ve been resentful of you and your success or looks or whatever, and I just want to ask your forgiveness.”  That’s not cool.   That’s just weird.  They likely didn’t even know that you felt that way.  You didn’t sin against them.  You sinned against God.  Now if you say, “Out of my resentment, I have said mean things about you.  I have tried to sabotage your relationships with others.”  That’s a different story.   

The whole reason you confess your sins is why?  You confess in order that healing can occur in you, and between you and others.   So if you go to folks to confess things of which they are unaware, you need to ask.  Why am I doing this?   It may be your resentment coming out in a different way, just camouflaged in a veneer of righteousness.   If your confession creates a wound, rather than healing a wound, then you’ve missed the whole point. 

So if you’ve sinned against someone, you can’t just go to God and ask for forgiveness and leave it at that.  You’ve got to go to that person and ask forgiveness.  Not only that, even if someone else believes you’ve done something wrong but you don’t see it yet, you’ve still got to go.  In Matthew 5, Jesus says, if you are offering a sacrifice at the temple, and you realize that someone has something against you, then stop immediately and address that issue with that person.   Why do you do that?  

Because we have a way of telling ourselves stories, stories where we are the victim and others are the villain or where we see ourselves as helpless to do anything but what we did.  Why do we we tell ourselves these stories?  We tell them to get ourselves off the hook, but usually we’re not even aware of the story we’ve made up. 

Let’s say you are in heavy traffic, but your lane is going faster than the others.  So others are trying to merge in.   This one car tries to speed up to get into your lane.  You think.  It would be nice if I let this car in.   You’d want someone to do that for you after all.   But you don’t do that.  No you speed up and cut that car off.   But then what do you do?  You think.  “What was that guy thinking?   He can’t just crowd in like that.  I’ve been fighting this traffic a long time, and I’m already running late.   How rude!”   Woah!  Do you see what happened?  You became the victim and that other driver became the villain.  And why did you tell that story.  It got you off the hook.    
So when you go to someone who has something against you, you are going to check your story.  And almost always, you’re going to see things differently once you’ve heard their side.  Even if you suspect someone is unhappy with you, you need to go and check it out.  You need to ask.  Is something wrong between us?   If you are like me, you can think of so many times, when if you had done this, you could have avoided so much heartache and pain. 

Now when it comes to this time of confession, we need to realize one other thing.  If there have been wounds, the healing will take time.  Sometimes we want to do this, confess our mistake, and think that now everything can be all better. 

But in the story of the Prodigal Son, when the son came back.   He didn’t say.  “Dad, I’m sorry.  I blew my inheritance, but hey now, I’m back!”  No, he said.  “I’ve sinned against heaven and against you, I am not worthy to be called your son.  Treat me as a hired hand.”   He wasn’t simply making a nice speech.   He was telling his dad.   I know that I have broken your trust.  Things can’t be the same between us right now.  But I am committed to work for you, to do whatever is necessary to rebuild the trust, to restore the relationship.”   Relationships are for the long haul, and we need to realize reconciliation has to be for the long haul too.

And when we do this, what happens?  Yes, the relationship gets healed.  But more than that, we get healed.  Often, it is only this sort of painful, humble, honest confession that leads us to break free of behaviors and faults that have plagued us for years. 

If we do this, if we live in this way, do you see powerful it is?  Do you see how living in this way, with this sort of humble honesty, how it heals wounds, how it can even transform the world?    And we can do this, we can live in this vulnerability because we know that Jesus has already seen our failings, and forgiven them.   We don’t have to live defending an appearance of righteousness, defending our need to be right.   We realize that we can be wrong, and still be loved just as we are.  We can honestly face our own failings, because we know that because of Jesus, our failings are never the final word.  His love and forgiveness are.   In that love and forgiveness Jesus sets us free.   Jesus sets us free to face our faults, and in facing them, freeing ourselves to live in honest and real community with one another.