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.   

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Money and the Monkey Trap

In lots of places in the world, people like to catch monkeys.  And they’ve figured out an ingenious way to do it.   They hang a small gourd from a tree.    And in the gourd, they make a little hole. Then inside they place something a monkey would love to have like say a bunch of dates or this banana here.   So the monkey comes up, and checks out the trap.   He smells something really good inside.   So he reaches in to grab it.   And here’s where the gourd becomes a trap.   The hole is just big enough for the monkey to get his hand in, but it’s not big enough for the monkey to get it out, unless he lets go of what’s in the box.   So what does the monkey do?  The monkey doesn’t let go.  He tugs at that hole.   He tries to shake the gourd off, to tear it from the tree.   He tries everything but letting go of the banana.    And so the hunter comes up, throws a blanket over the monkey and takes him away.   This monkey loses his freedom, sometimes even his life, and why?   It’s all because the monkey can’t let go of the banana.  That story is not just true of monkeys, it’s true of us.     

In a letter that Jesus’ brother, James wrote he had some pretty harsh words to say about rich folks.   Why was James so angry at rich people?  He was trying to wake them up.  James knew that that there was a huge difference between professing belief in Jesus and possessing faith in Jesus.   What do I mean?   Well, even the demons believe in Jesus.   What you believe or profess about Jesus doesn’t save you.  What saves you is how that belief possesses your life, how it changes who you are, and how you behave.   And James knows.  If your belief in Jesus isn’t affecting how you spend your money, then you better start asking yourself.   Am I really trusting in Jesus or not?   Now you may very well be, but James wants to make you uncomfortable enough to ask the question.   But why does James care so much about this money stuff?   Why does James think if we have a lot of money that we’re in serious danger?   What’s the problem? 

Over the last 50 years, the per capita income of Americans has doubled.   But this doubling of wealth hasn’t made us twice as happy, it’s made us twice as unhappy.   The rate of teen suicide has quadrupled.  Divorce has doubled.  And our rates of depression and anxiety have all hugely increased.      

What’s going on?   Is money that bad?  Of course not.   We all need money.   Is it that money can’t buy you happiness?   No, that’s not true either.   Money does help a bit with happiness.   Some years ago two researchers tried to figure out what makes people happy.  They studied over a million people in 45 countries.   And they discovered that what increased people’s happiness were a couple of things.   If they could read, they were happier.  If they lived in a place with political freedom and civil rights, they were happier.  And yes, if they had enough money to live on they were happier too.   And what made people unhappier?   Well, if they had a high level of poverty, and they didn’t have a lot of freedom.  But the researchers discovered that money makes us only happy to a certain point.  A person that has enough money to provide for basic needs is about as happy as someone with a lot more.  The person riding in the bus to work, and the person riding in the Mercedes had about the same level of happiness.  

So if money doesn’t make us unhappy, what does?   It’s not the money.  It’s the meaning we give our money.  It’s the materialism.  It’s how folks, including teens, base their value on how cool a phone they have or how fashionable their clothes are, or even how high their grades get.  It’s when any of us base our value on stuff outside of ourselves, whether it’s something we have or something we achieve.   And when this happens, James say something else begins to happen.  We begin to value things over people.   James isn’t just upset about the hoarding going on, but about how their hoarding affects other people, particularly those working for them.   Even as these rich Christians accumulate all this money, James sees the folks working for them struggling to put food on the table, and it appalls him.   How in the world can they value things over people?  

Now I know how that’s possible because I’ve done it.  For a long time along with many others in this church, I’ve been a supporter of what’s called the penny per pound campaign.   It’s a campaign by tomato pickers in the fields of South Florida to secure a higher wage by asking big tomato purchasers to add a penny per pound to their costs to make it happen.   After years of work, almost all the tomato farms are supporting the idea, and lots of companies have come on board including the biggest Kahuna of all, Walmart.   One of the stores that hasn’t is Publix, which really disappoints me because I shop at Publix.  But I could shop more at Walmart or even Whole Foods as they both support the campaign.  Why don’t I?  Well, Walmart is a little further away and Whole Foods is a little pricey.   Even though I know this campaign has enabled these workers to get their first pay raise in 30 years, and stopped all sorts of abuses in the fields, I’ve been either too lazy or cheap to shop at stores that support the campaign.   James has called me on the carpet, and I get the message.  It’s time to go more Walmart, and less Publix. 

But this valuing of things over people can go far beyond tomatoes.  I talk to counselors who see kids who are struggling emotionally.   That’s why their parents are sending them to therapy.   But often as the therapists meet with them, they discover how desperately these kids want their parents’ attention, how they yearn to just to sit down and have a meal together as a family.   But when the counselors talk to the parents, they say.   “Well, that’s not possible. We have jobs that demand a lot of time.  And if the counselors suggest someone quitting or adjusting their hours, they balk.  That would mean we would have to sell our house or our boat or not be able to afford this luxury.”   Even as they see their children hurting so profoundly they need professional help, what do they choose?  They choose things over people, even their own kids.  
Now we may not find ourselves doing that, but are there places where we are putting money over relationships?  How many of you have had terrible arguments with their parents because of a thing that you wanted them to buy?  I know I did.  I was willing to injure the relationship with the people who loved me the most over a thing.  What was I thinking?   So how do we become free?    How do we stop giving so much meaning to our money?  

James gives us a pretty deep answer in the last verse.   He writes.   You have killed the righteous one, who did not resist you?   He’s no longer talking about the poor.  Who is James talking about here? He’s talking about a person.  He’s talking about Jesus.    He’s talking about the one whose life was sold for thirty pieces of silver and didn’t resist.   James is saying.  If you are caught up in stuff, getting it or keeping it, you are forgetting the One who has given everything for you.  

In Jesus’ last week, one of his close friends, a woman named Mary, took a bottle of ointment and anointed his head.   This wasn’t just any ointment, it was incredibly valuable, probably worth a whole year’s salary, likely a family heirloom, maybe even Mary’s entire savings.  Yet she takes it, and pours it all away to bless Jesus.  And it is after this that Judas goes out and betrays Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.  What is going on?  It’s as if Judas couldn’t handle that extravagance, Mary laying down such a valuable thing to Jesus.  He couldn’t handle that sacrifice of a thing for a relationship.   So he took his relationship and betrayed it for things.   James is asking us.  What sort of person will you be?  Will you be a Mary or will you be a Judas.    Will you give it all for the one who gave it all for you?  Or will you betray Jesus for things?   What is your money or stuff compared to what Jesus has given for you?     When you get caught up in your money or stuff, James is saying, remember.  Remember what Jesus has done for you.   Remember the God, whose life is worth infinitely more than all the gold and silver, who gave that life up for you.  If you remember that, it will change your attitude toward everything, including your money.  You will let go of the banana.  Because, you will realize.  Jesus is more than enough.