Monday, July 20, 2015

Breaking the Chains that Bind Us

Has it ever happened to you?  You made a commitment to yourself to break a bad habit.  You said to yourself.  When that happens again, I won’t react so badly.   I’ll behave better. I won’t worry or get stressed like in the past.  Or maybe, you simply promised that the next time you went to that buffet, you wouldn’t go back for that third plate.   And as you said it, you so much wanted to believe it would happen.  You may have even believed it would.

And maybe it did happen.   But if so, that is awesome!   But too often, that habit doesn’t stay broken.   That bad reaction rises up again.   No matter your promises, when that third helping at the buffet calls, you still answer.    

How many times have we made such commitments to ourselves only to break them?   How many times have we resolved to rise above a certain behavior, only to find ourselves falling right back there again?  The Apostle Paul when he wrote to the believers in Rome put it this way.

“I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.”

Can you relate at all?   Do those words not describe what each of us face to some extent in our lives every day?     What is going on that holds us back so?    More importantly, how do we become free to live the life we want to life, freed from our bondage to bad habits, to wrong thinking, to uncontrolled appetites.  In this story of healing and liberation, Jesus shows us the way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.

Why do we, so often in our lives, find ourselves bound to bad habits, caught in worries and fears that limit us, trapped by appetites that we find hard to control?   More crucially, how do we become free from these very things we yearn to be free from?  In this story, Jesus shows us.   Jesus shows us that strangely enough it is our very loves that limit us.  But Jesus also shows us that only through love can we truly become free.  

How can that be?   Well first, we need to see how love limits us.  And strangely enough one word in this story points to our problem.   As Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, he encounters this person afflicted by what Mark, the writer, describes as an unclean spirit.   But what does it mean for something to be unclean?  It seems a strange choice of words. But in that word unclean God is communicating a profound truth on the human problem.         

A few years ago, my nephew, Colton, taught English in China.  Those months turned out to be an incredible experience, but it didn’t start out that way.   Colton had no idea how difficult it would be to get used to China.  

I asked him.  “What was the hardest thing to get used to?”   He mentioned several things that made it tough.   In the area where he taught, the combination of poor sanitation and rapid growth, made simply the smell of the place hard to handle.   Then, he soon realized that their idea of what sanitation meant was different too.  He saw again and again that in his part of China the whole world was their restroom if you get my drift.   But those things, he got used to.  One thing though he couldn’t.   He never got used to seeing dog being served at the butcher’s shop or in a restaurant.   He understood. There was nothing inherently wrong in the practice.  After all, it is meat, and it’s certainly edible.  But it felt so wrong, so not the way things should be.   Still, it did motivate him to learn to read Chinese to make sure that he never ordered Fido, when he went to a restaurant.  

What was going on with Colton’s revulsion?  He was experiencing the same sort of thing devout Jews in Jesus’ day felt when they saw some Gentile munching on a piece of bacon.  Sure, they knew that such food wasn’t inherently bad, but it felt revolting nonetheless.   Why?  They had a cleanliness code, and every culture has one. 

Now what is a cleanliness code?  Well, let me show you.   In this cup, I have a little bit of tea left.   But what if I spilt just a bit of this tea here on the table.   What just happened?   Well, I made the table dirty, right?   But how come in the cup the tea seemed perfectly fine, clean if you will?  But now that it is on the table, it is dirty, unclean?  Well, tea belongs in cups, but it doesn’t belong on tables.   And therefore tea on a table makes the table dirty.   It’s out of its proper place.

Cleanliness codes help us define where things belong.   In our culture, dogs belong in the back yard, and not on the dinner table.   That’s part of our cleanliness code.   And in the Old Testament, God gave his people a pretty detailed one.  By the way, when you see that something is kosher, that’s what it means, that it is clean according to this Biblical code.   But why did God do this?  

Because in these codes, God was pointing us to the core of our problem, to what at the deepest level is destroying us.   In our lives, and more profoundly in our hearts, things are out of order.   They have lost their proper place.   In too many areas of our lives, we are unclean.

This unclean spirit in the story is only the most extreme example of something we all have. This man may be possessed by something that is palpably, even supernaturally evil, but every one of us gets possessed by something or someone.   What do I mean?    In 2005 at Kenyon College, the writer David Foster Wallace gave what has become one of the most acclaimed commencement speeches ever.   And in that speech, he made this devastatingly true observation. 

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.  And the compelling reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough…worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly.  And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you…Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and unafraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear.  Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.  But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is…. they’re unconscious.  They are default settings.

Do you see what Wallace is saying?   All of us get possessed by something, and with only the exception of God, whatever it is that possesses us will eat us alive.  But why is that?   It’s not because money is a bad thing or beauty or power or intellect or whatever it might be.   In reality, all these are good things.   What makes them bad or unclean is that they lose their proper place. 

Think about it.   If you put your career above everything else, your family, friends, even your health, that decision will wreck your life and others’ lives too.     But on the other hand, if you put your children above anything else, that smothering love will wreck your life and theirs’ too.  Our problem is not that we love these things.   It’s that we love these things too much. We don’t love them in the right order.   We look to family or relationships or work or things or even our own lives for ultimate meaning instead of to God.   And thus our loves get out of order.    They become unclean.  And when that happens, we don’t possess our loves as much as they possess us. 

Whenever we struggle with a habit that is hard to break or a behavior that we can’t break free from, at the heart of our struggle is a love out of order.   Let’s say when someone criticizes us or expresses disappointment in us, it devastates us.   So we try desperately to please everyone, even if it means others treat us badly.   We know. This need to please is hurting us and others, but we can’t stop.  

What is going on?  We have come to love the approval of others too much.  It is possessing us even.  Our loves have gone seriously out of order.  But how do they get back into order?  How does that happen?  Here Jesus shows us.

Have you ever noticed that whenever Jesus teaches, he always accompanies it with some act of power?  Why is that?   Does Jesus just throw in some special effects to wow the crowd?   No.  Jesus is making clear what he has come to do.

 Jesus didn’t come to deliver advice.   Jesus came to deliver us.   That’s why he called his message news.   Advice is about something we do.   News is about something that has been done for us.  And Jesus not only brings the news, he is making the news.   He is creating the reality of which he speaks.  He isn’t just talking about bringing in the reign of God, he is bringing that reign into actual reality like he does in this story. So when Jesus frees this man from the unclean spirit, it’s not just good news for him.  It’s good news for us.   Because we need that same deliverance, from the things that possess us. 

Now in this man’s case, it happened instantaneously.   But this deliverance God brings usually doesn’t occur so quickly.   And because it doesn’t, we can think it’s not happening at all. But it is. It is happening in ways more powerful and profound than we realize.    But how is it happening? 

Once, the Jesuit priest James Martin writes, I was so frustrated about an unhealthy aspect of my personality that I knelt on the floor and begged God to change me as quickly as Jesus had changed the man (in the story).   As in the case of the unclean spirit, what reason would God have for not exorcising that part of me?  Why wouldn’t God do this immediately?  After an hour, waiting, I rose from the floor, the same person as before.

A few months later, Martin writes, I was speaking to a spiritual director, lamenting this.  Why wouldn’t God heal me as quickly as Jesus had healed the man in the synagogue…The spiritual director pointed to a tree outside his window.  “See that tree?” he said.  I nodded.   “What color is it?”….”Green,” I said.  “It’s a green tree.”  “In the fall it will be red,” he said.   And I knew this.  I had seen that very tree in the middle of a New England autumn.  It was a glorious scarlet. And then he said. “And no one sees it change.”

If you let Jesus deliver you, Jesus will.   At times, it may be instantaneous.  But more often, it will be a journey, a process.  But the deliverance will come.  How can you know?   Because Jesus had his loves rightly ordered.   And in that order, where did he place us?  He placed us above even his own life.  He freely laid down his life for love of us.  And through that love, he freed us from any power that might possess us, even the power of death itself.  If you let his love reign in you, this love that loves you more than you can ever grasp, then Jesus will place all your loves in their proper place. He will free you bit by bit, day by day, from the things that hold you too tightly, from what you have come to love too much.  He will make you clean.  And as he does, he will open you to a life richer, more beautiful; more mysteriously wondrous than any you could have ever imagined or dreamed.            

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

How Do We Defeat our Worst Enemy, Ourselves

It’s funny.  Sometimes I wanted this so bad.   But other times, I didn’t want it at all.  When I was growing up, I started playing tee-ball, which doesn’t seem all that difficult.  You put the ball on the tee, and the kids hit it.   But when God was passing out eye-hand coordination, I must have not been paying attention, because it was a challenge for me.  Still, I always ended up hitting the ball.   It was on a tee after all.  But what I hated far more than being at bat was being out in the field.   Every time the coach picked me to go out on the field, I dreaded it.  Out there in the outfield where they put the clumsiest of us on the team, I prayed fervently that no ball would come to me.   I just knew that I’d mess it up, and let some kid run the bases. 

Yet as much as I hated getting picked in tee ball, when it came time at my elementary school to pick the crossing guards, I wanted to be picked so badly.   I wanted to wear that little reflector vest that the crossing guards wore.  I wanted to get dismissed early to do this important job.  

Have you ever had moments like that, moments where you said to yourself, “Pick me, please, pick me!” or other moments, where you prayed the opposite.   When that happens, what is going on?   Too often, what is going on, is the core issue that creates the misery and pain in our lives and world. 
For example, when I yearned to not get picked to play in the outfield, it wasn’t because I didn’t want to let my team down, to prevent them from winning the game.  I simply didn’t want to embarrass myself.   Losing the game didn’t matter to me so much as long as losing it wasn’t my fault.   And when it came to being a crossing guard, I wasn’t so concerned about the safety of my fellow students during the pick-up time.   I wanted the status.  All the cool 6th graders got to be crossing guards, and I wanted to be in that number.   My desires weren’t about others.  They were all about me.

This sort of self-absorption lies at the heart of our problems.  Our worries and fears come out of concern about ourselves.  Our bitterness and selfishness come out of focus on ourselves.   Ironically, the more self-absorbed we become, the more miserable we and usually everyone around us becomes.  Our self-absorption doesn’t free us.  It imprisons us.    It doesn’t fulfill us.  It diminishes us.   It doesn’t make us more.  It makes us less.  But how do we become free, become free of ourselves?  In this story of Jesus picking folks, God shows us the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

In life, more often than not, the worst enemy we face will be ourselves.  As the famous Pogo cartoon put it, we have met the enemy and he is us.  But how do we become free of this enemy?  How do we become free of the self-absorption that limits our lives, that wounds our world?  Here, in his words, and in his call, Jesus shows us. 

But in order to see how Jesus frees us, we first have to see exactly what Jesus is telling us.  In the gospel of Mark, the very first time we hear Jesus speaks, he is speaking the words we just heard.  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  This good news is literally the gospel.  That’s what the old English word means, good news.   But what does it mean to believe the good news.  What is the good news?    This phrase, good news, didn’t appear first with Jesus. Many folks used it in the ancient world.   And the more we understand how they used it, the more we’ll understand why Jesus did.    

When folks talked about the good news or in the Greek euangelion, they were talking about just that, news that was good.   But they didn’t mean just any old good news, like some human interest story on the 6 oclock news.   No, This is the type of good news that changes the world. 

When the news came during World War II, that we had victory in Europe, VE Day, and then later victory in Japan, VJ day; that was euangelion.  That was good news.   It was actually joyous news, the end of a brutally painful and difficult time.   And after that news, the world was never the same again.  Do you see how Jesus using this phrase tells us something hugely significant?  

Jesus didn’t come to bring us advice; Six simple ways to a free and fulfilled life the Jesus way!   Jesus came to bring us news.  He came to tell us of something that actually happened, something accomplished for us, joyous news that changes everything.   Lots of folks today offer you fulfillment by giving you advice or offering a technique.  But we don’t need advice or technique.  We need a real change.  We need a profound deliverance.  And that’s what Jesus brings.  He brings us news of a real victory in our real world.  

So what is this joyous news, this victory news that Jesus brings.   He tells us.   The time is fulfilled.  The Reign of God has come near (Reign is actually a more accurate translation than kingdom).   In that news, Jesus points to the enemy that we need to defeat.

In the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, we read this curious sentence.   They were naked and not ashamed.   What does this mean?   It doesn’t mean that they were strutting around saying, “Look at my washboard abs.”   It means they knew each other, I mean, really knew each other, as completely as any human being can, but they had no shame, no insecurity.  In other words, they had no self-consciousness, no self-obsession. They had no hidden places.  They didn’t keep any guilty secrets.  They didn’t wall off some part of themselves.  They were naked and not ashamed.

But then Adam and Eve chose not to trust God.  When God said to them.  Trust me about this tree.  They said.  “No, I don’t think so.”  We’re going to become our own authority for everything.  We’re not going to trust you.  We’re going to place ultimate trust in ourselves.  But what seemed to them such a great option, the way to freedom, actually took their freedom away.   For after they took the fruit of that infamous tree, their self-focus didn’t free them, it bound them.  That’s why the Bible tells us that they took fig leaves to cover up their nakedness.  

God isn’t telling us there that Adam and Eve were having body image issues.  God is saying that their focus on self, led them not to self-liberation but to self-consciousness.  They didn’t become secure in themselves.  They became profoundly insecure.   And in their insecurity, they hid from themselves.  They hid from one another.  And above all, they hid from God.    And from that sickness of self comes all the misery that affects us individually, and our world as a whole.   We don’t need to think more highly of ourselves.   We certainly don’t need to think more lowly of ourselves.  We just need to think of ourselves less.  

Jesus’ news offers us the way out.  He is proclaiming that the true ruler has returned, that the reign of self is over.  God, the rightful ruler has come to set things right, to free us from our bondage to ourselves.    That is the victory news that Jesus proclaims, and it changes everything.
And as Jesus calls his first followers, we are seeing how that change happens.  It happens when we truly understand and live out these cryptic words.   “Follow me, and I will make you to become fishers of people.”    We have likely heard these words a lot, but do we really grasp what they mean?  I don’t think I did until this past week. 

I always thought of it as if there were these people-like fish that Jesus followers were grabbing up out of the water.  But does that really make any sense?  Several years ago, after the movie, The Perfect Storm, came out, I read a lot about folks who fish commercially for a living.  And what I read kind of freaked me out.   I read of unbelievable physical punishment, of going without sleep for literally days on end, and most disturbing of all, how utterly perilous the sea could be.  I remember reading of how someone could get quickly caught on a hook as it went over the side, and find themselves in water so cold, it would kill them in minutes, in the midst of waves that were bigger than houses.   Commercial fishing is the most dangerous job in the world. That’s why the reality show about commercial fishing is called The Deadliest Catch

And who is Jesus talking to?   He is talking to commercial fisherman, to folks who knew how utterly perilous it was to get caught in the sea, who when it happened hoped that their fellow fisherman would do all they could to fish them out before they died.    And the Sea of Galilee was particularly treacherous, known for terrifying storms that could come up and swamp a boat in moments.   So when Jesus tells them that they will fish for people, this is what he is talking about.  He is saying.   We live in a world where people are figuratively drowning around us everywhere.  They desperately need someone who will fish them out of the chaos that is killing them.  And I’m asking you to join me on that rescue mission.      

But how does that happen?   How do we become free of ourselves, so free that we can even help rescue others caught up in the same bondage.   In these words of invitation, Jesus tells us.  Jesus says, Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of people.   In other words, Jesus is saying.  Here is the way to freedom.   Follow me.   Stop placing your trust in yourself.  It’s a dead end.  But if you place your trust in me, I will lead you out.   And his words make it clear, that this isn’t some sort of magical once in a lifetime moment.  Jesus is inviting us into a journey, one in which if we follow, he will make us to become fishers of people.  That’s what Jesus says, not that I will make you fishers, that I will make you become.  In other words, I am inviting you into a journey, a journey that if you follow will free you step by step, day by day from yourselves. 

I am reminded of how this works every time I walk the labyrinth that lies behind our sanctuary.  If you’ve walked that path or one like it, you’ll know how it works.   The path will lead you to the center and back out again, but the way it does so will not make sense.   At some point, you’ll think that the path needs to go one way, when it actually leads you in another.   But, as uncomfortable as it seems, you let the path take you its way, no matter how counter-intuitive it feels.   Do you see what that labyrinth path is showing us?    It is showing how following Jesus frees us.   No matter how many times I walk that labyrinth path, when it takes that unexpected turn, I want to resist.   But when I resist that resistance, when I let go, and trust the path to lead me, I find freedom.  I realize I don’t have to stress out about where to go.  I simply need to let the path show me the way, that if I trust the path, it will lead me to exactly where I need to be.

If you follow Jesus, he will take you down some twists and turns that make no sense.  You will want to resist.  You will want to go your own way.  But if you trust, if you follow, if you let go and let Jesus lead you, then he will free you.  In that following, he will free you more and more from your desire to go your own way, a way that is actually no way at all.   And as he does, you will not lose your way, you will discover it for the first time. 

How can you trust Jesus to do this?  Because he has already done it.  He lost himself so that you can find yours.   He gave up his life to reclaim yours.    He showed us in his death and resurrection that until we die to ourselves, we can’t really live.  In fact if we’re not dying to ourselves, we’re already dead.  

Let Jesus free you from yourself.   Let Jesus raise you up.   Let Jesus fish you out of the chaos of our insecurities and self-obsessions.   As he does so, you will discover.  You won’t be thinking too highly of yourself or too lowly.  You’ll be hardly thinking of yourself at all.    Let us pray.