Sunday, August 30, 2015

Finding Freedom From Regret

Are you a story repeater?  You tell your friends and loved ones the same stories again and again.  You don’t mean to.    You just forgot that you told them.  If so, I sympathize.   I’m a story repeater too.

Maybe that’s why I didn’t mind when Jack would tell the same story again and again.  But I’m not sure it was because he forgot that he shared it.  I just think it was something he couldn’t get past.  I worked with Jack back when I lived in New York City.  And every month or so, he’d tell me about the sweet penthouse apartment he used to own right off of Central Park.  He might even show me an old picture of it.   Then he’d come to the tragic heart of the story, how in a moment of weakness and financial stress, he sold it.  At the time, New York City wasn’t doing so great.  And he was happy to get what he got for the place, a few hundred thousand as I remember it.   But five years later, how things had changed.  If he had held on, he could have sold it for ten times that, maybe even twenty times.   But alas he hadn’t and the rest was history. 

But actually, it wasn’t history.  Twenty years later, he still grieved the mistake.  I don’t think it affected his life too badly.  If anything, it just meant anyone who knew him had to hear that story a lot.  But our past mistakes can affect our present far more deeply than simply repeating a story.  Instead, that past moves us to make those same mistakes again and again.   Or it haunts our present so powerfully, it paralyzes us.   The writer William Faulkner said it well.  “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”   

Our past can hold us back.   It can prevent us from moving forward.  It can shackle us to hurt and pain, to harmful patterns that we desperately need to let go.  It can capture us with the regret we feel, with the guilt we carry, with the resentments we find so hard to release.  But it doesn’t need to be that way.  Our past, even our worst failings and mistakes can empower us.   They can make us wiser and better than we were before.   Our past doesn’t need to hold us back.  It can propel us into exactly the places we need to be.  

But how does that happen?  How can our past failings become a resource for our future?   How can our past regrets lead to present healing?  In this story, one of Jesus’ most famous, he shows us the way.  Let’s listen and hear what he has to say.

In this story, one of the many that Jesus created to describe our relationship with God, we encounter a son whose mistakes have destroyed pretty much every relationship in his life.  By demanding his inheritance, he blew apart his family.   Making this request was like wishing his father dead.   Then what does he do with this legacy that came at such a cost?  He squanders it in the most reckless ways imaginable.  Then when it’s all gone, he falls even further away, taking a job that shames not just his family but his whole nation.  But then in just a few sentences, he begins to turn it all around.   In these few moments, this man takes his past, and uses it to propel himself towards healing everything he has destroyed, including himself.   How does he do it?  He repents.  

For many, this word has terrible connotations.   It doesn’t convey freedom from guilt but a deeper sinking into it.   It doesn’t mean healing, it just means a deeper wounding than before.  Repenting doesn’t mean freedom from your past, but something that imprisons you there.  And in truth, they’re right.

One way to grieve our past frees us, but another way actually kills us.  St. Paul put it thisway.  “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death.”    Now what is the difference? 

The first key to understanding the difference lies in this particular phrase in the story. Here the son is feeding the pigs, and something happens.   Jesus tells us…”But when he came to himself he said…” When he came to himself?   How do you come to yourself?    Jesus is describing the first step in what repentance actually is.   The word repentance doesn’t mean that you feel badly for what you’ve done.   It doesn’t describe any feeling at all.    The word actually means a change of mind, a change of how you perceive everything, including yourself.

In our lives the flaws and failings that really hurt us and those around us aren’t the ones we know about.   They’re the ones we don’t.    That’s why they’re so dangerous.  But seeing these flaws doesn’t just happen.  You don’t decide to wake up from a delusion.  This sort of self-knowledge doesn’t come at our command.   So how do we see them?      The pain of consequences does it.  At some point, our failings catch up with us, and jolt us awake.   Now some folks when consequences wake them up just go back to sleep.  But if we really wake up, than we come to ourselves.  We come to see ourselves more clearly than before.   And that is a picture we desperately need to see.   
That’s what happens here, the son sees himself, really sees himself.   We know that because of what he says next.   He not only talks about going home, but what he will need to say.  He talks about he will tell his father the following.  “I have sinned against heaven, and before you.”  This son’s words cut right to the heart of the matter.  He doesn’t take any time to make any excuses for his mistakes, to talk about how his dad could have done things differently.  He takes on the full weight of the failure. Part of seeing yourself means facing up to the full weight of your failings.  Self-excusal is really a form of self-destruction.  And it will get you nowhere. 

And taking on that full weight means focusing on how you injured the relationships around you, including your relationship with God.   But here’s the problem.  We can think that we’re doing this, when, in reality all we’re doing is focusing even more on ourselves.    

Thepreacher Tim Keller tells of how early in his ministry, he got a call from a man desperate to save his marriage.   He had gotten his wife, who was about to leave him, to give the marriage another chance if they met with a pastor.    When they met, it became clear that this man had been an extraordinarily selfish and thoughtless husband.   But whenever his wife brought up a behavior he needed to change, he did.   Well, he did for a while.   For several months, he became a new man. But then when it became clear that the crisis had passed, what happened?   He went back not only to his old ways, but became worse than before.   So when he was crying in the pastor’s office, were those tears real?  Sure.  But he wasn’t really crying over how his selfishness had hurt his wife.   He was crying over how his selfishness had hurt him, threatening the end of his marriage.   He wasn’t becoming less selfish.  He was becoming more!  

We can feel badly about mistakes we’ve made, but not experience a change of mind at all.  Why?  Our pain is really about how our mistakes have hurt us.   And while we might change as result, our changes aren’t about ending the pain we have caused others.  It is only about easing the pain our mistakes have caused us.   And once the pain lessens, we fall right back into the same selfish patterns again. 

In the same way, we can grieve over how we have injured our relationship with God, but not really be concerned about God at all.   What are we concerned about?  We don’t want God to get us.   Now beyond the fact that this shows a false picture of God, our fears show not a liberation from selfishness, but a deeper sinking into it.  We’re not focused on God.  We’re focused on us.  This sort of repentance doesn’t transform our minds.  It doesn’t transform anything.  

So what sort of repentance does?   A repentance that realizes this.  Repentance can never find strength in your goodness.   It has to find strength in God’s goodness to you.   And that is where the son misses the point.   He says:   “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”   A hired hand described a particular type of worker, one who lived not on the estate but in town and came in to work.  The son is planning to tell his father.   “Give me a chance to pay it back.   I’ll work for you, but I don’t want to even live here.  I’ll live in town.  And if it takes me my whole life, I’ll pay back what I took from you.”   He is saying.  Yes, Dad, I’ve been bad, but give me a chance to make it good.   Now, if Jesus was talking about a human relationship here, this approach has its merits.   But Jesus isn’t talking about that.  Jesus is talking about our relationship with God.  And in that relationship, this approach doesn’t liberate us from our failings, it imprisons us in them.  Why is that?

When you find your strength in your goodness, as if that is what keeps you in a right relationship with God, then when you fail (as you inevitably will) you lose your strength.   Acknowledging failings doesn’t make you stronger, it makes you weaker.   And this sort of repentance doesn’t bring self-knowledge just self-punishment.  Why?  Well, you figure if I feel this badly about doing something wrong, it must mean that I’m really a good person.  A bad person wouldn’t feel this terrible.  But this self-punishment doesn’t lead to any change in your thinking.   You don’t become better.  You become worse.   Self-punishing doesn’t inspire you to change.  It immobilizes you from making any real change at all.   At worst, you just become a self-hating, self-righteous prig, whose supposed goodness is no real goodness at all.  Next week, when we look at the second half of this story, we’ll see that more clearly.      

But this is not the repentance that Jesus is talking about.   That becomes clear as the son journeys home.  Do you see where the father is?  Is he sitting in the living room, stewing at how badly his son has treated him?  Is he thinking?   If that no good son of mine knocks on that door, I’m going to wait a long time before I open it, and when I do, he better have something good to say.  No.  The father is on the porch scanning the horizon.   And when he sees his son, he doesn’t wait.  He runs.  Now, middle-eastern patriarchs don’t run ever.   And if you think about it, you’ll realize why.  To run would mean lifting up your robes, which well, looks ridiculous.   But this man runs.  He falls on his son’s neck and kisses him.   He places beautiful robes over his dirty rags, and the family ring on his finger.   He kills the fatted calf so that the family might celebrate his return. 

In the end, it is not the son’s goodness that restores him to the family.  It is the father’s goodness, the father’s love that does that.   But this goodness and love of the Father isn’t some Hallmark card sentiment.  It costs him.   In the story, it costs him his dignity, no small thing in a culture where everything is about honor.   But let’s remember who is telling the story; Jesus, who is telling it as an answer to his religious critics, who is already sensing the end of his story.   He knows that when his end comes, no one will be there for him, but those calling for his death.   And instead of beautiful robes, they will place on him a crown of thorns.   And there will be no fatted calf slain.   Instead he will become the sacrificial lamb slain for us.    Yet even there, on that cross, in the face of human evil, what will Jesus pray?  “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do.”   

The cross proclaims even as this story does. It is never our goodness that saves us.  It is instead God’s goodness and love towards us, a goodness and love that came at infinite cost.    And as you grasp this, you will discover.   Repentance doesn’t weaken you.  It renews you.   It gives you power to change, to grow, to become the very person you yearn to be.  Why? Acknowledging your failings doesn’t separate you from your strength.  It draws you more deeply into it, the strength of a God whose goodness and love knows no bounds.   In that strength, you find the courage to face your faults, and become free from them.    In that strength, you find a repentance that doesn’t imprison you.  You find a repentance that sets you free.  

Where today do you need that freedom?   Where today do you need that change of mind that only this repentance can bring?    Let Jesus free you.   Let Jesus free you as only Jesus’ goodness and love can.  


Monday, August 24, 2015

Are You in a Stuck Place? Here Jesus Shows you How to Get Free

I truly hate them.   I try to avoid them any time I can.    If it costs me more time, I don’t care.   I just want to get away from them any way I can.  I’m talking about traffic jams.  And when I say traffic jams, I’m not talking about when traffic just slows a bit or putters along.  Heck, that’s every day in South Florida.  I’m talking about those monsters where the brake lights go on forever, when you have no idea when or where it will end.  All you know is you are stuck in your car and you’re not going anywhere anytime soon.   I know such jams often mean an accident.  I know whatever inconvenience I face is nothing compared to what those folks are going through.   I even say a prayer for them.   But the traffic still drives me nut.  I look for the nearest exit.   I do whatever I can to distract myself from how frustrated I am.

Still, eventually the jam will end.  The traffic will move forward.   I will get to where I need to go.  But that’s not so true when you’re stuck in life.  No traffic jam compares to that sort of stuck.   Do you know what I’m talking about? 

When I reached my 40s without marriage or family, I felt it.  I wondered.  Would that ever change?  Some days, it felt ok, but other days, well, it didn’t.  It didn’t at all.   But stuckness can go far more deeply than that.  Say you’re stuck in a marriage going nowhere good, or in family conflicts or problems with seemingly no solution.   Say you work in a job you hate, but feel you can’t leave or wish to God you had any job at all.    What if you find yourselves trapped in a body that has betrayed you or caught in a dark place that feels as if it has no exit?  You get the idea.  That sort of stuck can so wound you, even destroy you.   But how do you find freedom from that sort of stuck?   How does that happen?   In this strange, surprising even shocking story, Jesus shows us the way.   Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.

It can be so hard, to be stuck, to be caught in a situation or struggle that we desperately want out of. We want deliverance.  We want a way out.  But we can’t find it.   That’s why we’re stuck.   When our lives become paralyzed like that, how do we break free?  Here Jesus shows us the way with someone not just figuratively paralyzed but literally.  

You gotta admire the chutzpah of these man’s friends.  They do anything and everything they can to get their friend to Jesus.   They literally go through the roof for him.   Imagine you are standing there.  You feel the mud and straw from the roof start to fall on your shoulders.  You look up puzzled.  You see daylight breaking through.   You then see hands breaking up the roof.  You are wondering. What the heck is going on, especially if you are the homeowner?  Then you get it.  You see a man on a stretcher being lowered down through the air.   Talk about dramatic.

But what comes next, if you think about it, blows that shock away.   Jesus sees this obviously paralyzed man.  And what does he do?   He says.   Your sins are forgiven.   What?   I feel for this poor guy.   His friends have gone to all this trouble for this?   So this wonder-worker named Jesus can tell him that his sins are forgiven.   Hello, Jesus.   I don’t think this man is coming to you because of that.  What is Jesus doing? 

In these simple words, Jesus is making a profound point.  He is not only telling us what this man actually needs, but about what we all need.  And even more shockingly, he is telling us that he is the only One who can provide it. 

In these brief words, Jesus is saying to this paralyzed man.   Yes, I can cure your paralyzed legs, but in the long run, that won’t really help you.    Jesus is telling him.  What is really paralyzing you goes far beyond your legs.  

Last week, do you remember that study I mentioned?   Researchers looked at thelevels of happiness of two very different groups of people.  One had just won the lottery, and the others had recently become paraplegics.   After a year, what did the research show?   Both groups had pretty much the same level of happiness.   Do you get what that means?    Those who were unhappy before winning the lottery generally went back to being unhappy.   And on the other hand, those who were happy before their legs got paralyzed went back to being happy.  Don’t you see?  What messes up our lives has far more to do with what is going on inside of us than anything happening to us on the outside.   
Jesus knew that if he simply healed this man’s legs that it wouldn’t really free him from what truly paralyzed him.   For that he had to go deeper. 

In one of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories, this little boy named Eustache appears.  And he is a truly awful kid, self-involved, snotty, truly a jerk.   One day Eustache discovers this cave full of treasure.  He can’t believe his fortune.  He thinks how he will use his newfound wealth to make all those around him even more miserable.  But this isn’t any treasure, it’s a cursed dragon hoard.  So as he goes through the loot, Eustache falls asleep, and when he wakes he has become a dragon.   He hates it, the scales, the claws, the isolation.  He desperately wants to change.  One day, the God character in the story, a great lion named Aslan appears.  He brings Eustache to this pond.   Aslan tells Eustache.  Take off the dragon skin and dive in.  And Eustache realizes.  Hey, this skin comes off.  So he begins tearing with his dragon claws.  But when he tears the dragon scales off, underneath he just finds more scales.   As many times as he tries, Eustache can’t get free.   Then Aslan looks and says.  “I see.  I will need to do it.”  And with that Aslan leaps and with his lion claws tears deep into Eustache’s skin.  For Eustache, the pain felt as if it tore into his very heart.  But the more Aslan clawed, the more the scales came off.    And then Aslan took him, and threw him into the pond.  And the water stung.  But when Eustache came out, he was changed.  He was not simply a little boy once again, but a far different boy than before.
Often when it comes to our stuck places, we go to God so God can change our situation, but God says to us.  That’s your whole problem.   You somehow believe that if your situation changes, then you’ll change.   But a new situation can’t heal you, only I can.   And for me to do that, I need to go deep.  I need to go to your very core.

And that is what Jesus does here.  He goes to the heart of the matter, to the brokenness that paralyzes this man far more than his broken legs.    Yet when Jesus does that, something very important is missing.  Do you see it?   It may not be so obvious, but something big is missing.

This guy never asks for forgiveness.  He never expresses that he has any need for it.  Again and again in the Bible, God makes clear.   Forgiveness only comes to those who ask.   But this guy never asks.   Or does he but only in a way Jesus can hear?  

Do you see where the writer Mark tells us how Jesus sensed what the religious leaders were thinking in their hearts?    In the same way, Jesus must have sensed what was happening in this man’s heart.  He sensed his yearning for release, how he hungered to be freed from his guilt and inner brokenness.   And that was all Jesus needed.   Do you see how aggressively Jesus loves us?

Jesus doesn’t need to wait until we say the right words.   All Jesus needs is the cry of our hearts.  No matter how inarticulate or partial that cry is, it’s enough for Jesus.   I love the words of this prayer that I often use at funerals.   O God, who gave us birth, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray.   You know our needs before we ask, and that often we don’t even know what to ask for.   If you and I come to Jesus, that is enough.  We don’t even need to know the right questions.   Whatever our true need is, Jesus is eager to answer. 

Still, what Jesus does here with this act of forgiveness really offends the religious leaders.   And they have every reason to be offended.   In those few words of forgiveness, Jesus is making a shocking claim.  Jesus is saying.  “I am God.” 

Only God can do what Jesus does here.   And if you think about it, you’ll see why.   Let’s say.  Tom, Dick and Harry are hanging out together.   And Tom goes off and decks Dick in the mouth, lays him out right on the floor.   Then Harry says to Tom.   “Tom, I forgive you.”   Dick is going to be like, “What?  You forgive him?  He didn’t hit you.  He hit me!”   But God can forgive. Why?  Because whatever wrongs we do are ultimately acts against our creator, against God’s intention for our lives.   So when Jesus offers this man forgiveness, Jesus is saying.  Whatever wrongs you have done against others, even yourself, they were ultimately acts against me.   And I forgive you.

Now how does Jesus response to their offense at his words?  He gives them a riddle.  He asks.  “Which is easier to say?   Take up your mat and walk or your sons are forgiven you.”   And if you think about it, it’s kind of a tricky question.   In some ways, it is easier to say your sins are forgiven.  Heck, I can say it right now.   Your sins are forgiven.   But hey who knows if it actually happened.  But to say to a paralyzed man, take up your mat and walk, well the truth of those words are going to get tested immediately.    And in that distinction is where the answer lies.   The word Jesus uses for say here also means do.    Jesus is not talking about just any words, but the sort of words that actually make something happen, like when a jury declares a defendant innocent or a general gives an order. 

But to say words like that, to say your sins are forgiven, and actually make that happen, that is infinitely harder than making a paralyzed man walk.   Why?   Because when it comes to forgiveness, somebody always has to pay.  

Let’s say when I pull out from the church today, I run into John’s car, and put a big dent in the side.    Well, John can say to me.  “Kennedy, that’s ok.   Accidents happen.”   But is that going to take the dent out of his car?   No, somebody will have to pay, either I or John or our insurance companies.   
And when we forgive, we’re paying.  We’re saying.  You hurt me, but I’ll absorb the cost of that hurt.  Now maybe you absorb it to restore the relationship or to free yourself from the burden.  But whatever the reason, you take a hit.   You pay a price.   But to do that, not simply for an individual mistake but for the accumulated brokenness and pain of the whole human race, the entire planet?   

That’s paying a price.    And who is the only One who can even do that? Only God.  Because whatever wrongs we have done against others, even ourselves, they were ultimately acts against God, against his intention for our lives.  So only God even has the right to absorb the cost.  

In Jesus, that’s exactly what God did.  God took the hit, the hit for everything.  In Jesus, in the brutality of that cross, God paid that infinite price.   How can Jesus free us from our stuck places?  Because he was stuck on that cross. On that cross, Jesus proclaimed.   Whatever wrongs you have done against others, even yourself, they were ultimately acts against me.   And I forgive you.  I free you from the ultimate stuck place.   The infinite pain that I offer up here has paid that price. 

Don’t you see?  Jesus was utterly broken so that you might be made whole.  He was totally abandoned so that in our darkest moments, you would never be.  Because Jesus went that far down, even to death, there is no pit we face so deep that Jesus is not deeper still.   . 
Are you stuck?   Do you yearn to be free?  Then Jesus will free you, but it probably won’t happen the way you want.   But it will happen the way you need.   And he will do it, no matter how partial, how confused the cry of your heart might be.    How can you know he’ll do it?  Because he answered his own riddle with his very life.  He paid the price.   Indeed he is the only One who ever could.          

Sunday, August 16, 2015

What Is The Path to a Happy Life? The Answer Might Surprise You

What is happiness?   How do you get it?  How do you experience a truly fulfilled life?  Getting an answer to that question doesn’t come so easily.   I know.  I tried.   I went to that font of all information, Google to find out.  It gave me 128 million results and an advertisement for Scientology. 

Still, I did learn some things from my little search.   I learned that pretty much nothing around us will bring us happiness, or at least a happiness that lasts for any length of time.   In a famous study researchers looked at two different groups of people.   One group had won millions of dollars in the lottery.   The other group became paraplegics, sentenced to a wheelchair for the rest of their lives.   Now a year after both these things had happened, guess which group of folks were happier?  

When you averaged it out, both groups experienced the same level of happiness.  Study after study has shown similar things.   Nothing we do or acquire or experience can bring us happiness.   So what does?   Interestingly enough, in the words we’re about to hear, Jesus tells us.   How do we become happier, truly fulfilled?   In some of his most famous words, Jesus shows us the way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.  

Likely like me, you’ve heard these words of Jesus’ many times.  But do you really understand what they mean?   They sound nice, even poetic.   But what in the world was Jesus trying to tell us?   Jesus was telling us, telling the crowds.   You want happiness, a fulfilled life?  Then let me show you how such a life comes.   Jesus isn’t describing a series of different people here.  Jesus is describing in these beatitudes, the characteristics of one person, the person who is truly happy. 

Essentially that’s what the word blessed means.   It means happy.   And in these words, Jesus is giving us a map to happiness.   No, let me take that back.   Jesus isn’t giving us a map.  That would imply that somehow it’s up to us to get to happiness.  And at the beginning, Jesus makes it clear.  Happiness only happens when you realize there is no map; when you realize that not only do you not have a map, you are already on a dead end road.

That’s why he starts with those words happy are the poor in spirit.   Jesus is saying that happiness comes to only those who see how utterly spiritually bankrupt they are.  Happiness only comes to those who realize that when it comes to their spiritual bank account, they have nothing, nada, a big goose egg.  

But doesn’t that seem a little harsh?   A lot of folks would acknowledge that maybe their spiritual bank account has insufficient funds, but to call it empty?   Their internal conversation might go like this.     Sure, I need God’s forgiveness.   I’ve done some bad things.   I’ve made some mistakes.  But it’s not all been bad.   I’ve done my share of good things.  I’ve got something in the bank.  It may not be enough to cover my debts, but it’s something.   But is it? 

Jesus is saying that happiness only comes when we realize that whatever our something is, is actually nothing.   How does that happen?   It happens when we realize that even our good deeds were done with mixed motives.

If we’re honest, can we say that any good deed we performed came without any mixed motives at all?  Sure.   We had genuine desires to serve others, to love and care for them.  But was that all of it?   Did we also do it because we wanted others to like or approve us, or because it made us feel better about ourselves?   When have we ever done a good deed without having a bit of ourselves in the mix, some degree of self interest in the midst of our motives?

What happens is you realize how utterly bankrupt you actually are, that even the assets you have, your good deeds, are essentially junk bonds with no real value at all?  And when that happens, what do you do?  Well, you grieve.  You mourn.   But paradoxically, it is this very mourning, this grief that opens the door to true happiness.  Because our grief changes us.   Another word for this grief of which Jesus speaks is the word repentance.  That is the sort of grieving we are doing here.  And what does this word repentance mean?  It literally means a change of mind, to the way we think.   Our realization of our poverty leads us to a grief, a grief that transforms our minds, our very thinking.

How does it transform our minds?  It makes them meek.   Now our word meek doesn’t come close to what Jesus is telling us here.   Our word meek typically means timid or fearful, but Jesus doesn’t mean that.   The word Jesus originally used actually means a humble and gentle attitude that comes through a loss or time of difficulty.  This humility and gentleness comes because through our loss, we have submitted our lives to a larger reality.  The Greek word, Praus that the gospel writers use for Jesus’ Aramaic word points to this.   The Greeks used this word praus to describe a number of things.  It could mean a soothing medicine or a gentle breeze or a broken colt.    Now each of these things have one element in common.  Do you see what it is?  They all describe a great power under control.   Meekness isn’t weakness, not at all   It’s rather our strength acting under the authority of a strength greater than ourselves.   It is a giving up of our power that actually makes us more powerful than ever before.  Why? Now our power is given over to God, a power infinitely greater and wiser than ourselves.    We are a horse that now has a rider. 

This is what develops from the inward experience of poverty and loss Jesus describes.  This is the first fruit we bear, a fruit that becomes evident not only inside of us but to the people around us.   We become less angry, less reactive.   We become more patient and forgiving.   When something unjust happens, we stand up against it, sure.  But we come from a different place, one where our strength flows through a strength greater and wiser than our own.   We are a horse whose rider leads us where we really need to go. 

And from that place, we realize what truly matters.   Instead of hungering and thirsting after success or money or the approval of others or any of the other false ways to happiness that the world offers, we hunger and thirst for something profoundly different.  We hunger and thirst for a deeper, more intimate relationship with God, with our rider so to speak.   That’s what righteousness means.  It simply means a right relationship with God.

This past week, I heard from an old friend, who first came to this church to get his daughter baptized.  But the baptism was about more than his daughter, it was a desperate act to save a floundering marriage.  Somehow he thought that this ritual might restore the relationship.  It didn’t.
And over the next years, this very accomplished man saw his life collapse.  In the space of one week, he hit bottom.  His relationship with a woman he planned to marry crashed and burned. He lost his job with little prospect for another.  And he wondered how he was going to provide for himself much less his daughter. That’s when he came to me, broken and bereft.   And in that pain, he was ready.   He was ready to face his poverty, to begin the process of grief that facing that poverty would mean.   And literally overnight a man who had been full of arrogance, a jackass by his own admission, transformed into a man of gentleness and humility.   But that transformation didn’t become apparent to me for a while, what showed me just how profoundly God had changed him was a text message I received a few days after we had first met.  At our first meeting, I told him that he needed to read the whole Gospel of Luke by the next time we met which was about a week away.  He looked at the Bible and said to me.  That’s like 30 pages.  That’s a lot for me.   Then three days later, I got this text.  I finished Luke.  I’m thinking John would be next.   Then two days after that, I got another text.  I finished John.  What’s next?  I told him Acts or Matthew.    Do you see what was happening?  This man was hungering and thirsting.  

Think about those words.   If you are hungering and thirsting, how do you deal with it?   Do you go?  Wow, I need to plant a garden so I have some food.   Or sheesh, I need to find some work so I can buy something at the grocery store.  No, when you are hungering or thirsting, you seek nourishment wherever you can.  You beg for it.  You look for anyone who has it.  You are desperate for it.   This guy had that hunger, and he hasn’t lost it.   He is now once again quite successful but as he texted me this week.  He wrote.  I still hold God’s hand daily.   This man at one time was the famous chef GordonRamsay’s boss.  He had reached the pinnacle in his profession, but was he happy?  No.   But when he faced his poverty, when he felt that grief, it changed him. It led him to hunger and thirst for what ultimately mattered.  And when he did, God answered. God filled him up.  God opened the way to true happiness in his life. 

All that follows this beatitude is simply Jesus describing what this happy, fulfilled life looks like.  It means you don’t hold grudges, that you are filled with mercy towards others.   Why?   You know how merciful God has been to you.   You see things clearly, with a purity of heart that enables you to see God even in the most difficult of places.  You become a person who brings greater wholeness and peace to the world, someone who knows in their heart of hearts that they are a child of God.  So even if hard times come, even persecution, it doesn’t destroy you, it only leads you to hold God’s hand more tightly, rely on his strength more deeply.  Your happiness doesn’t diminish.  It simply grows deeper and stronger than before.

So this is the path to happiness.   This is a fulfilled life.   But how does it happen?  How do we face our poverty, enter our grief, submit our power, and get filled with God’s presence.  We realize.  Jesus didn’t just preach these words.  Jesus lived them. 
How can we inherit the kingdom of heaven? Because Jesus gave it up.   Jesus, who was rich became poor so that through his poverty we might become rich.   How in our grief can we be comforted? Because when Jesus cried even tears of blood, no one comforted him.   How can we give our power over to God and inherit the earth?  Because Jesus, gave up every bit of his power, even his life, in order that we might.  How can we, when we hunger and thirst, be filled?  Because Jesus hungered and thirsted first, even emptied himself for us.    How can we receive mercy?  Because Jesus didn’t.    How can we see God?  Because Jesus in the purity of his love for us, lost sight of God so that we who were blind might see.   How can we become peacemakers? Because Jesus became our peace through his dying for us. 

Do you see how Jesus, the truly blessed one, lived out these words for you?  The more you see that, the more you and I will see how profoundly poor we are.  The more you see what Jesus did for you, the deeper your own grief will be.  And in that grief, you will gladly submit your lives to the one who give up his for you.  When he says, 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. You will trust the truth of those words.  You will hunger and thirst for them.   And in doing so, you will be filled like never before with the grace, the favor, the utter fulfillment that only Jesus can give.

Where today do you need to face up to your poverty?   Where today do you need God to fill you?    This is the way to happiness, because Jesus is the way to happiness.  Let Jesus love you.  Let Jesus fill you.  Let Jesus give you life as only Jesus can.