Sunday, May 29, 2016

What Is the Secret to Triumph in Even the Toughest of Relationships? The Grittiness of Grace

What do you think most helps people succeed in life?  Is it your gifts or your grit?   It turns out.  Success has way more to do with grit, with your ability to persevere the face of tough things.   You can have all the natural gifts.  But if you don’t have the grit to strengthen and develop them, then those gifts aren’t going to really matter.

And we’re not just talking about how you perform at work or how many healthy habits you keep.  No, grit leads to success in something more crucial, in how you relate to others, not only your spouse or children, but the most difficult people you will face.   Too often, people don’t know what grit looks like in those places. They get gritty about the wrong things.  Then they wonder why things aren’t working, why things go so far south.  What is it that you need to succeed in dealing with others, especially the others who irritate or hurt you the most?    Here in these words, God shows the way.  

How do you deal with difficult people, from folks who just irritate you to folks who actually are out to get you?   If you do what comes naturally, you’ll do this.  You’ll get back at them. You’ll counter punch.   You punch me.  I’m going to punch you back, and maybe harder.   Yet, here, in these words, God presents a profoundly different perspective.   God says.  When others offend you or even try to hurt you, the grit that truly transforms can’t be about aggression.  The kind of grit that transforms can only come from grace.  

God says here not only that you don’t repay evil for evil, but you overcome evil with good.   And this word, overcome, comes from the military.   God is saying that you actually defeat evil by returning evil with good.    

Now, before we dig down into how this sort of gritty grace works, let’s take a moment to focus on why aggression, why hitting back doesn’t work.  After all, before Christianity, no other philosophy or religion took this position that doing good defeats evil.   Everybody agreed on the counter punch method.  So what makes that such a bad option?

First, let’s look at it practically.   When someone does evil to you, and you simply return the evil, you’ve become part of the problem, not the solution.   Evil has conquered you.   Only when you counter evil with something that isn’t evil, do you win.   And returning the evil, can happen in two ways, and both destroy you and others.    First, you can simply hit back, give as good as you got.   Or second, you may not hit back, but still you hope that in some way a hit back occurs.   You may not do them evil, but you sure hope evil happens.  And in both cases that way of dealing with evil twists you up.   How?    

First, it distorts not just that relationship in your life, but every other relationship like it.   Let’s say, you have a man who is mistreated by a woman.   She does him wrong.   And he carries anger and bitterness towards her over it.   Well, that anger and bitterness, won’t only distort that relationship, it will distort any other relationship he has with women in the future.   He will carry that chip on his shoulder maybe his whole life.  And it works vice versa too.  Or it could be an issue you have with someone of a different class or ethnic group.   Heck, it could be people in general.   Someone hurts you, and in your anger and bitterness, you stop trusting anyone at all.   You view the whole world with a defensive posture.    And that’s not good. 

And second, it distorts you deep inside.   The gospel tells us that the two issues that lie at the heart of the human problem are self-centeredness and self-righteousness.   Self-centered tells you that you’re more important than anyone else.  And self-righteousness says, you’re better than anyone else.   And beyond these messages being totally wrong, they lead to all sorts of disastrous consequences.   Where do you think war ultimately comes from?   And when you wish evil on others, you feed those two messages.  To stoke your indignation, not only do you make yourself better than you are, you make them worse.   And the more you do it, the more self-centered and self-righteous you become.   And when that happens, you can give yourself permission to do all sorts of evil.  And it so blinds you, you convince yourself that you’re doing good.

And beyond what it does to you, and to your relationships, hitting back further distorts the person who hurt you in the first place.  Your hitting back only validates for them that they did the right thing.  After all, you did it right back to them.    Evil wins in you, in them, everywhere.  And it leads to a world where everyone is always delivering pay-back perpetually generation after generation.  What does that look like?  If you want to know, look at one of those lands that has enshrined the payback, like say, Afghanistan.    

Now before, we dig down into how good overcomes evil, let me make it clear.  I am focusing on how this plays out in individual relationships, not in relationships between nations.  That’s a sermon for a different day.   But this principle of overcoming evil with good you will find again and again throughout the whole Bible.  

But how do you practically do this?  How do you overcome evil with good?  You engage in five practices. 

First, Paul tells us, you bless those who persecute you.    Another way to put this might be, you pray for them.   Why?  Because it is very hard to hate someone for whom you are praying.   Even if you pray that God might straighten them out, you’re still praying for their good, that they’ll wake up from their wrong path.

Second, forgive them.  And let’s be clear about what forgiveness means.  It doesn’t mean that you minimize the wrong, you just let go of the desire to deliver retribution for it.  As Paul puts it, you don’t go for vengeance.  And when you forgive, you need to understand.  Forgiveness is always granted before it is felt.   You don’t feel your way into forgiving.  The forgiving comes first, and then over time the feeling follows.  Forgiving simply means, that you stop carrying the grudge, nursing the grievance.    After all, it isn’t really harming them.  It’s harming you.   Holding a grudge is like drinking poison, and expecting the other person to get sick.  

Third, you don’t avoid them.  As Paul puts it, if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.    That means if they don’t want to see you, fine.  But you don’t avoid the relationship.   Why?   Because let’s be honest, if you are avoiding them, it because you want to pay them back.  You’re saying.  You hurt me, so I am taking away any relationship I have with you.  You are repaying evil with evil.

Fourth, you will their good.   As Paul puts it, if your enemy is hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.    Now this may not happen literally, but basically you seek the best for them.

And finally, you oppose them humbly.  Right after Paul says these words about feeding your enemy, he follows it up with this.  He says. “For by doing this, you will heap burning coals on their head.”  What does that mean?   It probably comes from what folks in a walled city did when they were defending it.  When the enemies came up, they poured hot coals or tar down on them to push them back.   In other words, when someone does evil, you don’t lay down and take it.  You stand against it.  You stand against it by not paying them back with the evil they did to you.  And in doing that, you win.  This is how Gandhi won independence for India.  This is how Dr. King and his fellow leaders brought about racial justice.   And in both cases, they didn’t do it with an attitude of superiority or self-righteousness.   Just read Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail to see how you can stand for good in a way that is both powerful and profoundly humble. 

And when you do these things, you do overcome evil with good.   But for this to happen, you need to do all of them.   If you read Dr. King’s letter from that jail, it becomes clear.  Before he wrote it, he had prayed for his enemies.  He had forgiven them.  He had not avoided them.   And he had sought their good.   Only when you do those things, are you ready to oppose.  But let’s make it clear, you do need to oppose.   Overcoming evil with good does not mean laying down and letting people walk over you.  It means opposing them, but in a way that can truly transform them, by opposing them in love and humility. 

But how do you do these things?  How do you get the power to pray and forgive?  How do you get the power to not avoid those who want to hurt you but to seek their good, even as you lovingly stand against them?   The power comes when you gain the perspective you need, and that perspective comes in two ways. 

Why does God say, “Vengeance is mine?”    Why does God get to do payback, but we don’t.   Because God knows, and we don’t.   When someone hurts you, you think you know why they did it.   But you don’t.   You don’t know all the things in their life that led to that moment.  Heck, you don’t know all the things in that day that led to it.  Only God knows that.   And when we judge, we always use a double standard.    When I’m driving along, and I see someone driving and texting, I get all judgy.  Don’t they know how dangerous that is.  But when I do it, oh, it’s because I really need to respond to this person immediately.  As one writer put it.  We judge others by their actions.  But we judge ourselves by our intentions. 

But more than that, what did God do with the power to judge?  He took the judgment upon himself.  The judge of the universe became the one that was judged.  And he did it for us. As God in Jesus suffered on that cross, what did he do?  He prayed for his enemies.  He said, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Even at the end, to his own executioners, he willed their good, even as he opposed them calling them out for the evil they did.    And in that agony, God had the ultimate victory over evil, and he did it by overcoming it with good.  If Jesus could pray for his enemies, even there, how can we hold grudges against the people who have wronged us?  

If God had done that, had held the grudge, then all of us would be without hope.  But God didn’t.  God took the judgment that belonged to us so that by his punishment we might go free. What gives you the power to overcome evil with good?  That does.   Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small.  Love so amazing, so divine demands my soul, my life, my all.   What gives you the power?  That.  What God has already done for you.  That gives you the power.  

Monday, May 23, 2016

Is Your Ladder Leaning Against the Right Wall? Here's How You Know.

I really like quotes.   Heck, I have over 200 pages of the things I've collected over the years.  But I found something surprising in that list this week.  One quote was missing.  You see, years ago, I read this quote that I haven’t been able to forget.  Its words come to me all the time.  And yet, I never added it to my quotes list.  I checked.   Maybe it’s because the tragic image it gives so haunts me that I hadn’t needed to write it down to remember it.   So what is the quote?  The monk, Thomas Merton said it.   He said:  “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

There were times in school when I got an assignment wrong.  I read the wrong chapter or did the wrong set of problems.   I hated that.   I had spent time and energy for something that didn’t even matter.    But what if you do that with your life?  To get that assignment wrong, how devastating would that be?   Who wants to get to the end and realize that?   

But every day, I see people do it.    I see them pursuing things that in the end don’t ultimately matter.  At the same time, they ignore the things that do, things that in the end will give them the very life they seek.  How do you make sure that isn’t you?  How do you make sure that your ladder is leaning against the right wall?   In these powerful words from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, God shows the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

So how do you make sure that your ladder is leaning against the right wall?  Here, the great Christian leader, Paul, tells you.  You make your life, body and soul, a living sacrifice to God.  In the end, in Paul’s words, God is telling us that is the only right wall there is.  But what does that even mean, a living sacrifice to God?    In Greek, it sounds even weirder.  The word for sacrifice Paul uses here, actually means killing.   So how can you be a living killing?   Isn’t that a contradiction? 

Let’s talk first about what the words don’t mean.  In ancient times, everyone knew about sacrifices.  Every religion did them.   And in every case, they did them for pretty much the same reason.   They used them to deal with guilt or wrong, to placate the divine, to avoid the gods’ wrath.  But this sacrifice doesn’t mean that at all.  Paul knows.  Jesus’ death ended the need for those sacrifices forever.   Because of what Jesus has done, our guilt is gone.  When God looks at us, all God sees is beauty and goodness, all our wrong has literally been washed away.   Paul with this sacrifice talk, doesn’t means an offering for guilt but an offering of gratitude for God’s infinite love and grace.
And that gift means this sacrifice doesn’t end in death, like all the other sacrifices did.  No, it opens you to life like never before.    Still, Paul does use the word sacrifice.   And that has to mean that something dies.   And something does.   To be a living sacrifice, means you take your hands of your life.   You give over the right to live your life as you choose to God.   You die to that.  Why?  You trust that whatever God will do with your life will be way better than what you could do.  Now what does that look like, to take the hands of your life?

I remember hearing a story about a young man who joined the army during World War I.  He ended up fighting in the trenches.   Now his mother, as she listened to the news, heard how awfully muddy these trenches became.  She wrote to him, concerned for his well-being, how he was dealing with the mud and mess.    And the son wrote back.  “Mom, I belong to the U.S. Army now.  And if they want their feet to get muddy then so be it.”    That man realized.   He didn’t belong to himself any more.  He had given that over.   While in that army, others determined the direction of his life, even if it cost him his life.  And it did many.  We will remember that next weekend.    

And Paul is saying much the same thing.  Do you want a life that is truly a life?  Then let go of it.  You have to give that life over.  You have to lay that life down, in trust that God will do more with it than you ever could.

But come on now, why would anyone do that?   Why give your life over to God when you can keep it for yourself?    Because you can’t keep it for yourself.  Nobody does.  If you are not giving your life over to God, you are giving it over to something.   

No one said this better than the writer, David Foster Wallace, in his speech to the graduates of Kenyon College.            

He began that talk with a joke.  Two young fish were swimming along one day when this old codger fish swam by.   He called out to the young’ uns.  Howdy there! How’s the water, boys?   The two young fish nodded and smiled and swam on.   After a moment, one of them turned to the other and asked.  What the heck is water?   Why did Wallace tell that joke?  He was making a point.  He was saying.  We are those fish.   We don’t see the water in which we swim, and the water in which we swim could be killing us.  How?  Here is how Wallace put it.  

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, Wallace said, there is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship – Wallace said, a non- Christian ……-- 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. It's the truth. Worship your own 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 plant you. ……Worship power -- you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart -- you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.  Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship, Wallace said, is not that they're evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings.  

In other words, they're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

Right now, if you’re not sacrificing your life to God, you’re sacrificing your life to something.  You may be sacrificing it to your parents’ ambitions or to your own.  You may be sacrificing it to your fears or insecurities.  You may be sacrificing it to the opinions of your peers or some image of success.   But none of those things give you life.   They drain your life away.  They consume you.   Only when you give your life over to God, do you get more life.   That is what makes it a living sacrifice.   This death opens you to life, to a life more abundant than before.   But this taking your hands off your life, it can’t happen through fear or compulsion.  Paul calls it an offering.  That means you give it freely, not because you have to, that it’s some duty.  No you give it freely.    What does that look like?

The preacher Martin Lloyd Jones tells a story of a man who had a dog that he dearly loved.   But he wondered.   How much does this dog really love me?  So one day, he decided to find out.   When they went on their walk in the park, he took the dog off the leash.   Immediately the dog dashed off, running who knows where.   The doctor began to grieve, fearing he had lost the dog he dearly loved.  But within a few minutes or so, the dog came dashing back to walk by his master’s side.   From that day forward, the doctor and the dog walked in that park, but the dog never wore a leash again.
What did that dog do?  He offered himself.    He gave his life over to his master.   No leash held him.  He gave it willingly.   Why?   He trusted the master, his love, his commitment to him.

Now why would you offer yourself to God like that?  Because God has offered himself like that for you and more.  Jesus didn’t have to lay down his life.  He freely offered it.  In John 10, he put it this way.  “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.”     Now why did he do that?    Why did he go through infinite suffering?  Why did he become not just a living sacrifice, but a destroyed one?  Why did he take his hands off his life?  Hebrews 12 tells us that Jesus, endured the cross, disregarded its shame for the joy that was set before him.   What was that joy?  That joy was us.   He offered himself so he could bring you home, so he could give you life.   He took his hands off his life and became a dying sacrifice, so that when you take your hands off, you become a living one. 

That’s why Paul calls this offering a reasonable worship.  If God, the infinite creator of everything, has given his life for you, how can you not do the same?   This God laid down everything so that he might give you everything.   And when you trust him with your life, he will renew you, your mind; your soul.  And he will shower you with gifts to bless you and others.   

That’s why being a Christian isn’t a spectator sport.  It means laying down your life for others, every day, in any way God tells you to.   And if you’re here, and you haven’t found a place to do that in this community, that’s a problem.   For this is one of those places where God calls you to lay down your life for God and one another.  But if it isn’t here, where might it be?  Where are you holding on?  Where do you need to take your hands off your life?  What do you need to die to so that you may live?    


Sunday, May 8, 2016

The One Truth That Enables You to Withstand Anything

Have you ever heard the phrase life verse?    It means that every person can have one verse from the Bible that most deeply connects with their life and personality.   For example, what do you think the life verse of Rick Warren is; the guy behind the bestseller, Purpose Driven Life?     It’s the first part of Acts 13:36.     “For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his generation, died.”    That makes sense doesn’t it?

Years ago I realized I had picked up a life verse too.  We’re going to read it in a few minutes.   “God works all things together for good for those who love God and who are called according to his purpose.”  Lots of people love this verse.   On one of the big Bible web sites, its No. 8 on the top ten verses searched this year.   Do you know what No. 1 was?  It’s similar.  It comes from Jeremiah.   “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you, to give you hope and a future.”

Now I like that verse too, but do these verses make any sense?  It’s nice to think that God is working everything together in your life for good, but how can God do that, really do that?     And if God has plans for you, where do you fit in?  Do you have any choice about it at all?   It’s like that quote from the writer Isaac Singer.  “You must believe in free will; there is no choice.”   How is it possible for God, to both have plans for our lives, and still give us the freedom to choose, even choose wrongly?  

Well, not only can God do this.  God does do it.  In many of your lives, God is doing it right now.   And when you see that, truly see that, that there is nothing, not even your worst choices, that will defeat God’s love working in you and around you; that will give you a freedom, a confidence that nothing can shake.     But how does God do that?  In these verses God points the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

In these words, God is telling you the one, essential truth that when you get it gives you a freedom and security that can literally withstand anything.   And what is that truth?  Nothing that you do or the world does to you can ever, ever take away God’s love for you.   And even in even the worst things life throws at you, that love will ultimately work them for good for you and for the world.  What does that look like?   Maybe this story a friend told me over lunch will help. 

Once upon a time, a king had a servant, who helped him whenever he went on a hunt.   The servant strung all his bows, sharpened all his knives, pretty much made sure the king had everything he needed.    But one day, when the king pulled his bow back, the string snapped, and it cut off the king’s thumb.   Furious, the king threw the servant deep into the dungeons.  He promised.  He would keep him there until he died.    Later that year, the king went on a hunt in a new land.   And in this land, cannibals captured them.   Now the cannibals ate everyone except the king.  Him they let go.  Why?  They believed eating a man without a thumb was bad luck.   So when he got home, the king immediately released the servant and said to him.   “I’ve gotta thank you.  If the bow you strung had not cut off my thumb, they would have eaten me.”   Now what did the servant say?  He said.  “No, I must thank you.  If you hadn’t put me in the dungeon, I would have been on the hunt, and they would have eaten me.”

It’s a clever story, huh?  But doesn’t it still beg the question?   If God does this, how does God do it?    More importantly, how does God do it, yet still give us complete freedom to choose?   How can God be orchestrating everything to move towards good in our lives, and at the same time, be giving us complete freedom to choose what we do?  How can that be possible?

We wonder that because we have a false assumption that things in the world have to be either/or.   It’s either God plans our lives and guides our future and we have no choice.   Or we can freely choose, and God has no real control over the future at all.   But in reality, the world doesn’t work like this at all.   The world isn’t either/or.   It’s both/and

Hundreds of years ago, Isaac Newton, came up with these rules for how matter works.  And up until recently, we assumed everything in the universe operated by those rules.   They had to. Otherwise nothing would make sense. But then we figured out how to see matter at the tiniest level ever.  And guess what.  At that level, Newton’s rules didn’t work at all.   Were Newton’s rules wrong?  No.   They still worked perfectly everywhere but at this super small scale.  Scientists realized, it couldn’t be either/or.  It had to be both/and.

Let’s take this table.  As we see it, this table follows Newton’s rules.  Yet this same table at the smallest level is operating by completely different rules.  Both rules are working at the same time on this same table.  How can that be?   It’s the way it is.  We live in a both/and world.

And just because we can’t figure out how we can both freely choose yet at the same time have a God who orders the direction of our lives doesn’t mean it can’t be.  It just means how God does it is way above our pay grade.    And whether we believe it or not, we live our lives as if this both/and reality is actually true. 

For example, if you believed that God was determining the plan of your life, and you had no choice in the matter, why would you do anything at all?   Wouldn’t you simply just sit around and do nothing?  But that would be ridiculous.  But on the other hand, if you believed, really believed that your choices determined the future completely, it would paralyze you.  

Ray Bradbury wrote a story called A Sound of Thunder. It’s about an illegal time machine that took you back to the time of the dinosaurs.  But when anyone paid the hefty price to ride in it, those who ran it had one rule.   They had this metal anti-gravity path that hovered six inches above the ground.   And you could not step off the path for any reason at all.   Now when the leader named Travis explained the rule, one of the passengers named Eckels, asked why. 

And Travis said…. "All right,say we accidentally kill one mouse here. That means all the future families of this one particular mouse are destroyed, right?"


"And all the families of the families of the families of that one mouse! With a stamp of your foot, you annihilate first one, then a dozen, then a thousand, a million, a billion possible mice!"

"So they're dead," said Eckels. "So what?"

"So what?" Travis snorted quietly. "Well, what about the foxes that'll need those mice to survive? For want of ten mice, a fox dies. For want of ten foxes a lion starves. For want of a lion, all manner of insects, vultures, infinite billions of life forms are thrown into chaos and destruction. Eventually it all boils down to this: fifty-nine million years later, a caveman, one of a dozen on the entire world, goes hunting wild boar or saber-toothed tiger for food. But you, friend, have stepped on all the tigers in that region. By stepping on one single mouse. So the caveman starves. …And from his loins would have sprung ten sons. From their loins one hundred sons, and thus onward to a civilization. Destroy this one man, and you destroy a race, a people, an entire history of life….. With the death of that one caveman, a billion others yet unborn are throttled in the womb. Perhaps Rome never rises on its seven hills….. Step on a mouse and you crush the Pyramids…. Queen Elizabeth might never be born, Washington might not cross the Delaware, there might never be a United States at all. So be careful. Stay on the path. Never step off!"

Now what happens?  Eckels steps off the path, and accidentally kills a butterfly.  And when they return everything has changed.   And Travis, the leader, shoots Eckels dead.   What Bradbury was saying is right.   Everything is connected.  Our decisions, even our most minor ones, affect countless other things, in ways we will likely know.   No way do we have enough knowledge or insight to evaluate the choices we make in light of that reality.   And if you tried too, you would be terrified to even get out of bed in the morning. 

But you don’t have to be terrified, because, if you are resting in God’s love, then God is working with your choices in ways that you could not foresee or even imagine.   Most of the time, you won’t see that, but every now and then you get a glimpse.  I got such a glimpse a few years ago when a man named Harold Phares died.   

You see, forty years or so ago, a young teenager named Greg Jordan started attending youth group here.  Why?   He heard we had the prettiest girls.  But once he came, God’s love grabbed hold of him.  The pastor, Roy Connor, began mentoring him.  He talked to him about going to seminary, about becoming a pastor.   And Greg Jordan did go to seminary, but he didn’t become a pastor.  Instead, he got his Ph.D and he became an Old Testament professor at King College in Bristol, TN.    And soon after he arrived, I attend that college. And he taught me, and become one of the folks who influenced me to go to seminary, where I did become a pastor.    

I learned all that because when Harold Phares died, I met his son-in-law, John Connor, Roy’s son.   John lived in Bristol, TN, and his wife, Harold’s daughter, whom he met here, worked at the college.   So I mentioned my connection to Greg Jordan, and John told me the whole story.     So because First Presbyterian had cute girls in their youth group, Greg Jordan came to know the gospel, and twenty years later, he mentored the student who became the pastor at that very church that nurtured him; quite a coincidence, one that reminds me that a coincidence is just God’s way of remaining anonymous.   And if I had a few minutes more, I could tell you more glimpses I’ve seen.    

But these glimpses don’t even touch a millionth of all that God is doing in your life and mine, working through our choices, in ways we could not begin to comprehend.   You can know, no matter what happens, God is working in your life for good.  Why?  Because God loves you, and nothing can ever change that. 

But that won’t really impact your life, unless you make it personal.  Lots of people go through life saying God loves them.  But it isn’t changing their lives.  It’s all too abstract.  It’s not real.  It’s not personal.   And, until it is, knowing it doesn’t change anything.   You have to apply it to you.

Do you have a relationship with God, a real, living, breathing relationship?  To understand what this means, think of a relationship with God like walking through a door.    As you walk up to the door, you see these words above it from Matthew 10.   Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.    In other words, as you approach a relationship with God, it doesn’t just happen.  You’ve got to make a decision.   You have a choice to make.    But if you make that choice, if you walk through that door, then the moment you do, you look back and over the top of that door you see written this from John 15.  You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.  Everyone who has walked through that door has discovered that reality.  They know that their connection with God doesn’t have anything to do with them being more spiritual or accomplished.   It has everything to do with a God who relentlessly pursued them even though at the time they couldn’t see it.   As Paul puts it elsewhere, For by grace you have been saved, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.   What makes me a Christian is not that I came to God, but God came to me.   And that means, God loves me period, not for anything I will do or not do, but simply because I am.   The preacher Bill Coffin put it well:  God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates value.  It is not because you have value that you are loved.  It’s because you are loved that you have value.  It is a gift. It’s not an achievement.  It doesn’t depend on you, but only on God’s unshakable love for you.  

And if you ever doubt how unshakable that love is, look at Jesus.   When Jesus prayed in the garden before his death, he faced the reality that all evil was preparing to come down on him: that he would experience infinite suffering.  And right then Jesus could have punted.  He could have walked away.   He could have walked away from us.  All hell was tempting him to do just that.   But he didn’t.   He went to that cross, and he stayed.   He held on to us when all hell was trying to get him to let us go.    Do you really think if he did that, that if you have a bad week, or even a bad year, he is going to walk away from you?  Are you serious?  That’s how you know. No matter what bad stuff is happening inside of you or bad things happening around you, you can know.  Jesus has not abandoned you.  Because if he didn’t abandon you on that cross, then nothing in all of creation will cause him to let you go.   And that love that will not let you go, it will work.  It will work in even the hardest things in your life for good.  And this is the love you have been looking for all your life.   This is the love that enables you to withstand anything.   And all you need to do is say yes to it.   Have you?  

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Two Things You Can Know that Get You Through, Even Bring You Joy, in Life's Hardest Times

It always blows me away.    On one level, it doesn’t seem to make sense.  But the more I think about it, the more sense it does make.    This week I read another report confirming this surprising truth.  Research shows again and again that:   “Being better educated, richer, or more accomplished doesn’t do much to predict whether someone will be happy.  In fact, it might mean someone is less likely to be satisfied with life.”    

Do you get that?   Being richer or smarter, even generally more awesome, won’t make you happier.  It might even make you less.   Almost forty years ago, three university researchers compared two groups.   One group had recently won a big prize in the lottery, and the other had recently suffered tragic accidents that paralyzed either their legs or whole body.  Now,who do you think showed greater levels of everyday happiness?   It was the folks who had been paralyzed.   Granted, it wasn’t a huge difference, but it was definitely there. 

Most of the things people think will make them happy don’t do that at all.   So what does?  What truly brings a life of contentment, happiness, even joy, even in the face of the worst that the world can throw at us?   In these words from Romans, God shows us the way.   Let’s hear what God has to say.

If circumstances don’t really bring happiness, what does?  Here God tells us.  Happiness, even joy, comes when we know two profoundly true things.   Even in the worst things we face, God will work for good, and when it comes to the truly valuable things, no circumstance, no matter how hard, can take away.

But let’s first make it clear.  When Paul writes that God works all things together for good for those who love God, Paul isn’t giving some sort of sentimental, bumper stick sentiment.   He is not telling us something like every cloud has a silver lining.  Paul knows.  A lot of clouds don’t.  He quotes later a psalm that talks about people being slaughtered like sheep.  He quotes those words because he is talking to people who are getting slaughtered just like that.   And Paul knows.  There is nothing good in that. 

Do you know what the shortest verse in the Bible is?   It’s two words.   Jesus wept.  And those two words tell us everything about how God views suffering.    Where was Jesus weeping?  He was weeping at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus.   Yet get this.   Jesus was getting ready to raise Lazarus from the dead.   So why was he weeping?   Shouldn’t he have been more like, “Hey, everyone!  No worries.  I got this.”   But the fact that Jesus was about to bring Lazarus back, did nothing to lessen the pain of Lazarus’ suffering or the suffering of those who loved him.   God hates suffering.  God hates disease.  God hates death.   And what God is saying to us is that.   If you love me, if you stay focused on my purpose, I will never let those evil things have the last word in your life.   Even out of those things, I will find a way to redeem them for good.

Now, in one way that we look at this, this promise of God makes sense.    As Paul points out here, God chose us with the intention of conforming us to the image of his son, to the image of Jesus.   And in life, you can think that your worst problems are your circumstances.   But you’d be wrong.   Circumstances cannot destroy your life the way your character flaws can, your foolishness or pride or blindness to your faults or most deeply the profoundly mistaken belief that you don’t need God in your life at all.         

But what knocks our character flaws out of us?  Usually, it’s facing hard things that does it.   When you go through suffering, that suffering has the potential to grow you in ways that the painless parts of your life could never do.    Each of us has things in our life that have caused us pain, sometimes incredible pain, but through that pain, we’ve learned things.  We’ve developed ways of dealing with life that we would not have had otherwise.    With every bad thing that happens in your life God can and will use it to conform you more deeply to the image of his son, to the image of Jesus.   And in the end, you will have no lasting joy, without that image of Jesus, being formed in you.

But of course that doesn’t address the biggest question.  In your life, and in the lives of others, you will encounter situations where you will not be able to grasp or understand how God might be working to bring about good.  You will not be able to see it.   So, don’t expect to. 

What if I had been there on the day Jesus died?    If I had just known what everyone else knew on that day, what would I have seen?   I would have seen a man who I knew to be incredibly good, who had healed the sick, who had welcomed with love everyone.  I would have seen him tortured, brutalized, mocked and killed in a brutal miscarriage of justice.  I might have known that religious leaders had behind it all.   I would have heard him cry out how he was forsaken even by God.  Now, what would I have thought?   I would probably have gone home, doubting that God even existed.  Why?  Because, in no way could I see how in the world God could be doing anything good in that.   Yet in reality, in the midst of all that ugliness, God was doing good, the greatest good in history even.   
God is always working good, but just because God is always working it, doesn’t mean you can always see it.   In reality, you and I will have times where we will not.  

The great Christian thinker, Augustine had a helpful way to think about it.   Have you ever looked at a tapestry?    Those things can be stunningly beautiful, breathtaking works of art.  But have you ever seen the other side?   It’s a mess or at least, it looks like a mess.   Threads of every color are going everywhere, with seemingly no rhyme or reason.  Only when you look at the front, it becomes clear.   All that seeming chaos has created remarkable beauty.  But this side of heaven we only see the backside of that tapestry.   We cannot see how God is weaving a tapestry of love and goodness even in the midst of suffering and evil.   But God is.  And when you think about it, does it make sense that we would see it?  

Recently I read that how our senses perceive reality has no real relation to what actually exists.  Now it works for us.   It keeps us alive for instance.  But the world we see, and the world that in reality exists are two very different things.   Now if we can’t even accurately perceive the basic aspects of the world around us, what makes us think we could accurately perceive the work of a being infinite in understanding and power?

But beyond knowing that God is working even in the midst of the hardest things we face, we can know more.  We can know that nothing we face can ever take away what truly and ultimately matters.  

When people think about religion, they generally think that religion is telling us how you can connect to God; how you can rise up to God.  But the gospel tells a radically different story.   The gospel talks about a God who comes down to connect with us.   And when God comes, this God doesn’t come in power.  This God comes in weakness and poverty.   Why?  It is because God is showing us that he has not come for the strong and the certain.  No, this God meets us even in our weakness, even when nothing seems certain to us.   When we feel as we have nothing, we can know.  God is there.   For this God does not come with a list of expectations for you to meet.  No, this God comes to give you a love without conditions, a love without end, a love that nothing, not even death can defeat.   And when you realize that, that your standing with God depends on a love that God has for you that is utterly unshakeable; that this God will never abandon you, then that realization gives you a profound confidence.   You know that no matter what the world takes away from you, it can never take that ever.   And in the end, that love is the only thing that truly and ultimately matters.  When you know that, even when you have nothing, you know even then, you have everything you need.    

The pastor Dan White tells a story of a homeless woman and her three kids who were getting settled down to sleep in the gymnasium that sheltered them.  She told him how she and her kids had fled from the abuse her husband had been inflicting on them.  Then she shared that every night she requests extra dinner portions from the local shelter, and then brings it back to her spot in the gym.   She then invites others she’s met on the street to join her in her family’s corner of the gym.   She sets up a dinner, dividing the food up equally, and then prays for each one’s needs around the circle.   She explained to Dan that she felt it was important to be generous, to give them a sense of family, even if she didn’t have a home herself.   And do you know what she told him?  She said.  “I feel so fortunate to have what I have.”

How can that woman carry such joy and generosity, even in the face of so much lack?  She knows that she has something that no loss can ever take away from her.  She can set up that table of welcome and generosity in that gym, because she knows about this table.  She knows what this table proclaims. 

At this table, God says to you, I became utterly forsaken, so that you can know you never will be.  I went through suffering and injustice to show you that in the face of whatever evils you face, my love will always have the last word.   I paid the price for your failings with all that I had, so that I might give you all you ultimately need, my grace, my forgiveness, my faithful love.  I died so that you might have life, abundantly, now and forever.   And when you know what this table proclaims, when you know it to be true, then no matter what you face, you can have peace, happiness, even joy.