Sunday, June 26, 2016

What Does a Real Encounter with God look like? It Looks Like This....

Back when I was a kid in the 70s, I saw these bumper stickers and buttons everywhere.   I had them.  Our church had them.  And we weren’t the only ones.  15,000 churches were doing the same thing.  What did the bumper stickers and buttons say?  They had just three words.  I found it with a big exclamation point.    I We put these stickers on our cars, any surface where we thought people could see them.  We wore the buttons hoping someone would ask the question.  What did you find?     

Now it turns out, before this whole campaign finished, over 85% of Americans had seen this slogan.  But I gotta tell you.   I don’t remember anyone ever asking the question of me.   That may have been because I lived in a city known as the buckle of the Bible Belt.   In that town, you either had already found it or if you hadn’t, you certainly didn’t admit it.   

And I don’t know how much success the campaign had, how many folks found it so to speak.   It did spawn other bumper stickers to spoof the message, like “I lost it” or “I wasn’teven looking for it.”  So why am I talking about a campaign that ended 40 years ago?  Because, no matter how successful or unsuccessful, it was, that slogan pointed to a crucial truth.  People are looking to find it.    They do want a real encounter with God, one that will change their lives forever.   

But what does that encounter really look like?  How can you know you’ve actually encountered God; that the creator of reality has reached out to you?   Here, in this story of just such an encounter, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

What does a profound spiritual encounter with God look like?   Lots of people like to think such an encounter would fill them with peace or serenity, a sort of beautiful warm fuzzy.  But does that happen here?  No.  No warm fuzzies here; just two guys wrestling in the desert.  But here God is telling you.   That’s how it happens.   It happens when you’re alone.  It happens when you’re weak.  Why?  Only then, do you see what you really need, what God alone can give.   

Before God shows up here, what happens first?  Jacob has to be alone.   And Jacob is about as alone as he ever has been.   You see.   Many years before, Jacob had betrayed his brother, Esau.   He had to flee his home in fear that his brother would kill him.  Now, he has become a wealthy man, and wants to come home.  But he has just learned that his brother Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men.   So what does Jacob do?   He tries to bribe him.  He pulls together the best of his herds, and sets them up into three groups to go ahead of him.   And he tells his servants, “Tell Esau that these are gifts from Jacob.”    Then finally, he sends his wife and kids.  He figures.  If the goats and camels don’t save him, maybe the women and children will.   And with all that done, Jacob has no one left but himself.   And that’s good, because in that type of aloneness is when God comes.

Each Christmas and Easter, we get a lot of folks who show up here.   I’m glad they come.   But why don’t they come back?   Many times, it’s because they’ve really never met God alone.  Their connection to God, it’s sentimental, maybe even emotional, but it’s not yet real, not yet personal.
Or on the other hand, I’ve seen folks who have been going to church every Sunday, even become church leaders.   Some even built a political career off their faith.  Then it all comes out, the mess that they’ve let their life become behind that shiny religious fa├žade.    Christianity might have made them feel good, even superior.  They might have liked being part of the group, doing all the churchy stuff.   But down deep, where they really lived, it hadn’t gotten real.   It hadn’t gotten personal.    

There’s an old gospel song that I’ve never really liked.  The folk singer, Woody Guthrie, kind of made it famous.   It goes like this.  

You got to walk that lonesome valley.  You got to walk it by yourself.  Nobody here can walk it for you.  You got to walk it by yourself.

I’ve always thought.  Sheesh, that’s such a downer.  Why do you have to walk it alone?  That’s so well lonely.   But after reading this story, I finally got it.    When it comes to really meeting God, nobody can do that for you.   Your family might start you out.   Your church might help you along.  Other people may come alongside.  But in the end, It’s gotta be just you and God.    Only then, does it become real.     Only then, does it get personal.

You see up until this moment, Jacob had a sort of transactional relationship with God.  God, you help me.   I’ll stay loyal to you.   For Jacob, this whole God thing has been about business.  It had never gotten personal.   But now, he is faced with what could be the end of everything for him.   And this journey home.  It’s opened up some old wounds, some really deep ones. 

And in that moment, that’s when God comes.  That’s when God shows up.   Why?  It’s because Jacob is finally alone.  He’s vulnerable.  He’s open.    So what does God do?  Does he hug him?  Does he put an arm on his shoulder?   No.  God jumps him.  God wrestles him to the ground.  

And God doesn’t just do this for a few minutes?  No, God and Jacob wrestle all night.  Have you ever seen a wrestling match?  I’m not talking the WWE.  I’m talking the real deal.  Do you know how long a match lasts, even in the Olympics?   It lasts about six orseven minutes, and that’s with two breaks in between.  That’s it.  Why?  Because wrestling is really hard.  It is brutally exhausting.   But God and Jacob don’t go wrestle for a few minutes.  They wrestle all night long.   Why?
Because, to see what you really need, what God alone can give, it’s not enough to be alone.  You usually gotta be worn out too.    This isn’t the first time, God had shown up in Jacob’s life.  He had come decades before, right after Jacob had fled for his life.   But Jacob hadn’t gotten it.   He wanted what God could give him sure, but God, just God?  Not so much.

Too often, when I’ve been in the lonesome valley, all I wanted from God was to get me out.   But the reality was, it was only by walking that valley, by walking it until I was worn to the bone, would I be ready for what I really needed, what God alone could give.  

And only as day breaks, does Jacob get to that point.   Heck, only then, does he get it.   He hasn’t just been wrestling some bandit in the dark.  Jacob has been wrestling with the creator of the universe.  What gives it away?  Well, first it’s that whole hip injury.  The translation here really doesn’t do what happens here justice.   The word here they translated as struck is way too strong.  The word actually means touch.  Basically, God touched his hip, and ripped the whole thing out of joint.  And then God says.   I can’t be here when the sun comes up, because (he’s implying), no one can see God’s face, and live.  

But what does Jacob do?  Beaten, injured, Jacob holds on.  You are wrestling with God, and you hold on?  That’s a pretty risky move. Why did he do it?   He finally gets it.  He finally knows what he really needs, what he’s always needed, what every human being needs.    He needs a blessing.  
What did Jacob do to his brother, Esau after all that was so awful?   What caused the rift?   You see.  Growing up, Jacob knew.   His father, Isaac, loved Esau best.   Jacob was a momma’s boy.   Esau, well Esau, and Isaac, just clicked.   Jacob knew it.  He knew he didn’t have his father’s love, not the way he yearned for it.    And a wound like that, you can carry for a lifetime.

This past week, I was talking to a young woman, whose grandparents raised her for the first 12 years of her life.  Her mother had gone to work in another country.    Eventually her mother brought her over, but even so, the daughter never felt the love.   She told of a time, when her mother served all her siblings food.  But then her mother said.  You, you go get it yourself.  It had been decades since that conversation.  And she still carried the wound.

How did Jacob deal with his wound?   He did a pretty bizarre thing.   Since Esau was the older brother, he would get the lion’s share of the wealth when the father died.   But with the wealth, came a special blessing, given to the eldest son.    So Jacob figured.  Since his dad was blind and pretty deaf, he could trick Isaac into giving Jacob, Esau’s blessing.  And his deception worked for like five minutes.   But why did he do it?    Sure he got the blessing. But it didn’t entitle him to the wealth.  In fact, his trick took away whatever wealth he was going to get.    And he didn’t just lose that.  He lost his family, his home.   He almost lost his life.  So why did he do it?   Because, even if it was for only a few minutes, even if it was under false pretenses, he wanted to hear those words of love, of affection.   He wanted a blessing.  But even then, it didn’t work.   His wound remained.

So he fled to his mom’s cousin, Laban.  He fell in love with Laban’s beautiful daughter Rachel.  He worked 14 years to win her hand.    And he thought.   If I get her love, her adoration, her blessing, that will heal my wound.   But it didn’t. 

And now, alone and worn out, he gets it.   Here is the blessing he always needed.   Here is the love he yearned for.    Here is the love everyone yearns for, to hear the creator of the universe speak love to your hearts, to hear…  You are loved.   You are loved.   And nothing can ever take my love away.      Because, everyone has this wound.   Everyone wants an unshakeable love, a blessing that nothing can take away.   Everyone wants to know in the deepest part of who they are that beneath all the mess: you are beautiful and you are beloved.      

Jacob knew he didn’t deserve that love.   He had done some pretty awful things.   But he yearned for it anyway.    He knew that’s what he needed.  And God gave it to him.  We don’t know what blessing God said.   But it changed Jacob’s life forever, so much so, he was never called Jacob again, but Israel, the one who had wrestled with God.    And that limp he carried proved it.  It reminded him, of how in that wound, God’s love had healed the deepest wound of all.

But not only did Jacob have to become weak to get the blessing, God had to become weak too.   After all, do you really think the creator of reality couldn’t win a wrestling match with a 70 year old?   So God feigned weakness so that Jacob might finally find the blessing he had needed his whole life.   And in that weakness, God points to the weakness that makes us all whole.

For in Jesus, God didn’t just  pretend to be weak.  No, God became weak, vulnerable even unto death.   And where Jacob risked his life, to get the blessing for himself, In Jesus, God gave his life, to get the blessing for us.   Jacob was wounded so that his heart might be healed.  But in Jesus, God was wounded unto death, so that we might be healed.    And why did God become weak and wounded? Why did God hold on, even to death?   He held on because he loved you.  Because he wanted to bring you home.   He wanted you to know.  You are loved.  You are loved.  

Do you know that?  Has it become real for you?  Has it become personal?   If not, make this the day it does.              

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Are You Talking to God or Just to Yourself? How Do You Know?

According to the researchers, over half of Americans do it every day.    Heck, even among those who call themselves nones,  who don’t affiliate with religion at all, even there, one out of five pray every day, even a few atheists    

But whatever the numbers show, what do they tell us?   Yes, people are praying, actually praying a lot.   But are people really connecting to God?  Now I’m not saying God doesn’t hear their prayers.    I believe God hears every prayer.    But are people hearing God back?    Sure, God may be listening in, but how many folks are really connecting with God versus just talking to themselves?   How do you know the difference?    In these words between God and Abraham, God shows us the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

How do you know you’re really connecting to God when you pray, and not just talking to yourself?     How do you tell the difference?    In this story, God shows us the way.   In real prayer, you’re not actually starting the conversation.  God is.    Real praying isn’t you starting a conversation with God.   Real praying is God starting a conversation with you.  

In order to see how this works, let’s dig into this story.   This conversation with God all began when Abraham was sitting outside his tent, and these strangers walked out of the desert.   Now in desert culture, when folks walk up to your tent, you don’t do a wave and send them on their way.  No, you invite them in.  You feed them.  You provide a place to stay.   Why?  In that environment, you might find yourself out in the desert one day, and you sure hope someone would do that for you.   So Abraham and his wife Sarah welcome them in, and as they are sitting and talking Abraham gets it.   He realizes in these strangers, God has come.  

But when Abraham and God start the conversation about Sodom and Gomorrah, who begins it?   God does.    God even says out loud.  Hmm, shall I tell Abraham about this?  Now when somebody says out loud something like that, you know what it means.  It means they really want to tell you.    But beyond what God says, what matters is that God talks first.  

In reality, when anyone prays, they never pray without God prompting that prayer, without God so to speak, talking first.   But even with that prompting, you can still miss the real conversation. Why?   You don’t recognize God’s voice.   Human beings have a terrible tendency to think they’re talking to God when they’re actually talking to themselves.   This past week, I read an awful letter that someone had sent to a pastor I know.   I can’t remember when I had read such a vicious, brutal letter to another human being.  But what made it more awful is that the person who wrote it said she had done so after her afternoon time of prayer.    Let me tell you.  I guarantee that God had nothing to do with that letter.  But she sure thought so.   

It can be perilously easy to think you’re talking to God, when you’re actually just talking to yourself.    That’s why in those statistics, another number really disturbed me.  It said while one out of two people are praying every day, only one out of three are reading the Bible even once a week.    And sure, God can speak to you through nature or through other people, but, it’s all too easy to get those signals crossed.  But if you believe what the Bible says about itself, that God is speaking there, what better place to start than there.   Now you can still miss it, sure.  But at least there, you’re going where God says he is always speaking.  When God is going to talk to you, God is going to do it there more than anywhere else. 

So if you’re not going there on a regular basis, you’re likely not hearing much from God at all.  You could just be talking to yourself.  

And as you actually connect to God, the more three things will happen in those conversations, the three things that happen here.          

First, you’ll get both bolder and humbler with God than you could have ever thought.

Second, you’ll pray to God for things you would never have prayed for before.

And third, you will understand who God actually is in ways you could never have come up with on your own.   

Each of those things happens in this conversation between God and Abraham.   Do you see how bold Abraham gets with God?     Abraham bargains God all the way from 50 down to 10.  Sheesh, I get intimidated when I return a product to Target.  Yet here Abraham pushes God again and again, and again.   Abraham won’t let it go.   But do you see how he does it?   He doesn’t come to God like he’s entitled.   No.   He says.  “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.”    He doesn’t arrogantly demand, but he boldly and humbly asks.   

So many folks get confused when the Bible talks about fearing God.  They wonder.  Why should I be scared of God?    Well, let me tell you, even when I’ve had a chance to chat with Hollywood’s mayor, Peter Bober, I get a little nervous.  I have a bit of fearful awe.  Why? Well, he’s the mayor after all.  I feel that a bit around anyone who has power, a very wealthy person or a celebrity, heck, even a great chef or brilliant musician, even a large church pastor.    So if you’re talking to the Creator of reality, of the infinity of the universe, doesn’t feeling a little awe make some sense?   And clearly, Abraham knows that is who he is talking to.  

In your own prayer life, could you stand to have a bit more awe, and a bit more boldness?  Just this past week, I was talking with someone, whose spouse has not become a Christian.   And she said, even though I’ve been married to this wonderful man for years and years, only recently did I start praying for God to work in his life.   And she said that a few weeks ago, her husband said, “Well, you know I was christened so technically I am a Christian.”    She couldn’t believe her ears.  This came from a man who had hardly wanted to be associated with Christianity, much less admit any affiliation with it.  It gave her a little bit of awe.   Are you praying boldly for your family, for this church, for this community?  Are you praying with a bit of awe, with the realization that you are talking to the most powerful being in existence, who actually sustains existence?  

And as you pray, what are you praying for?   It’s a bit shocking what Abraham prays for.  When God talks about the great outcry that has come from Sodom and Gomorrah, the word outcry means the cries of the poor and oppressed.   God is telling Abraham. I have heard how awful these cities have become, how the innocent suffer at their hands.   And so I am going to bring justice.   And Abraham knows God’s right.    He has dealt with these cities, even fought them.  He knows how bad they are.   But he doesn’t say.  “Oh, yeah, God.  Take those people down.”  No, he says to God.  Please spare them.     He literally prays for his enemies, for people who richly deserve the justice God will bring.   Now, if you know more of Abraham’s story, you might say.  Well, Abraham does have a nephew there, who has a wife and two daughters.  So he’s really concerned about them.  Really?   If that was the case, couldn’t he have just said?  “Ok, God destroy them, but get my relatives out first.”  That would have been a far simpler prayer.   But no Abraham pleads for thousands of people who he doesn’t even know, who not only care nothing about him, but who may even be his enemies.   When you start having real conversations with God, you’ll pray for folks you might never have thought to pray for before, even your enemies.

But more than how Abraham pray or who he prays for, what is most mind-blowing is how Abraham argues his case.    In Abraham’s day, if someone in your family did an evil act, the whole family felt the responsibility for that evil.    They felt a collective guilt.  I’m sure it’s what many Muslims felt when they first heard about Oman Mateen, the shooter in Orlando.  

But Abraham makes a remarkable leap from there.   He asks God.   Could that work for the righteous?  Could the righteousness of say 50 people make up for the evil of thousands?    Could the credit of their righteousness cover the debt of the others’ wrong?   Would you save the evil for the sake of the righteous?   And what does God say?  God says yes.  Yes I will  

You see, Abraham knows that God has to see justice done, but he also knows God has shown forgiveness again and again.   Abraham has failed God a lot.    He has done pretty ugly things, and God has not walked away.   God has loved him in spite of that.    So, knowing that about God, he pushes the envelope, to see how far God’s compassion goes.   He gets God down from 50 to 45 to 40 to 30 to 20 to 10.  Will God save the cities for the sake of ten righteous people? Yes!  But hold it.  That’s when he goes home?  Why does he stop there?  Why doesn’t he go all the way?    Why doesn’t he go to one?  Why doesn’t he ask?  God would you save these cities for the sake of just one righteous person, just one?  

Why?   Because, Abraham realizes something.  There isn’t even one righteous person there.   He knows his nephew, Lot doesn’t make the mark.  More than that, Abraham knows he doesn’t make the mark either.   He realizes. No one on the face of the earth makes the mark.  Abraham has discovered the way to save not simply these cities, but everything and everyone.  After all, God has to deliver justice, and no one is innocent.  Yet, Abraham now knows.   For the love of just one righteous person, God will save everyone.  Yet even so, no one can open that way.   Because, no one is righteous, no not one.    

But what Abraham pointed to in that conversation God actually did, thousands of years later.    Since no one righteous could be found, in Jesus God became the righteous one.   And so while Abraham prayed for people who might kill him, in Jesus God prayed for people who were killing him.   Abraham risked his life before God for people who didn’t deserve it, but in Jesus God gave his life for people who didn’t merit at all.   Abraham represented the undeserving before God, and in doing that, he risked God’s anger.   But in Jesus, God represented us, and on that cross he didn’t just risk the cosmic wrath of God’s justice, he took it on himself for us.   So, we can ask the question that Abraham couldn’t.  God will you save not just these cities, but will you save everyone, all of us, for the sake of one, for the sake of one righteous person.   And we will hear God say.   Yes, I will.   No, more than that.  We will hear him say.  Yes, I have.       

As that beautiful old hymn put it:
On the mount of crucifixion Fountains opened deep and wide
Through the floodgates of God's mercy Flowed a vast and gracious tide

Grace and love, like mighty rivers Poured incessant from above
And Heaven's peace and perfect justice Kissed a guilty world in love.

And above all that is what God is saying to you.   You are far more flawed and messed up than you dare admit.   But you are infinitely more loved than you dare dream.   And if you listen, every word of this book proclaims that truth.   And if you listen, you will become humbler and bolder at the same time, as you realize how far you have fallen away, and how far God came to bring you home.  And as you see that grace, you will pray for everyone, even your enemies, as you realize how God prayed for you when you were his enemy.   And in that grace, you will come with confidence, knowing that God’s righteous love has covered everything for you.  

What gives you the power to pray, to really pray?  Knowing what God has done for you.  Do you know that?  Do you really know it?