Sunday, July 31, 2016

When You Face Real Darkness in your Life, How Do You Hold on Until the Light Dawns?

We live in a world where so many crave spiritual connection.   And why do they?   What do they want?    Maybe they want peace or contentment.   Maybe they yearn to find a sense of meaning in a world where things can seem so empty of meaning.    Heck, maybe they just want to feel better, happier; healthier.    And heck, why not?    Who wouldn’t want to have all of those things and more?  And yes, connection with God can and will bring you all of that, and more. 

But here’s the reality that many don’t want to face.   A lot of times, the path to that more will take you though some really hard places along the way.    You may need to go way down before you can rise up.   You will have times that you go through a lot of darkness, before you even see a glimmer of light.     

So what do you do when those times come?   How do you hold on till the light dawns?  How do you let God work even in the dark, even when you have no sense that God is even there?   In this the darkest, most downcast passage in the entire Bible, God shows you the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say.

How do you hold on in the midst of the deepest darkness?  How do you not only survive such times, but come through stronger on the other side?   How do you hold on to hope, to faith, to a sense of God’s love when you wonder if God is even there?    In these very dark words, God shows us the way.   You hold on by remembering that darkness comes, but that darkness cannot last, that in the deepest places of despair, where even God seems gone, that God has not; that in those moments, just the desire for God can be enough.

In the Bible’s songbook, called naturally the Psalms, out of 150 songs, you have one that offers no hope whatsoever.   You have lots that talk about hard times, but always you have a turning point, where hope, even deliverance comes.   But in this psalm, you get nothing.  If anything, it gets worse and worse as you go along.   In fact, did you notice? It literally ends in darkness.  The word darkness is the very last word of the song.  

What is going on here?  How can such a song even be in the Bible?  It can be there, because life can and does carry such darkness.   The Bible never takes you away from reality.  It gets you in deeper touch with reality.   And this song reflects reality, even though it’s a reality, that we’d all like to avoid.    But how does it help us?  

It helps us first of all because it punctures any illusion that we might have that a life with God always abounds in sweetness and light.   It tempers our expectations, and that’s a good thing.   Yes, you can pray and pray, like this man does here, and still find yourselves in a very dark place.    And in this song this writer finds himself in that place both outwardly and inwardly.    He is facing terribly hard things in the circumstances of his life.   He has lost friends and family, and on top of that, he himself is coming close to death.   But beyond that, inside, he has lost touch with God.   You can almost withstand whatever hits you on the outside, if you at least feel connected to God on the inside.  But to lose that on top of outward loss and heartbreak, I can’t even imagine.  I don’t want to.  But this man is dealing with exactly that, devastation around him, and devastation inside him.   He is praying to God, and getting absolutely nothing in return. 

What is God telling us through this man’s awful despair?  God is saying.  This can happen, even to Christians.   Yes, the Bible tells us that God works everything, even the hardest things in our life for good.  But the Bible also tells you that this side of heaven you may never know what that good is.   You can do everything right, and still, as far as you see it, everything goes wrong.   Now how does knowing that help?  

It gives a reality check to your expectations.   If before you went into a regular hotel room, somebody told you it was a honeymoon suite.   Well, you’d go in, and think, this is awful. But if they told you, it was a prison cell, then, you’d go in, and think, well….this ain’t so bad.   Here’s the point.   It’s still the same room.   It’s only your expectations that have changed.

And if you think that having a deep connection to God means your life is going to always be awesome, well, when hard times hit, it’s going to hit you, really, really hard.   If you think, well, I’m a good person, why is this happening to me?    Well, Jesus was a good person. And what happened to him?  What makes you think it won’t happen to you? 

False expectations can hurt you as much as any hard thing that happens to you.  But when hard things happen, this song shows you God can and will take your anger and despair.  This song rips into God.   The writer throws everything he has at God.   And as he does it, he throws himself a huge pity party.   Near the end, do you see what he says?   From my youth, I have been close to death.  Is that true?   Probably not.   But when you’re down in the dumps, you can end up seeing your whole life from that very dark place.  And this guy is there.  He is pretty much saying.  God, you have never been there for me, ever.     And then he goes further.  He tells God.  Heck, even darkness is a better friend than you.   He is probably saying, the darkness of sleep, gives me more comfort than you ever have, God.  That’s pretty harsh. 

But that’s the point.  In this song, God is telling you.  Look, I get it.   When your life really hits the skids, you’re likely to get really mad at me.   You may even end up saying awful things to me.   But guess what, when, it’s all over, I’ll still be your God, and you’ll still be my child.  Nothing you can do or say will ever change my love for you ever. 

But more than that, in those moments, even though, God’s love might seem to have gone.  In reality, God’s love may be becoming greater than ever.    When you’re in the dark place that this guy is, what does God’s love bring you?   It brings you nothing.   And that’s the point.   In such a time as this, you’ll learn the answer to a crucial question.   Will you love God for nothing? 

You see, when anyone first comes to God, we come looking for something.  We have a need, whatever it might be.  And we yearn for God to fill it.   And so God does.  We find more meaning or hope.  We get deliverance from a problem.  We experience his love.   But in the midst of that, one big question remains unanswered.   Did we marry God for his money so to speak, for what God could give us?   Or did we marry God for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow until death and beyond?   Are we serving God out of love or are we serving God out of self-interest?   When times like this guy is facing come, that question gets answered.  

And how does this song answer it?  It’s presence in the Bible tells us.  Yes, this man is getting angry.  Yes, he’s lashing out.    But he’s lashing out to God.   He’s bringing all this anger and bitterness to God.    He has not walked away from the relationship.   He still yearns for God, still desires God.   He is loving God even when he has nothing to show for it. 

Do you remember Mother Teresa?  Whenever I saw her on the news or in some report from Calcutta, even through the screen, I could sense God’s presence shining through her.  So when the priest who served as her spiritual advisor shared how for years she had lost any sense of God’s presence, it shocked me.  He told of how Teresa yearned desperately for that presence to return, how deeply she mourned that loss.     But still, even in that darkness, she never walked away.  She never walked away from the rejected and poor of Calcutta.   She never stopped praying and loving God.   And in doing so, she showed how deep her love went.  She loved God period.  She loved God for nothing. And that level of love did something extraordinary in her and in our world.     

And if you love God like that, it will do something extraordinary in you.   Your prayer may be nothing but complaints.  But it will still be prayer, and that will make all the difference.   In times like that, even your desire for God, however flawed and feeble it is, will be enough.   
And even in your darkness, God will be at work, even though you can’t see it.   After all, the writer of this song didn’t see it.   He acts as if this darkness will never end, that God has left the building never to return.  But we have a perspective he didn’t have. 

At the beginning of most of the psalms, it tells us who the author is.  And this one does too.   It tell us that a man called Heman wrote this song.   And I Chronicles 6 tells us who Heman was.  He was the leader of the Korahite guild of poets and musicians, who composed many of the most beautiful psalms of the Bible.   So if Heman helped write these magnificent poems, he helped write some of the world’s greatest literary works.  He wrote songs that have helped millions and millions of people over thousands of years.   And that means that even in Heman’s darkness, God was at work, so much so that 2,500 years later, his darkness is still helping us.   Heman thought his darkness was absolute, but it wasn’t.   He thought God had utterly abandoned him, but God had not.   

But in your darkness, you have more than just the perspective of Heman’s song.   You have the perspective that comes from the One who did enter absolute darkness, who entered that darkness for you.    You know the reality of the One who was utterly abandoned by God, who was utterly abandoned out of love for you.   You see.  Jesus got the ultimate darkness that Heman thought he got.  Why did Jesus get that darkness?   He got it so that you never would.   He became utterly abandoned so that you would never be.   Our self-centeredness, our selfishness, opened the door to a darkness that would destroy us.  But in Jesus, God took that darkness on himself, so that even in our darkest moments, we can know that the light of God’s love has not left us. 

Think about it.  On that cross, the ultimate darkness descended on Jesus.   And he could have walked away.   He could have said, “No way.  I’m not doing this. It’s not worth it.”  But he didn’t.   He stayed on that cross.  He stayed in that darkness for us.   If Jesus didn’t walk away from you when he faced his darkness, why would you think he would ever walk away from you when you face yours?

You know, as Mother Teresa struggled with her darkness, she came to see it as a gift.  She felt that God had given her a chance to identify with Jesus so fully that she had been given just a glimpse of the abandonment he had faced on the cross for her.  She felt that her suffering helped her identify more deeply than ever with the sick and wounded people she served, to see Jesus more than ever in their faces.   And while she may not have sensed God’s presence, anyone who encountered her, even if was through a TV screen, could see how profoundly it was there. 

In the middle of this prayer, in his despair, Heman asks this question of God.   Is your steadfast love declared in the grave or your faithfulness in the place of the dead?    And because of Jesus, we know the answer.  Yes, God’s love is declared even there. Even the darkness of death cannot overcome the light of Jesus’ love for you.   And because of that love, stronger than death, you can know.  No matter how dark your life becomes, the light of Jesus’ love still shines.   The Holocaust survivor, Corrie Ten Boom, said it profoundly.  She said.  There is no pit so deep that God's love is not deeper still.    

Sunday, July 24, 2016

How Does Change Come? Here Are the Two Key Steps that Bring Change

Five thousand dollars for six days or seven grand, if you want the Diamond plan.  And that’s before you’ve paid for your travel and hotel.  That’s what you’ll need to pay to have your Date with Destiny.    For me, it would be more like a Date with Debt.   But every year, 2500 people fork over that money to Life Coach Tony Robbins.   Why?  Tony tells them that in those six days their life will change. 

Well, I don’t have 5 thousand lying around, but I do have Netflix.  So I watched a film that chronicles those days in Boca.   And I did learn a few things.  Tony Robbins cusses a lot.   And he has a gorgeous oceanfront home in Palm Beach.    If you are taking in 15 million dollars in six days, that buys some nice things.  

But more than that, I learned this. People pay that money because they desperately want to change.    And they’re willing to take a five thousand dollar flyer to get it.   And whether you like Tony Robbins or not Tony sincerely wants them to change.   For six days and nights, he pours everything he has into helping that to happen.  

After all, the people in that ballroom in Boca look great.  They seem to have it all together.  But then you hear the stories, some of them heartbreakingly awful, and you get it.   A lot of these people are barely holding on, even to life.   And they know.  Something has to change.  Something has to change inside them.  

And let’s be honest, who doesn’t have something in their life they want to change.  And I’m not talking an outward circumstance.  I’m talking inside where nobody sees but you.   But what you see, you don’t like.  What you see, you don’t want.   Yet, you wonder.   How does it go away?   How do I become free?     How do I really change? 

In the words of this painful and heartfelt prayer, God shows the way.   Let’s hear what God has to say. 

Daniel 9:1-19

Everyone at some level has something, something they want to change.   It may be a habit.  It may be a way of thinking.  It may be a fear that holds you back, a wound that won’t heal; a belief that limits you.   But how does that change happen?   In this prayer of Daniel’s, we see how change happens.   It happens when humility and hope come together.  It happens when you humbly face the source of your pain, but even more, experience the hope that only God can bring.     It happens when instead of looking out, you look in, when instead of looking down, you look up.  

But reading this prayer, you can wonder.  How could these words bring about change?   They seem, well, so depressing.   But the words don’t so much bring the change. They point to the change that is already happening.    What Daniel is experiencing in this prayer, in his life, the Bible calls repentance.    And too often what this word means gets obscured by misperceptions that it simply means a type of remorse.    You did something wrong, and now you feel bad about it, really bad.  But anyone who has experienced that sort of feeling knows that it rarely leads to change.   Often, it leaves you stuck in the same bad place where you already were. But repentance actually means change.   The Greek word that the New Testament writers use literally means a change of mind, a transformation in the way you think.    And in Daniel’s words, that is what we are seeing.  We are seeing evidence of a transformation of mind and heart that has literally changed Daniel.        

And that change does begin with sadness and grief, but a sadness and grief that instead of paralyzing you, frees you.  Why? It actually connects you to the truth that you need to see.  The preacher Bill Coffin put it this way.   Honesty does not come painlessly;  As Jesus said, “The truth will make you free.”,  but, Coffin said, first it makes you miserable!    So how does the misery Daniel feels lead to freedom?

It happens first in where Daniel looks.   Years ago, I heard the leadership guru Jim Collins share a saying that’s stuck with me.   Collins said that good leaders when something goes well, they look out the window.   They celebrate those who helped make the good thing happen.   But when things go bad, good leaders look in the mirror.  Where did I go wrong?  In contrast, poor leaders did the opposite.  When things go well, they look in the mirror (Yea, look at me!), but if something goes bad, they go to the window.  They look for someone to blame.    And Collins’ words don’t simply work for leaders, they work for everyone. 

And they are working here in Daniel’s life.   It would have been simple for Daniel to blame the Babylonians for the destruction of Jerusalem.   After all, it was the Babylonians that destroyed it.     But Daniel knows that the weakness that led to that destruction began within.    It began when the nation lost its way, when they started putting their belief in power, success, wealth, things that didn’t ultimately matter instead of the God who did. And those false beliefs planted seeds that led to their demise.   That’s the truth he needs to see.  

And only in seeing that truth, in looking in the mirror at the failings of himself and his nation, can Daniel find the freedom that leads to change, to the return from exile for which Daniel yearns.  After all, he can’t do anything about the Babylonians.   Those leaders have already gone, conquered by the Medes and the Persians, that new leader to which these first verses refer.   

But more than that, if the problem began in the mirror, if the problem began in Daniel and his nation, then it can end there too.   He realizes that the way to change lies within them, within what they decide to do.    Only with the humility that comes with looking in the mirror, do you see that.     

Many years ago, I went to a sort of Tony Robbins type experience.   And one of the exercises that the leader did with us kind of rocked my world.  He asked each of us in the room to remember a time when we felt utterly powerless and alone.   I didn’t have to struggle for that memory.  I knew it right away.  

When I was in my early teens, I got bullied pretty badly.   A group of kids my age would gang up on me, and do things that well, terrified me.  I’ll never forget how scared I felt when they thought it would be fun to dangle me by my feet from an open window.

But the leader asked us to remember those times, and ask ourselves honestly.  Were you really powerless?  Were there things you could have done?   In my case, he asked me.  Did you ever talk to your parents about it?   Did you ever share the issue with a teacher?   Did you ever reach out to anyone for help?    I realized.   I had done none of those things.   I did have power in that situation.  I simply had not taken it.   Now as we did that exercise, he reminded us do so without judgment.  This wasn’t about beating yourself up.   This was simply about reframing the reality of your situation.   This was about, instead of looking out the window, to start looking into the mirror.

And when I did, I realized that even there I had more power than I realized.   But do you realize what power I had?   I had the power to ask for help, to look to a power larger than myself.  So why didn’t I?  

To be honest, I didn’t reach out because of pride. I didn’t want to acknowledge that I couldn’t deal with that situation on my own.   And in our lives, often what prevents change begins there.   We fight the battle alone.  Not because we need to, but because we don’t want to admit that we need help, that we can’t handle it on our own.    So we suck it up or we minimize the problem or maybe even deny it’s there.   We do whatever it takes to avoid facing the fact that what we face is bigger than us. 

But here’s a reality of life.  Bringing significant change often only happens when we bring someone in to help.  It’s why people hire trainers or go to Weight Watchers or see therapists and the list could go on.   But in life, you will face some changes that require far more than that.   

It’s why in 12 step programs, after you admit that you have a problem that is making your life insane, the very next step you take is face the truth that this problem you can’t handle alone.  And for this problem, other people can help but they’re not enough.  You need a power greater than yourself, greater than others, to restore your life to sanity.    And as millions of recovering alcoholics and addicts can attest, when you reach out beyond yourself, that help comes.  Healing comes.  Change comes. 

At times at night, our son Patrick has a bad dream.   And when he wakes up, what does he do?  He cries out.   And what do we do?  We come running.   We come to comfort, to assure him that he is not alone.  We come to make it better.   Yet how often the wisdom that my child exhibits, we fail to practice.    When change needs to happen, when problems hit that are too big for you, do you cry out for help?  Or do you hold your pain in rather than bring it someone, much less the only One who can truly heal it, who can bring the ultimate change you need?

But Daniel doesn’t go that route.  He cries out to God, to the only One who can bring the change he needs.    But why would God help?   After all, even though Daniel and his nation have suffered in exile for 70 years, they still haven’t gotten it right.   Even Daniel, who has risked death again and again for his faith, admits even he hasn’t gotten it right.   Yet still he asks.  Why?    It’s not because he hopes in his nation to get it right.  He clearly knows that won’t happen.  No, he hopes in God’s mercy to make it right.   But what Daniel could only hope in, we can trust in.    

For, while Daniel risked his life for love of God, in Jesus, God gave his life for love of us.  And Daniel could not ask for forgiveness on the basis of his righteousness, but on that cross, God in Jesus could and did, even as we nailed him there.   And because he did, because on that cross, he got no mercy, you now have mercy without end.   You have the mercy of the ultimate grace, the ultimate undeserved gift, the love of a God who brings you back, even from the exile of death itself.   And in that mercy, in that grace, anything is possible, not simply resurrection in the life to come, but resurrection, right here, right now. 

At the end of that Netflix movie, Tony Robbins tells this story.  When he was growing up, he tells the interviewer, he was simply trying to survive in a household with an unstable, abusive mother, doing whatever he could to protect himself and his siblings.   But as a sophomore in high school, he took a speech class.  He wasn’t so interested in the class as in a beautiful senior he wanted to impress.   So, to do so, he became the class clown, trying to crack everyone up.   One day, the teacher, Mr. Cobb, said some dreaded words.   Mr. Robbins, he said, please stay behind.  I need to talk with you.   Tony thought.  I am so busted.   But Mr. Cobb looked at him.   He said, “You think you know why you’re here. But you don’t.   I know you’re just trying to impress her.  I don’t care about that.  But I see how you can hold everyone’s attention.  You aren’t just a speaker, Mr. Robbins.  You are a communicator.   And I know about your home life too.  Tony was thinking. How can he possibly know about that?   So I am going to give you a speech called the Will to Win.   I want you to read it, and if that speech says what I think it does about your life, then I have this letter about a contest in persuasive oratory. I want you to enter that contest, and deliver that speech.   Robbins said. I read that speech, and it was all about not giving up, no matter what you face.  And that was me, a man just clinging on by sheer force of will.   And I entered that contest, and I won.   And then I entered more, and I won those.   And I realized. I had found a way to reach people, to connect.   As Tony tells the story, the tears start to come.  The interviewer asks him.   Why is it still an emotional experience for you to even tell that story?  Tony says. Because, I see it as a moment of grace.  That man, in my life, handing me that letter, seeing who I was in that moment, that was grace.  It was a lot I’ve done, but that was grace.  I didn’t create that….It’s a connection to the Divine, that it’s more than you, and I think that’s a healthy thing. 

Do you realize that?  It is more than you?  It is a God who has given everything in Jesu for you, so you can have abundant life, not just when you die, but right here, right now.   Where do you need that life? Where do you need change?  Where do you need God to bring you resurrection?   Wherever it is, let him work.  Let Jesus work his grace in you.    

Sunday, July 17, 2016

In a World where So Many Seek Spiritual Connection, Why Are So Many Still So Disconnected? Here is Why.

It’s not all that scientific, but it’s fun.  And it does seem to say something.   Last week, I typed into Google the phraseseeking spiritual enlightenment to see how many results popped up. By the way it was 2.7 million.  So this week, I wondered what would happen, if I popped in more general spiritual terms.  And what came back kind of blew me away.   

If you type the word Spirituality into Google, you get over 122,000,000 results.    When you type in prayer, it almost triples to 330 million.   And when you type in God, well, that’s the big Kahuna.  There, you get over one anda half billion results!  That’s one result for every four people on the planet!  So lots and lots of people are talking about God, prayer; spiritual connection.   Is that good?   Sure.

But here’s the conundrum.   With all that searching out there, does the world seem all that spiritual or prayerful?   Does our world, our nation even, the wealthiest in human history, feel like one that has spiritual peace; that has much sense of spiritual well-being at all?   If it’s out there, I don’t see it.   Do you?   Instead, I see anger, fear, dissatisfaction, a lot of desperate searching for happiness.   So how can all this searching for God be going on, all this writing about God even, yet the world seems so disconnected from what a relationship with God should bring?  What’s the problem?   

In the words we’re about to hear, God shows us where the problem lies.   More than that, God shows us where the answer does to.   So, let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

We live in a world where spirituality has become a big buzz word, where so many are seeking God, though they may not use that exact word.   Yet in the midst of all the spiritual seeking, where is the peace?  Where is the sense of security?  Doesn’t our world seem more angry and fearful than ever?  Why is that?   Why doesn’t all that God-seeking, all that spirituality talk lead to a world that is freer of fear and anger rather than one that seems more full of fear and anger than ever before?    Here, in the midst of one woman’s fear and anger, God shows the way.   God shows you that before you can experience the freedom God brings, you have to let go of what holds you tight, even if what holds you tight feels good, maybe even is good.

What do I mean?   In this story, Hannah finds herself in tremendous pain.   And the words translated here don’t do her pain justice.   In verse 6, where it says that her rival, Peninnah, her husband’s other wife, provoked her, it says that it irritated her.  But in Hebrew it says, she roared with anger.   That’s way more than irritation.   In vs. 10, where it says, she was deeply distressed, the word here is actually pain, the same word that describes physical pain.  And, that makes sense.  A few years ago, a study showed that to our brain, physical pain, and an intense experience of socialrejection feel exactly the same.

And that’s what Hannah is experiencing, intense social rejection.   In her culture, if you didn’t have children, you didn’t have worth.   Today, some of that still exists.   Just last week, one of the two candidates for prime minister in Britain, Andrea Leadsom, gave an interview to the Times of London.  Do you know what she said was a major disqualification for her rival, Theresa May?  She said.  Her rival had never been a mother, and thus she had no real stake in the future of her nation.   Now, her criticism back-fired, and Theresa May is now prime minister not Andrea Leadsom, but still, she said it.   One of the two candidates for the leader of one of the world’s most powerful nations said her rival shouldn’t be prime minister because she had never been a mom.   Wow. 

But while what Andrea Leadsom said about her rival got immediate blowback, what Peninah says about Hannah doesn’t get any blowback at all.   Why?  She was saying what everyone already saw as true.    To survive in that world, you had to have kids, a lot of kids.  First, they provided labor on the farm or with the herds.  So the more kids you had; the more labor you had, and likely the more wealth.   And as only four out of ten kids even lived to adulthood, you had to have a lot just to get a few.    And, when you got old, if you didn’t have kids, well, you probably just died.   Social security didn’t exist, and nobody else would take care of you.   So as far as that culture went, if as a woman, you didn’t have kids, you didn’t have worth.  You almost didn’t even have a reason to live.      

And Hannah knew that.  She felt that rejection, that shame every day of her life.   Now before, we get judgy about the oppression of women in that culture, don’t think our culture doesn’t have its own ways of twisting women up.   Today, one of the new norms in dating culture is for a girl to get a guy, you’re expected to send a selfie sans clothing. Why?  Well, this culture values women for their looks, for their sexual allure, for their romantic success.   As a brilliant French-Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi put it this way in an interview in the New York Times.   “If in Muslim countries, they try to cover the woman, in America, they try to make them look like a piece of meat.”   Harsh, but a bit true.  In our culture, if a woman doesn’t look a certain way, how the judgment comes, how the shame rises up.  Think about it.  Do you think eating disorders existed in Hannah’s day?    

Here’s the truth, whatever culture you are in will try to twist you up in some way.  For women, it may be looks or children or romantic success.  For men, it may be not showing weakness or experiencing failure.    For both men and women, you have the pressures for success or popularity and the list could go on. 

Now here’s the thing.   All of that isn’t bad necessarily.   It can be good even.   What makes them bad is whenever we feel pressures to make anything, even a good thing, an ultimate thing.  And cultures have powerful ways to pressure you to do just that.  They will try to push you to find ultimate meaning or satisfaction or worth, in things, even good things that can never deliver that.  
Interestingly, Hannah gets those pressures here in two ways.   On one hand, she gets the traditional pressure from Peninnah, her rival wife, mocking her for her lack of children.   Then on the other hand, she gets a more modern pressure from, Elkanah her husband, who asks.  Aren’t I enough?    Can’t I be the source of your worth? 

But how does Hannah respond?   The text tells us in two powerful words.  Hannah rose.   I once heard the preacher James Forbes make a great sermon out of just those two words.  Hannah rose. 
 But what’s the significance of Hannah rising?   In Hebrew, it means more than simply someone getting up.    It means someone getting up to take action, to do something about a problem.
And what does Hannah do?   Hannah goes to God.   She takes her anger, her pain, her fear and shame, and she lays it all out before God.  She gets so emotional that if you read a little further, you’ll see that the priest even thinks she’s drunk.   Let’s be honest.   All of us feel fear or pain about something.   Some of us hold it all in.  Some of us let it all out. Some of us do a bit of both. But the Bible says take it to God, lay it all before God like Hannah does. Now, I heard that sort of thing a lot growing up.  And I thought it was a sort of religious platitude, true maybe but not all that life-changing.  But then reading this, I realized. Bringing it to God is the most life-changing thing imaginable.   After all, why do you bring it before God?  You don’t do it for God’s sake.  God knows it already.  You bring it to God, because always, always the ultimate answer to your fear and pain is found there.   Hannah realizes that, and when she comes before God, that answer comes. 

Do you see how her prayer begins?  It doesn’t begin with her problem.  It begins with who God is.   And only after she remembers who God is, does she lay out her misery before God.   But in that prayer, something has already changed.  Do you see what she asks for?

Now, you might think nothing has changed.  After all, she asks for a son.   She even proposes a deal with God to get one.   But the deal she proposes tells us that something has radically changed.    When she promises that her son will become a Nazirite, she is giving up whatever value to her this child would have.    In Israel, only members of the tribe of Levi could become priests.  But a member of another tribe could enter full time service to God, and assist the priests by becoming a Nazirite.   And Nazirites didn’t cut their hair or drink strong drink.   But more than that, they began serving as a young child.   So her son will contribute nothing to the family, and when she’s old, he won’t be able to take care of her either.   And as from an early age, he’ll be away so she won’t even get the joy of seeing him grow up.   She’ll only see him once a year.  What is going on here?  Why would she want a child under those conditions?  

It’s because before she wanted a child for her, to assuage her pain, to remove her shame, to give her worth but now she goes to God, and says, I don’t want a child for me anymore.  I want a child for you, God.  You see.   Beyond all the cultural reasons to have children, Israelites had a deeper reason.   God had told their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, that through their descendants, God would bless the world.   So in having children, you participated in that divine plan.  And for Hannah, that reason has now become the only reason to bring a child into the world.    She has let go of all the other reasons that drove her before.    When she first came to God, having a child was the end, and God was just the means.   But now, God has become the end, and having a child has become only the means.  And that changes everything.

Hannah’s reason for living, her source of worth was to have a child. (If she had a child, can you imagine the burden that poor kid would have to bear?)  But now her reason for living has shifted from having a child to loving God.   God is her hope now, not some cultural standard of motherhood.   How do we know that has happened?   Right after she finishes her prayer, if you read further, it tells us that she ate and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.  Then a few verses later, it tells us that she conceived and bore a son.  But do you see the order?   It wasn’t that she had a son, and then she lost her sadness.   No, she lost her sadness, and later she had her son.  She lost her sadness, way before she even knew a child was to come. Why?   Having a son was no longer the source of her worth, God was.   And that shifted everything. 

What twists people up is when you make anything, even a good thing, an ultimate thing, when you make that the source of your value or worth.    But when God becomes your end, you become free.  Whatever pressure you feel the world putting on you has less and less power over you.  Why?  You have a source of worth that goes beyond success or kids or beauty or approval or whatever it is that seizes that place in your life.   Sure, you may still strive for those things, but they’re no longer your end.  They’re simply means by which you yearn to bring God’s beauty and God’s love into the world.   God has become your end, nothing else, and nothing less.

So what happens with Hannah’s son?  He becomes Samuel, the powerful prophet, whom God makes one of the greatest saviors of his people.   But do you see how Samuel came to be?   Only when Hannah let go of what she thought would save her, does she not only save herself, but bring salvation to her entire people.    And when Hannah lets go like that, not only does she point the way to what saves us all.  She points to the One who did save us all.   In Jesus, God walked away from all that we think God has to be to save us, all powerful, totally invulnerable.   Instead, God became weak and vulnerable, even unto death.  And in that ultimate letting go, God opened up the way of salvation for everyone.   

If God did that, if God in Jesus let go of everything, and changed everything forever, what could God do in you, if you let go?  What binds you up?  What has become way too important?  Where do you need to let go and let God?   

Monday, July 11, 2016

What Does Spiritual Enlightenment Really Look Like? Here God Points the Way.

If Google has anything to say about it, lots of people are looking for this.   I put these three words into Google, and got 2.6 million results!  What were the words?   I put in seeking spiritual enlightenment.  By the way, in checking out a few results, I found some pretty interesting suggestions.    Of course, you had the old stand bys, meditation, prayer, spiritual books etc.   But the most popular site also recommended LSD and other drugs, even a near death experience.   I don’t know those two might actually go together sometimes.

But why would you want spiritual enlightenment anyway?   Honestly, what do you need to have enlightened in the first place?  Why is is so important that the most popular site even suggests you risk death to get it?    Yet, here’s the truth.   It is important. As far back as human history goes we’ve been looking for it.  Even the first art we have, cave paintings, are probably related to this seeking.   But what are we seeking?    What do we need to have?   What does spiritual enlightenment even look like?  In this mysterious conversation that God has with Moses, God shows us.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

For as long as human beings have existed, we’ve yearned for something beyond, for spiritual enlightenment or experience of God or whatever you want to call it.  But what exactly are we yearning for?  What does it even look like?    In this conversation, God shows us.  God shows you that what every human being yearns for, what every human being needs is the beauty found in the face of God?   Now what does that mean?  Let’s look at the words here, for here God tells us what that means. 

First, to understand this conversation, we need to see it in context.  Have you ever walked into a conversation between two people in mid-stream?   It can be hard to figure out what is going on unless you get clued into what has happened before.

You see, after God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God told Moses that he wanted to dwell in the midst of the people, to use the Hebrew word to mishkan or tabernacle there, which simply means to dwell.   Yet as Moses and God were laying out the plan for God’s new home, something went seriously wrong.   God and Moses were having this conversation on a mountain called Sinai, and their meeting had been going for days and days.   So the Israelites had begun to get a little nervous about this new God that Moses represented.   So they came up with a plan.  They said, “Hey, since we don’t know about this new God, heck, we don’t even know if Moses is even still alive, let’s go back to what we do know.  Let’s ask the gods of Egypt for a little help.  So they melt some gold and make themselves their own version of an Egyptian god, one called the Apis bull.”   

And in doing this, they break God’s heart.   Think about it.   Say, you’ve met someone who finds themselves with a terrible partner, who abuses them and doesn’t care for them in the least.   And out of your love, you help this person break free. And you begin to really build something together, something good and beautiful.   Then you go out of town for a few days.  And you find when you come back, that your new beloved has gone back to have a fling with the abusive boyfriend.  That has to hurt. And that’s how this betrayal feels to God.  

So what does God do? God asks for a sort of amicable divorce.  God basically says, “Ok, here is what I will do.  I will watch over and protect you in this new land I’ve promised you.  I will take care of your needs, even bless you with more than you need.  But I won’t be present with you like before.”  
Now for many folks this plan sounds like a good deal.  They want a God who takes care of their needs; blesses them a bit, but they don’t want him in the middle of things, just available for emergencies.   But does Moses leap at the offer?  No, Moses refuses it.   He says. If you go with us like that, it’d be better if we just stayed in the desert and died.”    Why would Moses rather die than lose God’s presence, God’s glory?  

He says to God.  It’s because if you don’t go with us, what will distinguish us from everyone else?  What does Moses mean? 

In life, all of us look for something to distinguish us, to give us our own unique value and identity.  Some look to achievement or wealth or popularity.  Others look to some relationship to get this.  But all of these things that people look to, are just types of glory.  What do I mean?   The word for glory in Hebrew, Kabowd, has two meanings.   It means something that is weighty, and also something that has significance or importance.   The closest word in English is the word, matter (Tim Keller).   Matter not only means how much weight something has, but it also describes significance as in you matter to me. 

And every human being needs this, to know that they matter.  Every human being needs this glory.  And people come, up with a lot of ways to get it, political glory or financial glory or fame or achievement. They think.  If I accomplish these things, then I know that I matter.  But these types of glory are empty ultimately, they don’t fill you up, at least the way you need to be filled.   And in the end, they all fade away.   Moses knows that.  After all, at one time, when he was a prince of Egypt, he had all those forms of glory. 

On the other hand, people can look to a relationship to give them this glory. They think.  If this person really loves me, then I know that I matter.   It’s why the singer Liz Phair even wrote a love song called glory.  In that song the same line repeats again and again, “you are, you are shining some glory on me.”  Everyone wants someone who will shine glory on them, to show them that they matter.  But no relationship can carry the weight of that wanting.  It’s not meant to.  

But still everyone needs this glory, but this glory you need, no achievement, no love no matter how great can give it to you.    Moses knows the one place that it can be found is in God. 

But what is this glory that God only has?   What does it even look like?  To get that, you need to look at what Moses does next.   God does agree to stay with the Israelites.  But then Moses goes further.  Moses says.   I want to see your glory, up close and personal.   Now, what is Moses looking for? 
We know that Moses isn’t looking for anything like power or wealth.  He’s already made it clear that he doesn’t want that.  So what is he looking for?  The Bible talks about this a number of ways.  But one way to see it is that Moses is asking to see God’s beauty.

This past week, I was at a family reunion on the beaches of North Carolina.  The home we rent sits right on the ocean.    In the morning, I love to go out and simply look, watch the waves crashing in, the water going on as far as I can see.   But why do I love that?  Looking at the ocean has no practical use.   But I’m not looking for what it can get me, I’m looking for what it is, for the sake of its beauty.  Just seeing it is enough.  I don’t need anything else.  That’s what beauty is, whether it be the ocean or a mountain scene or whatever. It is something whose value is simply in what it is, not for anything it gets you.

Sadly, we rarely look at God that way.   Usually we come to God asking for things or to simply share our anxieties, get a little shoring up for the day.   And if things in our life go seriously wrong, we can even get distant with God as a result.  Essentially most of the time, we act as someone who married God for his money so to speak.

But Moses has gone beyond that.  Moses just wants the beauty nothing more, and nothing less. For beauty does give you something.   When I look at the ocean, I feel a fullness well up inside me.  The closest words I’ve seen to describe it call it an overwhelming meaningfulness.   And that does get at it a bit.  Beauty, real beauty, just fills you like that, with a richness that often inspires you to share that fullness with others too.  

So imagine what it would be like, to gaze at the source of all beauty, of which the ocean is just a faint echo.   Imagine gazing at that.   That’s what Moses wants.    And that’s what God tells Moses, you can’t have.  God’s says to Moses.   When it comes to the beauty of who I am, it’s too much for you.   It would destroy you.  

So here’s the quandary.    You need this glory, this beauty of God because only in the face of that beauty can you find the significance you need, only then will you truly know that you matter, not simply today but forever.   But God says here to Moses, what you need, I can’t give.

But God does go halfway, and in that half way measure, God not only shows why this beauty is so dangerous, God hints at how this beauty has now come to us.    What is the half way measure?
God tells Moses.  You cannot look at my face, but I will hide you in a cleft in this rock, and allow you to see the back of my glory as it passes by, the outskirts of it basically.  But instead of glory God says instead you will see my goodness.  God is telling Moses that what his glory is.  It is my goodness.   And God even describes it as the the glory passes by.   God says:  

 “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

What? Do you see how these words seem to contradict each other?  On one hand, God says.  “I am merciful and gracious, forgiving to all.”  But then God says, “I will never let wrong go unpunished.”   What is God saying?  God is showing us what God’s goodness is, a goodness defined by this tension between justice and love.    For God to be good, he has to be just. He can’t just let wrong go.  But also for God to be good, God has to be utterly loving, showing mercy to all.  But how can those two things exist together?  

God can’t be both these things.  Either God has to be good as in just, and punish evil.  Or God has to be good as in loving, and forgive everyone.   But God says, No, I can be both, and I am.  That is my goodness, my beauty, that in me justice and love dwell together.     Now Moses doesn’t understand how this can be.  He just has to accept it.   But that is because Moses only sees the back parts.   Moses couldn’t look full face into the beautiful goodness of God. 

But we can.    In the first chapter of the gospel of John, John writes that: the Word (Jesus) became flesh and lived among us.  But the word he uses is the word tabernacled.  He is pointing to this story.  And then he continues.  And we have beheld his glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  Do you see what John is saying?  In Jesus, we look full face into the beautiful goodness of God.   How?

On the cross, what did Jesus cry out?  He cried out.  “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”  On that cross, he was utterly abandoned.  He lost all significance, all glory.   He suffered the cosmic justice of God’s goodness, the justice that should have come to us.   He experienced utter and complete insignificance.  How terrifying is that.   And why did Jesus do it?  He did it for love of you and me.  He lost the glory so you could gain it, so you could gaze full face into the glorious beauty of God, so you might know your significance now and forever.    And that is beautiful.

Sure you can believe in a God who just loves everybody, without dealing at all with evil.  Now that sounds nice, but is it beautiful.  Does it fill you up?   Or you can believe in a God that is going to deliver payback for every wrong.  But is there beauty in that?    But when you look at a God who takes the justice you deserve because he so passionately and joyfully desires to give you the love you need, well, that is beautiful.   Do you have that beauty?  Do you want it?   It is there waiting for you right now.