Monday, September 26, 2016

How Do You Live a Life Filled with Joyful Contentment and Peace instead of Fear and Anxiety? Here's How.

Ok, I know the odds.   I have a greater chance of getting struck by lightning (especially in South Florida) than to have a terrorist attack me.   But here’s the difference.   I can see the lightning coming.   I can even get out of its way.  But some crazed guy (and it usually is a guy) with a knife or a bomb or a gun, that’s a lot harder to see coming.    So yes I know, I’m more likely to get killed in an accident on 95 than by a killer from ISIS, but the whole thing still rattles me a bit.   I guess that’s why call it terrorism.   That’s what they want to inspire, terror.

And if that doesn’t rattle your cage, take your pick.   You have mosquitoes carrying Zika.   You have the rising tide of climate change that make South Florida one of the most threatened places on the planet.  You have a Presidential election that hardly anyone seems happy about.    

But even so, let’s be honest.  No one is bombing homes or cities like in Syria. Unlike Venezuela, no one is dying because they can’t get basic medications.   You and I still live in the richest nation in the world, a place more stable, peaceful, and well provided for than pretty much anywhere else.    Yet, in the world, no one gets more anxious than Americans.   We are No. 1.   Roughly one in five Americans suffer from serious anxiety, and over a lifetime one in 3 will.   

Why is that?   More importantly, how do you not become part of that statistic?  How do you live at peace in a seriously anxious time?   How do you live content when so many are filled with such discontent?  In these words from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, God shows the way.   Let’s hear what God has to say. 

In a nation where so many get caught up in anxiety and fear, how do you not get caught up?  How do you find peace and keep it, even if your life may seem to be going off the rails?  In these words from the Apostle Paul, God shows the way.    Peace happens when you stop focusing on happiness, and instead rest in joy.    And how does that joy and peace come?   It comes as you ponder truth, as you give thanks, as you rejoice in what cannot change. 

How can a nation with such wealth, so many cool gadgets, so much diversion and entertainment be so unhappy and anxious?    It’s because so many believe that happiness is what they need instead of realizing that joy trumps happiness every time.   Now don’t misunderstand me.   Nothing is wrong with happiness.    But happiness has a problem.   It doesn’t last.  

The Greeks had a lot of wisdom in the words that they created.   And when it came to the word they used for happiness, and the word they used for joy, you can see their wisdom at work.   Their word for happiness, Makarios, they used to describe the rich’s freedom from normal cares and concerns or the luck of someone winning the lottery.   In other words, they connected happiness to circumstances, and circumstances come and go.    But the word they used for joy, chairo, they described as the good mood of the soul, as a fullness of being, in other words, something not affected by circumstance.   If circumstances can take away joy, what can?  The Greeks knew that.  It’s why they made the opposite of joy not sadness, but fear. 

And that’s why Paul almost immediately moves to focus on peace.  Paul knows that joy and peace always go together, and that fear and anxiety stand as their greatest enemies. 

In our culture, we think of peace often as an absence of something, of worry or stress.   But in the Bible peace always describes a fullness; a fullness so complete that it simply leaves no room for fear and anxiety to exist.   Instead, you become filled with joy and peace, a peace so great that it can even defy rational understanding. 

When my family lived in New Orleans, my parents became close friends with the DeZwaan family, a family that seemed so perfect they could have been candidates for a Crest commercial.   But no family, not even the perfect looking ones are immune to awful things.   The DeZwaans moved up to Baton Rouge, and the parents, Ken and Marjorie bought a weekend home on the lake.   One Sunday evening as they were finishing up there, Ken and Marjorie, asked their son, Gary to take his sisters and their friend in his new car to the church youth meeting.  They would follow behind a few minutes later.   And as Ken and Marjorie headed down the highway, they saw an accident.  Ken pulled over to see if he could help.   Then they both realized.  They knew the car.  It was Gary’s car, the one they had just given him as a high school graduation present.   A car driven by a drunk driver had crossed the highway median and hit Gary’s car head on.  No one in Gary’s car survived.   In one awful moment, Ken and Marjorie lost all three of their children.  In her shock and grief, Marjorie cried out. “Oh, Jesus, help me.”   And instantly in the midst of that horrific scene, she felt a peace she could not understand.   That peace carried Ken and Marjorie to the hospital rooms of the men who had killed their children so they could offer them their forgiveness.   It led them on the day when my father showed up for the funeral of their children (3 caskets lined up in the front of the church), for Ken and Marjorie, to ask about one of his, my brother Jes, who was going through serious health issues.    And to this day, that peace has carried them, and led them to tell the story of God’s faithfulness in the midst of their tragedy again and again.  Now how does that peace happen, peace that literally defies understanding? 

It happens when you rigorously ponder the truth, the deepest realities of life.  What do I mean?  I mean what Paul means when he says that whatever is true and pure and honorable, think on those things.   Now that sentence can seem somewhat generic unless you know what those words mean to Paul.   The words he uses here, he uses in other places to describe his core beliefs about God, about God’s love and grace, God’s purpose for the world.    In other words, Paul is telling the Philippians, when worry and fears hit, ponder the deepest truths of life.   Now why does Paul advise them to do that?   He knows.  The more you ponder what is most deeply and profoundly true, the more that truth will free you from worry and fear.  

Ironically many self-help books advise the opposite.  They don’t encourage you to ponder the deep questions of life.  Instead they often advise techniques to avoid those questions or at least to find ways to quiet them.   And that makes sense.  After all, if the only answers to the deep questions of life are that life has no purpose, that no being exists who can bring order out of chaos or good out of evil, that death is simply the end, no more and no less, well that doesn’t do much to foster peace or hope.   Those books actually a void facing the implications of those beliefs, but the Bible tells you when worry and fears hit, that’s when you need to see the implications of what you believe more than ever.   Why?   The truth that Christianity proclaims says.  Life does have purpose. God does have a plan, one that can bring good out of the worst evil.  Nothing will defeat God’s love ever, not even death.    And when you ponder those truths, reflect on them, gain comfort from them, it fills you with a peace and confidence that can withstand anything.  

And how do you best ponder those truths?  You do it by practicing thanksgiving.  I used to think that Paul when he said to make supplication with thanksgiving.   He meant that, before you ask God for something, remember all the things you already have to be grateful for.   That sort of thanking gives you crucial perspective.   But Paul was going further than that.  Paul was saying that when you ask God for an answer, go ahead and thank God for the answer even before you know what the answer is.   Now why would you thank God even before you’ve have any answer to your prayer?   You do so, so that you can remember whatever God’s answer will be, it will be the answer that you would have chosen if you knew what God knew.  

And if you doubt that, look at the cross.   On the day that the Romans killed Jesus, do you think his disciples saw anything good happening?   No, they left in despair.  They thought that God had left the building, when in reality on that cross, in that awful place, God was doing the greatest act of goodness and love ever.   Now if God can do that in the utter evil of the cross, do you think God is going to be stymied by any situation in your life? 

Over a decade ago, I had a dream of where I wanted my next church to be.   I dreamed of serving this church for years.   And guess what, my dream church wasn’t in Hollywood.  It was in Pittsburgh.  And I came close to getting it.  I was in the semi-finals so to speak.  But after my last interview, I knew it.   They didn’t even need to send me a letter.  I was not going to Pittsburgh.  And it bummed me out.  But I look back now, and I wonder.  What was I thinking?   I would have been miserable in Pittsburgh.  If nothing else, it’s one of the cloudiest places on the planet, and I love the sun.   God knew.   You don’t need to be in Pittsburgh.  You need to be in Hollywood, and thank God, God’s answers were wiser than my prayers.   

If God really cares about you, wants the best for you, and can even work that best out for you, than thanking God even as you ask makes perfect sense.    And the more you thank like that, the more you open yourself to a peace and contentment that nothing can shake. Why?  Because it is a peace and contentment rooted in the only thing that cannot change ever.    

In Paul’s day, the philosophers struggled to understand what truly would bring contentment, real peace.  And most of them had come to the same conclusion.   People failed to be content because they looked for the source of contentment in things not ultimately under their control.  So say, they found contentment in family, but family can change.  Divorces, death, divisions wreck families every day.   And the same could be said of success or wealth or popularity.  So what was their solution?  They said.  Don’t look to outward things, which you can’t control or depend upon.   Those things will change.   Look inside to your virtues, your character, which you can control.  There you have something that can remain unchangeable.   But Paul and later the great Christian thinker, Augustine, saw how weak that argument was.   They said.  “Don’t kid yourself.  Your virtue isn’t under your control.   How come you find yourselves driven to do things that you know are wrong, that in your heart of hearts you don’t really want to do. Yet you do it.  You can hardly control your virtues better than your family or success or anything else.   

In the end, only one reality in the universe does not change..  And what is that?  God, and not simply God, but God’s love; God’s unbreakable desire for your good;  for your well-being; for your fulfillment and joy.   In that and only in that will you find the peace and joy you seek, because only in that do you find what will never change

How can you know that?   You can know that because you know Jesus.   A God who loves you no matter what, that’s a nice concept, a comforting one.  But concepts don’t transform your heart.   But when you see that concept lived out in flesh and blood, God dying for you in flesh and blood, well, that will transform you.  

When God in Jesus went to that cross, do you think he had peace?  That he had joy?  No.  He lost his peace in that dark and despairing place.   He cried out.  My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?    He had no joy.  The brutality and pain of those hours emptied him of joy.  But he willingly gave up his peace so that you might know a peace that passes understanding   He forsook his joy to open the way to joy for you now and forever.   And God did all that willingly, freely, out of love for you.    At any moment, Jesus could have walked away, could have ended the agony.   But Jesus stayed on that cross, because even there, utterly alone and beset by evil at its worst, God’s love for you did not change.    And if God’s love did not break under that, then it will never break.  Death won’t break it.  Your failings won’t break it.  Your doubts won’t break it.  And the more you realize that unchangeable truth, the more joy will fill you and with it peace, a peace that pushes away fear, a peace that passes all understanding.   

Sunday, September 18, 2016

When Hard Times Hit How Do you Find the Hope to not just Survive but to Overcome even Triumph? Here's How

It makes me wonder.   What was the difference?  They both had the same mom.  They both had tough childhoods.   They both even got involved with drugs when they were young.   Yet one sister struggles with addiction for years and dies at 43 of a drug overdose.  The other goes on to appear on Time Magazine’s most influential list ten times, more than any other person ever.    One sister makes $19,000.00 by selling an ugly story about that sister to the tabloid.   And the other sister goes on to become the richest self-made woman in American history.

Have you guessed who I am talking about?   I am talking about two sisters, one was named Patricia, and the other named Orpah after a character in the Bible.  But since no one could pronounce it, they ended up just calling her Oprah.    How does that happen?   How does one sister never get beyond the demons that plagued her, while the other not only goes beyond them, but beyond them to become an extraordinary success.  

I was thinking about that question because again and again in life, you can find that pattern.  You see two folks encounter similar hardships and setbacks.   Yet one overcomes, even grows stronger through the tough times.  But the other, the other never gets past them.  Instead he falls further and further behind.    How do you become the one who overcomes rather than the one who falls behind?  How do you find the resilience, the strength to make it through the tragedies, the injustices, the losses that life brings you?   As one preacher put it, when hard things happen, you have two choices.   You can become better or you can become bitter.    How do you move towards the better?  In these words, written to followers of Jesus going through their own trials, God shows the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say.

Romans 5:1-5      

When hard times hit, how do you overcome?   How do you find the hope to carry on, to even move forward even in the face of tremendous suffering, of heartbreaking loss?   In these words of Paul’s, God shows the way.   God shows us that hope ultimately lies not in what we feel.  It lies in what we know.   And when you know the truth of who you are, of who God is, that truth, that knowledge will bring you through anything.  

But before we look at what that truth is, we need to see clearly what it is not.  You cannot overcome the suffering and setbacks of life by deadening yourself to them.   And you can’t overcome them by celebrating in them either.   What do I mean?  

Many years ago I met the father of a friend.  Bob was his name.  I noticed that one of his fingers was only partially there.   And once I saw it, I couldn’t help but ask.  How did that happen?   Then the story came out.   Bob had been changing a tire with a friend on the side of the road one day when the jack dropped.  And when it did, so did his finger.   And all Bob said to communicate that loss was.  “Oh, it got my finger.”   And then calmly with his friend, they found the missing piece, put it on ice and headed to the hospital.  Needless to say, they didn’t make it in time.  But what struck me was, at least as they told the story, that was pretty much all that Bob had to say about the thing.   Just, “Oh, it got my finger.”    I kind of admired that reaction.   It seemed so tough, so strong, but more and more I wonder if it was.    

A certain school of thought says that you deal with pain by not allowing yourself to feel it, by deadening yourself to it.   You keep the stiff upper lip.   You toughen up and live on to fight another day.    And as tempting as all that sounds, it leads to a seriously disturbing downside.  You can’t deaden yourself to the dark withoutdeadening yourself to the light.   The more you work at finding ways to deny the pain, to numb it, the more you numb the exuberance, the delight, the sheer joy that life can bring.    When Paul talks here about boasting in suffering, he is telling you that in your suffering God can bring good, endurance, character, hope.  But you don’t get that by acting as if the suffering isn’t really suffering, by denying the pain and hurt you actually feel. 

But not denying suffering doesn’t mean you celebrate it either. Paul doesn’t say we boast because of our suffering, as if suffering somehow qualifies you as a Christian.   Yet still many religious folks think it does.   

Have you ever heard that knock on your door, and seen some folks standing there and smiling, holding a copy of the latest edition of the Watchtower?  Do you know what I’m talking about?  How many here have had Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on their door?   Now before I go any further, let me say.   That sort of door knocking takes some guts, and as someone who has done it on occasion, God can use it in neat ways.   I’m might even do a little door knocking around the church in the coming months myself.   But what I’ve learned about the Witnesses is that the hard core ones get almost as excited as when you shut the door on them as when you let them in.  And if you happen to be rude, well, that really rocks their world. Why?  They figure that they’re getting to suffer for Jehovah, and that’s an awesome thing.  Some of them even look forward to the rejection.   And often lots of Christians have had the same attitude. 

Yet, in spite of what many Christians have thought over the centuries, Jesus didn’t celebrate suffering of any sort.   He didn’t avoid suffering, but he never thought it was good or right.   It’s why he spent so much of his ministry easing it, from feeding the hungry to healing the sick to freeing the spiritually tormented.

So if numbing yourself to suffering won’t help you and if celebrating it won’t work either, then what does Paul mean by boasting in it?   Paul is telling you.   You triumph through suffering not by not feeling it nor by welcoming it.  You triumph through suffering by knowing it never will have the last word. 

Many years ago, I read about something called the Stockdale Paradox.   It got its name from Admiral Jim Stockdale.   During the Vietnam War, Admiral Stockdale became the highest ranking officer in the infamous Vietcong prison known as the Hanoi Hilton.   In that role, he created ingenious ways for the prisoners to stand strong, to keep their dignity in the face of humiliating and devastating suffering.   For his efforts, our nation gave him the Medal of Honor.  And Stockdale went on with his wife to write a moving book of the experience called In Love and War, and become a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and for those who might remember even a candidate for Vice President.    

The business writer, Jim Collins, became intrigued by his story.  He wondered.  How did Stockdale and the other not only survive but triumph through years and years of torture and starvation?   Stockdale simply said. “I never lost faith in the end of the story.  I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail to the end and turn the experience into the defining moment of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”  

Then Collins asked.  “Well who didn’t make it out?”    Stockdale said.  “Oh that’s easy.  The optimists.”  Puzzled, Collins asked. Why?   “Well, they’d say, Oh, we’ll be out by Christmas, and then Christmas would come and go.  Then it would be Easter, and Easter would come and go.   Then it would be Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving would come and go.  And eventually, all that optimism led to utter despair.    

And with that Stockdale presented the paradox.   “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you cannot afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your reality, whatever those facts might be.”

What Stockdale was saying is what God is telling us here.   You can boast in your suffering not because it’s easy or even because God is going to get you out of it.   It’s not easy, and you don’t know if God will deliver you out of it or not.    But this you do know.  You know that because of what God has already done for you, your suffering, no matter how severe, can never have the last word.  

That’s why Paul begins what we just read the way he does.  How do you know your suffering will not have the last word?   Because, Jesus in his suffering and death guaranteed it won’t.  That’s what it means when Paul says that you and I are justified.   It means, all our suffering, even the suffering we bring on ourselves, on that cross, God made right.  God rectified it. God resolved it.  God paid for it.    In Jesus, God took on the full force of evil with all the senseless and unjust suffering it brings, and he did it for us.    And did evil get the last word there?  Was Jesus’ death the end of the story?  No, Jesus’ story did not end there.   It didn’t even end at the empty tomb.  It still hasn’t ended.   And it will not end until evil is totally banished and broken.  

You can know that your suffering is not the end of your story, because Jesus’ suffering was not the end of his.   And his story is now your story.   His glory is now your glory.   His love has now been poured into you.   And when you know that, then you know a truth that will empower you not simply to survive suffering, but to triumph in the midst of it, to even boast in it. 

Whatever suffering you face, you can know it will not write the end of your story.  God on that cross in his suffering wrote that.   And the more you know that, the more you will find in your suffering, endurance and character, and a hope that not even death can defeat. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Why Perfectionism will Destroy You but Perfection Will Save You

When I was growing up, I had a bizarre theory about the television.   I figured if I could see them, then they could see me.    And this created a huge problem when it came to the Brady Bunch.    For those who remember it, the Brady Bunch told the story of this blended family, where the house was always put together, the parents never got angry, and the kids had nothing but the nicest problems.   I loved that show, but I was terrified of what the Brady’s might think of my family, the McGowan’s.   So before the show, I’d clean up the area around the TV.  I’d ask my siblings to dress nice and behave well.  I wanted the Brady’s to see us at our best.   But something always went wrong.  My dad would come in his t-shirt on the way to his workshop or my sisters would get in a fight.  Somehow, some way my family would find a way to embarrass me in front of the Brady’s.  

Now you may never had any desire to impress the Brady Bunch, but somewhere along the way, you’ve been worried about impressing somebody.   Have you ever had someone come over to clean your house, but before they came over, you cleaned it first?   Now, I’m not talking a full clean, but you pick up things, maybe do the dishes; stuff like that.   You realize that the house will still be dirty, but at least they won’t think you’re a total slob.   Or maybe it wasn’t a house cleaner, but a neighbor or some worker who came to fix something.   Maybe you said something like, “I apologize for the house.  It’s normally not this way at all (when you knew it was this way all the time).”  

Now, is that so bad?  Who doesn’t want to make a good first impression?   But the deeper question is.  Why do you do that?   Why does it matter so much?   Underneath that drive to impress lies a deeper problem.  And that problem painfully limits your life, your relationships, your sense of joy and peace.    But in these words, Jesus offers a way out, a way that frees you to become who God created you to be.  And in these words, Jesus points to that way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.    

What’s wrong with wanting to make a good first impression?   Shouldn’t that be a worthy goal? It all depends on why you are doing it.  Too often what drives the desire to impress has to do with a deeper problem, one that leads you away from the fullness that God yearns to give.  What is the problem?  You are striving for the appearance of perfection, when what you need is the real thing.   And the real thing, real perfection is something very different from what you might think.    And once you’ve experienced it, it frees you as only true perfection can.  But first, you need to understand the problem that binds you up.   

Here’s the problem.   People mistake perfectionism for perfection.  But the two could not be any more different.   Perfectionism has nothing to do with being perfect, and everything to do with looking perfect.   When you are in perfectionist mode, you know two things.  You know deep inside that you are far from perfect.  And you also know that you can’t let anyone see that.    Why?   You fear that if anyone did see it, what would they think?  What would they think of you?  How would they react?  And a voice tells you that they would react badly.   So to avoid that condemnation and disapproval, to avoid the shame of that exposure, you cover it up with the appearance of perfection.   And then you tell yourself, this is what perfection looks like.   If I look perfect, then I must be perfect, right?

But in the words that came before the ones we just read, Jesus destroys that false belief.    In example after example, Jesus punctures the illusion of perfectionism, one that the religious leaders of his day were promoting.  Jesus said; so you say, you shall not murder, but I say to you if you cherish anger in your heart, then you’ve murdered.    You say, don’t commit adultery, but I say to you if you look at someone with lust in your heart, then you’ve done the deed.  Do you see what Jesus is doing?  He is laying out a painful truth. Perfectionism is not perfection.  Looking perfect ain’t perfect.  It’s just a lie you tell yourself to help you feel better about the mess you know you are.   And that lie destroys the life that God wants you to live.  Why?

In that lie, you can’t spend your life growing into the person God created you to be.  Instead you spend your life constructing an image of the life you think others want to see.    And that life isn’t a life.   It’s a lie, a lie that eats you up from the inside, and wounds you and often others in devastating ways.

When I first came to South Florida, I got to know the pastor of a large church nearby.  We went to lunch pretty regularly.   I began to believe that we had developed a solid relationship.   After the last lunch I ever had with him, he told me that he would email some information I was looking for.  And I waited, and I waited, and the email never came.  So after two weeks or so, I called his assistant to ask her about it.   After a long pause, she said, “Kennedy, you don’t know?  David doesn’t work here anymore.”    It turned out as we shot the breeze at that last lunch his life was falling apart by his own hand.    The ugly truth about a long affair had just come out, and at that lunch, he was only days away from leaving ministry, losing his marriage, and devastating a church that had placed their trust in his leadership and integrity.   But as we sat there at that table, you would never have known it.   Even there, as his life blew up around him, he was still trying to cover, trying to look perfect when he was anything but. 

Now you may not be hiding an affair, but when you get caught in the lie of perfectionism, you are hiding something.  And let’s be honest, aren’t we all hiding a bit like that?  But when you do, you aren’t just hiding some little flaw, you are hiding you.   And that hiding binds you, and it binds others, because we’re all living lies with each other, lies from which we can’t break free.   And nothing good will ever come from that hiding.  It will just bring more hiding, more lies.  It will spawn a life that is so far from what God intended our life to be.     

Yet here’s the question.   How do you break free of the compulsion to cover?  How do you gain the freedom and courage not to hide just how imperfect you are?  You gain that freedom by knowing what true perfection actually is.     

In these words, Jesus shows you.  And he begins by describing it in an unexpected way.   He talks about how God showers rain and sun on everybody from the worst to the best.  Then he says.  That’s the way you need to be.  If you are only nice to the people who are nice to you, then what’s the big deal?  Pretty much, everybody does that.   If you want to be perfect like God, be good to everybody.  Don’t hate your enemies.  Pray for them.   

Now how does that help?   It doesn’t if you think Jesus is just giving you something new to do. If you think Jesus is telling you to smile and be sweet to people who have done you wrong, you’re still stuck.   Because, then you’ll just be living another lie.  You’ll be smiling at folks on the outside, when inside you are not smiling at them at all.      

To get what Jesus is actually telling you, you need to understand what this word translated as perfect here really means.    When we think of perfect, we usually think of something that’s absent of flaws.  But for Jesus perfection didn’t mean an absence of flaws but a fullness, a completeness.   You could actually translate the words that Jesus says more accurately as; be complete, therefore, as your heavenly Father is complete.       

Jesus is saying what makes God perfect is not an absence but a fullness.  God has no lack, nothing missing.   And God showers that completeness on everyone.  Yes, God sees injustice and wrong.   God works to make it right.  But as God does that, he still showers rain and sun on everyone, the just and unjust alike.  Why?   In God’s completeness, God’s fullness, God can offer love to everyone.   God sees no one as unworthy of that love.   And that is the fullness that frees you from the lie of perfectionism.

You see, with all those examples about adultery and murder, Jesus was making it clear.  You are not perfect.  You are not complete.   And to try to live a life that denies that is to live a lie, a lie that will ultimately destroy you.    But if you instead acknowledge your incompleteness then you open the door for the very completion you need.  You can’t cause the sun to rise, so God raises it for you, no matter how good or bad you are.  You can’t bring the rain, so God brings it for you, despite anything you’ve done or not done.  And on your own, you can’t become complete, become whole, so God brings that completion and wholeness to you. 

That’s why God came in Jesus.  That’s why in that agony on the cross, he didn’t hate his enemies.  He prayed for them.  Don’t you see?   In Jesus, God came to make you complete.  He emptied himself so he could fill you.   He became utterly broken to make you whole.   So, yes, you are incomplete.   But in Jesus, all your incompletes are gone.   He, in that ultimate gift, that infinite sacrifice, made you complete, whole, even perfect.    And as you know that, you will find the freedom to be who you really are, warts and all.  Why? Even in your incompleteness, you will know in God’s eyes, you are already complete.  And in that freedom, you will grow.  You will grow past your warts more and more into the perfect creation God made you to be.   So, forget perfectionism.  Forget those lies.   Live into the truth of your incompletion because can you rest in the truth that in God’s eyes you are already complete. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How Do You Find the Freedom to Live Into Who You Actually Are? Here is the Truth That Gives You That Freedom

Something I read a week or so ago has been haunting me.   The poet E.E. Cummings said it.  Cummings said.  “To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight – and never stop fighting.”

Why does that haunt me? It haunts me because I can’t help wondering how well I’m winning that battle, how well anyone is winning it.  It can be hard simply to be yourself.  What do I mean?  I mean that instead of being real we put up a front.   We create an image.   It’s why a preacher I admire calls Facebook, Fakebook.    You go out with your family to the beach.   On the way you have an argument with your spouse on where to park, and then your kids get into a fight.   By the end of the day, you feel miserable, sun-burned and cranky, but what do you do?  You put everyone together for a smiling family selfie and post it on Facebook with the tagline – awesome family day at the beach!  

Too often people are present to each other in superficial ways.  People have become more interested in ‘connection’ rather than communion.”   But communion is what everyone deeply needs.  You and I need places, relationships where you don’t have to act like you’re happy when you’re sad or cover up your anger or your fear. You need relationships where you can live out the truth of who you actually are, even when that truth isn’t so pretty.   

But instead if you are like most, you hold back from revealing that truth.  You cover up.  You hide behind a smiling face.   But behind that smile you aren’t finding freedom but the opposite.   How do you come out of hiding?  How do you find the freedom to be nobody but who you actually are?   In these words, Jesus shows the way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say. 

You can go through life, and never be who you actually are.   Instead you hide that truth.  You cover it up.   And that hiding and covering binds you.   It even imprisons you.  And it can be so hard to break free.    So how do you find the freedom?   You find freedom by realizing the truth, the truth about you and God.   But before that freedom comes, you will need to face the hard truth of just how bound up you are.  

The famous preacher, Bill Coffin put it well.   He said.  Honesty does not come painlessly; “The truth will make you free.” (Jesus), but first it makes you miserable!   What did he mean?  He meant that a lot of people like to think they are already free or that freedom will come if they just break free of whatever master in their life is holding them back.   But here’s the truth.   Freedom is never about having no master.  Freedom is instead about having the right one.  You see, people can think they are free, when they are not at all.  Why?  

Everyone, whether they are conscious of it or not, is living life with a certain goal in mind.  I’m not talking about goals like getting a better job or losing 20 pounds.  I am talking about a deep, overriding desire that drives your life, whether you realize it or not.    Jesus is telling you that this desire that drives you actually owns you.  It is your master.   

For example you may make the ultimate value of your life to be successful in your career or your marriage or with your family.   You may be unusually focused on gaining the approval of some person or persons or avoiding their disapproval.  Everyone has a desire like this.  Heck, even if you say, that is definitely not me.   I cherish my independence.  I will never let anything control me.  You don’t get it either!  Your desire to not let anything control you actually does control you.  And that desire affects your relationships; your work; everything.   These desires can be and often are good.  But when they become ultimate desires, they enslave you.  Why?  They drive you.  And as they drive you, you live with the underlying fear that if you don’t fulfill this desire, then somehow you will be worthless, that your life will have failed at some deep level. 

These desires can even be religious ones.  In fact, Jesus is talking here to religious people who wanted to follow him.   But Jesus told them that they had a wrong desire that drove them too, that literally made them slaves.   He said.   Look, in a Roman household, a slave and a son can seem in many ways the same.  They live in the same house.  The head of the house provides for them both.   They also work for and obey him.    But they are very different.   If the slave messes up, his status can change like that.  His status depends on what he does, and how well he does it.  And that makes it very uncertain.  But the status of the son doesn’t change.   Whatever mistakes he makes he will always be a son, no matter what. 

Jesus is saying to these folks.   Yes, you follow God.  You even have a relationship with God, but your God actually doesn’t exist.  Your God only accepts you if you’ve done what He expects.   And if you don’t, then you’re cast out so that the desire that drives you is to get this God to accept you. And you live every day with the fear that maybe God doesn’t.   And that binds you up just as much as anyone driven by a desire for approval or success or money or whatever.    That’s how people can grow up in a religious environment, even a Christian one, and instead of finding freedom get guilt and anxiety.   They never experienced the truth that Jesus is talking about here, the only truth that can actually set you free. 

What is that truth?   The master you need is not this false God who comes to you as a boss that will boot you out of the house if you mess up.   No, the God that actually exists comes to you as a father, who loves you period; no matter how badly you mess up.   And the more you grasp that truth, the freer you become.  Why?  You know who you are, a beloved child, one whose place in her parents’ heart is always secure.

How do you know that you have experienced this truth?  You will know it by the degree to which you live your life in hiding.   Every human being has a tendency to hide.  They live with this sense that at some level they’re faking it.  And if others knew the truth about them, oh man, if they only knew, it would blow them away.   But the more you hide, the more alone you become, the more bound up inside.      But the more you realize who God is, who you are, that truth gives you the courage to live into who you truly are, to come out of hiding, to live with an unveiled face.  What do I mean by an unveiled face?  

St. Paul in a letter he wrote to the church in Corinth talked about how when Moses came off the mountain after talking with God, his face shone with such radiance that he had to put on a veil because his face blinded the people.  That’s a pretty impressive image for people to have of you, Moses, the shining one.  But Moses had a problem.  The radiance went away.  But he still wore the veil.   He didn’t want anybody to know.   And what Moses did, every human being does in their own way. 

People put on veils to hide their own inadequacies, their fading radiance.  So your veil might be superficial conversation or humor, and you use it to mask your pain or your hurt or your insecurity.  Or maybe you hide behind your intelligence or your busyness or your phone.  And yes, you can hide yourself behind your religiosity, quoting Bible verses or mouthing religious phrases.  But none of these are real. They are not you.   They are veils you put on to hide behind.  But you don’t have to carry them.  The more you know the truth of who you are, the more you find the freedom to take the veil off.    And who are you?  You are a beloved child of your heavenly Father, and as you realize that then the more you can live in the freedom of that blessed child that you are.   

After all, children haven’t learned to manage their faces, to hide behind them.  I see that with my own son.  When he is not happy, his face tells you.  And when he is full of joy, his face tells you that to.  But we get older, and we learn to manage our faces.  We look confident, when we’re scared, happy, when we’re sad, holy when our hearts are crazy with temptation.  But God didn’t make you that way.   And God doesn’t want you to stay that way.   God wants you to know the truth that will set your free, that will free you to leave the veil behind.  Why?   Because you know at the deepest part of who you are that you are loved and accepted just as you are.  

God didn’t create you to hide,  God came in Jesus to invite you out of hiding, to take the veil off your faces.  In Jesus, you see the unveiled face of a God who went through infinite, incomprehensible suffering just to bring you home, to open you to the truth of who you are.   Jesus invites you to taste and see this God who loves you like that.   So come and taste and see and know the truth of who you are, of who God is, the truth that will set you free.   For if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.