Sunday, October 30, 2016

Anxiety is Contagious but So is Calm. How Do you Catch the Calm?

I knew from the moment that I saw the smoke that it wasn’t good.   Whenever you see smoke coming from your car, it’s not a good thing.   But I knew I couldn’t do anything about it right then.   I’d have to wait until at least things cooled down.

So I went into the gym to do my devotions while I worked out.   And I was pretty devoted that morning.   I was anxiously thinking about my car.   Could the engine be blown?   Would it even start?   Would I need to buy a new one?   How was I going to afford that?  I was praying to God.  At least let it start.  Let me get it to the mechanic. 

Thankfully, it did start.  And after a week at the repair shop, my car is as good as, well, as good as any car with 100,000 miles of wear and tear can be.  But have you ever had that sort of terrible anxiousness?  It could have been an unexpected financial emergency or a crucial document you couldn’t find.      Maybe it was worse, a serious health issue; a problem with your child; a crisis in your marriage.  Whatever the case, it left you fearfully anticipating all the bad things that could be.   And that’s an awful feeling. 

But as hard as that sort of anxious is, almost as hard to deal with is the daily grind of a world that feels more anxious every day.   You can live these days with a sort of background anxiety that pervades your life.   And over time, it wears you down.   In our nation, even with our wealth and security, this sort of anxiety has gotten worse.     About 15 years ago, researchers surveyed mental health in 15 nations, nations like Nigeria, Lebanon, and the Ukraine.   Now if you know anything about these countries, you know.  They had a lot to be anxious about, poverty, ethnic conflict, terrorism, coming out of communism.   Some of these countries, like Lebanon, had lived with violence and war for decades.   Yet, guess what nation had the highest level of anxiety?  The good old US of A.  

And if anything, this election season, which, whoever you’re voting for, you’re just wanting to be over already has only made our nation more anxious than ever.  How did all this anxiousness happen?  More importantly how do you overcome it?   How do you live a life that is more at peace, less anxious and more relaxed, more joyful even?  In this ancient song, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Why have Americans become so anxious?    More crucially, how do you lower the level of anxiety?  How do you get to a place where worry doesn’t grind you down, where life feels more peaceful, relaxed; serene?    In this song, God points the way.   God tells you.   Freedom comes as you leave both control and neediness behind.    It comes as you stop anxiously grabbing at God’s hands and discover the peace that comes from gazing at God’s face.

You see.  When you get caught up in anxiety, two things tend to happen.   You end up doing too much or doing too little.     What do I mean?

Have you ever been in a meeting where the leader wasn’t getting the job done?   Nobody was deciding anything.   People were talking problems to death.  No one was volunteering for any tasks.  When I’m in a meeting like that, I want to just take over.   But if I do that, I’m not doing it to help anyone out, to get the meeting on track.   There are lots of ways to get a meeting on track without taking it over.   No, I’m doing it to ease my anxiety.  Things aren’t going the way I want and I want that to stop.   But of course if I jump in, does it do that?  No.    If anything my over functioning makes things more difficult and stressful not only for me, but likely for everyone else.     

You see that’s one way you can deal with the anxiety you feel.   You take over or at least try to.  You try to control things, tell others the way things need to be.   You get busy doing stuff, any stuff, as long as it calms your anxiety.    But here’s the truth.   A lot of challenges you can’t multitask yourself out of.     And if you make a lifestyle of that type of over functioning, not only will you end up still stressed and anxious, but now you’ll be resentful and bitter too.

That’s why this song begins with these words.  “O Lord my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high.   I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.”   God is saying in these words.   “You want the anxiety to lessen.   Stop trying to control what you can’t or think that’s what you have to do.”   

And don’t think this over functioning just happens with people, you can do it with God.  Sometimes my son gets impatient with how long it takes to put dinner on the table.   And in his impatience, he starts repeating the same two words.  All done, all done, all done.   He figures if he says it enough, that will make dinner get to the table that much faster.  But it doesn’t.   Saying all done a hundred times doesn’t make the oven cook any quicker.  

In the same way, we can come to God with our requests, repeating them again and again, thinking if we say them enough, it will make it happen.    Now it’s a good thing to be persistent with God in our prayers.  But often our persistence can become something else.  It can become the sort of anxious repeating my son does at dinner time.

Many years ago, I read these wise words from the writer Maggie Ross.  Ross wrote this.

Most of the time, we cry out to God because we perceive ourselves to be trapped in some way.  We feel ourselves being drawn by circumstances out of our control into the vortex of a single inexorable future.  The same obsessive thoughts and fears repeat over and over.  If these obsessive thoughts become obsessive prayers, we are only sinking more deeply into what we fear.  But if in the depths of our interior silence we simply name the problem, this naming can open our perspective and may even set in motion the process of resolution in the space where we wait on God, the space where there are many futures.

We don’t know what the future holds, though we think we do.  That’s what worry is.  It’s us saying to God.  “God, this is the way it has to be, and if it’s not, then you’ve gone seriously wrong.  This is the only future that must be.”    But in reality we don’t know that, and acting like we do, doesn’t help us solve the problems.  It only makes us more anxious about them. 

But when anxiety hits, you may not want to spring into action at all.  What you may want to do is take a nap.    Anxiety can lead you to over function or to under function, to get so paralyzed by the worry and fear, you don’t do anything at all.   Instead you wait for somebody to rescue you.   Maybe you’re hoping God will do it or some over functioning friend or family member.   You might cover up with your inaction with some pious phrase, like, “I’m just waiting on the Lord.”   And that may be the case.  Or it could be that you’re just putting your head in the sand.

In a church I served years ago on Long Island, one of the pastors who had come before me had lost his wife, Marjorie to breastcancer.   She had died fairly young, leaving behind two kids still in high school.   Now I knew that part of the story, but a few years later I heard the other part, a part that haunts me still.   I was talking with Lorna, the church music director, who had known Marjorie well.  We started talking about Marjorie’s death.  And after a silent pause, Lorna said to me.  “You know that she knew.”  Puzzled I asked, “What?”  Lorna said.  “One day, Marjorie was examining her breast and she felt a lump.  She was a nurse.  She knew what she needed to do.  But she didn’t.  She was too scared to.  By the time, she got around to doing anything, it was too late.”   Marjorie had shared that with Lorna as a warning, to not let fear paralyze her, to prevent her from doing what needed to be done.       

That’s why the next words, when they talk about calming and quieting compare it to what a weaned child does with its mother.   A child that has been weaned has a much different relationship than one still looking for the milk.  Before the weaning, what does that kid want from the mother?  That child wants Mom, the marvelous milk machine.   But then the milk train stops.  At first, the baby freaks.  No more milk? Really?  But then the child realizes something.  The milk is gone, but mom remains.  And the baby realizes that mom, even without the milk, is more than enough.  

In that one word, weaned, God is telling us something crucial.  Life, in the end, isn’t about anxious dependence either, looking to God to meet our every need, fill our every appetite as if that could even happen.  Life with God is about relationship, about simply being connected to God not for what God can give us, but because of who God is.  At some point, you have to stop looking for God’s hand in order to gaze upon God’s face.

And in that gazing, God frees you from anxiety and fear.   God liberates you from trying to do too much or get away with doing too little.   Instead God gives you the freedom to live and to act not out of anxiousness and fear, but confidence and peace.   How does this gazing at God work?   It sounds nice, sure.   But how does it work?    

It works because you aren’t gazing at some romantic idealized image of the Divine. You are gazing at the face of the real God, the God who died for you.   When you look at that God in Jesus, gazing down at the cross, suffering, giving everything for you, the freedom comes.  You realize. Jesus went through paralyzing fear so that your fears don’t need to paralyze you.  Jesus did what you never could, so you can let go and trust instead of trying to control what you can’t.  In Jesus, you find the ultimate reality that frees you from fear, the God who has gone even beyond death, to bring you home.   If that God didn’t abandon you there, when you had abandoned him, you can know whatever you face, that God will never abandon you ever.  And in that confidence, in the face of this God, you find the truth that sets you free, free from fear, free from anxiety, free from anything that separates you from God’s love.    So gaze.  Gaze in the face of the One who loved you first.  Gaze at the One who died for you, and know.    In that gaze, in that grace, God has given you the only gift that truly sets you free.          

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Why You Need to Play More and Work Less

I don’t remember exactly when he said it or even what prompted his comment, but I’ve never forgotten his words.   Many years ago, when I was working at a church on Long Island, I was talking with the local denominational executive, a guy named Tom Castlen.   As we talked, Tom looked at me with a serious air of concern in his eyes, and said.  “Kennedy, you work too hard.”        

And do you know what my first reaction was?   I felt flattered.  I thought to myself.  “Really?  Gee thanks.”    Then I realized. Tom wasn’t giving me a compliment.  He was delivering a serious criticism.   And the fact that his criticism flattered me showed how right he was.  To this day, I struggle with setting healthy limits on my work, a struggle that has hurt me more as a pastor than it has helped me.

But I don’t face this struggle alone.   Americans have become the most over-worked nation in the developed world.  A good many Americans don’t take all their vacation, and even when they do, 6 in 10 report that they work then too, even while their family members complain.  So what’s the big problem?   Isn’t working hard one of those things that makes America great?   Here’s the problem.  

Research shows that that the levels of depression, anger and resentment among workers has gotten higher than ever.   Nearly one in three report feeling overworked and overtired on a regular basis.   And when researchers ask children the one thing they want the most from their parents, it was that they be less stressed and less tired.   And on top of all this, the overworked workers report making far more mistakes than those who aren’t overworked.   

Here’s the painful truth.  When work gets out of balance, it makes everything worse.  Your health declines.  Your family life gets more conflict and less joy.  And you don’t even get better at your job.  You get worse.   So how do you find the balance?  In these ancient words, God shows the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say.  

In a world that can demand more work than ever before, demands that will make you more stressed and less healthy and happy than ever, how do you step away from that madness?   How do you find a path where you can work well without hurting yourself, your family, even your job?  In these words, God shows you the way.   God tells you. The answer ultimately lies in asking this question. Who are you really working for and why?    And as you discover the real answer to that question, you will find a path to freedom that will liberate you to work with energy and passion, even as it frees you to work less and play more.

Too often when you think about these words we just read, the number 4 commandment in God’s top ten, you think about all those words on Sabbath, on taking a rest.  But the commandment doesn’t start there.   It starts by focusing on work.   Working is actually part of the command.   God doesn’t say.   Hey it might be good for you to work, but no worries if you don’t.  No, God says.   You shall work six days.   Now why is God so focused on work?   It’s simple. God works.    The very first thing the Bible tells us about God is that.  God works.    That’s what God was doing in those six days when he created the earth.  God was working.   And God was loving it.     Every day, God finished one part of the job, and do you remember what he said?  It’s good.   In fact, by the end, when God got to working on us, God even moved the needle to very good.

And that should tell you something.  God made you to work.   God built in you a desire to do things, to create, to build, to produce.    It’s why when I do a chore around the house, unloading the dishwasher, repairing something, whatever it might be, my son, Patrick, wants to help.   And when I tell him how helpful he was, I can see the satisfaction that wells up.    Work, when it’s done right, brings you joy.  What the playwright, Oscar Wilde said is true.  Work is much more fun than fun.  

But here’s the problem with work.  It’s the problem that led God to give the commandment.   In your work, without realizing it, you start losing touch with what you’re working for.   God gave you work so you could live out your gifts, so you could become everything God created you to be.   God gave you work to give you life.   So if that’s the case, why are so many people’s work killing them, killing their joy, their relationships, their souls, maybe even their life? 

They’ve forgotten why they do it, what it’s really supposed to mean.   I’d like to tell you that when I was working so hard, so hard that a colleague criticized me for it, that I was working out of joy and satisfaction.  And some of that was there.    But I was feeling way more anxiety than I was joy.    I was anxious about looking good, about looking like the toughest, most capable person in the room especially since I was pretty sure I wasn’t.   I was anxious to be successful, whatever that looked like, and I was terrified that if I stopped it wouldn’t happen.  I would fail.  And what would that say about me?   I wanted people to like me, and I discovered, never saying no, helped with that.    And finally my “work” helped me avoid the other work I really needed to do, on my relationships, on myself, work on my connection with God, work that made me feel pretty uncomfortable.  To put it simply, I worked to feel good about myself, to find a way to confirm that I was good, valuable, worthy.    
That’s what happens.  The goals may be different for different people.  Some may work to make money, to achieve security, to provide for their family.  They may work for recognition or fame.  Heck, you may not even know what you’re working for.    But whatever it is, in that motivation, something goes seriously wrong.   You stop working out of the joy or satisfaction it gives you.  Instead, you work out of fear, out of insecurity and anxiety.  You work to fill a void that you feel aching inside of you, and if you can’t fill it, at least your work helps you ignore it’s there.         

That’s why God gave this command.   The word, Sabbath, Shabbat in Hebrew, has a simple meaning.  It means stop.  Stop.    Why?   It’s because when you don’t stop, you lose perspective.   You lose who God created you to be.    You become less human, and in doing so, you make people you don’t even know less human too. 

When I was growing up, it was the strangest thing.  Lots of stores had a day that they closed.  I mean, they closed all day, and they did it once a week.   And lo and behold, you hardly had any stores that stayed open 24 hours.    And somehow people still got food, clothes, all sorts of things.    But it meant a lot of people weren’t working hours that took them away from their families; that hurt their health; that made their lives miserable.   When God talked about the whole slavery in Egypt thing, he wasn’t just taking a walk down memory lane.  God was saying to the Israelites.  Don’t become the Egyptians.  Don’t do to others what your slave masters did to you. 

But God isn’t just giving this commandment because of that.   God is giving it to remind them of two things they desperately need to remember.   First, God is saying.  You’re not God.   You didn’t get yourself out of Egypt.   I did that.  That’s why I’m God and you’re not.   So if you stop for a day, the sun is still going to rise.  Life will continue on.  You’re not that important.  And that’s a good thing.  You can let go for a little bit, and not everything will collapse.   And if you practice that one day each week, you might start believing it.   

And second and most crucially of all, God is reminding you.   You have value.  You have worth, not because of how useful you are to me or to others.   You have worth and value simply because you are.   God didn’t intend Sabbath to be a day off, a day to run errands or catch up on laundry.   God made Sabbath as a day for you to do nothing, to play.   That’s why you worship on the Sabbath.   Worship is playing.  It’s doing something that has no obvious productive or practical purpose.  That’s what play is. 

Strangely enough, researchers are discovering that we need it.      One researcher, Stuart Brown, put it this way.   “The opposite of play isn’t work – the opposite of play is depression.”  Basically, God created you to play as well as work.   And if you stop playing, then your work will stop working so to speak.  Or as Brown put it: “In the long run, work does not work without play.”   

But God is saying more than that.  God is saying.  One day a week you have to stop and play, because one day a week you need to remember who you are.   You’re my creation, my child, and my love for you has nothing to do with what you do.  It has everything to do with who you are. 

That’s why God wants us to baptize babies.  Because, let’s get real, what do babies do?  They don’t really do much of anything but eat and poop.  You pretty much have to do everything for them.   And that’s the point.   All of us come into the world, doing nothing of value but simply existing.  And guess what.  That’s enough.   That’s enough for you to be loved and valued and cherished.   And one day each week, God orders you to remember that, that simply existing is enough for you to be loved by the creator of the universe. 

But if that’s true, why didn’t the Israelites get it?  Why does our world not get it?  Why do you maybe not get it?  It’s because you don’t yet believe it, really believe it.   But if you look at the cross, if you really look at what God in Jesus did for you, then more and more that belief will break through.   God went through that cross when you had done nothing for him, when in fact your screw ups put him there.    God went through the exhaustion of it, the agony of it, the humiliation of it, why?   God didn’t do it out of duty or even so you might like him.  God did it out of joy, the joy of loving you, of bringing you home.  God entered into that slavery to free you from a bondage to proving yourself that drives you with fear and shame.  On that cross, God endured the most brutal work of all to give you the rest you desperately need, a resting from proving yourself, from hiding from yourself, from restlessly seeking love when the love you need has been waiting for you all along.   And the more that love rests in you, the more your work will become work rather a place to prove your value.  And you will find the freedom to work joyfully, and to play joyfully, and to rest in the love that loves you no matter what.   So in the name of God, stop, cease your work, and remember who you are and believe it.   

Sunday, October 16, 2016

How Do You Let go of the Anxieties of Comparison and Competition and Become Free to Be All That You Were Created to Be?

When I was growing up, I used to love to draw.    I’d scribble all sorts of doodles, just to pass the time.   I’d love to see it develop into something that I could actually recognize, a person or an animal or a tree, whatever.  But that’s not me anymore.   And I’ve begun to wonder, especially as I see my own son scribbling away, what happened?  Why don’t I draw any more?

At first, I thought to myself.  Well, I don’t draw because I was never that good at it. But to be honest, early on I knew that I wasn’t that good at it yet I still did it.    I just didn’t care.   I liked to draw and that’s all that mattered.    Then it hit me.  That’s why I don’t draw.    Now, I do care.   I do care that I don’t draw that well.   I worry what others might think.  I imagine people saying to themselves if I ever drew something.  “Does he know how terrible that looks?  Why is he inflicting that on the world?”   I’m embarrassed about my lack of skill.   I’ve even come to believe that it even says something deep down about me, something defective in who I am.

I bring this up because this feeling doesn’t just live in me.  Over the years, I’ve come to learn that it lives in most.    And those feelings kill the creativity that lives inside us: the willingness to try new things, the willingness to risk that enables each of us to grow.   Instead folks work to fit in.  They still want to stand out, but only in ways that make them look better than others.   For example, I don’t mind if another preacher comes to visit here on a Sunday, as long as I think that they’re not as good as I am.   But, if I think they’re better than me…now that’s a bad dream come to life.  

But why do people do that?   Why do folks avoid creativity or risk-taking?  It’s not because they don’t want to be creative or take risks.   No, they’re simply scared of the shame they’ll feel if they fail.   Why do folks worry about how they compare to others, to other’s kids or others’ parenting skills or their work or their homes and the list could go on?     And more than that, how do you get free of that?  How do you live a life not caught up in the anxieties of constant comparing, even competition with others?   How do you live a life taken up instead with living joyfully and creatively, rather than one hemmed in by fears of failure, of losing face before others?   In these words, words that form the core of God’s good news to us, God shows us the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

How do you not get caught up in fears of failure, fears that hold you back from growth, from risk, from creativity?   In these words, God offers the answer.    God tells you.  The answer lies in knowing that you are more enslaved then you even realize, but that God has provided a door to greater freedom than you could ever have dreamed.

You see.  When the Bible talks about salvation, what does that mean?  What is God actually saving us from?   Again and again, the Bible tells you that God is saving you from slavery.  Now how can you be enslaved?   You and I live in one of the freest places on the planet.   You can say pretty much whatever you want.    You can travel wherever you choose.   Americans have more freedoms than anyone on earth.   Yet, even so, what Paul says is painfully true.  

When the Bible talks about slavery, it’s not talking about some outward bondage.  No, it’s talking about an inner reality.  

Too often, people get confused when the Bible talks about sin.   They think that this word sin has to do with bad things you do or good things you don’t.  But sin goes way deeper than that.   Sin isn’t so much a bad thing you do, as a power that binds you, even enslaves you. What do I mean?
When you see a beautiful building, where did that building begin?  Did it begin when the workers broke ground?  No.  Did it begin when the architect put it down on paper?   No.  It began first within, in the architect’s mind.   Long before it appeared on the outside, even as a plan, it was born on the inside, where no one but its creator could see it.  It’s the same with anything.   Anything you do good or bad, always starts from within.   It begins with a thought, a perception.   It begins as an inner reality before it ever becomes an outer one. 

When Adam and Eve took the fruit from the forbidden tree, their separation from God had already occurred.   That separation began when they decided within that they would trust the serpent rather than the God who created them.    And with that separation from God, so began their slavery and your slavery too. 

Do you remember what happened next in that story?   Adam and Eve hid.  They hid their bodies from each other by weaving clothes out of fig leaves.  Then they went and hid from God.   And when God came to look for them, even when they came out, they were still hiding.   How do you know that?    All you need to do is listen to the conversation they had.   God asks them what happened.  
Adam does come out a bit.  He even admits fear, the first mention of fear in the Bible by the way.   God didn’t create fear.  Sin created fear.   God asks Adam, “Who told you that you were naked?  Did you eat from that tree I told you not to eat from?”   What does Adam too?  He says.  “The woman you gave me as a companion, she gave me fruit from the tree, and, yes, I ate it.”     Adam manages to blame not only Eve but God too.  That woman, the one you gave me, God, she made me do it.  Adam may have come out of the bushes, but he’s still hiding.   Instead of hiding behind the bushes, Adam is hiding behind Eve.   Eve then hides behind the serpent, blames it on him.   Don’t you see?  That’s what blaming is.  It’s hiding. Whenever you blame, whenever you avoid responsibility for your actions, that’s what you’re doing.  You are hiding. 

And why are you hiding?  You are scared.   You are scared of rejection or embarrassment or even punishment and the shame that comes with it.  You fear being found, because you fear being found out.     And it is that fear that binds you.  That fear is the power that enslaves you, a power that the Bible describes with the word sin.   That is the inner reality that leads you to all sorts of outward actions that wound you and wound others.     

That is the painful inner reality of the human condition.   Through your fear, a fear that come from your lack of trust in God’s love for you, you become bound up, enslaved.  On the outside, you may look free.  But inside, if you are honest, you know you are anything but.  

Still, human beings deny that reality.   That’s why, to break through that denial, God gave the law.   
Yet what did human beings do with the law?   They used it to make their slavery even worse.    Instead of seeing that God has given the law to show them how enslaved they were, how desperately they needed to be freed; human beings used it to hide even more than before.    How did they do that?
Well, folks began to think.   Hey, if I keep these rules that God gives, then I am ok.   But what happens, when people do that?   Sure on the outside, they may look good or at least convince themselves they look good.  But remember, the power of sin, begins within.   And inside, all sorts of junk is going on.   All their outward obedience just becomes an elaborate disguise, a religious form of hiding.   That’s why you can have people in churches that are miserable, and judgmental, and far from loving.   They’re not coming to church to be found.  They’re coming to church to hide.       

But the more you hide, the more alone you become.   You grow isolated from others.   You grow isolated from yourself.  You stay isolated from God.   And in your isolation, bound by your fears, your shame, you live a life so much less than what God dreams for you to live.  You live in slavery when God yearns for you to become free. 

That’s why folks avoid creativity or risk-taking.  It’s not because they don’t want to be creative or take risks.  No, they’re hiding, fearful of the shame they’ll feel if they fail.    It’s the same reason folks worry about how they compare with others, with others’ looks or others’ wealth or skills or accomplishments and the list could go on.   They fear those comparisons will expose them, will find them out.   So how do you become free?    How do you live a life taken up with living joyfully and creatively, rather than hemmed in by hiding, enslaved by fear?

In these words, Paul is telling you.  Paul is saying.  In Jesus, God has already changed your inner reality.   After all, you hide for a reason.  You know something has gone wrong, that you are not the person you want to be, that you sense God created you to be.   And what can bring you out of this hiding?  To know that what has gone wrong has been made right.   That while outwardly you may still not be the person you want to be, that you were created to be, inside, you have become that.   You have been made right, and nothing can change that reality ever.   That’s what Paul means when he says that you are justified.   He is saying.  You have been made right. 

How did that happen?  How did God set you free?  It’s because in Jesus, God became the slave.  On that cross, God gave himself over to sin, to this power that binds you so that it cannot have power over you ever again.    In Jesus on that cross, God experienced the rejection you most deeply fear so that you can be free from that fear forever.   God took the infinite shame from which you hide so that you can be found, so that you can live free and unashamed.

And the more you realize what God has done for you, that on that cross God made you right, the more you will find the freedom to be found, to risk, to live fully and creatively the life God has given you.   And as you do, you will find Jesus taking the fears away, freeing you to live and create before an audience of One, the One whose love alone can bring you out of hiding, out of hiding into the glorious freedom of the children of God.    

Sunday, October 2, 2016

What is the Only Reality that Is Certain in an Uncertain World?

A few weeks ago my dad had a stroke, and then a week later he had another one.   Thankfully, he is doing ok.   But I feel shaky about the whole thing.  He seems fine now, but what news might the next call from home bring?   Someone once said that when it comes to life, we are all on a limited lease and subject to immediate eviction.  

And forget the uncertainty of life, so much in life is uncertain.   The economy seems to be better, but who really knows.   And no can tell you when and where the next terrorist might pop up and do something awful.    No one knows who will win the election, and what that will mean for our future.   Heck, is Hurricane Matthew going to hit us?  Who knows?  And that’s just the big uncertainties.  Every day brings all sorts of other uncertainties with our families, our friends, our work, our health.  The list goes on.   So many things feel uncertain around us, even the future of this church.   It can be crazy making.

How do you have confidence and calm in a time where so much seems so uncertain?   How do you find a place to stand when everything around you seems so shaky, so temporary even?   In these words from Hebrews, God shows the way.  So let’s hear what God has to say.

So much of life is uncertain.   And uncertainty has always been around.    Hundreds of years ago, Ben Franklin wrote this in a letter…. ...but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. How true that is!    So how do you live with confidence, even peace, in a world where so much can’t be counted on?    Here God tells you.   You gain that confidence the more you realize the truth in what you cannot see; the uncertainty of what you can see, and in the face of that, trust in the one certainty that cannot be broken ever.

Too often people get confused about what faith means.  They think faith means certainty.  But in reality certainty shuts you off to faith.  How is that?    Faith means you open yourselves to new possibilities, to a world deeper and more mysterious than what you can see.   And to do that, you have to let go of certainties.  

When the writer of Hebrews describes faith as the conviction of things not seen, that word conviction actually means a conclusion that you gain by looking at evidence.   In fact, in the old King James translation, they translated it as the evidence of things not seen.  What God is telling you here is that the more you ponder that evidence, the more you seek to understand it (as verse 3 puts it), the more you will see that truth, that reality goes far deeper than anything you can see.   What am I talking about?   
The great 20th century philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre put it this way.  He said.  Let’s say that I have a radio.   How do I know that I have a good radio?    To know that, I have to know what a radio is built for, right?    If I said I had a terrible radio because it didn’t open my garage door that would be ridiculous.   Radios weren’t built to do that.   To know it’s a good radio, I gotta judge it based on what it was built for.  Does it receive radio waves, and turn them into a sound I can listen to?   That’s how I know it’s a good radio, how well it does that.   But if I don’t know that, if I don’t what it was built for, then no way can I judge if it’s doing it well or not.

So now, let’s take it a bit further.  How do you know a human being is good or bad, that what they’re doing is good or bad?    Well, you can’t know that unless you know what a human being was built for, what the purpose of being human is.   But if the world you see around you is all that there is, that everything only has a natural cause.   Then there is no creator or anything beyond the natural world.   You are simply here by accident, which means you don’t have any underlying purpose at all.  And that means, you cannot evaluate if any human being is good or bad.   So, for example, you might feel that violence and oppression is wrong.  So what?  That’s just your opinion.  You don’t have anything to base it on. 

Yet, when your heart breaks at children ravaged by bombs in Syria, it’s not just a feeling.   You know. Something deep within you tells you.  This is not the way the world is supposed to be.   But if this world is all there is, then what basis do you have for that knowledge?  You’ve got nothing, nothing at all.

And if this world is all there is, then not only does it undermine any sense of right or wrong.  It undermines pleasure.    When your child smiles at you or heck any child smiles at you, you feel your heart leap.   It brings a smile to your face.   Now, if when that happened, you just thought, well, this is just an ingrained evolutionary response so that human genes keep reproducing, how does that rock your world?  Yet, at the level of what you see, that is exactly what is going on.   But does that give you pleasure?  No.    You know deeper than that explanation, something more is going on, something that touches you with joy.  

And the same goes for any pleasure, the delight in a good meal; the sense of transcendence you feel at a beautiful piece of music.   If that just gets reduced to some chemical response in your brain, it so minimizes what is happening.  Yet at the level of what you see, all of that is true.  But you just know that beyond that, something deeper is going on, something you cannot see  

And the more you see that, you more you realize that faith doesn’t give you certainty.  Instead, it will actually undermine whatever certainties you feel.     That’s what all these examples here in Hebrews have in common.   The faith they had did not make their life more certain, it made it less.   Look at Abraham here.  Abraham had a good thing going.  He lived with his father’s family on land they had owned for generations.  He knew his neighbors.  Everything was familiar, the language, the culture, the landscape.   Yet here comes God saying.  Hey, Abraham leave that all behind, and follow me.  And where is God going to take Abraham? God doesn’t say.  God says leave, and I’ll tell you as you go.

Why does God do that?  Why does God again and again in Abraham’s life, in the life of all these people here, throw their lives into radical uncertainty?    God is trying to free them from false certainty, from certainties that are not really certain at all.  

As a parent, you hear lots of advice on how to raise your child, and all of it seems so, well, authoritative, so sure.    But how sure is it, really?    Millions swore by a parenting expert named Dr. Spock, but now, what Dr. Spock said is questioned, and some even disproved.    And more likely than not, a lot of what experts are telling parents today, experts  a generation from now will be saying.  That was not right at all.  

In fact, so much of what seems certain knowledge now will, in a generation, be seen as inaccurate, maybe even completely wrong.  That’s why God is in the business of delivering uncertainty.  God wants human beings to realize that pretty much everything has the certainty of sand.   You can’t rely on it. Not only is it not permanent, but it can be swept out from under you like that.  God knows.  The more you realize that uncertainty, the more it will open your mind to the only actual reality that is certain.  And what is that?

Let’s go back to Abraham.    As Abraham journeyed into the unknown with God, he began to have some serious doubts.  God had promised descendants like the sand on the shore, and Abraham, now very old, still didn’t even have a son.    Abraham brought his questions to God.   And that night, as Abraham slept, God came to him in a dream. 

In this dream, Abraham was in the desert at night, and in front of him, he saw all sorts of animals cut in half and laid out on the desert floor.   Now this probably seems weird to you.  But Abraham knew exactly what it was.    These cut up animals were part of a standard method of ratifying an agreement, of sealing a deal in his day.   Basically, it worked like this.   Each party to the deal would walk through the animals.  And in doing that, they were saying.   May it be with me as it is with these animals if I don’t keep my end of the bargain.    And in this dream, God does two shocking things.  First, God comes in the form of a flaming torch and walks through the animals.  But then beyond that, he doesn’t ask Abraham to do the same.   Do you see what God was telling Abraham?
God was saying if I fail to keep my word to you, let me be torn apart.   But not only that, even if you fail to keep your word to me, I will pay the penalty.   God was telling Abraham.  Not only will I not fail you, but when you fail me, I won’t walk away.  No matter how badly you mess up, I will never give up on you.   I will never stop loving you ever, even if it costs me my life.   That is the one certainty you can count on, no matter what.   And that promise, Abraham did not see completed.  He only greeted it, as it says in verse 13, from a distance.  But what Abraham only greeted, you have seen. 

In Jesus, you and I see the God who paid the penalty, who was torn to pieces on our behalf.   We see God the source of all certainty experiencing excruciating uncertainty for us.   Do you think Jesus knew resurrection lay on the other side of that cross?   He believed it, yes.  But he didn’t know it.  In his humiliation, his suffering, his death, he was facing the ultimate uncertainty, that all of this pain could be for nothing.  When he cried out, My God, My God why have you forsaken me, it’s because in that moment, he felt that God had, that he was utterly alone.  God fell into the infinite cosmic abandonment and agony of that cross, so you might know you will never be abandoned, that you can know you will always be loved now and forever.   In Jesus, God left behind all security, all certainty to make you secure in his love no matter what you face.    And all that God asks is that you trust in that love, that you rest in it; that you make that love your firm foundation.  And the more you do that, the more confidence and peace you will have, no matter how uncertain your life or this world seems. Why? You know you don’t stand upon shifting sand, but on a solid rock.   For you will know that nothing in the universe is more certain than this, God’s love for you.