Sunday, December 24, 2017

What is the Answer That Always Remain Relevant No Matter the Age, and Why?

In the worship gathering at the church I lead, we had our annual Christmas handbell concert.  It was great.   I love the sound of bells.   Who doesn’t?    People used to think bells had all sorts of special powers.   They thought. Bells drive demons away because they’re afraid of the loud noise.   And it didn’t only work on demons.   It scared away snakes, mice, even caused flying witches to fall to the ground.  

People thought that bells cured things too.   Drinking from an upturned bell cured children of stuttering.   Ringing a bell during childbirth supposedly made it easier.  And with church bells, it gets better.   Ringing those bells during a storm ends bad weather.  And if you’ve got the old-fashioned bells that you pull to ring, well, the grease from those bells, can cure ringworm.    I guess it has something to do with the ringing, it being ringworm and all. 

Folks have thought the strangest things not only about bells, but about everything.   It’s easy to laugh.  But one day, 50 or so years from now, people are going to look back at things that you thought and laugh, if they don’t cry.   50 years ago, doctors told women to smoke during pregnancy as a cure for constipation.   Back then, flight attendants had to retire at age 32.  And almost everyone thought that was ok.  And fifty years ago, Ralph Baer invented the video game.  But the TV company he worked for thought he was wasting his time.  Knowledge goes out of date more quickly than you’d think. 

Yet still, people latch onto the latest knowledge, the latest gadget, the latest spiritual fad even as if that will give them the life they need, the meaning they seek.    But in that pursuit you miss where life really does lie, where meaning can actually be found.   That’s why it’s more important than ever to remember this story, a story that after 2,000 years still rings true.     

People have been searching for answers as long as people have existed.   They have searched for meaning, for purpose, for hope.  Basically, people have been searching for a life that truly was life.   Yet too often, the search never goes anywhere.  Either people keep searching their whole life or they sadly settle for what they have, thinking that’s all there is.   But here, God reminds you why the search goes wrong.   People go looking for an idea or a technique or even a religion.   But God tells you.  If you look there, you will always go wrong.   Why?  Because what you are really looking for is a person.       

Each year, researchers look at what questions people most searched for in Google.   What they discover might surprise you.   When it comes to the what questions, they’re almost always asking a spiritual one.  In Massachusetts folks ask, “Is there life after death?”   In Maryland, it’s “What is beauty?”   What is it in Florida? It’s simply this, ‘What is life’s purpose?”

They also researched the why questions.  And frankly there, most states don’t get so deep.  In Oklahoma, they want to know.  “Why do dogs lick themselves?”   In New York, they want to know, “Why do feet smell?”    But in some places the question pointed to something deeper, sadder even.   Here in Florida, that was the case.   Do you know what question people searched for here more than any other?   “Why do I feel so alone?”

People have never stopped searching.   And the Magi of whom Matthew speaks were searching too.   
For years, scholars doubted they even existed.   But now, it has become more and more clear that Matthew isn’t relaying a fairy tale, but a fact, something that actually happened.   Matthew doesn’t give many details, not even how many Magi there were.   Folks figured that it was three because they brought three gifts, but we don’t know.    All Matthew tells you is that they came from the East.

But that gives you enough to get an idea of who they were.  People used this term Magi, for those who studied the stars, what you’d call astrologers today.   And in the first century, people didn’t think of astrology as superstition.  They thought of it as science, highly respected science at that.  
And in the time of Jesus, an order of such Magi existed, probably connected to Zoroastrianism, a religion that folks still practice today.   The Roman historian, Suetonius tells us that these Magi “had spread over all the Orient an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judaea to rule the world.”

So, these Magi came looking.  But even with all their knowledge of the stars, it took them only so far.  They got to Judea, and had no idea where to go.   So how did they find Jesus?  Something from this book told them.  They went to the king to ask, a move that if you know the story had awful consequences.   But, the King didn’t know, but his scribes did.  They found the answer in Micah, one of the prophets recorded in this book.    “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”      So, the Magi went to find their answer.

And find it they do.   If you read a few verses further, you get a poignant description of what happened.  “…..they were overwhelmed with joy……..and they knelt down and paid him homage.”  Maybe they started their journey looking for proof for a theory or confirmation of a belief.   Maybe intellectual curiosity moved them on their way.   But they soon realized.  They had found something far more.   They went searching for an answer.   And instead, they found the One who is the Answer.  

Fifty years from now, Google will likely seem quaint, a relic of a by-gone age.  But this story will continue to live.   Why?   It’s because this story doesn’t give you answers.  This story points you to One who is the Answer.   And when you have a relationship with this God, this God who came to you in Jesus, your deepest questions find their answers.   For here lies beauty.  Here lies purpose.  Here lies a life that goes beyond death.   Here you discover that with Jesus, you are never, ever alone.   For here you discover, you are loved, and nothing will ever change that.   For in Jesus, this God loved you so infinitely, this God became you. And he gave up everything to bring you home.  And no matter how dark the world becomes, how dark your days grow, the light of that love, it never stops shining.   And in that love, God shapes in you a life more wondrous, more beautiful, more fulfilling than you could have imagined.   So, stop searching.   The Magi point the way.  Here lies the answer you seek.  It is found here in the very God, who lovingly seeks you.  

Sunday, December 10, 2017

What is the One Truth of Christmas that Frees You From Hiding, From Living in the Dark of Fear and Shame

I don’t even remember why I dropped by that day.   But, over 30 years later, I still remember.  I still remember my shock, my disgust.   The carpet looked so stained, so dirty, I didn’t even want to walk on it.   And the tables looked like someone had beat on them with a hammer, and then smoothed a sticky glaze of sweet, liquor to camouflage the damage.  And the bar, I didn’t even want to put my hands there, thinking I’d catch something deadly just by contact. 

But get this.   I had been in this very place countless times before, yet I had seen none of this.  This club was one of the “go to” spots for my college buddies and me to hang out and try to get dances from the co-eds in the art school across town.   But all the times before, I had seen it in the dark.   That place had never had the lights on.  Now I knew why.   The dark can hide all sorts of ugliness.

Just look at the news of the last two months.  Name after name of quite famous folks found doing things under cover of darkness that have shocked everyone.   Household names even discovered engaging in the most awful and abusive behaviors towards others.   For years, the darkness hid the ugliness.  The preacher Dwight Moody put it well.  Character is what you are in the dark.

But how many want of us want everything in the light?  You likely have things about yourself, things within you, that you’d rather not see the light of day.  It’s funny.  As a child, I was scared of the dark.  Now, I realize.  The dark can become a pretty comfortable place to be.   In the dark, you can ignore things that you’d rather not see.   In the dark, you can do things that you’d rather others not see.  

In the dark, you can hide.  You can hide from others.  You can hide from God.  You can hide even from yourself.   But in that dark, you miss so much of what you need to see.   You become so much less than what God intends you to be.   Yet even so, the dark can draw you in, even before you realize it. 

How many times have you realized something too late; some habit that you avoided looking at too closely; some health issue you kept overlooking; some problem in a relationship that you kept sweeping under the rug; or some other painful truth you refrained from facing.  And by the time, you faced it, well, the damage was done.  Someone once put it this way.  Hell is truth seen too late.    How do you live a life where you become free of that darkness?  How do you discover the way to freedom, to a life lived in the light, in the best sense of what that word means?  In this very familiar story, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

It can seem easier to stay in the dark, especially about things in yourself or others you’d rather not see.   But in the end, that darkness blinds you from the very things you need to see most.  Most crucially, it blinds you to the one truth that frees you from the darkness now and forever.  How do you see that truth?  Here God shows you.   God tells you, only when the light shines do you see that the truth that terrifies you actually opens you to a joy and freedom that nothing can overcome. 
Do you notice something a bit unusual in this famous story?   Do you notice when the shepherds get scared.  They don’t get scared in the dark.   Heck, they’re totally fine with the darkness.   No, what terrifies them is the light.  

Then an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  

Now certainly, just an angel showing up would disturb anyone.   And this glory that shone around them sounds like it was no flashlight.    This glory had to have been something pretty big. 

But beyond that obvious point, God is pointing to something deeper not only about these shepherds but about everyone.   In most folks, if they’re honest, what terrifies them the most isn’t the darkness, it’s the light.    Why?   It’s in the light that people can most easily see your flaws and imperfections.  And no one wants folks to see those things, even to see the little ones.

When I grab lunch in my office, I always make a point of taking off my shirt while I eat.   I know.  If I don’t, no matter how careful I am, something will end up getting on my shirt.  And I hate when that happens.   I realized how much I hate it just a few days ago at Costco.  My son and I were taking advantage of all the samples.   Then it happened with the Italian olive sauce on the cracker.   Not all the sauce made it to my mouth.  A huge glob landed on my shirt.  Then to top the embarrassment, my son immediately and loudly pointed it out.  “Daddy, you’ve got a stain on your shirt!”

Now, on that trip to Costco, I saw no one I knew, yet I still felt mortified.  All of a sudden, I felt as if everyone was looking at me, the poor klutz who can’t keep his shirt clean.   Human beings just don’t like looking bad.   No one wants others to see their frailties and flaws, even if it’s simply a stain on your shirt.

So, what do you do instead, you hide them.  You keep them in the dark, as much as you can.  But in that darkness, two terribly dangerous things usually happen.   First, in the darkness, your failings might even become greater, but your ability to see them, grows less and less.   Or, the exact opposite happens, in the dark, your failings become big enough to almost swallow up your life. 

Just a few days ago, I was walking around the church sanctuary with a volunteer.  And he pointed out a place on a wall in the entrance are of the church that had been patched, but left unpainted.    It looked pretty awful really.   Yet, as I thought about it, that patch had likely been there for at least ten years, and in all that time, I can’t remember ever noticing it.  Has that ever happened to you?    You have some place in your home that’s in disrepair or just doesn’t look right, but you hardly notice it anymore.   So, when do you notice it?   Usually it’s right before a guest comes over or worse than that, when your guest notices it for you.  

What happens in your house can happen in your life.  In much of the news regarding sexual misconduct that has come out, it’s been striking to notice the difference in awareness.   The folks, largely women, who have experienced mistreatment have never forgotten it.   But those who did the deed, often can’t even remember.   In life, when you hide your ugly places, you can hide them so well, that you don’t even notice them.   You don’t notice the habit that has gone out of control.  You don’t pay attention to a pattern of behavior that hurts the people you love again and again.     You don’t realize how a thought you carry or resentment you harbor is twisting up your whole life.   And you don’t want to see it, because well, seeing that reality feels like it hurt too much.  But in reality, it’s already hurting you.    It’s simply become a hurt you’ve grown used to having.

On the other hand, what you keep in the dark, instead of becoming less noticed, can actually become bigger than ever.    It’s why the brother of Jesus, James wrote in his letter the following sort of strange sentence:  Confess your sins to one another that you may be healed.   How can just telling someone else your failings heal you?   It heals you because once you put it in the light, it loses its power.   It loses its hold on you.   And once free of that power, of that shame, you become free to move forward.   In fact, lots of folks find help in therapy, simply by having a place that feels safe to share their faults and failings.     

So, on that dark night, when the angel showed up, those shepherds weren’t just terrified because of the light.   They feared what that light exposed in them.   I used to think that folks in Jesus’ day considered shepherds to be outcasts.   But when you look at how the Bible celebrates shepherds, that doesn’t make much sense.  

But still, being a shepherd didn’t put you on the highest rung of the social ladder nor the religious one either.   Shepherds had a hard time keeping religiously pure as their leaders defined it. And they couldn’t keep the Sabbath because sheep need constant protection. Being a shepherd also meant you spent most of the time away from society, hanging in the fields with your sheep.   But maybe shepherds preferred it that way.   There they avoided society’s judgment.  There they didn’t have to face how far they fell short of others’ religious expectations.   And maybe that’s exactly why God showed up there. 

Because in the midst of their terror at the light, the angel brings these amazing words.  “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”  

Standing in God’s light can be terrifying at least at first.  I can think that the white shirts I wear still look white.   But when I hold it up to something that is actually white, well, they don’t look so good anymore.   And the brightness of God’s goodness, God’s holiness can do the same. 

But here’s the difference.   If you think of your failings like a stain on a shirt, that can be scary.  After all, some stains don’t come out.   You have to cover them up instead.   And to avoid staining in the first place, you have to avoid anything that hints at something God wouldn’t want.   In Jesus’ day, that’s how religious folks thought of sin, of moral failings.  They saw it as a stain that becomes almost impossible to wash away.

But in this story, God gives a different picture of God’s goodness, God’s holiness, and of our failings and faults.   Here, God’s goodness comes as a light.  And that light overwhelms all the darkness, inside and out.     So instead of the judgment and condemnation the shepherds fear, they receive good news of God’s deliverance for everyone, not simply the morally upright, but for everyone.   They even receive a special calling, to be the first bearers of this good news to the world.  

In their story, God shows you the way to freedom from those things you keep in the dark. Here God tells you.   Your failings aren’t some stain that can’t be washed out.  No, they are a dark place that the light of my love blows away.   In my light, God says, you don’t receive the judgment and condemnation you fear.  No, you receive the grace and forgiveness you need.   You discover a God who sees you as you are, ugly places and all, and doesn’t walk away.  No, this God come so close that in Jesus, he became one of you.   No, Jesus did more than that.  Jesus took your darkness into himself.    That’s what happened to Jesus on that cross.  Darkness literally fell upon Jesus.   The light of the world fell into darkness.   What does that mean?    If God is light, then the further you are from God, the darker things become.  That darkness takes you away from the ultimate source of all life, all beauty, all truth.  That darkness Jesus took on.   God became cut off from God.   Why did God in Jesus enter that darkness for you?  In Jesus, God did it so that his light would defeat that darkness now and forever.  Jesus took on the darkness, including your darkness, so he might give you the light; so that you might become the very radiance of God.   In that ultimate gift, Jesus brought the light so close that God’s love has now shattered the power of that darkness forever. 

A Greek monk named Symeon, wrote so stunningly of that light, that his words have now lasted over a thousand years.   Symeon wrote this beautiful prayer.

We awaken in your body, O Christ, As you awaken in our bodies.
I wake up inside Your Body Where all my body, all over,
Every most hidden part of it, Is realized as joy in You
And You make me, utterly, Real,
And everything that is hurt, everything That seemed to me dark, harsh, shameful, Maimed, ugly, irreparably Damaged, is in You transformed
And recognized as whole, as lovely, And radiant in Your light.

That is what Jesus has done, and still yearns to do in your life.  In that light you have nothing to fear.   For that light brings you good news of great joy that is for all the people.   And all you need to do is say yes, yes to that light, yes to it entering every painful regret, every dark secret, every broken and shameful place bringing a light no darkness can overcome.  What dark places do you carry?  Where do you need to say yes to that light?    


Sunday, December 3, 2017

Two Insights about Christmas that Will Change How You View Not Only Christmas but Your Whole Life

It always bewilders me, but every year, it happens.  Around these holidays, the honk frequency goes up.  I’m at a stoplight, and the car ahead hesitates a moment too long – honk!   I’m in heavy traffic, and here a honk, there a honk, everywhere a honk honk.   Sometimes, horns blare seemingly for no reason at all.  The traffic is moving smoothly.   Everything is fine, but there it comes, an irritated honk. 

Here you are, in a time meant to be joyous and life-giving, in one of the most wonderful winter climates in the entire world, and people are still that grouchy?  Really?    Now I get it.  The traffic does get more hectic.  This season does brings new pressures and stress.   But does that really get at the heart of the problem?  No, I think.  Our church sign guy, Bart’s witty new message points to that.  It goes like this: Jesus is the reason for the season.  Don’t xmas it out.  

Clever, isn’t it?  Now if you do see someone use Xmas, don’t get too concerned.  Christians are the ones who came up with that abbreviation hundreds of years ago.  The X stands for a Greek letter, Chi which in English become the first two letters in the name Christ. 

But having said that, Bart’s sign makes an important point.  Many folks, including Christians are missing the reason for this season.  And I’m not talking about saying Merry Christmas in the stores, though I have nothing against that.   But honestly, I’m ok with Happy Holidays.  After all, Happy Holiday comes from Holy Days, which used to be the only holidays that existed.    And what are these days but that, holy days.  

But you can miss the holiness of them.   You can miss the utterly wonderful strangeness of them.   You can lose touch with the life-transforming news they proclaim.   So, in the tumult of the season, in the middle of all the honks, how do you stay in touch with that?  In these words, the very first Christmas song ever, God points the way.   Let’s hear what God has to say. 

How do you keep in touch with the reason for the season?   How do you experience its wonder, its holiness, the utterly stunning reality of what God did in these holy days?   You look to these words of Mary’s.  In her song, she shows you the wonder of Christmas, how in Christmas God shows you not only the immensity of who God is, but the breathtaking things God did, and is still doing in the world.

But before we get to Mary’s word, let’s get a bit more of the backstory.  One day, this teenage girl, probably 15 years old, is hanging out at her home.   Then, this angel just appears.   Now, in case, you think, because it’s in the Bible, amazing things like that happened a lot so this couldn’t have been too much of a shock, let me clarify; it had been 500 years since Israel had even seen a prophet, much less an angel, 500 years.

And now, God picks the home of this teenager of all places to be one of the place where God starts to show up again.  And this angel, this messenger from God delivers news that had to be both exciting and terrifying. This angel tells her that God will place a human life in her womb, a life that will be both her child, and at the same time, God.   

And Mary asks what anybody would ask?  She asks.  How can this be?   And the angel tells her basically.   It can be because God can make anything happen.  With God, nothing is impossible.   And then the angel delivers a little proof. The angel says.  If you doubt that, just go see your cousin, Elizabeth.   Now, Elizabeth had not only not ever been pregnant, she had aged way beyond her child-bearing years.  Yet this Angel tells Mary, this same Elizabeth is now six months gone with child.
So, Mary goes.  She checks it out.   And she sees this old lady Elizabeth heavy in pregnancy.  And Elizabeth sees her and proclaims.  “I know what God has done for you.   I know, Mary, you are the mother of the Lord.”  

And that’s when Mary launches into this song.  But Mary doesn’t simply sing.  “Oh, I’m so happy.   God made me a baby.”   No, she sings this.   My soul magnifies the Lord.   My Spirit rejoices.   Mary doesn’t just have warm fuzzies in her heart.  No, what God has done in her goes far deeper than that.  God has changed her at the very heart of who she is, her soul, her spirit. And if you let this God who comes at Christmas do his work, this God will do the same in you.            

How does that happen?  It happens as you grasp what Mary is telling you about God in this song, the first of which is the immensity of who God is.   Mary sings about God’s might and God’s mercy.    And she’s right to do so.  Nowhere do you see that might and mercy more clearly than at Christmas.
Think about it.  It’s crazy.  Maybe no one portrayed how crazy it is, then G.K. Chesterton did in his poem, The Wise Men.  There he wrote. 
The Child that was ere worlds begun
    (…We need but walk a little way,
We need but see a latch undone…)
The Child that played with moon and sun
    Is playing with a little hay.

Christians celebrate at Christmas something seemingly laughably impossible, that the infinite being that created an infinite universe became a human infant.    Yet, God did exactly that. 

A few years ago, I began to get into the TV series, Dr. Who.  The series tells the adventures of this mysterious figure called a Timelord, who can zip through vast reaches of time and space in the time it takes you to drive to Publix.   One of the show’s running gags is the amazing ship that Dr. Who does it in, which looks like this on the outside.  
But inside, it looks like this, 

and let me tell you, that’s only one little room in a ship that has hundreds, thousands even.   And every time someone first enters and looks around bewildered, Dr. Who, just says, “Oh yeah, it’s bigger on this inside.”

Yet in the birth of Jesus, God did that and more.  The infinite immeasurable power of the creator of reality itself became this:  
Talk about bigger on the inside.   And if that doesn’t show you God’s might, I don’t know what does.   In what God did at Christmas, God shows you a God who can do wonders that can’t even begin to be understood.    The great physicist, Richard Feynman, said this about quantum mechanics.  If you think you understand quantum mechanics, then you don’t understand quantum mechanics.   And Feynman words apply even more here.   If you think you understand Christmas, then you don’t understand Christmas.   It’s far too amazing for that.

But Mary doesn’t simply tell you, the power of who God is, but also the wonder of what God does.   At the heart of all her words on God overturning the powerful and feeding the hungry, what Mary says God has done comes down to simply this.  God has kept his promise to Israel. 

What promise is Mary talking about?  Mary is talking about a promise, God made 3,000 years before.   Mary is talking about a promise that the last 500 years of history had seemed to show as nothing but a bunch of religious hokum.  For 500 years God had done nothing amazing at all. That’s almost 300 years longer than this country has existed.  And then, in the middle of the most unlikely place, at the most unexpected time, God shows up as never before.

This tells you two crucial things.  First, God always keeps God’s promises, but don’t think you will have any clue how, when or where God will do so.   But bank on this, God will.   Now, why does God wait so long?

Well, for God, it doesn’t seem that long at all.  You and I live in time.  God doesn’t.   God lives completely outside of time.  God sees time the way you look down from a bridge and see boats on a river.    God sees every moment in time at the same time all the time.  And in the midst of that vast expanse of time, God is working out a massive rescue mission to save this world, to save you.    And so at times, if you wonder, how or when or where God is working in your life, just realize.  That’s normal.   Just know, this, God is working, and God will keep God’s promises.  At a moment, often when you least expect it, God will show up, and do something amazing.  That’s just how God is.   And if that bewilders you, then you’re beginning to get it.   To paraphrase Feynman again, if you think you understand God, then you don’t understand God.

But you can understand this.  You can understand why.   God does what God does because God loves you more than you could ever imagine.    And out of his love, God is working out, in the midst of all the mess, a wonderful plan for you, for everyone, a plan that goes on into forever.    And the more you grasp that reality, the more you are grasping the wonder of these holy days, of what God did at Christmas, of what God is doing still, even at this very table.  The Alaskan writer, Leslie Leyland Fields, said it well:

Straw – dirt floor, dull eyes, Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen; Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain, And then, the child, Rag-wrapped, laid to cry in a trough
Who would have chosen this?  Who would have said: “Yes, Let the God of all the heavens and earth Be born here, in this place?”  Who but the same God Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts and says, “Yes, let the God of heaven and earth be born here –in this place.

Let that God be born in you, right here, right now, even in this place, even in this very moment.