Sunday, January 28, 2018

What is the One Thing You Need to Know to Speak Words that Change the World?

When I was growing up, it amazed me.  Bruce Wayne had to have millions to be Batman.  Clark Kent had to come from another planet.  Even Peter Parker had to get bitten by a radioactive spider.    But not Billy Batson, this guy said one word, Shazam, and he turned into Captain Marvel, totally awesome superhero.   Most folks don’t remember Captain Marvel or they might know him by Shazam (what they call him today).   But that superhero gave me a sense of possibility.   I thought.   If I could find my magic word, then superhero life here I come.   Captain Kennedy or maybe the Big K.   But go figure, I’m still looking for my magic word.  

But behind that comic book hero, you find a powerful truth.   One word may not make you into a superhero.   But, words, they carry power.  You don’t have to go to a comic book to see that. 
You can look at your own life.  Have you ever had someone, it could be even a complete stranger, say something mean to you and it throw off your whole day?   Or maybe it’s the other way, you’ve said words to someone, and it wrecked things in ways you could not have imagined.  It can happen.  On the other hand, someone can say something really nice to you, and it can be so powerful, you never forget it.         

Almost twenty years ago, I was checking out of a hostel in Boston.  And the woman behind the counter recognized me as someone she had traveled with years before.   It was nice to be recognized.  But what I remember most were what she said.  She said I was one of the coolest people she had ever met.   I needed those words.   I was recovering from a failed relationship that had broken my heart and my confidence.  Her words meant so much, I’ll never forget them.   

But some words do more than give you a fond memory, some words change things forever, and that is no more so, when God moves through those words.  When that happens, the power those words have has no limit.  How can those words become part of your life?  In this story, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.    

Today, people have grown cynical about words, but cynicism doesn’t change the truth.  Words not only still change the world, they are changing the world right now, sometimes for good, and sometimes sadly for bad.    And you can be one of those whose words changes the world for good forever.   How does that happen?  Here God shows you the way.   Life changing words happen when you realize what they are, an imperfect person saying imperfect words to imperfect people about a perfect God. 

Now, it’s funny.  Today most folks don’t have a problem with that first word, imperfect.  After all, everybody is imperfect right?    But that word perfect can sound a little uptight.   But in the Bible that word simply means; complete, a fullness that needs nothing else.   It’s what you feel when you talk about a perfect night or a perfect moment.   You know that sort of night that feels like it has everything it needs, or that moment just feels totally right in ways you can’t even explain.   Have you ever felt that?  It’s awesome.   And who doesn’t want more of that?  

Your words can bring that sort of completeness into the world, and you can do that, even though you are far from complete.   Look at Jonah.   Jonah messes up big-time.  Does God send him home?  No, God says, get back out there, and do what I called you to do.   And do you realize what God enables Jonah to do?   God enables Jonah to capture a city that no army on earth could overcome.   No city in human history up to that point could compare to Nineveh.   Think about how long it took him to get across it, three days.   A city that big, no army could ever capture.   It wouldn’t have enough troops.  Yet, God uses one person to bring that city literally to its knees.    And God does it, as you’ll see next week, with a still radically imperfect guy.  That’s how God works.    

A few weeks ago, around the holiday, I was talking to my son about Dr. King.  I pulled up the video of King’s I Have a Dream speech.   Every time I hear it, it still gives me chills.  But I had a little crisis about Dr. King about 20 or so years ago.   It came out that Dr. King had cheated on his wife a lot, and well, that bothered me a lot.   But then, I realized, King didn’t need to be perfect for God to powerfully use him.   In fact, God only uses imperfect people, because well, that’s all God’s got. 

Have no doubt, God doesn’t just use you in spite of your imperfections. God will use you even through your imperfections.  I love the way, the writer, Vance Havner puts it.    

God uses broken things.  Broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength.  It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume.  It is Peter, weeping bitterly, who returns to greater power than ever.

If you are going through life, and think your brokenness disqualifies you from God using you for great things, then you have got it so wrong.   Heck, it’s usually when you realize how broken you are that God uses you the most.   As someone once put it.  If you think you’re a saint, that’s a guarantee you aren’t one.

Still, Martin Luther King could deliver pretty powerful words.  But you don’t need that either.    Look at what Jonah delivers to the folks in Nineveh.    “40 days more and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”    It gets to the point, but who would have thought repeating that for three days straight would overwhelm the greatest city in the known world?  But it did.    

And when you allow God to do it, God can use your words in more powerful ways than you could ever imagine.   I can’t tell you the number of times, someone has come up to me, and said your words really hit me powerfully today.   And just as I start feeling good, they tell me the words that hit them so powerfully.   I think.   I never said that.   Now, I don’t tell them that.  I just nod and smile.  But if God can use words I did not even say to change a life, who knows how God will use the words you do say?

And finally, do you see how the people in Nineveh react to Jonah’s words?   His words make them feel bad.   And that’s important to notice.  God’s words usually lead you to feel bad before you can feel good.   Why is that?   That’s because before you can experience the change God has for you, you need to realize just how badly you need that change.    And that usually means feeling bad.   

That’s how the church I serve began its work in Haiti, the work that has been getting so much news coverage lately.  It began when someone, a pretty imperfect someone by his own admission, led some leaders here to feel bad.  The rock star, Bono, got interviewed at a leadership conference.   And he raked Christian leaders over the coals.   He asked.  Millions of people, men, women and children are dying of AIDS around the world, and the American church was nowhere to be found.  What was up with that?  

So, we came back determined to do something.  Now originally, we thought we were going to Africa.  But God had different plans.   We discovered that when one of our members, Alicia was talking to her Jewish neighbor, Mike, across the fence.   He and his colleague, Tim, at the Sun Sentinel had just finished a series on AIDS orphans in the Caribbean.  He mentioned how these kids’ plight had moved him.    So, Alicia called me, and I called my friend, Rabbi Tuffs, and we talked.  Then two other members, Leslie Young and Patricia Neunie told me about Aaron Jackson.  And Aaron became the key connection that led us a partnership that with John Dieubon that created an HIV house orphanage in Haiti.  Now 11 years later, that work, Hollywood CARES, has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the needs of Haiti.  And it has changed the world forever, especially for 30 or so children in that nation.   Because of it, not only are they alive, but their lives have become a little more complete than before.  And for those of us who have gone, our lives have become more complete too.  

And do you know how it all began?  It began with words.   This perfect, complete God used all sorts of imperfect people delivering imperfect words to other imperfect people to change the world.   It may not be Shazam, but it works for me.  

Don’t ever think God cannot use your words in ways you could never imagine.   But for God to use your words, you’ve got to speak them. What if Alicia had not made that call or Leslie not mentioned Aaron Jackson, Hollywood CARES may never have happened.  Your words don’t have to be perfect nor does their response.   What’s important is that you speak them.   You never know how God will use those words.   You’ll never know unless you speak them.   So speak them, and see what God will do.    What words is God calling you to speak?

Sunday, January 21, 2018

What Is the One Thing That You Already Have That Offers You a Life of Deep Joy and Significance?

It happens every time I look.  And every time, it stuns me.    Everyone on Facebook is having a better time than I am.   Their families are doing better.  They’re doing cooler things.  They’re eating tastier food.  They’re going to prettier places.   They even seem to be wearing nicer clothes.  It’s depressing.  

And, that’s the problem.  The problem began before the phones.  But they’ve made it worse.  In fact, your phone could be killing you.   It has nothing to do with radiation zapping your brains.  That’s not what’s getting you.   

No, it’s what you look at on these phones.  And you look at them, according to research, a lot.  More than 3 out of 4 of you, for example, are looking at them when you’re eating or socializing.  And what are you looking at?   You’re probably looking at each other.  You’re looking at what people post on Facebook or Pinterest or Twitter or Instagram or whatever.   Even if you don’t do that, you’re still getting the same message from this culture.   You could be better.   Your life could be better.   You should be better, happier, more productive.  Everybody else is.   And if you don’t do this, you are going to get left behind.  

And these messages are killing people.   Do you know who is most likely to kill you with a gun?  You are.   Last year, twice as many people used a firearm to kill themselves rather than anyone else.   And people are doing it in new ways with painkillers, what they call the Opioid epidemic. 

Now for most, it’s not that bad.  But it’s not good.  1 in 6 Americans, 1 in 6, take some sort of drug just to cope mentally and emotionally.   And that’s just the legal drugs. Even if you may not be using a drug, but do you sense the reason why?  Are you feeling the anxiety, the stress, the sadness even?   Does it seem that the world is going faster, but you’re having a harder time keeping up?   You don’t even have to have a setback or failure in life to feel bad about how it’s going.   No, nowadays, regular life can make you feel that way. 

Our culture has told us what matters is what happens outside of us; your status with others, the stuff you own compared to the stuff others own, how happy your pictures appear or how interesting your lives look on the social media feed of your choice.   But in this poem, the poem of a man who faced deep defeat, God shows the way.  God shows the way towards true fulfillment, towards a deep joy, one that doesn’t come from a Facebook feed or from a bonus at work or a new toy at home.   No, this joy comes from a deep knowing within, one that nothing can shake.  Here God shows the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say.

How do you find joy in a world driven by so much that draws away joy; obsessive focus on status and stuff; a pace that gets more hectic by the day; demands that you get better, faster, more productive just to keep your head above water?   In this story God gives a different way, one that frees you from the bondage of this driven-ness, that opens you to a path into deeper joy, into greater purpose.   What is that way?  God says.  It is realizing that what ultimately matters, what you ultimately need, you already have and it’s free, even though it came at infinite cost. 

But before we get to what you already have, let’s take a moment to see what prevents you from seeing it.   And to do that, let’s catch up on what inspired the prayer that we just heard. 

For over 40 years the Assyrian empire had extorted from Israel crushing payments just to stave off destruction by the Assyrian armies    His whole life Jonah as a prophet to the Israelite king had witnessed this exploitation and its cost; the suffering, the humiliation.  Yet, God tells him to do something shocking, offensive even.  God tells Jonah to go to the capital of this evil empire, Nineveh and warn them judgment is coming so they can have one last chance to save themselves. 
And what does Jonah do?  Jonah says no.   He doesn’t just say no.  He gets on a ship to take him as far away from Nineveh as he can get.   And if you know the story, you know what happens next.   A terrible storm swamps the boat Jonah is in.   And Jonah realizes he’s the cause of the storm.  His refusal to go to Nineveh has put all the folks on that boat in danger.   So, he asks the sailors to throw him into the sea, to appease this angry God.   But when Jonah goes in the water, God doesn’t kill him.   God saves him.  A fish swallows him alive, but in that place, Jonah, at least at first, wishes he was dead. 

And in Jonah’s despair, you get the clue that will lead you to what you already have, to what God has already given you.   Before you can receive what you already have, you have to realize that what you do have is killing you. 

What makes you feel good when you look at Facebook?  What bugs you or bums you out?   You feel good when you post something great about yourself, some awesome trip you’ve taken, some funny moment.   And yes, you are sharing the joy, but are you also thinking, wow, this is going to look so good?  Are you imagining folks looking at it, and thinking, wow, what a great life he’s living, what cool things she is doing?   And what bums you out? It’s when someone’s status post looks way more awesome than yours.   “Went to Disney World, and guess what, we got cast to be voices in the next Pixar film!  Disney paid for our whole trip. They’re flying us to California next week to be on the Ellen show. So excited.”   They may be so excited, but you, not so much.    Suddenly your life looks pretty lame.  And you wonder, what’s wrong with me?  Why can’t that be me, be my family?    And the same sort of thing happens in life.  Social media only mirrors what human beings have been doing forever, comparison living, measuring your life by others.   

Jonah in saying No to Nineveh was doing the same thing.   Except in his status, he was awesome, and the folks in Nineveh awful, and God wasn’t much better.  These Ninevites didn’t deserve mercy.   No, instead, Jonah, the right one, deserved vengeance.   And if God wasn’t going to give that, then Jonah was walking away.   This God did not deserve Jonah’s services.

But now, Jonah realizes, his selfishness, his bitterness had put the innocent lives on that ship at risk.   His actions had caused their suffering and fear, suffering and fear they didn’t deserve.   And now in the belly of that fish, he realizes a painful truth.  Suddenly, in comparison to the awful Ninevites, Jonah doesn’t look so good.  He looks pretty awful, in fact.   

As with Jonah, in your life, this comparison living, distorts everything.  Because at its root lies one basic lie.   Someone is keeping score, and how do you know if you’re winning in life?  You know it by comparing yourself to everybody else. 

But guess what, you’re a terrible scorekeeper.   How do you know?   Think about how you judge  when you see someone on their phone while driving, maybe even texting.  You think.  How reckless! How stupid!  But if you call someone or send a quick test in the car, you judge it differently.  I need to do this.  Or, I can do this and not cause a problem.  It’s ok for me.

And forget how bad you are at judging yourself, you also mess up when you judge others. Why?  It’s because nobody has it as good as you think they do.   On Facebook, and in life, do you know what everyone is showing.   They are showing the highlight reel.   No one reveals the behind the scenes.   And the behind the scenes, it’s never that pretty.  

And score keeping doesn’t even lead you to a happy life.  It leads you to a driven one, an anxious one, one driven by this desire if not to win, to at least be near the top of the happiness or fulfillment or goodness rankings.    But here’s the bad news.   Someone is keeping score.   And you’ve already lost.   And not only you, everyone has.  

Many years ago, I had a Jonah moment of sorts.   It began when I read a book by the psychiatrist and writer, M. Scott Peck.  Peck had written this huge bestseller, The Road Less Travelled, that I had just loved.  (By the way, it is a terrific book. It led Peck, an atheist, to become a Christian).   Well, after reading that book, Peck became one of my spiritual gurus.   So, when I picked up this book where he and his wife traveled through Scotland and Ireland visiting ancient holy places, I thought.  This is going to be awesome.   Then Peck revealed in the book that after the Road Less Traveled made him famous, he had started cheating on his wife with some of his adoring fans.  He shared how his marriage had weathered this unfaithfulness.   But, I read that, and thought.  I can’t read this guy anymore.  He’s a sleaze-ball, a cad, a cheater.   I would never do that.  

Then a few years ago, I was dating this wonderful woman, and I did do that.  I did cheat on her.  And I hurt her deeply.   And all of a sudden, I didn’t look so good compared to M. Scott Peck.

Like Jonah, I had lost touch, with an essential truth.  In comparison to the only standard that truly mattered, I had already failed miserably.   And I’m not the only one.  Everyone has.  If you’re trying to keep score, you’re keeping score in a game you’ve already lost.   That’s because the standard is perfection.  And no human being comes close to that.     

And Jonah knows that.  In fact, he knew it before.  He just forgot.   But now he remembers.  How do you know he remembers?  He starts praying about the temple.   He realizes.  That temple offers the only chance for him to come back.   Why?

It’s because in the Temple, God had given a way to even the score.  God had given this elaborate system of sacrifices, sacrifices that would compensate for your imperfections, for your flaws, for your failings.   Now, God wasn’t so interested in these sacrifices for their own sake.  No, God wanted people to understand, they could not even the score alone.  They needed help, the help of a living innocent being, to cover the costs that their failings had brought on them and others. 
And if that makes you squeamish, then you don’t yet see how your life of comparison living causes all sorts of sacrifices right now, leads to all sorts of costs, not just for you, but for innocents caught up in this comparison driven world.   How many people suffer terrible conditions to give you cool clothes at an affordable price or so you and I can buy that cool new phone in our pockets?    Everybody is making sacrifices.  That’s not the question.  The question is.  What god are you making sacrifices for?  

And as Jonah looks to the temple, he gets it.  God has a way to make this right.  In the Temple, God has given Jonah a way to erase his failings, to restore his righteousness.  He realizes. God never gives up on anyone, not on Nineveh, and not on Jonah.   He can move forward, freed of this false way of measuring his worth by others.   In the Temple, God will bring him back to worthiness, to the only worthiness that ultimately matters. 

And what Jonah looks toward in that temple, you already have.  In that temple, God was preparing Jonah and his people for the ultimate sacrifice, the only one that would actually make things right, that would restore everyone’s worthiness now and forever.   And that sacrifice, only God could make.   And so, God did.   God, the perfect one, the complete one, in Jesus, took on all your failings, all the pain and suffering your comparison driven life had cost.   God offered up everything there, even God’s very life to rescue you.    And what does God want in return for that infinite sacrifice.  God wants nothing.  God wants you to simply accept what you already have.  And when you know that, that in the eyes of the creator of everything, you are worth that much, that God gave up that much for you.   Well, what can compare to that?   In the power of that gift, you become free of doubting your worthiness ever again; of ever striving to get it or become anxious about losing it.   You realize, you already have it.  You are worthy than you could have ever have dreamed.   And nothing, nothing will ever take it away.         

Sunday, January 14, 2018

What Are The Three Steps That Can Redeem Even Your Worst Mistakes?

I really should have read the directions.   Hold on, I did read them.  I just didn’t follow them.  And that hurt.

A week ago, I got this heavy-duty cleaner from D&B Tile to use in a shower at home.  It did say that it was strong, that you should wear some protection.  So, I got rubber gloves for my hands, and a pair of old jeans to wear too.   I thought.  That should be fine.  I mean, how strong can the stuff be? 
I was taking care of some serious cleaning, getting down on my knees, scrubbing away.  And the stuff worked great.   But then I noticed a little tingling in my knees.  I thought.  It’s probably nothing.  Then it got a bit worse.   My knees started to, well, burn.  I decided.  Maybe these solution soaked jeans need to come off.  That didn’t help.  And that’s how I found myself running to the shower in our other bathroom, yelling ouch, ouch all the way.  Still the damage was done.  I have the scabs to prove it.  That stuff sure got rid of the dirt in our shower.  And it even got rid of some of the skin on me too. 

Still, I’ll survive.   The scabs will eventually come off.   And I’ll have grown a little wiser as a result.    But in life, mistakes don’t always get resolved so easily.   You can make mistakes that cost more than a few scabs.  Some mistakes really mess up your life.  Those types of failures, they don’t only wound you, they often wound others too.   If you let them, they’ll even cripple you, for years, even a lifetime.   But in this story, God shows a different way.  God shows you that even the greatest failures of your life can become opportunities for God to work more powerfully than ever.  How can your worst failures, not only become opportunities for growth, but doors that open you to greater things than you could have imagined?   In this story, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Life can bring some bad things your way.    But what about when you know those bad things hit because of you?   What if it was your mistake that brought them your way, even brought them to others too?   How do you rebound from failures like that?  In this story, God shows you the way.   God tells you.  When your mistakes wound you, even wound others. What do you do?  First, you face them.   You face the failures, and you face the consequences.  But then, you fall.  You fall into the only One who can, not only, redeem your mistakes, but who alone can redeem you.  

In this story, God gives Jonah a clear order.   Go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, and tell them their mistakes, how their evil has caused harm to so many.    But Jonah doesn’t do that.   Jonah does the exact opposite.   Jonah books a ship literally in the opposite direction, as far from Nineveh and he thinks, from God, as he can get. 

But why does Jonah do that?   To understand that, you need to understand who Jonah is. Jonah doesn’t only appear in the Bible here.   In the stories about Jeroboam II, one of the kings of Israel, Jonah pops up too.   Now, Jeroboam was an awful, evil king, but the Bible says he did do one thing right.   As the book of 2 Kings puts it.  But he (Jeroboam) did restore the borders of Israel to Lebo Hamath in the far north and to the Dead Sea in the south, according to what God, the God of Israel, had pronounced through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher.   Jonah served as personal prophet to King Jeroboam, and while this king might have restored the border, this is what he couldn’t do.  He couldn’t throw off the chains of Assyrian bondage.  For forty years, Assyria had taken tribute from Israel, basically protection money.  You pay us, and we don’t send an army to destroy you.   The leaders in Nineveh had humiliated Israel for years, and Jonah hated their guts.  He didn’t want God to warm them about their wicked ways.  He wanted God to destroy them for their wicked ways.   And he wasn’t going to be the one to give them any chance to get out of the judgment they so richly deserved. 

So, what does he do?  He gets out of Dodge, and he thinks, at the same time, he is getting away from God.   Why does he think that?   It’s because Jonah believes God only has power in Israel.   If he goes to Tarshish, it will be like an outlaw crossing the Rio Grande into Mexico.  God can’t touch him there.  Jonah feels so confident in that belief that even when the storm hits, it doesn’t bother him.  He’s sleeping. He thinks.   This can’t be God.  God’s back in Israel.  God can’t reach me here.
But Jonah finds out.  God can reach him here.  And God isn’t just reaching Jonah.  God’s way of reaching, this huge storm, is putting everyone on the ship at risk.  

Now, if you’re honest, you can’t bash Jonah too badly.  Everyone has had a Jonah moment, a time when you denied just how bad your mistake was.   Heck, when I was kneeling in that shower, I did that, until I realized that burning sensation was not going to go away. 

The first step in coming back from a mistake is acknowledging you made one, and that can be hard.  
This past week, it came out that the pastor of a big mega-church in Tennessee, had years before when he was a youth pastor coerced one of the teenagers in his youth group to sleep with him.  When it came out, he went before his congregation, and confessed that an incident had occurred some years ago but said little else.   The church even gave him a standing ovation, something I’m still trying to figure out.  Ok, maybe you appreciated his supposed honesty, but a standing ovation, really?  Then it came out, she was 17, and he was her pastor.  And how did he respond to that?   He said, well technically, since she was 17, and he was 22, it was legal in the state where he was.   Now finally, the church has suspended him, and is doing a full-scale investigation.   But I worry that this pastor still doesn’t get the depth of his mistake.  When you coerce a teenager in your youth group to sleep with you, it’s not an incident, it’s abuse.

Now hopefully, you’ve never had to face a mistake like that one.  But have you ever ignored a mistake in a relationship or with your family until it blew into a storm that rocked everything?  Have you ever not faced a self-destructive habit or obsession or practice that was not only hurting you but everyone around you until the mess it created was too big to ignore?   The list could go on.   How do you make a mistake worse?  You don’t admit you made one.  

But Jonah doesn’t simply admit his mistake, he takes responsibility for it.  He says.  This is on me.  In fact, he even offers up his own life to save his shipmates.

When you make a mistake, making it right goes beyond acknowledging the truth.  It means accepting the consequences of that truth.    That’s why folks in AA do what they call a fearless moral inventory.  They write down a list of all the folks that they have wronged through their drinking.  And they don’t stop there.  They go to those folks, face how they failed them, and do what they can to make amends.   That practice doesn’t just work for alcoholics.  It works for everyone.  My dad used to say the church should be called sinners anonymous.  He’s right. You can’t simply face the mistakes you make, you’ve got to own them.  And Jonah does.

Even so, the sailors think Jonah’s way to resolve the issue is crazy.   They think.  This guy is going to commit suicide.  They try to do everything they can to not take Jonah up on his offer.     But in the end, they have no choice.   They throw Jonah into the raging sea.  

And in this final seemingly suicidal act, Jonah does the most crucial step of all, when it comes to redeeming the mess-ups of your life.   He lets go and lets God.    Or as the folks in AA put it, you realize that only a power greater than yourself can restore you to sanity.   You see.  Too often people can acknowledge their mistakes, even try to remedy them.  What they can’t do is let go, is realize that they alone can never move themselves to the place they need to be.  They try the whole self-salvation route, a route that ultimately leads nowhere. 

When a life-guard goes to save someone who is drowning, often the person panics.  They think they’re helping the lifeguard, when all they are doing is making it worse.  The only way the lifeguard can help them is if they let go, if they place their life totally in the lifeguard’s hands.  And this is so crucial, that if they can’t let go, the lifeguard will leave them to drown to avoid being drowned herself.  She can’t save them if they won’t let go.

So, Jonah lets go, and God saves him.  God provides a fish to deliver him from the storm.  The sailors think.  Death lies beneath those waves.   But something else entirely lives there.  Love does.  And out of love, God rescues the runaway Jonah, and in doing so, God prepares him for the most significant act of his entire life. 

Here’s the irony.   Jonah hated the Ninevites so much. He had such an exalted impression of his own righteousness. Even if he had gone to Nineveh, he would have been useless. Only now, humbled out of his own self-righteous arrogance, can he become the great prophet God has destined him to be. 
One of the verses I love most in the Bible comes from Romans.  It goes like this.  God works all things together for good for those who love God and who are called according to his purpose.  What that means is even when God doesn’t bring the storms that hit your life, that doesn’t mean God won’t use them.    God can use anything, even your worst mistakes, to move you forward, to even save you.    God will work it for good, but for God to do it, you’ve gotta let go. 

And if you doubt that God will save you, then look beyond Jonah.  Look to who Jonah points to, to the ultimate Jonah.   And that Jonah, instead of running away from God’s call to save, ran towards it.  And he went into the ultimate storm, the one created not by his failure but by ours, our mistakes, our brokenness.  And Jesus willingly gave up his life to that storm, so that he might still those waves, so that he might save us.  And he went beyond the belly of a whale.  He went into the belly of death itself, so that you might never have to go there, that instead you might have life now and forever.  

And when you let go into the love and grace of this one who threw himself into the storm for you, then Jesus will redeem every broken place, every moral failure, every mistake you have made no matter how bad.   He will save you.   And what do you need to do?  All you need to do is face the truth, that you need it.     Yes, you need to face your mistakes. Yes, you need to own them.  But then you need to let go and let God do what only God can do, use them as the door that leads to your salvation, to the very life of significance God created you to have.   So, where do you need to let go today?   

Monday, January 8, 2018

What is the One Perspective and the One Attitude That Will Move You Boldly into this New Year?

Hold on a moment….it’s gonna be just a second (as I look at my phone).   Oh, it’s taking forever!   Has that ever been you when it comes to something you’re looking for on your phone or computer? If something takes more than a few seconds to appear, does your irritation start to rise.   Maybe it happens in the check-out line.  You make your best guess for the fastest line.  But then it happens. Someone in front of you has an issue, like God forbid, a price check.  And you see the other lines moving along as you stand stranded in a line that is lasting forever.  The injustice of it all!

Have you grown more impatient?  It seems that everyone has, that it has gotten harder to wait for well, most anything.  Everything in the world today seems to be about, going faster, acting quicker, seizing the moment.  But does that impatience really lead you to success, to satisfaction, to a complete life?    Or does the marshmallow test tell a truer story?

In the late 60s and early 70s, the psychologist Walter Mischel, came up with this interesting experiment.   His researchers interviewed about 600 or so preschoolers. During the interview, the researcher put a small marshmallow on the table.    He then told the child, that if she waited until the researcher came back, she would get two marshmallows.    Some kids just went ahead and ate the marshmallow.  But a number waited.  They came up with ways to distract themselves from looking at that marshmallow.  They counted their toes.   They covered their eyes. They even turned their chair around to avoid seeing the marshmallow.  Some even stroked the marshmallow like a pet.   But they waited for that second marshmallow. 

Mischel then tracked the kids who waited and those who didn’t through high school, into college, even into middle age.    And the ones who waited had higher SAT scores, greater success in school and career.  They even had a better body mass index than those who didn’t.   Waiting worked not only for that second marshmallow but for the rest of their lives.

Yet, the world can lead you to do the exact opposite.  This world, with its bewilderingly fast pace, can terrify you with the prospect of waiting too long, with missing out on the opportunities you need to take.  And let’s be honest.  Waiting might be good.  But you can’t wait forever.  Life requires action.  So, how do you know?  How do you know when to move forward in a way that gets you to where you truly need to be?    In these words written thousands of years ago, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

This world can drive you to move simply for the sake of moving.  It can equate action with success.  It tells you that a full schedule leads to a complete life.   But is that the way?   Does action always mean success?  If it doesn’t, how do you know when to act or when to wait?  What truly leads to a complete life?

In these words, God tells you.   God says.  Moving toward a complete life doesn’t begin with you and it won’t end with you either.   God began that work, and if you are willing, God will complete it.  But you have a role in that completion.   It is letting God lead you to a place where you act not out of fear but out of love.   
Do you know from where Paul was writing this letter to the church in Philippi?   Paul was writing it from prison, a prison from which he knew he would never leave.  He had begun this small community of Christians in Philippi not all that long ago.   And now he knows.  He will never see them again.    Yet Paul isn’t worried about their future, about their ability to stick it out, to stand up for their faith. 

Paul understands.  God began the work in them, and God will finish it.  And God doesn’t need Paul to get that done.  In fact, Paul assures them with just those words.  The One who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ. 

And what Paul says is of course true.   When you were born, did you choose your parents?  Did you pick the nation in which you were born?  Heck, did you even choose your own name?   No, all that work began, and you had nothing to do with it.   Nobody even consulted you. 

Even now, much of your life remains beyond your control.  And that’s a good thing.   Who wants to have to remember to breathe or keep your heart beating.   Your body keeps countless things going, without any from you.  And that works.  Your lungs keep breathing. Your heart keeps beating.   Think about this.   Last week, it was 80 or so degrees outside.  A few days ago, it was 40.   But do you know that in the middle of those dramatic changes, your body temperature hardly changed at all?  Your body did that, without you even thinking about it.  And that’s amazing, miraculous even.

In the same way, God maintains those physical systems, God is working to shape your life, to make it more than you could have ever dreamed it to be.  And that means in the seeming chaos of life, including your life, God is working, working to make you complete, whole, everything God intended you to be.  

But does that mean you do nothing, just let God do it all?   It means that, no more than it means that just because your body is taking care of all sorts of functions, that you have no job there either.  I mean.  To keep that heart beating, you’ve got to eat, to exercise, to rest, to do all sorts of things.  And what is it that fuels God’s deeper work in your life, God’s moving you to completion?   Paul points to it in his prayer for the Philippians.   What does Paul pray for?    Paul writes this: And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.   Why does he pray this?  It’s because Paul says that is what will produce the harvest.

Too often today when people act in their lives, they act out of fear, out of anxiety.  Sure, people might be busy, that’s easy enough.   Anyone can be busy.  But what are you busy about?   What drives you?   If you let your inner fears, your personal anxieties drive the movement in your life, then you will be moving, but you won’t be going anywhere or at least anywhere good.   And sadly the world around us seems more caught up in that sort of movement than anything else, grabbing the first marshmallow because they’re afraid the second one will never come.

But God has a different vision, a different path, one that leads you to completion, to becoming who God intended you to be.  And that path leads you away from acting in fear to acting out of love.   And the more love drives your decisions, the more God moves you toward completion, towards becoming the person that God intended you to be.  And in that love, God can do more in you, in this world, than you could ever have imagined. 

What does this look like?  To take one example, it looks like over $11,000.00, the largest Christmas offering in the church where I serve’s history.   God did that, but God did that through countless people acting out of love.   It started, when I moved past my own fear, and made a call to a member with a bold ask for a $5,000.00 match.   I’d like to tell you the call came easily, but I found myself getting “busy” with all sorts of other tasks to avoid it.   But then I realized, that I wasn’t making that request, I was simply sharing what I sensed God wanted.  And if that member said no, God would still love me as much after as before.   So, I made that call, and that member responded out of love.  He and his wife not only committed the money, they wrote the check even before we’d made the match.    But so many here responded that the church blew that match away.  And because they did, God is going to do some great things through us in Puerto Rico, in our county in Florida, Broward, and through the church’s own ministry.   

In this passage, God was reminding that church of two things.   First, God began the work at First Church long before any of the folks there now had gotten there.  In fact, each week we worship in a building that the generosity of others raised up around us, and most of the folks in our congregation had nothing to do with that.   And what God began, God will complete, in ways that no one in our church can see right now, but God will.  As the pastor, I see the challenges that lie before that church.   But God has brought this church through challenge after challenge in the past.   And God hasn’t changed.  God can overcome the challenges now just as God overcame them back then.  And as God will work in that church, God will work in your life.

But for God to do that work, to move it towards completion, both in that church and your life, God wants folks that don’t live in fear, but that act out of love.    And when we do that, God works.   For example, with First Church’s financial situation, our leaders could have limited that Christmas offering only to meet the church’s needs.  But they didn’t.   They said for every dollar that stays here for ministry, we will send a dollar out to our community and world.   They didn’t live in fear.   They acted out of love.  And God blessed that.  

It’s why that church invested funds to create a website to share with the world what God is doing there.  It’s why that church took a risk, and pulled funds out of reserves to bring a new staff person, James Potts, to share God’s love with families in our church and community.   And when our church took that risk, God blessed it.  A member stepped up and gave everything we needed to renovate an apartment in our building where James could live and an office area where he could work.   And in the coming months, God will lead that church to take other bold steps.   But, in those steps and in the steps that you take, God wants you and I to remember that God is working always in ways you and I can’t see.  This is God’s work, not ours.   We don’t need to be driven by fear in the decisions we make.   We can be moved by love, love for the God who gave out of love everything for us, even God’s very life.    So move into this New Year, not driven by fear, but moved by love.   And as you enter that year, may that love move you to love your neighbors, to love your community and world, and to love one another as never before, to love even as God loves you.   And as you do that, Jesus will stun you at what he will complete in you, more than you could ever ask or dream or imagine!