Sunday, February 25, 2018

When something like Parkland happens, 3 things you need to do to understand where God is in such awfulness

It’s happened.   Oh boy, has it happened.   It makes me nervous.   He is listening to everything.  I know because I hear him repeat it back to me.   Those of you who have had young kids, do you remember when that happened, when your children started picking up on everything you said?  

That time has come with our son, Patrick.  And I worry about it.   I mean, every now and then, I forget he’s listening.  I think.   “Oops, did I say a bad word?  I sure hope he doesn’t repeat that.”    After all, kids can pick up on stuff we’re doing and saying even more than we can. 

It reminds me of a joke my dad told when I was growing up.  It goes like this. This family had invited their pastor over for Sunday dinner.    The father of the family wanted to impress the new preacher.  So, he asked his daughter.   “Honey, bring that book that we all love to read together as a family each week.”   The girl looked a bit puzzled.  Then her eyes lit up, and she dashed out of the room.   A few moments later, she came back, bearing the precious book, the Sears and Roebuck Catalog.   It’s a bit dated, but I like it anyway.  I can still see how my dad’s face broke into amusement every time he told it. 

But over the past several days, I’ve had to worry about a different sort of telling.  I've had to be careful about what I say in front of my son because of something almost unspeakable.   When it comes to Parkland, my wife and I cloak our words.   We hide that terrible reality from him.   But I know the day will come when we can’t hide those things; when he will come to know just how broken our world is.  

When that day comes, how will I answer his questions?  How will I explain to him where God is, what God is doing, when such awfulness happens?  But who am I kidding?  Not only do kids struggle with those questions.   Everyone does.   From the blood in the halls of Stoneman Douglas to the children buried in the rubble of Damascus, ugliness and senseless brutality runs rampant in our world.   So, what do you say to your kids, to your grandkids, to yourself in the face of that?   In these words, God points the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

When terrible things happen, what do you say?  How do you understand what God is doing in the midst of awful acts, of senseless tragedies, of immense injustices?    In these words, some of Moses’ last words to his people, God shows you the way.  God shows you that the way to understanding lies in doing three things when it comes to God: listening, acting and remembering.

And that first thing, listening, God tells you right at the beginning in the very first word we read.  In fact, that first word became the shorthand for the most important statement of belief in all of Judaism.   When Jews talk about this faith statement, they simply talk about the Shema.    And what does Shema mean.  It means to hear.  For years, I did not get the significance of that one word, of how crucially important that word is to everything.    To get that, a Hollywood movie director had to teach me.

It happened late one night as I watched James Lipton host a show called Inside the Actor’s Studio.  Lipton, a well-known acting coach, interviews top actors and directors before his students and the cameras of the Bravo cable network.   That night, he was interviewing Steven Spielberg.   At the end of every interview, Lipton asks the same set of questions.  And the last one is always this.   “If heaven exists, what would you like God to say when you arrive at the pearly gates?  When he asked this of Spielberg, Spielberg thought for a moment, and said this. “I’d hope God would say to me, thanks for listening.”  

Spielberg explained his answer with the words we just read.   As a Jew, he said, the core belief of my faith, the Shema, calls me to do just that.   Before anything else, even before the command to love, God commanded him to listen, as in: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.”  Do you know why God put that at the beginning?  God put it there because you and I are so bad at it. 

When I first started in ministry, I had this leader, Ed Robles, on the church board, who used to drive me nuts.   Every meeting, he would bring up some thing he was concerned about.  We would address it, and then move on.   But you could almost set a clock by it.   15 minutes would pass, and he would bring it up again.   We would again address it and move on.   Then 15 minutes later, he would bring it up again.   Finally, I got it.   Ed wasn’t an idiot.  He hadn’t forgotten that he had brought it up.   No, he brought it up, because as far as he was concerned, we had not addressed it.   And he wasn’t going to give up until we did.   So, I stopped the meeting, and we all actually listened to what Ed was telling us.   And two amazing things happened.  First, we discovered that Ed had a very important issue that we had missed.   And second, after we had listened and really dealt with the issue, Ed never brought it up again. 

Yet, what I learned with Ed about listening, I keep forgetting.   I forget it with my wife, with my son, with my staff, heck with everyone.  I imagine that a number of you might even be thinking.  “Yeah, he forgot about it with me too.”    God understands that forgetfulness.  That’s why God spends the next several sentences here giving you ways to remember to listen (recite them to your children, talk about them when you are at home etc); to not let prosperity and wealth dull your hearing (take care that you do not forget the Lord…). 

God knows.   Too often, you and I simply don’t listen.   How often when someone talks to you are you formulating your response while they’re talking?  How often when someone confronts you about something are you already developing your defense even before you even know what the problem is?    One of the painful revelations that has come after the awfulness in Parkland is how many people weren’t listening, weren’t listening to a young man who was going into a terribly dark place.   And what you and I do with others, we do even more so with God.  

When if you visited the doctor and did the following?   You carefully shared all that was bothering you, and then said.  “Wow, thanks doc, I feel so much better.”   And you left the room without giving the doctor a chance to say a word.   Would that make any sense?   Isn’t the point of the visit to hear what the doctor has to say about what you tell her?  Yet what would be ridiculous with a doctor, people do all the time with God.     

This series that we are doing during Lent takes its inspiration from something called Faith 5, a way for people, either families or family like groups to connect with one another and with God.  And wisely, the creators of Faith 5 have put listening right at the top of the process.  First, you share your joys and concerns.  You listen to one another, a place where often God will speak.   And then, you read scripture, a place where God is always speaking.  You begin with listening. 

Life, especially life with others and with God, has to begin with listening.  And listening becomes even more important when awful things happen.   It’s why so many rightfully commended our President for what he did on Wednesday.   What did he do?   He simply sat in a room with a bunch of heart-broken and often angry people and listened.  

But it course, what begins with listening has to go further.   It has to move towards action.  Yet, if you move to act without listening, you’ll almost always go wrong.   And often where you go wrong, is without the listening you end up blaming God.

That’s why Moses warns the people to not put the Lord your God to the test, as they did at Massah.   To understand what sort of test Moses means, you need to understand what happened at Massah, which by the way is a word that actually means test.   The Israelites were running out of water.   And they went to Moses and said.  “You and God have led us out in the desert to die.  So, we’re going to kill you, and go back to Egypt, where at least we’ll have water.”    Basically, through Moses, they were saying to God.   “God, if you don’t deliver us, we’re taking our marbles and heading home.” 

And they presumed the worst about God.  They presumed that somehow this God who had powerfully delivered them from slavery to a superpower was now abandoning them in the desert to die of thirst.   Does that make any sense?   But that’s what they thought.   And on top of that, they had a slavery mentality.  They still behaved as if it was God’s job to do everything for them, that they couldn’t figure it out for themselves. 

And when you test God the same things happen.   You presume that God doesn’t care.  Then in your anger, you say God if you don’t deliver, then forget about me trusting in you.  And the whole time, you’re often not acting as if you have any role in solving the problem yourself.

Years ago, I heard a story about a couple who were walking down the street, and they saw a homeless
family with young children begging on the sidewalk.   The whole thing troubled them so much they went home and prayed to God.  “God, what are you doing about that poor homeless family?”  Do you know what God said?  God said, “I created you.”

The great preacher, George Buttrick put it this way.   God’s providence is not in baskets lowered from the sky, but through the hands and hearts of those who love him.  The boy without food or shoes made the proper answer when a cruel woman asked, “If God loved you, wouldn’t he send you food and shoes?”  The boy replied, “God told someone, but they forgot.”

When the unspeakable hit Parkland, what did Parkland do.  They acted.  And yes, those actions included helping the wounded, comforting the grieving, and praying for one another.  But it also included a lot of moves toward change.  They realized their elected leaders could have done things to prevent those senseless deaths.   And so, they’re challenging those leaders to do those things now.   

That’s why the church I serve works with other churches in Bold Justice, to change things.  The very things we’re fighting for will help make Parkland’s vision of never again happen.  We’re fighting for civil citation that effectively diverts kids from lives of violence and crime.  We’re fighting to get every officer training to understand the mentally ill so that those who are vulnerable get protected, and those who might harm themselves or others get the help they need.   And we’re fighting to change assisted living in Broward so that the deaths at Hollywood Hills never happens again either.     Do you want to know how you can help make those changes happen?  Walk a few feet into the chapel after worship today.   You want to help Parkland, show up in that room after worship. 

But in this acting, how do you know?  How do you know God does have your best interests at heart, that God does care?  That’s where the remembering comes in.   What does Moses tell the people to do when their children ask.  “Why do we do all these things?”   Moses tells them to tell the story, the story of how God delivered them.    And as we get ready to celebrate Easter, the children of Moses will be telling that story again at Passover.   On that night, they will remember how when God’s judgment took out the Egyptians, it passed over them.   That judgment passed over the Israelites not because the Egyptians were so bad and they were so good.   It passed over because God told each family to slaughter a lamb and place its blood upon their doors.  And when they did, the judgment passed over.   Why did a lamb have such power?   It didn’t.  But it pointed to the One who does.  Thousands of years later, when John the Baptist sees Jesus coming, he says.  “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”  

In the story of Noah, God puts a sign in the sky to mark God’s promise that such death and destruction will never come again.   What sign does God put?  God puts the sign of a bow, of a weapon of war.   But which way does this bow point?  It points to the heavens, to what folks thought of as the home of God.  God is saying this death and destruction will not come, because I will take that hit.   I will take that death and destruction into myself so that you will never have to.  

And when you remember that story of a God who kept that promise on the cross, who, there, became the ultimate Passover lamb, then you know what to tell your kids, your grandkids, yourself.   This is the God I know, the God who gave everything so that the evil in Parkland will never have the last word.  No.  God’s grace will.   God’s justice will.   God’s infinitely powerful love will, a love sealed with God’s very life.  And before that last word, no evil, not even death itself will stand.   So, when evil strikes, listen, and act, and remember.  

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Here Are the Two Things that Everyone in a Family Needs to Understand

I love my family.  I'm grateful for them.   But this family thing gets complicated.  As the writer Donald Smith put it once: The family seems to have two predominant functions: to provide warmth and love in time of need and to drive each other insane.

Maybe Smith exaggerates, but he’s got a point.  How many of you have a great relationship with every person in your family right now?   Is there a family member you’d rather not see at Thanksgiving dinner?  

Still, whatever the complications of your family, none of us would be here without them, right?  And beyond that, family or having something like family literally keeps you alive.   If you have strong relationships, your odds of living longer increase by 50%.  That’s 2x times better than the benefits you get from physical exercise.  Do you get what that means?    You need connection and community even more than exercise to live.

And after the horrors of this week, as I saw parents embracing their children, and other parents realizing that very embrace had been torn away, I realized just how precious family can be.   Then I read that the young man, who made this horror, hardly had a family, had become an orphan at 18.  I heard him described with that word heard again and again after so many of these awful acts; he was a loner.      

And here’s the painful reality.  In his loneliness, he wasn’t alone.   Almost 1 in 3 Americans describe themselves as lonely.  Some studies say it is closer to 1 in 2.   And those numbers tell a tragic story. 
Family often is not being what family needs to be.  But how does family become that?  And if or when your family fails or falls away, how do you find relationships that give you that family-like intimacy and connection that you need, that everyone needs.  In these words written to a different sort of family, God shows the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

In the world today, often family doesn’t mean all that family needs to mean.   People get disconnected, isolated.   But how does family become all that family needs to be?   And if family fails or falls away, how do you find a community that fills that family need?  In these words, God tells you by reminding you what family needs to mean.   Family means a community you don’t choose, and one that calls you on things others won’t.  And in those two things, God points you to the ultimate family that everyone needs.                

At the very beginning of Paul’s words here, God tells you what type of community God is creating among Christians.   God isn’t creating a club or even a movement.  God is creating a family.    That’s why God begins with not one but two family-oriented words. In most translations, you can miss it.   What you see here in verse 10 as love one another in mutual affection, literally translates like this, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.”    Now the first family word there, you can see pretty easily.   It’s the same Greek word as the city that the Super Bowl Champs hail from, Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.   But the second, you find right at the beginning, and that word is Philastorge, brotherly devotion.  God is saying the devotion I want you to have is the devotion that families have for one another.  

But what sort of devotion to families have?  What does it look like?   Well, first, in families you find yourselves devoted to people you’d never choose.   I have a brother, who is a great guy.  We get along great.  I’m grateful to have him in my life.  But we honestly don’t have that much in common.  If I met him at a party, we’d never become friends.  It simply wouldn’t make sense.   My family is full of people like that.   Your family probably is too.  Families put you together with people that on your own, you would never choose.   Sometimes that’s because you have an Uncle that’s obnoxious or a Cousin that drives you nuts.   But lots of times, it’s simply folks that are a bit different than you.   Families at their best expand your horizons, open you to new perspectives, help you understand different viewpoints. 

Twenty or so years ago, my family, the McGowan clan had a gathering during the Democratic National Convention.  One night, we happened to be watching Jesse Jackson, deliver a powerful keynote speech.   Something fascinating happened in that room.   Every time Jackson delivered inspiring words on what the government needed to do.  Half of the room exclaimed.  “Preach it, Jesse!  Amen, brother!”   The other half exclaimed, “How is he going to pay for that?  Our taxes are going to go up!”    It was clear.  Our family did not all share the same political perspective, but do you know what?  We were family.   We had a bond that went deeper than that.

In the same way, God is saying to these Christians in Rome.  In this community, you don’t get to choose either.  These folks who gather with you here, they need to become your brothers or sisters.   And that’s not because, you always think the same or enjoy the same things.  It’s because you belong to each other, because you all belong to me. 

And when a family is working the way a family needs to, you have folks there that call you on things others won’t.  Sometimes, I worry that I have bad breath.  But I never worry about that when I am with my family.  Why?   If I have bad breath, they’ll tell me.  “Kennedy, your breath stinks. Go brush your teeth.”   In this world, you don’t have many folks that will do that for you.  And it goes deeper than that.   When you are messing up in far bigger ways than bad breath, a family has folks that will call you on it.   Now sometimes, you may disagree on their perspective, but you’ll hear it, whether you agree or not.   Why?  They care enough to tell you the truth as they see it, even if they know it might make you mad.   And as irritating that can be, everyone needs that.   Why?  None of us see ourselves as we really are.   That’s why you’re shocked when you hear a recording of your voice.  “I sound like that, really?”   You need people who will see things that you can’t and will not only see it but say it to you.

That’s why this passage begins with the words, “Hate what is evil, and hold fast to what is good.”   That includes hating what is evil in your sister or brother, and calling them on it, helping them hold fast to what is good.   And in this family God is creating, God calls for that level of honesty, that level of love.   As the preacher Bill Coffin once put it.  Love without criticism is a kind of betrayal.   And God is saying, in this family, I don’t want that betrayal.  I want people who love you enough to tell you the truth, as they see it, even when that’s hard.   

Through Paul, God tells these Christians in Rome.   Be devoted to one another like that.  And all the words that follow proceed from this call to devotion, including that words that make it clear how difficult this sort of devotion can be.  Just hear them again.   Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.   Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.   Do you see what God is saying?    God is telling you.   This sort of love won’t be easy.   So, don’t lag in zeal.  Be patient in suffering, like when that sister or brother drives you nuts.   And keep praying to me to help you love folks that don’t seem all that lovable.    

For these things are hard, harder than you can realize.   Let’s take weep with those who weep; rejoice with those who rejoice.   If we’re honest, the weeping part usually comes easier.  When tragedy strikes members of my family, my heart goes out to them.  But when I see that cousin who has become way more successful than me, rejoicing in that, not so much. 

Or, even more profoundly for this week, these words.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil....Beloved, never avenge yourselves,... No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; .... Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

In this new family, God isn’t calling people simply to love those in the family, but to do good to those far outside, even those who do great evil.  God is saying.  This is what I created family to be.   
But sadly, the Bible tells the story again and again of how this vision of family failed.   The first murder in the Bible tells you everything.   It’s Cain killing Abel.  A brother kills a brother.  The disasters that happen in families keep rolling down.    Jacob deceives his brother Esau and flee so Esau won’t kill him.   King David’s son, Absalom, tries to kill his father and take his throne.   And the list of family messes in the Bible goes on and on.

So, what does God do?   God doesn’t give up.   No, God gives up in Jesus everything to shape a new family, a family that breaks down every barrier, every prejudice, everything that divides people against one another.  

When Cain kills his brother, God says to Cain.  The blood of your brother, Abel, cries out to me.  That blood cried out division, brokenness, a world where families fell so far short of what God wanted families to be.   Yet, amazingly, in the New Testament, the book of Hebrews says thisYou have come to Jesus, the One who brought the new agreement from God to his people, and you have come to the sprinkled blood that has a better message than the blood of Abel.

For that blood cries out a love that will conquer every division, every jealousy, every broken place, that will heal every broken relationship; a love that defeats even death itself.   And in that love, God is saying, that even when your family fails, I won’t.   And by my grace, in communities like this one, I will create a new family, one that even in its brokenness will bring a new vision of love into the world and a new sense of family that will change history forever.   Wherever you are, whether your family is amazing or far from that, let that love of a God who in Jesus gave everything for you, bring you into a new family, where you become God’s beloved child, and part of a community, a family that by God’s grace is not being overcome by evil, but overcoming evil with good.  

Sunday, February 11, 2018

What Is the One Thing You Need for A Truly Significant Life?

He looked a lot like this one you see below.
Granted, he had a few more dings and nicks.  He certainly wasn’t as clean.  But that didn’t matter.   He was mine.    For eleven years we were together.  Now he’s gone.  My carelessness led to a crash that ended our relationship forever..

It’s been months now, and I still miss my mini cooper.  Now you may not get attached to a car.   But in your life, you’ve gotten attached to something, haven’t you?  In fact, you’re likely attached to some things right now, more than you would think.   That’s why when people lose their home suddenly, like in a house fire, the loss devastates them.   Yes, they’re sad that the house has gone.  But houses can be replaced.  What devastates them are what’s in that house, things that can’t be replaced, pictures, mementoes, a family Bible, the list could go on.     If your home caught on fire, isn’t there one thing you would rush to save?  

And let’s not even talk about pets.  My neighbor, Bob, recently lost his dog, Katie.   When he told me I saw the tears.   My heart went out to him.    He loved that dog.  And you don’t know Bob, but did some of you feel for him right now?  Why?  You’ve lost an animal you’ve loved.  You know that pain.

This love, this love you have for things, for animals, and of course, for people dearest to you, where does that come from?   In this story, God tells you.   God tells you how deadly it is when this love dies, and it can die.   And more crucially, God tells you how this sort of love opens you to a life richer, deeper, more powerful than you could have imagined.  How do you experience this life?  Here God shows you the way.   Let’s hear what God has to say.

What on earth are you here for?  What in life brings you life, a fuller, more complete life?  How does life become all that life is supposed to be?   In this story, God tells you.   For, here, God shows you at the deepest level who God is.   And when you know that, then you know who you are called to be.    And what does God show you?   God shows you just how attached God is.

If you know this story, you’ll know that God sent this prophet, Jonah, to warn Nineveh, one of the most violent and brutal cities in history. God was preparing to deliver divine judgment there, and God wanted them to have one last chance.   At first Jonah did his best to back out (that’s where the whole swallowed by the fish thing come in).  But when that didn’t work, Jonah went to warn them.   And his warning worked.  The Ninevites begged for mercy.   And God gave it to them, like that.  

Jonah wasn’t surprised, but he got angry, and for good reason.    Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire.  And the Assyrians had done awful things, murderous things throughout the known world, including in Jonah’s homeland of Israel.  Yet these Ninevites didn’t even have to convert for God to save them.  They cry out to God for mercy, sure.  But they don’t make any long-term commitments.   They sure don’t make a covenant like Israel did.   Yet, God spares them nonetheless.   Why?

To help Jonah understand it, God sends this bush overnight to give Jonah some shade.   Yet as fast as it grows up, it dies.   And when it dies, how does Jonah react?   He’s upset.   He really missed that plant, even though he only had it a day.  And how does God describe Jonah’s reaction?   God describes Jonah as concerned for the plant.   But that translation doesn’t get exactly at what the word means.   The word translated as concerned here literally means to grieve.  It means to have your heart broken over something.   It’s that strong.    Do you see what God is saying in that word?

God is telling Jonah, you became attached to that plant.   So, when it died, a little bit of you died with it.   You felt the pain of that loss.  And then God uses that very same word to describe how God connects to Nineveh.   Yet it’s strange because of course, Nineveh still exists. That city didn’t die.   So, what is God telling you?  God is telling you that God becomes so attached to people that God feels pain not simply when people die.  God feels the pain of people’s everyday existence, of how utterly lost they are, as God puts it, how they cannot tell their right hand from their left. 

But in Jonah’s case, something very deadly is happening.  Jonah is beginning to lose this sense of attachment.  You can see it in his attitude to the Ninevites. And even when it comes to the bush, Jonah seems to grieve more for his own discomfort than for the death of the plant.   When you start losing that, you are losing in a very real sense what makes you human.    And it can happen.   You get hurt so you shut yourself off from people.  Maybe you still connect to an animal or an object.   But then in some misplaced desire to protect yourself, you lose that too.   You think you’re becoming safe.  But you’re not. You’re becoming dead.  

As the writer C.S. Lewis put it:

To love at all is to be vulnerable.  Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken.  If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal.  Wrap it carefully around with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.  But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change.  It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

And what is stunning is this happens to Jonah, even though he is a religious man.   You can come to church every Sunday, do all sorts of good deeds, and become lost just like this.   The Greeks even had a word for it.   They called it love of benevolence.   It’s the sort of love where you might do good things for others, but you don’t really feel anything for them.  No, you’re doing it out of duty.  It’s all head, and no heart.   And that love, if you can even call it love, will hollow you from the inside out.  

To be human, you need attachment.   In fact, if children don’t get attachments early on, it literally limits their brain development.  But why does God get attached?  God doesn’t need to be attached.   The preacher Frederick Buechner, put it well .  God does not need the Creation in order to have something to love, because within God’s very self, love happens.

That means, God chooses to get attached.   God chooses to become that vulnerable to people, to you and to me.   Not only that, unlike Jonah, who when he sees people doing awful things feels anger and a desire for vengeance, what does God feel?  God feels grief.   God feels grief for these people in Nineveh, even though many of them have done awful things.   And in that grief, God is telling you something very crucial about who you are called to be. 

From the moment, I clicked on the article, I haven’t been able to get the story out of my head.  It haunts me.   It has to do with this boy you see here; 2-year-old Alphonse Gonzalez, a curly-haired little boy who slept in red Mickey Mouse pajamas.”   His mother, Nathaly Ramos, had been struggling with depression and drug addiction.   Last Sunday, that mother stabbed her boyfriend with a knife as he slept, plunged the blade into Alphonse’s neck and then gashed herself. Police say an unidentified person in the home stopped her from killing herself. Ramos and her boyfriend survived the attack. Alphonse did not. He died in his grandmother’s arms on the way to Homestead Hospital.

And God grieves for that.  God doesn’t just grieve for little Alphonse.  No, God grieves for Nathaly,
for the lostness of her life that led her to do this unthinkable act.    My first reaction in reading this article was to judge Nathaly.   But God’s first reaction was to grieve.  That’s what this story tells you.  For the Assyrians had done things just that awful, and worse.  Yet, even as God calls them to account, God doesn’t feel anger as much as God feels grief, for these people who cannot tell their right hand from their left.   

And because God feels this grief, what does God do?  God forgives.  And God doesn’t even wait.   The Ninevites cry out for mercy, and immediately God forgives them.  That’s really what has made Jonah angry, God’s readiness to forgive.   The Ninevite’s don’t even have to make a covenant.   Not only that, their empire still rules Israel.   God has all this leverage over them, but does God use it?  No, God just forgives them, like that.

But don’t think that forgiveness did not cost God deeply.   In fact, later you will see how deeply it cost.    For later, God will grieve over yet another city.   Except this time, God will grieve in person.   In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says this over the city that will kill him.  "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

Jonah goes outside the city hoping that God will destroy it.   But Jesus goes outside his city so that he can die to save it.   God in Jesus gives up everything to bring his lost children home, to give them the forgiveness, the restoration, they so profoundly need.    A century ago, the Bible scholar, B.B. Warfield, did a study of the emotional life of Jesus.   Do you know what he discovered?    Jesus wept 20 times for every time he laughed.   Why?    Because God cares that much for people, for their pain, for their lostness.  It affects him that deeply.  And its why God loves cities.  It’s why when the gospel went out, God sent it out to the cities first. Why? That’s where the people are. 

And in Jesus’ compassion, his deep concern for people, God points the way to the life God yearns for you, for this church.  God yearns for you to become someone whose heart is broken by the things that break the heart of God.  Only when you are doing that, are you truly getting what love is, what a life lived in love can be.

Next week, we’re having our annual Kirkin’ of the Tartans,at the church I serve, and we’re doing all that we can to promote it.   And in March, our family ministries director, James will be working with our Learning Center staff on two events to reach the families that attend there.    As a church, we’ve even adopted a vision to reach families with the love of Jesus.   Now why would God lead a church full of people whose children have long since grown to a vision like that?

It’s because in that horrible story of Alphonse’s death, I could not find one crucial thing.  I could not find any connection to a family of faith.  To raise funds for her grandson’s funeral, where did the grandmother go? She had to go to Facebook. 

Here’s the painful reality.  In any community, any city, too many families are lost, some even as lost as Alphonse’s family. They have little if any connection to this God who loves them so very much.  And how will that connection come?  It will come as the church I serve and other communities of faith do all we can to reach them, to love them, to introduce them to the only One who will make them whole.   And if you are one of those people who don't know this God who loves them this much, then as you believe that, then your journey to a significant life will begin.  

For everyone wants their church to grow because that would feel good to see the place filled up.  But if that’s the only reason, we’ve missed the point.  Churches need to grow because people need a God whose love alone will meet the deepest yearnings of their hearts.  

So, this week, if you want to know this God who loves you this intensely, then simply ask.  Simply say, I want to know you, God like this.   Then find a church where you can go to get to know this God more deeply.   You will be starting a journey to significance that will transform your life.  

 And if you already know this God, invite someone to church, to the Kirkin' if you live around this church, preferably invite someone far from God.  If it feels uncomfortable, then get past that.  That person, that family needs what you have to offer, and they may never know it unless you invite them.  So, have concern for them.  Let your heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.  The more you do that, the more you will discover just how truly significant your life can be.  

Sunday, February 4, 2018

What are the Two Things That Will Free You From Anger and Move You Towards Forgiveness

I can still picture it.  It was a white Mercedes, one of those newer models.   And as I was taking my son to school last week, this white streak of German engineering nearly hit me.   That car cut me off.   Then as we came to the next intersection, do you know what that Mercedes did?  It cut me off again. As I smashed on the brakes, I tried to think positive thoughts.   Maybe he is running late? Maybe he’s not noticing what he’s doing.   But inside, I was seething.  I was saying.   What a jerk!   I felt the anger rise up inside of me.

Have you ever felt that?  Someone cuts you off in traffic or maybe it happens elsewhere at the mall or at a party or at a family event.  Someone does something rude, thoughtless, maybe even hurtful.   And you feel the anger rise.  

That’s ok.   When someone does something hurtful, you’re going to feel anger. Anger can be good.  Anger in the right place and in the right measure leads you to address things you need to address.   But a lot of times, it’s not the right place.  Even when it is, you don’t have the right measure.  You know.  Your anger has gone over the top.   But still what do you do with it?  How do you deal with that anger? 

And what about when you feel the anger not because of a minor slight?  You feel anger because someone has stepped way over the line, has hurt you, your family, done you deep wrong.  As rightful as that anger is, can it ultimately help you?  Can it ultimately help you move past the pain and the injury?  If it can’t, what can?    In this story of a stunning act of God, and one man’s stunning reaction, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

When someone does you wrong, how do you move past it?   How do you move beyond the anger to peace, from the hurt to the healing?    In this story, God shows you the way.   God tells you.  You don’t deny the debt on both ends, and you realize who has ultimately taken charge of the payment. Only when you do that, do you become free to move on.

Now before we get to what this whole debt and payment thing means, let’s look a bit at why you and I get angry when wrong is done to begin with. 

To understand that, you need to understand how Jonah’s news of divine judgment came as shocking news to these folks in Nineveh.    If you remember the story, God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh to deliver this warning because it served as the capital of the most ruthless empire yet in human history.   When it came to cruelty and murder, the Assyrians wrote a whole new book.   You can look it up.   But these Assyrians probably didn’t feel too bad about it.  Why?  They lived in a world where the gods they worshipped did even worse.   The gods were always fighting and killing each other, so why shouldn’t they.   That’s simply how the world worked.  There are no rules, except kill or be killed. 

But then Jonah pops up and describes a whole different way of seeing the world.  Instead of a bunch of gods duking it out, Jonah talks about one God, a God who sets the rules for everyone.   And this God has decided that the Assyrians have broken the rules big time, and it’s time for divine pay-back.  

When the Assyrians hear this idea, they freak out.   They think.  What if we’re wrong, and Jonah is right?   If so, we’ve messed up big-time.   We’ve got to do whatever we can to stop this God from taking us out.  We’ve got to change our ways. 

But when God listens to their pleas and decides not to destroy them, Jonah gets angry.   And when someone does you wrong, you do the same.   You and Jonah are both making the same assumption.  You assume that life has a set of rules, rules by which everyone needs to live.   And when you don’t live by the rules, something wrong has happened.  Something wrong that needs to be made right. Otherwise, it’s just not fair, right?    

No one needs to teach these things to people.  Everyone gets this sense from birth.  Scientists have been able to detect a sense of fairness in children as young as 12 months.   Maybe that’s why the Assyrians reacted so quickly to Jonah’s message.  They already sensed that they had been breaking the rules.   Jonah’s message only confirmed what they already knew deep within. 

But when God relents from judgment, Jonah gets so upset that he says to God, I’m going to go outside the city and wait for you to destroy it.  And if you don’t, kill me now.  I’d rather die than live in a world where You would spare the lives of these evil people.  And in Jonah’s anger, you find the danger that lies behind a desire for fairness.  It expands the wrongs of others and diminishes your own.

What do I mean?  Let’s go back to that white Mercedes that cut me off.   If someone had smashed into that car a few moments later, not too badly mind you, but badly enough, I would have felt a sense of satisfaction.    I might have even chuckled to myself.  Serves you right, you jerk.   But here’s the problem.   As rude as his actions might have been, it didn’t deserve a consequence like that.   And second, even as I gloat, do you know what I’m forgetting?  I’ve cut people off in traffic.  Maybe I thought I had a good excuse or simply did it by accident, but I’ve done it.   As the band Dire Straits put it, when you point your finger at someone, there are always three fingers pointing back at you. 

The attitude Jonah has, this deep desire for pay-back, for vengeance lies behind almost all the evil and senseless violence in this world.   It doesn’t make the world a better place, it makes it a worse place.   And it makes for far worse people in the end too, self-righteous, judgmental ones, who see everyone else’s faults but their own.   Or as the preacher, Bill Coffin puts it.   God knows it is emotionally satisfying to be righteous with that righteousness that nourishes itself in the blood of sinners.  But God also knows that what is emotionally satisfying can also be spiritually devastating.

But lots of folks, including religious folks react just this way.   After all Jonah is a very religious guy, and because he is, he wants justice.  He wants payback.  But he’s also forgotten something.  When God first ordered him to Nineveh, and he blatantly disobeyed God, God not only spared him; God gave him a second chance.   But when it comes to these Ninevites, Jonah wants them treated differently.  Why?  Well, Jonah’s bad isn’t as bad as theirs is.  But who died and made Jonah God?   You’ll always feel your wrong isn’t as bad as someone else’s.   And guess what, you’ll always be wrong.  Why?  You don’t know.  You don’t know what was going on that led up to anyone’s wrongdoing, their childhood, their experiences, their hurts.   You can’t honestly say that given that same situation, you would act any differently.  Maybe you would.  But you don’t know.   Only God knows.  And you’re not God. No, you just want to play God, when you’re angry.  You have to acknowledge that wrong, that debts, always go both ways.

Payback never works for anyone.  But neither can you act like the wrong doesn’t matter.    Some people do that, and think they’re doing the whole forgiveness thing.   But they’re not forgiving, they’re denying.  God doesn’t deny the evil the Assyrians have done.  God calls them on it.   God confronts them with it.   And when you avoid doing that, when you avoid calling out wrong, your avoiding isn’t all that different from vengeance.  In both cases, it’s all about you.  It’s just in one place, you want to feel the satisfaction of vengeance and in the other place, you want to avoid the dissatisfaction of discomfort. 

When I served on Long Island, I helped out a church that was recovering from a pastor who had betrayed their trust by having affairs with church members.  Our regional church leadership took away his credentials as a pastor, but not before discovering that he had been messing up churches with this same sort of conduct for years.   But the powers that be in those places had kept it quiet and moved the guy on.   They might have said, they were showing grace.  They weren’t.  They were just avoiding discomfort.  And that’s a big difference.     

So, what does God do here?  God forgives.  What’s the difference between avoiding discomfort and forgiving?    When you forgive, you first get yourself out of the way, so you can then confront the wrong done.   If you don’t do this, your anger and hurt will always rule the day.  It will either lead you to payback, which will always be too much.  Or it will lead you to avoid, because you fear further hurt and anger.   Only when you get yourself out of the way, can you honestly deal with the wrong.    Only then can you overcome evil with good.   Only then, can you be focused not on yourself, but actually helping the one who wronged you get better, become better, to changes things for the good.   And in this process, you become better too.      

But how do you do this?  How do you forgive?   How do you get yourself out of the way?  You realize who you are.  You are someone who needs forgiveness too.   As the writer Mary Gordon put it, “To forgive is to give up the exhilaration of one’s own unassailable rightness.”  You forgive because you realize you need forgiveness.    And when you’re hurt, that is what so easy to forget.

That’s where the message of what God did on the cross has such power.  There, God tells you two things.  First, nobody has gotten it right.   Everyone has failed.   Everyone needs someone to make it right.   But at that cross, God tells you.  I’ve done that for you.   I’ve taken the hit for every mistake, every failing of your life.   And the cost I paid was brutal, but I paid it, because you mean that much to me. 

When God in Jesus died on that cross, God wasn’t avoiding the wrong.  No, God was confronting it, showing just how awful it was.  You are so wrong that nothing less than the death of God could save you.  But God was also showing this.  You are so loved that this God was glad to die to save you.   

And when you know that forgiveness, that love, it gives you a power to do two things.   First, you can forgive because you realize how much God paid to forgive you.  Second, you have the power to confront evil, because you know that you already have the only thing that ultimately matters, God’s infinite love for you.   And nothing anyone can do, will ever take that away.  When you know that, you become free.  You become free to forgive because you know you are so forgiven.   And you become free to face up to wrong, because you know you are loved.  And that love gives you the courage to confront even as you love.  So, come to the Love that gave everything for you, and experience freedom, the freedom that only this God, this Love can give.