Friday, June 22, 2018

What is the One Word that Leads to Greatness like Few Others?

Years ago, when I lived in New York, a friend of mine Genevieve constantly saw famous people and yet never recognized them.   But one afternoon on a bus on the West Side of Manhattan, the ABC anchorman Peter Jennings sat beside her.  She thought for once.  “I recognize someone.”   So, she turned to him excitedly and said, “Aren’t you Tom Brokaw?”   Jennings smiled and said, “No, I’m the other guy.”    Interestingly, Genevieve got over her embarrassment and had a great conversation with him around bias and objectivity in the news.    

I love those stories, where the great and famous pop up in the grocery store or on the bus.  But it took a story I read this week, to help me understand why I love them.

It happened in Detroit in the 30s.   And it began when three guys hopped on a bus and tried to pick a fight with a lone black man sitting near the back.   They insulted him.  He said nothing.  Then they insult him more.  Again nothing.  Eventually, he got up.  When he did, they realized.  This guy is big, really big.   And as he passed them, he simply reached into his suit and handed them his business card.   It had three words on it.  Joe Louis, Boxer. 
They had just tried to pick a fight with the man who would hold the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship for 12 years. 

Now let me ask.  If Peter Jennings had gotten offended by Genevieve’s mistake and told her so, what would you think of Jennings then?   Or what if Louis had pummeled those guys into the ground rather than walk away, what would you have thought of Louis then?   If your estimation would have gone down, you are grasping the power of one word, a word that revolutionized the world, a word that lies at the center of the words we’re about to read.   And when you live out that one word in your life, it shows you the way towards greatness and fulfillment as few words can.   What is that word?  Here, God tells you.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.   

In one word in the words you just heard, God points you to a way of life that lifts you to greatness and fulfillment as few things can.   In that word, God shows you.  Greatness comes not when you use your power for yourself.   Greatness comes when you use your power for others. 

Now what is the word?   Before we focus on that, you need to understand what must always come before it.   Before you can use your power for others, you need to understand you have power. That’s why Paul points folks to Jesus and says be like him.  For one thing Jesus definitely had was power.  

And in this passage, God makes it clear how much power Jesus had.   In the very first verse of this Christian song that Paul quotes, God tells you that when you looked at Jesus, you were looking at God.  That’s what God means when the song tells you that Jesus was in the form of God.   God isn’t saying.  Jesus looked like me.  God is saying.   Jesus is me.   That what it means to exist in the form of God.   It means.  You are God.  

Now why does God put it that way?   God puts it that way to prepare you for what’s coming.   You see.  For God, the infinite, immeasurably powerful author of everything is going to get small.  In Jesus, God empties his power. Does that mean that God gives up his power?   No God empties it. God takes the form of that infinite power and pours it into the frail form of Jesus of Nazareth.  God empties the power into Jesus.   It doesn’t leave.  The power goes into Jesus.  And if you want to be like Jesus, you need to understand you have power, maybe more than you realize. 

Years ago, I went to a training on how to effectively use power to bring about good in the world.  And the trainer had us reenact a dialogue from ancient history, where the Athenians, the superpower of their day were negotiating with the Melians, a much weaker party.   She told us. The reenactment had only one rule.  She could interrupt at any time.   I got picked to represent the Athenian team.   I thought that I was doing a pretty good job.  But then the trainer interrupted me and told me to leave the room.  And after me, others followed, all of us hanging in the hall, waiting to get called back in.  Eventually she did, but I was much more cautious.  I didn’t want to get thrown out.   Only later did I realize the point.  The trainer didn’t throw me out of the room.   I threw me out of the room.   The exercise only had one rule.  The trainer could interrupt.  She couldn’t throw out.   But I gave her that power without even thinking about it.   I learned how easily I can give my power away. 

You have power, and only as you realize that can you use that power for others and discover the greatness and fulfillment God yearns for you to have.   And that brings us to the word.  What did Jesus do that led him to greatness and fulfillment?   Jesus humbled himself.   Too often people equate humbling with powerlessness.   But you cannot humble yourself unless you have something to humble.   Humbling implies power, not giving up power, but willingly using power for others. (This definition along with a number of the insights here comes from a wonderful book Humilitas by John Dickson - well worth reading)   

Take Peter Jennings.   He didn’t give up any power to Genevieve.  He used his power to create a powerful moment of connection for them both.   And Joe Louis didn’t give up his power either.  He used it to protect those idiots from their own stupidity.  That business card exerted more power over them than his fists ever could. 

And when you humble yourself as Jesus did, as Peter Jennings did, as Joe Louis did, you don’t give up power.  You channel your power so that it blesses others rather than exalts you.  And that humbling creates a greatness in you that lifts you up as nothing else could.   

In 1953, Edmund Hillary with his Sherpa friend, Tenzin Norgay, became the first people to conquer Mount Everest.   That feat brought Hillary worldwide fame, but people remember Hillary for far more than that.   Some years after Everest,  Hillary was talking with an elderly Sherpa from Khumjung village, from where most of the Sherpas on his Everest climb had come.  And the man said to Hillary, “What we need more than anything is a school in Khumjung. So, Hillary established the Himalayan Trust.  He raised funds to build a school there.  But Hillary didn’t stop with one school.  Through the trust, he built dozens, along with 2 hospitals, 12 clinics even bridges and airfield throughout Nepal.  For almost 50 years, until he died in 2008, Hillary spent half his year either traveling the world to raise money for the trust or supervising its projects.      And when he died, he received a state funeral in his native New Zealand, not simply for climbing Mount Everest, but for all he did for those in the valley below.   That humility, that using of his fame in service to others, exalted Hillary in ways his conquest of Mount Everest never could.
Before Jesus came, the world didn’t see the glory of such service.   In the ancient world, it was all getting the glory for yourself, not about glorifying others.  But then God came in Jesus and gave up the glory to save the world, to save you, even going as far as dying on a cross.   In that awful yet wondrous act Jesus showed where true glory always lies.   For Jesus’ humble self-giving didn’t take away his power.   It opened the way for that power to change everything.   It opened the way for that power to change you, as it changed Hillary.  For when Hillary reached Everest, he only brought one thing to leave behind.  He left behind a cross.  

And as you let that same power, the power of this One who humbled himself for you, as you let the power of Jesus’ love rest in you, you will discover your own power and the joy of using it to serve others rather than yourself.   And in that power, Jesus will lead you to what a truly fulfilled life really is.   

Sunday, June 17, 2018

What Are the Two Things that Lie Behind Almost Every Conflict You Have?

Everybody does it.   I mean, everybody.   And yet, I don’t know of anyone that likes it.   Yet, still everyone does it.   Everyone fights.   Spouses fight.   Siblings fight.  Co-workers fight.   Politicians fight.  Christians fight.   And now you have Facebook so you can fight random strangers all over the world.   And get this.  Most of these fights never need to happen.   Yet people still do them.  And all that fighting sucks joy and peace out of people’s lives.   It brings hurts and wounds, some that last years.   At its worst, it brings on death and destruction, not simply to individuals but to nations even.

So why do people do it?  Why do people fight?   More importantly, how does it stop?  How do you discover a way to relationships that have greater peace and harmony and even joy?  In these words, from Paul’s public letter to Christians in Philippi, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

How does fighting stop?  How does peace come?   God tells you.  Peace only happens without when you have peace within.   And peace within only begins to happen when you discover the ultimate place where your worth can really be found.   

And that’s the problem to which God points to.   People fight because, in the end. they are fighting for worth in all the wrong places. 

Right at the beginning of what we just read, you get the idea.  Things aren’t going so peacefully in Philippi.  People are fighting over something.   And in Paul ‘s words, God is urging them passionately, urgently to get on the same page.   But here’s the funny thing.  God doesn’t take sides.   God doesn’t tell Paul to say to one side or the other.   “Hey, you people are on the wrong page.  Get with the program.”   

Instead God says, whatever your disagreement is, only when you change these two things will it get resolved.   And what are those two things?   Stop competing and stop trying to look good.    And in those two things, God is pointing to the two core issues that lie behind almost every interpersonal conflict you’ll find.

Competition might make sense between companies, but it makes no sense in relationships.  Yet people end up doing it all the time.    In marriages or any intimate relationship, couples compete over who gives the most or puts up with the most, who is the most loving, the most supportive. The list goes on.   In churches, people get wrapped up in arguing about who is the most devout or the humblest, or who does the most work or simply gets this whole Jesus thing most right.  

And do you know why that doesn’t work?  Jesus gave you the reason in the sermon on the mount.  He asked this question.   “Why are you judging the speck in your neighbor’s eye, when you have a log in your own?”    What did Jesus mean?  

Jesus was saying we always think we’re doing better than we really are.  And we also think that others are doing worse.   You see.  When you’re competing in relationships, that becomes a huge problem.   You’re grading your own paper, and giving yourself an A.    And then you’re going around and giving your partner or friend or whoever, a D.    And in both cases, you’re totally wrong.  

Years ago, I heard the British preacher, Nicky Gumble, show how this rigged game works.  On some mornings, he shared how he would bike into work, using the London bike lanes provided for that purpose.  And every time as some driver steered into the bike lane, he automatically thought.  “What a jerk.  That person has no respect for others.”   But here’s the twist. Some days Nicky took his car.  And when he ran into a traffic problem, do you know what he did?  He steered into the bike lane.   But do you know what he said to himself.  “I’m doing the Lord’s work.  I can’t be late to this meeting.  It’s ok for me.” 

You don’t compete in relationships because in those places, you can never ever figure out who won.   All you do is insure a situation where both folks lose.    And more than that, relationships don’t need competition.   They need cooperation.  That’s how they work.  Think about it like a symphony.    It creates amazing music with this huge variety of instruments, even with different folks playing different notes at the same time.    And all this difference creates this amazing unity because they are working together.     But what if the flute player said, “I’m going to blow this orchestra off.  I’m going to get a mike, stand up on my chair and go crazy with a solo.”   Would that work?      
So, why do people compete in places where competition makes no sense, where all it leads to is conflict and hurt feelings and pain?  They do it because of the second thing to which God points to that causes conflict, empty glory.

The translators here render that word conceit, but the word doesn’t mean that.  It literally means, vain glory or empty glory.   And in that word, God is pointing you to a problem that lies at the heart of almost every conflict, people’s hungering for empty glory. 

Now before you can understand what that means, you need to get what glory means.   And let’s be clear, glory can be a good thing.   For example, when a child does something really well, what do they do?  They’ll say.   “Mommy, daddy look at me.  Look at what I did.”  And when Mom and Dad respond. “Wow, what an awesome job” do you know what they are doing.  They are shining some glory on that child.   Glory is what you get when you win a medal in the Olympics or score a great performance review at work.   It’s getting recognized for doing something good.

So, what creates empty glory?  Empty glory happens when it becomes mostly about the glory, and not so much about the good.   So, you’re in an argument, and you realize painfully that maybe the other person is right.   But do you acknowledge that? Well, if you did that, you’d look bad.   You’d have to admit you were wrong.  You’d lose the glory.   So, you stick to your guns.    And in all that mess, the truth and the solution get lost.   Why?  Nobody wants to look bad.  Nobody wants to lose face.  Nobody wants to be in the wrong.   No-one says that of course.  But that’s what is going on nonetheless.

And this whole empty glory doesn’t simply affect you in conflicts.  It affects you in every area of life.   Why?  When you become so focused on looking good, you give tremendous power to other people’s opinions or simply what you think those opinions might be.  That giving over of power cripples your life.   And it cripples your relationships too.   It blocks the intimacy that every relationship requires.  Why?  You fear exposure.   So, you hide behind looking good, behind empty glory.

And why do you do that?  It’s because somewhere along the way, you got this very twisted idea.  You got the idea that your worth depended on that, on looking good, on being good, on getting that glory.   And because God knows that, he leads Paul to point you to the truth that shows how much a lie that idea is.  God tells you.   Look at Jesus.  

First, look at Jesus because Jesus didn’t care about the glory.   Jesus died a criminal.  He endured not only a brutal death, but the most shameful death possible for a religious Jew, naked, bleeding, nailed to a tree.   But more that that, God is pointing you to why Jesus died.   In Jesus, God died to bring you home, and that had death had nothing to do with your goodness.   In fact, in Jesus, God is dying to restore a relationship with the very people killing him.  God saw everything about you, the good, the bad, and the ugly, including the ugliness you hide so well.  And seeing all that, God still joyfully gave up everything to make peace with you.  Why did God do that.  Because God loves you.  Because your very existence brings joy and delights to God’s heart, so much so that wants to have you in his presence forever.   And when you know that, when you really know that, you know your worth.   And you don’t have to play the empty glory game.  You know the real glory, the God who so adored you that he gave up everything for you.  

And when you know that you can lose an argument.  You can lose face.  You can admit your faults and missteps.  You can even look bad if that’s what it takes to make peace.   Why?  You have a peace within, a peace that comes from knowing how infinitely worthy you already are, and what can be more glorious than that?     

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The One Thing to Know that Can Give You Joy No Matter How Hard Things Become

I keep telling these things to myself.   “Be grateful you don’t live in Syria. You have a roof over your head, a car, health insurance.  Heck, you can even afford to buy some things at Whole Foods.  How good is that?”    I know that’s all true.  But even with those blessings, I get weary.  I have tough days.  I get dark moods.  At times, life can feel really hard.   And I remember the words of a wise Scottish pastor from well over a century ago.   Ian McLaren said it well.  “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”    Everyone you meet, McLaren said, everyone. 

You don’t have to be living in Syria to be fighting a hard battle.   In the midst of normal (whatever that is) life you can fight all sorts of things that threaten to bring you down.   No matter how wealthy, famous, accomplished you become, those battles they never leave you. The tragic deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain show you that.  

But in the midst of life’s battles, you can find joy.   You can live in joy.   You can find a way to higher ground.   And in these words, written by a man full of joy even as he fought battles after battle, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

How do you find joy in life’s battles?   How do you find that higher ground?  Here God tells you.   You find joy by realizing that even as you fight the battles, God’s love has already won the war.   And when you know that, then joy comes even in the toughest of circumstances, even in the hardest of times.   That’s what God shows you here in Paul’s letter.   Because Paul doesn’t find himself in only one battle.   Paul finds himself in the middle of three.   And, he lays them out here, one after the other. 

First, Paul talks about the fact the Romans have imprisoned him.  Day and night, Paul has a Roman guard chained to his body.   He has no respite, not even to use the restroom.  Every moment, that guard’s presence reminds him of how profoundly he has lost his freedom.    Yet Paul talks about it as a great opportunity.   He has a captive audience to talk about Jesus, and boy is he doing just that.  His example is even inspiring the Roman Christians to do the same.

But Paul doesn’t have only the Romans to deal with, he has other Christians hitting him hard too.  We don’t get the exact context, but it seems not every Christian leader had Paul’s picture in their wallet.  Some may even have had it on their dartboards.   Yet, how does Paul react?  Basically, he says, Whatever.   He concludes.   As long as Jesus gets proclaimed, I’m not going to let that stuff rent space in my head. 

But then beyond those things, if that’s not enough, Paul has to battle an enemy within.   Paul knows he could die.    At any moment, the Romans could execute him or simply throw him into the certain death of the coliseum.   And that stress is hitting him hard, so much so, that he honestly admits.   I don’t know whether I want to live or die.   That doesn’t mean that Paul was contemplating suicide, at least as we think about suicide.  Honestly in the ancient world, people didn’t have that category.  The only suicide they knew was say if you were dying for a cause like the philosopher Socrates. And they might even see that sort of death as noble.   And Paul is likely thinking along those lines, how his death might inspire others.   And he still had a hope that the Romans might release him, that he might get out.   But still, teetering between life and death every day, it was hard.

Yet in the midst of those battles what does Paul say?   He says. “I will continue to rejoice.”  How can Paul rejoice in the face of all that?   He tells you.  He writes.  Even, if I die, even my death will turn out for my salvation.   How can he say that?   Paul knows, that even if he loses a battle here or there, even the battle for his life, God’s love has already won the war. 

Do you see what God is saying?   God is telling you, once you know my love, how infinite, how unconditional, how unshakable it is, you can face the battles, even lose some.   Why?  You know, my love has already won the war.   My love has already given you the victory, even over death   And, when you know that, it brings you to a higher ground; where you find perspective.  You realize.  You don’t need to sweat the small stuff.  And it’s all small stuff.   The only thing that ultimately matters, God’s love for you, you already have.   And nothing can take it away.  And how do you know that?  You know that because God didn’t just tell you that.  In Jesus, God came and offered up everything for you.  In Jesus, God defeated death and anything else that can separate you from God’s love.   Because Paul knew that he could rejoice in a prison, in the middle of battles within and without.   And when you know that love, it too will get you through anything.  Just ask Clarence Fountain.

You see, Clarence Fountain died this week too.   He didn’t kill himself.  His diabetes did that.  But in his 88 years, Fountain had joy, even when that joy didn’t make sense.   When he was 2 and got an eye infection, his caregiver thought a solution of lye might cure it.    And from that awful moment, Clarence Fountain never saw again.  When he was 8, his parents sent him away to the Alabama school for the blind.   And there, when he was a teenager, he and four of his blind classmates began singing gospel.   And together they became known as the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.   For years, they had success, and then, well they didn’t.  When others, like Sam Cooke, crossed over to secular music, they kept singing gospel.   And it cost them.   But then thanks to the Broadway show, the Gospel at Colonnus, they returned to fame.   But no matter how their fortunes rose or fell, Fountain always had the joy.  When he performed, he’d say.   “I didn’t come here looking for Jesus. I brought Him along with me.”   And he sang he said not for fame or fortune but to bring people to the higher ground, the higher ground that had found him.   And ten years ago, when his diabetes forced him to retire, Fountain still lived on that higher ground. An interviewer asked him, if he was sad about no longer singing with the group.   And Fountain said, "with a voice as calm and quiet as a prayer. 'Everybody has a point in life when your time is out. Everybody’s time is coming. But I thank Him for letting me live as long as I have.'”    And that joy, that peace that Clarence had, you can have.  Everyone can.  And if you wonder what it looks like, well, let me let Clarence Fountain tell you – 

You can live on the higher ground.  You can be close to heaven right here on earth.  All you need to know is this.  No matter what battles you lose, Jesus and his love have already won the war.  His love has given you the victory, even over death.   His love has put you on the higher ground, and nothing and no one can ever take that away.        

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Why You Are Likely a Saint and Don't Even Know It

I have to admit.   I am a little bummed.   I really liked this joke, and now I wonder.  Can I even use it any more?   Ok, I guess it’s not so much a joke as a witty comment, but I still liked it. Someone would be talking to me about someone who was acting a bit holier than thou.   And I’d think.  Aaah, now I can use the witty words.   I’d say.   “Well, if someone thinks they are a saint, it’s a sure sign that they’re not.”    Now I realize how wrong those words were.

Why?   Because I am a saint.  I don’t think I’m a saint.   I know I am.  Not only that.   I’m pretty sure most, if not all, of you here this morning are saints too.   How did you become a saint?   In these words, God tells you.   More crucially, God tells you what such saintliness means.  And as you learn of your sainthood, it will free you.  It will free you of fears,anxieties and insecurities that plague you.  It will free you to view not only yourself but others in ways that will liberate you and them like no other.   So, how does this sainthood thing work?   In these words, God shows you the way.   So, let’s listen and hear what God has to say.   

Hello saints.  How are you doing today?  If you didn’t think that word applied to you, then if you are a follower of Jesus, it does.  God tells you here.  That’s exactly what you have become, a saint.    But knowing that doesn’t have as much power as knowing how it came about.   When you know that, it changes not only how you view yourself but everyone around you.   For how your sainthood came about has nothing to do with you.   

Right at the beginning, Paul lays it out there.  Paul doesn’t lay it out as if he is sharing some amazing revelation.   He says it in a very matter of fact way.  He writes.  “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi…”    But hold on, the word saints doesn’t even exist in Greek.   The translators just use that word.   So, what did Paul actually say?   He called the folks in Philippi “holy ones.” 

And in those words, God is pointing to how your sainthood happened.   For what makes you holy?   Does holiness have to do with you being perfect or even really good?  No, when God calls you holy, God is simply saying this.  You belong to me.   I, God, have set you apart for myself.   Holiness doesn’t describe a way of life or behavior.  Holiness describes a relationship. 

When I look at my son, Patrick, I don’t see just any child.   I see my son.  And that relationship with him, sets him apart from any other child on earth.   But Patrick didn’t have to do anything special to get this relationship.  Patrick got it by virtue of being born, which to be honest, he didn’t have that much to do with either.    

And when God makes you holy, it happens the same way.  God is telling you.   You have a special relationship with me, one that sets you apart.    But you didn’t do anything extraordinary to get this relationship.  In fact, you didn’t do anything at all.   And that’s incredibly good news. 

When I was growing up as a child, sure I wanted to be good, well, most of the time.  But even when I wasn’t, I lived with one bedrock reality.   I could not lose my sonship.   I was Matt and Louise’s son.  Nothing could change that. 

In the same way, God is saying to you.   You belong to me.   Nothing can change your set apartness, your holiness.   That’s because the fact of your set apartness doesn’t depend on you. 

Did any of y’all watch the royal wedding a few weeks ago?   It was amazing, the flowers, the music, all the pomp and circumstance.  And the American preacher, Bishop Curry, he hit the sermon out of the park.  Now on that day, Prince Harry did the royal family proud.  But that hasn’t always been the case.  In fact, in the years before, Harry had done some painfully embarrassing things.  But in the midst of even his most un-prince-worthy moments, do you know what he always was?    He was always a prince.   That never changed, no matter how un-prince-worthy his behavior became.    In the same way, you are holy, even on your most un-holy days.

And the more you know that, the more it frees you from all the anxieties and insecurities that tell you that you are not enough, that you are not adequate or good or worthy.   No, instead, God is saying, you are holy because you are loved.  My love makes you worthy, and nothing you do can take that love away.   And when you know, really know that, it changes you like nothing else.   A brilliant man who didn’t even believe in God saw that.  As Sigmund Freud put it; How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved.     

And because God has set you apart, God tells you here.  That means that I will never give up on you.  No, the work God began in you God says, I will complete.   But what is this work that God is completing in you?  

Paul tells you even as he closes this part of the letter.   Paul writes to the Philippians.   “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight.”    Now, those words sound nice, but what is Paul actually saying?  What is God telling you in this prayer?

God is saying to you, as you see more fully how deeply I love you, it lead you to see others in the same way, as those too, whom I deeply love.   That means that over time, you will see the holiness in even the most imperfect and obnoxious people in the pew beside you.  And you will love them even in all their prickliness.   And for those who are far from God, even those that most disappoint you or even anger you, you will see them for what they are, potential saints, simply people who have yet to realize just how deeply God loves them. 

And that knowledge will always lead you back to Jesus, to what set you apart to begin with.  For Paul doesn’t simply say, to all the saints.   Paul says to all the saints in Christ Jesus.  For your holiness did not come cheap.   No, in Jesus, God gave up everything even God’s very self so God could have you with him forever, so that you could be set apart like that.   That’s how infinitely loved you are, that God did this for you.   You were so lost that God had to die to bring you home, and you are so loved that God was glad to do it.   And when you know that love, when it overflows out of you with knowledge and full insight, then you know how preciously and beautiful set apart you are.  And you realize.  This is not your own doing.  It is the gift of God.