Sunday, August 26, 2018

What is the One Secret That Leads to Contentment No Matter the Circumstance?

Have you noticed it?  It’s becoming an epidemic.   Everybody seems so discontented these days.   Some folks point to one thing or another that bothers them.    But it goes so much beyond that.   No, it feels like the discontent sits in the air everywhere, stirring everybody up, usually not in a good way. 
Now, this could be South Florida in August.  That tropical heat and humidity makes everyone a bit crankier this time of year.   And discontent doesn’t need to be a bad thing.   Discontent motivates you to change, to make yourself, to make the world better.

But what about when discontent goes deeper than that?  What about when discontent feels like this description the writer Joshua Charles gave.  Charles wrote.  “We are a people of full bellies and empty hearts.”   What happens, when you feel a bit like that?  When you look at your life, and you think, I should be more content, but I’m not.  That deeper discontent, it’s tough.  It’s what you feel, when no matter what you do or don’t do, something significant always feels missing.   So yes, you have a great day, a day when everything seems to fit, when life feels full, incredibly full even.    But then you wake up the next morning, and the fullness has faded away.    And you are left wondering.  Does this fullness I seek, does it even exist? 

But what if it does exist?  What if you can feel a deep sense of fullness, even on your worst days. What if you could feel contentment, deep contentment, that did not waver no matter how good things or hard your life became?   Is such a thing possible?   In these words from St. Paul, God tells you.  Yes it is.  In these words, God points the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

How can you find contentment for your life, no matter how good or bad your life is?  How can you live with a deep sense of well-being, even when things aren’t going well at all?   Can that happen?  In Paul’s words, God tells you it can.   It happens when you realize where the true source of contentment, of satisfaction lies.  And when you discover that source, you’ll realize that this source never wavers, no matter how good or bad the conditions of your life become.   That’s how Paul can say these stunning words, written from a death row prison cell, no less.   Paul can say.   I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  What is Paul’s secret?

Before we can go there, you first have to see, why it’s a secret to begin with.   Why do people have such difficulty discovering what Paul has?   People have difficulty because they are looking for contentment in all the wrong places.   They are looking at what they see and thinking.  That must be where contentment lies.

What do I mean?   Well, they look at success or a happy marriage or family, or some form of pleasure or even serving others, and they think.   If I get that, then I’ll be happy.  I’ll be content. And of course, they think that, because all of those things do give you contentment, for a bit.   But the contentment never really lasts.  Whatever the thing is that you shoot for, that you aspire towards for contentment, in the end disappoints.   It doesn’t disappoint because it’s bad.  It disappoints because whatever that thing is, it was never designed to give you the contentment you seek. 

The poet Wallace Stevens put it well when he said.  Even in contentment, I feel the need of some imperishable bliss.   Do you get what Stevens was saying?  Even when you’re happy, you still sense you are missing something.   It may be simply the fact that you know that this happiness you feel won’t last, that it will fade away.  So even as you enjoy it, you’re already anticipating the pain of the loss.   Or it may be as good as that moment is, you sense, it’s just not good enough. 

But if all these things that you see, as good as they are, can never give you what you seek, why do you look to them for that?   You look to them because they arouse that desire.  They just can’t fulfill it.   They arouse it because each of them gives a little glimpse of what truly brings contentment.   But the contentment you seek always lies beyond, behind these things, so to speak.    So, what happens when what your aspire to for contentment fails you?  You’ll typically react in one of four ways.  

First, when the disappointment happens, you could blame the things.    You think.  I just need more success or more wealth.   I simply need a better plan or a better job.  My spouse needs to get better or maybe, I need a completely different one.   If those things change, then the contentment I seek will come.   So, you keep looking, chasing a dream that always seems just a bit further away.   You’re like that poor schmuck in the desert always running to the next mirage, thinking that the oasis lies there.  Then when you get there and see it’s nothing but sand, you don’t stop.  You just look for the next mirage.   And in your search, you usually leave a lot of wreckage behind in your life and the lives of others.

Now if you don’t blame the things, you may become one of those folks that blame yourself.  You think, the reason you don’t find contentment is simply that something must be wrong with you.    And yes, you are right.  Something is wrong with you, because guess what, something is wrong with everybody.   That’s not the problem, though. 

Have you even seen a preview for a movie and thought that film looks awesome! Then you went and saw it and realized that you had already seen the best parts, in the preview.   That’s the life of everyone you know.   Everyone you see is always showing you their highlight reel.   You are never seeing the behind the scenes.    And today, you don’t even need to see the person to see that highlight reel.   All you have to do is go to Facebook or more accurately, Fakebook to see it.  

Haven’t you done it?  Let’s say. You go to the beach with your family.  On the way, the kids are fighting in the back seat.   And you’re bickering with your spouse about how long they took to get ready or because they forgot to bring something.  Then you get there.  You scramble to find a place.  One of the kids gets sunburned. The other throws a fit over what you brought for lunch.  But then at the end of the day, everybody poses with big smiles, and you take a shot and post it on Facebook.  Awesome day with the family at the beach!

So, if you believe others’ highlight reel or fakebook page, then you can go through life, thinking it must be me.  Maybe you go to therapy to figure that out.  And sure, therapy could help you address some of the problems in your life.  But you know what therapy can’t do.   It can’t bring you contentment.   It won’t give you that imperishable bless, that the poet Stevens wrote about.   

Now if folks stop blaming the things or themselves, they then often blame the universe.  Their thinking goes like this.  None of what I’ve looked to for contentment brings it.   Therefore, this contentment must not exist.  This is as good as it’s going to get.   And they simply let the desire die.   Now, some take this so far, they lose even the desire to live.   But most still live their life.  They just do so with a sense of resignation.   They enjoy life as much as they can, sure, but inside something has died or at least almost died.   It’s still there, that desire. It’s just been pressed down, denied even.  But if they’re honest, deep inside, they still feel a quiet despair, a grief that their life will never hold the meaning or joy they yearned for it to have.  But they are wrong.   Just because you cannot find something, doesn’t mean it’s not there.   All it means is that you’re looking in all the wrong places.      
As C.S. Lewis put it.   Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exist.   A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food.  A duckling wants to swim; there is such a thing as water.  People feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex.  If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.  (From Mere Christianity)   

What does Lewis mean?  Lewis is saying contentment exists, and you can even get hints at it in what you see.  But what you are looking for ultimately lies behind those things.   It lies in a relationship beyond this world, beyond what you can see.   That is the secret that Paul has learned.   And note how Paul says it.   He didn’t discover it.  He learned it.  In his case, religion had been the desire that never brought contentment.  But only when he encountered Jesus, someone even beyond religion, did Paul get a clue.

And as he more and more encountered Jesus, he learned not only could this ultimate contentment be found but far more.  He learned that this relationship with Jesus could bring contentment no matter what circumstances he faced.   Because Jesus’ presence didn’t depend on those circumstances.   It transcended them.  It went beyond them.  And the more he made that relationship his ultimate focus, the deeper and more unwavering his contentment grew. 

Now what does Jesus bring you that creates such contentment.  I can only touch upon that here today.  But basically, it comes down to this.  When you know how much you are ultimately loved and valued, how far in Jesus God went to bring you to your true home, that love fills you up.   It fills you up as nothing else can.  

Have you been looking for contentment in all sorts of places, and yet something always seems to be missing?   You are right.  Something is.  Here is the secret.   When you look for contentment in something beyond Jesus, the problem is not that you want too much.  The problem is you want too little.    But when you open yourself to this love, His love that loves you no matter what, then you have opened the door that leads you into the very contentment you seek.   If you doubt that is true, then simply test it.   Ask Jesus to show you his love, and then see what happens.   The door to contentment is open before you.   All you have to do is go through.  Let us pray.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

What is the One Thing that Can Give You Stability in an Unstable Even Tumultuous World?

I’m glad we did it, but boy do we have a problem.   He’s become a convert.   At least once a week, he asks.  When are we going again?    I get it.    I got converted too.  And I thought that could never happen. 

But they got me.  They got me quick, the first night.  It happened at dinner.  I was struggling to  choose between two entrĂ©es that looked equally delicious.  I asked the waiter what he thought.   And he said stunning words I will never forget.   He said.  “Why don’t you just order both?”   My next words just stumbled out.  “You can do that?”    Yes, I learned.  You can.   That’s how almost everyone gains at least five pounds on a cruise ship. 
And now my son, Patrick has converted too.  He has fallen in love with those massive ships.  If you’ve ever been on one, can you blame him? They are amazing.  They set up those small cabins to fit everything.  And on board they have everything, restaurants, clubs, water-slides.  It’s ridiculous. But what amazes me about those ships is something Patrick didn’t even notice.   But I’ve been on a good many boats and this amazes me every time.   Those cruise ships don’t rock.  They seem to hardly move at all.

Our last night on board, I went down to read in the ship’s library.  The wind had picked up.   The waves had risen high.  But our ship only swayed in the slightest.    Only if you concentrated could you even notice it.   That doesn’t just happen.  Those ships have massive fins called stabilizers.  When sensors detect any change in conditions, those stabilizers move immediately to keep that ship moving smoothly, even placidly through the waters.

Wouldn’t it be great if life had something like that?   When your life got rough, when things got rocky, stabilizers would deploy and keep everything smooth.  Now, they couldn’t change the conditions.  The storm stayed there, slamming against your life.   But in the storm, something would be working, to help you stand and not fall; to keep your feet on the ground; to enable you to find joy on the stormiest of days.  Wouldn’t it great if you had something like that?  You do.  And in these words of Paul, God shows you that way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.   

Life sends some serious storms your way.  In South Florida, you have to take that literally.  But forget hurricanes.  Life has more storms than that, deep losses, health crises, painful conflicts. The list goes on.   Heck, just navigating life today feels choppy.  So much feels unstable.  But in Paul’s words, God gives you the key to stability in unstable times.   God gives you perspective on what will never change, no matter how much your life rocks around you. 

Every week, when I post my sermon on this blog and on Facebook, I almost always change the title.  I’ll call it three keys to a fulfilled life or one truth you need to navigate tough times.  In other words, I put out some click bait.   That’s what the internet gurus call it.   And it works.  That’s why when you go on line, you have so many articles with titles like that.  I know it works, because it works on me.   If I see one of those articles, giving me five keys to this or eight tips for that, I’ll want to click every time.  Usually, if I do click, the articles disappoint.  They never really deliver what they promise.  Still, I click.   And millions more join with me. 

Why do you want to click on something like that?  It’s because human beings love a technique, something you can do to get what you need or want.  Yet God works differently.  God doesn’t give you techniques as much as God gives you perspective.   And that perspective has more power than any technique could.  What do I mean?

Many years ago, I heard a preacher talk about taking his daughter on her first plane ride.  As the plane rose up, she looked out the window.  And her eyes grew big.  Excitedly, she pointed down and said.  “Daddy, look, little people, little cars, little houses!”  She thought she had discovered some amazing miniature world that had existed all along.   And her daddy explained the power of perspective.  The higher you go, the smaller things get.   So big people become little people.   Big cars become little cars.  Big houses become little houses.     

And that’s exactly what God does here, God gives the power of perspective.  Paul writes.  Therefore, my brothers and sisters, stand firm in the Lord in this way.  Well, what is that way?   How does Paul want them to stand firm?   He wants them to stand firm by remembering the words he just said, things like, our citizenship is in heaven.  Or we are expecting a savior.  He will transform us to the body of his glory.  He will set all things right. 

Paul is saying.   Don’t you get it?   This is how you stand firm.  You get perspective, God’s perspective.  And when you do that, do you know what happens?  Big problems become smaller problems.     Hopelessness become hopefulness.   Anxiety turns into peace.  Death turns into resurrection.   You get perspective, God’s perspective.

Do you see how he does that with Euodia and Syntche, who are fighting each other?   He doesn’t weigh in with his opinion.  He doesn’t even tell them to agree on the issue, whatever it is.  Rather, he says agree on this.  You are both citizens of heaven.  Paul knows.  If they get that perspective, whatever the issue, it will work out.   

In everything that follows, Paul is simply giving more ways to gain that perspective.  Pray yes, but first thank God for all that God has given.  Why? It gives you perspective.   Think on whatever is true, honorable. Why?  It gives you perspective.  You don’t get caught up in fears or resentments.  You don’t get obsessed by your problems or losses.  You get beyond that.  You focus on what God has given you.  You focus on what you can never lose.

And, God isn’t giving you a technique here.  God is giving you the truth.  Whatever you face, God’s love for you always has the last word.  The storms of your life don’t.   No loss or setback you face does.  Even death doesn’t have the last word.  God’s love has that.    And this table proclaims that very truth.  

On the day, Jesus died, his disciples lost that perspective.  They fled in fear.  They cried in despair.  In that cross, they saw defeat.  But in the agony and awfulness of that day, death wasn’t defeating God’s love.  God’s love was destroying death.   And once those disciples got that perspective.  Nothing could stop them.  And in the power of that perspective, of that love they transformed the world.   Let this table do the same for you.  Let it give you perspective, no matter what you face.    Let it remind you that God’s love will do more in you and through you, even in your greatest losses than anything you could imagine or dream.