Sunday, December 22, 2019

How Do You Overcome the Power of Fear in Your Life? Here's How

What would you most like to change about yourself?   Does something come to mind?   Last week, I asked that question at a Bible Study I lead.   Do you know how I answered?  I said that I would like to be less afraid.  I’d like to think that most folks would not find me a fearful person.  But I know. Deep inside fear can grip me.   I fear something won’t get done or won’t get done the way I want, and when I do, it drives the people around me crazy.  Or I fear that someone else is upset at me.  Or I fear that not enough kids will show up for Christmas Eve, and I’ll be embarrassed and feel like a failure.   I usually move past those fears, but boy, they still feel miserable.  They still hold me back, stress me out, fill me with anxiety. 

Do you get that?  My fears may not be your fears.  But do you know what I’m talking about?  Are there places where your fears hold you, limit you, even paralyze you?   Have there been times when your fears drove you into hurtful words or foolish actions?   Have there been times when your fears kept you in a bad relationship or a bad job or a bad habit?    Fears can so limit your life.  They can lead you in the wrong direction or keep you away from the right one.   But how do you free yourselves from them?  How do you wake up instead to trust, to peace, to a freedom from fear or at least fear’s power?  In this story of someone who literally woke up to such trust, God gives you an answer.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

In this story, God makes it clear.  You can’t let fear dictate your life.   When you do, your fears will prevent you from living the very life, God has created you to live.  But probably, you already know that.   That’s not the question.  No, the question is, how do you get out from under the fear?  How do you reduce fear’s power in your life?  How does that happen?  In this story, God tells you.  Freedom from fear’s power comes as you realize what’s not only real but true.    

Fears feel real, but they are rarely true.  But because they feel real, you give power to them, to your insecurities, your doubts, to the wounds from your past, the expectations of others and the list could go on.  And when you give that power, it doesn’t just limit your life.  It leads you to ignore what not only has real power but is also actually true.   And in this story, God shows you what that is, what has the power to free you from fear’s shadow.   Here God tells you.  Instead of listening to the fear, God says, trust in the love.   For, in that trust you will find the freedom to live for what truly matters, and the courage to walk away from what doesn’t.

It’s that trust that frees Joseph from the fear.   As the story begins, Joseph is doing the “right thing.”   It may not be what he wants to do.  We don’t really know.  But it is what he feels he has to do.   It’s the religious thing to do.  And Joseph is a righteous guy.  He can’t be associated with a fallen woman.  

But Joseph doesn’t want to make a big scene.  He wants to do it quietly.  That way, he’s not embarrassed, and hopefully, Mary lives.   You see. Custom prescribes that Mary bestoned to death for what she’s done.  But if he doesn’t make it a big deal, then likely no one else will.  She’ll be shunned and mocked, almost certainly cast out from the synagogue, but at least she’ll live.   But then God gives Joseph that dream.   And what does God say?  God says to Joseph.  Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.   Why does God say don’t be afraid? 

Because Joseph had fears.   He was afraid that if he and Mary wed, she wouldn’t be faithful, that she would break his heart.  That’s a valid fear, if it’s based on something true.  But here God tells Joseph. It’s not true.  No, this baby does not come from Mary’s faithlessness.  This baby comes from God’s faithfulness.  In this child, God is doing a wondrous new thing. 

But still, it doesn’t look that way.   Virgin births don’t just happen.   If Joseph stands by Mary, he’ll be tarred with the same brush.   People will think that he dishonored Mary.  Or they’ll think he’s being played for a fool.  

Joseph had to face the fear of other people’s opinions, what they would think, how they would react if he took Mary as his wife.  He had to overcome his fear of going against his culture, even his religion in standing by Mary.  Yet when Joseph woke up, even in the face of all those fears, he did what God had told him to do. 

How did Joseph do that?  How did Joseph overcome his fears?  How did Joseph become free of their power?   Joseph became free, when he realized how false his fears were.  That’s what God did.  God showed Joseph the truth.  God showed him that his fears, as real as they seemed, had no real power at all.   His fears were lying to him.  They weren’t giving him the truth.  They were taking him away from it.   Often, the very things that terrify you, they aren’t even true.  Do you know that old saying about what fear stands for?  It stands for “False expectations appearing real.”

And how did God show those fears for the false things they were?  God showed Joseph his love, a love that was now literally coming to earth as a human being.  And as Joseph trusted in the love, more crucially as Joseph experienced the love, he saw those fears for the false things they were.   

You see, that’s the stunning thing about most every fear.  They’re lies.  And if you let them dictate your life, they’ll prevent you from living the true life God created you to live.   Fears might tell you they’re saving your life, but in reality, they’re only limiting it.  And sometimes those fears might even end it. 

Years ago, I heard a story about a man who was exploring a huge cave.  As he climbed a cliff face in the cave, his foot slipped.  He found himself hurtling through the air.  At the very last moment, his safety line held.  He didn’t hit the ground. But his light had gone out.  It was pitch black.  He had no idea how far down he would drop if he unhooked from the safety line.  So, he decided to simply wait, to stay hooked to that rope for dear life.  And he hung on, even as he felt his strength failing, even as he grew weaker from no food or water.   Two days later when a rescue party finally discovered him, they found a puzzling sight.    They found a dead man dangling from a rope only a foot off the ground.    This man died, in the end, not because he fell.  He died because he let his life literally be dictated by a fear that wasn’t even true. 

Too often you and I can be like that cave climber.  You can have your life dictated, limited, even destroyed by fears that aren’t even real.  Now they can seem real.  They can feel real.  But they’re not.   And if you live as if they are, you will miss out on the very life God created you to live. 

Still, those fears can feel real, because at one point in your life, they were.   Somebody really did wound you in a certain way.  Something did happen that wrecked your life. 

This past week, I was listening to someone talk about a colleague of his who adopted a young child. And this colleague mentioned a challenge they faced.   Each day, they’d tell their newly adopted son, we’ll pick you up from school at 3:30.  And every day, the kid didn’t believe it.  Every day, he got filled with more and more anxiety as that time approached.   And it took a while for this guy to get what was going on.   The boy got filled with fear because again and again adults in his life had made those same promises. Don’t worry, I’ll pick you up.  I’ll be there.   But they hadn’t.  Instead, again and again, they had let their child down.    This kid was scared because he had reason to be.  For that little boy what was real is everybody fails me and doesn't fulfill a promise.  And so, until a new truth became real, that old reality of abandonment and loss would still be true.

Nothing they said would change that fear, because it wasn’t yet real.  The only thing that would change that fear is that child seeing day after day these commitments kept.  He had to know this love was not only true, it was real, that it could be counted on no matter what.  Only then would their new child find the shadows of his fears falling away.  No words of love could change that, but the experience of the love, the reality of that love would.      

You see.  In Joseph’s life, he didn’t just know the truth of God’s love, he had experienced its reality.  He had experienced this love in worship at the synagogue, in praying the Torah.  He had experienced this love showing up again and again in his life.  So, when that night, he heard in this dream God’s promise that this son was God’s deliverance come to earth, he trusted its truth because he had experienced its reality.  And the power of that reality freed him to move past the fear, to not give it power it didn’t have.  And the reality of that same love will free you.

This past week, I heard an interview with a Christian leader, Terry Wardle, who grew up in a painfully broken family in the coal fields of Western Pennsylvania.  By the time he was five, he had seen death happen five feet away from him.  By the time he was 7 or 8, he had seen his uncle shoot his aunt next door.  All through his childhood, he was repeatedly abused and abandoned.   And even after he became a Christian, he still carried all those wounds with him.   After great success as a Christian leader, because of those wounds he ended up in a psychiatric hospital, depressed, anxiety-ridden, paralyzed by fear.  People would quote scriptures like the one that says “perfect love casts out fear.”  And it would drive him nuts.  Those words never helped. Then he got it.  It’s not those words “perfect love” that cast out the fear.  It’s the experience of that perfect love.  He realized.  He knew in his head that God’s love was real.  But he hadn’t experienced it as real, especially in those wounded memories of his past.  So, Wardle literally in his imagination took Jesus there into those memories.  He experienced that perfect love of God grieving with him, comforting him, assuring him that God’s love was the truth not the abuse of his past that had wounded him and filled him with fear.     
As Wardle put it himself.  You live in a home like I did, in an environment with violence and crime and abuse, I had reasons to be afraid. It was real. Someone says, fear not. It might've been true but it wasn't real. What was true for me was what was real.  But then he said.  The love of God started coming in, even into those wounded memories.  And God made what I knew to be true, real even there.   And that reality freed him.  And now he lives his life sharing that same freeing power with others.

That is the reality that frees everyone.  Because everyone has those wounds, maybe not as deep as Terry Wardle’s.  But everyone has them, and from those wounds the fear comes.  But as you let God’s love come in, then that love shows you not only what is true, but what is truly real.  That is what Jesus brings.  You can’t outthink the fear.  But you can let the reality of Jesus’ love free you from it.   You can hear God say to you.   I accept you.  I don’t judge you.  You are precious to me, infinitely loved, infinitely respected.   You will find no condemnation here, ever.   And, as you let that love touch you, then what is already true, becomes real.  And in that reality, that ultimate reality, the fears start to fade away. 

That’s why we’ve made our vision at the church I serve come down to three simple words, invited, welcomed and loved.   Why?   Those words are true, but too often, for too many they’re not real.   And God has called our church to make them real not only for us, but for everyone who encounters this church.   Wardle tells a story of a young pastor he met.  And the pastor said, “When I was a young pastor, I had so many wounds from people. I kept everybody at an arm's length.  But there were two elderly women in that church that made up their mind that every time they saw me, they were hugging me I didn't like it, but I put up with it.  I put up with it until I started liking it and then it changed me." It changed him because what was true, God’s love, became real. 

Is what is true real to you today?  Is there a place where Jesus needs to make it real?  Then in those next few moments, I invite you to let Jesus do you just that.  Just imagine God's love entering into that place of fear.  Maybe you imagine God touching you or embracing you or speaking words to you or simply be present with you.   In those moments, let what is already true become real, and as you do that love will heal you. That love will free you from fear.  That love will invite you and welcome you into a life and a love more wondrous, more amazing than you could ever have imagined or dreamed.   

Sunday, December 15, 2019

People Want Change or Do They? What Really Brings Change? This Does.

Oh, how I remember that question.  Do you remember that question, the one that stirred your heart at this season of the year?  As a kid, just thinking about that question excited me.  Have you guessed it, the question?   What do you want Santa to bring you this year?      

Every kid loves that question.   Sure, there’s Rudolph and the cookies and the lights and the trees.  And let’s not forget the whole reason for the season, Jesus and the manger and all.   But the whole Santa coming with the loot holds every kid’s attention.   Is Santa going to bring you what you most want?   Is that Lego set going to be there or that DVD or that Princess doll or whatever?  Heck, that was part of the excitement, not sure what was going to be there, but hoping that your dream gift would be.  I still remember last year, when our son, Patrick got the Polar Express train set.  He had hoped that Santa would come through, but still wasn’t sure.  And when he ripped open the big box and found that train, wow, you should have seen the joy.   By the way, it lasted about six weeks, and now the train is gathering dust in a toy drawer.   But for six weeks, it was awesome.   

But do you think about that question a lot now?   No, probably not.  Granted, Santa doesn’t seem to bring as much when you get older.  But more than that, you know.  Even if Santa loaded you up, even if he left you one of those Lexus cars with the bow they advertise on TV these days, you know.  Even that wouldn’t make that much difference.  Sure, it’d be nice.  It might bring you some joy.  But it wouldn’t last.  Eventually the joy, the thrill would fade away.

But that doesn’t mean that you don’t yearn.   If you’re honest, you yearn as much, maybe even more than you did as a kid.  It’s just that your yearnings have gotten more complicated, more difficult.  Heck, you may not even be able to figure out what you are yearning for.   But you know this.  Inside, you still hunger for something more.  And you know whatever it might be Amazon doesn’t sell it or for that matter any store.  You yearn for something bigger than that. 

Maybe you call it peace or joy or hope or love or purpose or meaning or healing or simply rest.  This yearning goes by many names, and even if you can’t name it, you sense it’s there. And what do you do with that?  What do you do with those yearnings?  Do you simply give up on getting those yearnings met?  Or is it possible that question growing up about Santa wasn’t that far off?      What if, in the expectant heart of that childhood question, you find the very heart of what Christmas is truly about?   In these words, God shows you the way to that answer.  So, let’s listen and hear what that answer is.

What do all these adult, complicated, difficult yearnings have in common?  In each one, folks are yearning for change.  You and I are yearning for some deep profound change somewhere, one that could never fit under a Christmas tree.  And here, God tells you some incredibly good news.  God tells you that what you yearn for, what everyone yearns for, that’s exactly what Jesus brings.
In the story of Jesus’ coming, John the Baptist acts as Jesus’ advance man.  John prepares the way for the coming of the main act.  And it’s here in this story that John first shows up.  And from that beginning, John makes it clear.  Jesus has come to bring change, serious change, deep-down, shaking of the foundations change. 

Do you see how the story sets that up?  First from the beginning the story tells you how things are.   It gives you the powers that be, Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, Caiaphas.  In all those names, that’s what it tells you.  Here are the way things are.  Here are the people in power.  But then these words from the prophet Isaiah deliver a very different message. The mountains are coming down.  The low places will be lifted up.  The crooked will be made straight.  The rough roads are going to be smoothed out.   Now, the prophet Isaiah isn’t talking geography.  Isaiah is talking world-shaking change, change that overturns the powers that be, change that radically transforms the way things are. 

God is telling you here.  What you yearn for, the sort of change that transforms the world; that transforms you; that’s what Jesus brings.   Jesus brings change.   Great!  Jesus brings change, the change we yearn for, the change that saves us from ourselves; the change that gives joy, peace, life as God means it to be; the sort of change that saves the world.  What wonderful news.  What Santa can’t bring, Jesus does.  Yea! 

But if Jesus brings the change, then where is it?   A lot of mountains in our world still need to come down, a lot of mountains in our lives.   And you’ve likely got some low places that could lifted up too.  So, if Jesus’ coming brings change, where is it?     

It’s actually happening right now.  And it’s been happening, ever since John first showed up on the scene.   The problem isn’t that change isn’t happening, it’s that folks don’t understand what change truly is.  

When people think of change, big change, the sort of change they yearn for, they think they know how it has to happen.  It will happen like it did in that old movie, Big.  Sheesh, I’m stunned that Big is now an old movie.  I am getting so old.   

But have you ever seen that movie?  What happens is this.   This little kid, Josh, goes to this carnival, and finds this magical wish machine.   And he wishes to be big.  Then boom, overnight, it happens.  He’s big.   But here’s the problem, he may have been big on the outside.  But inside, Josh is still the same little kid.   Now, what looked like a big change wasn’t that deep a change at all.    Still it sure looked like deep change.  It fooled his mom.  It fooled his best friend, at least for a while.  It even fools a big toy company, and the actress Elizabeth Perkins.  But here’s who it didn’t fool.  It never fooled Josh.  He knew.  This magical change wasn’t any real change at all.

Yet, folks still get fooled into yearning for that, for that magical change.  You yearn for more peace or joy, and you expect Jesus to zap you, and boom, it’s there. You yearn for a solution to a challenge in your life, and then look for Jesus to present it to you under the tree with a bow attached.    Heck, you yearn for everybody in the world to be fed.  So you  send the wish  to Jesus, and the next day, every starving village gets a country buffet, and a Sizzler to book.   But that’s not change.  It’s magic.  And magic is not real.  Even in a movie, it’s not real.          

And sure, we all know that, but we can still get caught in that sort of magical thinking.   If I walk around the block, then that will burn off that thousand calories of ice cream I just ate.  Or how about this one?   Hey, if I stay up late to watch this movie or see the end of this game, I can squeeze eight hours of sleep into five.  I’ll just sleep really, really intensely.  

But magical thinking does more than deceive you into adding some pounds to our waistline or giving you a day of sleep deprivation.  It prevents you from experiencing what true change is all about.  And that can even destroy you.  

When folks talk about how their addictions began, you often hear something like this.  Suddenly, with this drug, life seemed so much easier.  I felt more comfortable, more at ease, more secure.   It was magical.  It was as if the drug had magically transformed them, had changed what they yearned to see changed.  But that wasn’t real.  Once the high wore off, things hadn’t changed at all, except maybe to get worse.  But that magic seemed well, so magical. So, their life started to have that as its sole focus, to keep that magic going, no matter what it cost them in terms of their family, their relationships, their work, even their very life.   And they began to live out that painful definition of addiction, where you need more and more of something to make you less and less happy.

Now don’t think this sort of addiction stays limited to alcohol or some other drug. You can see people trying to get change through some sort of magic solution all the time.  If I get more money or work a little harder or find a different partner or a new job, you name it, then things will be different, then the change I yearn for will come.   But does it ever?    Things may look different.  The surroundings may be nicer, but change, real change?  That hasn’t happened at all.   It’s all an illusion.  Too often people look for a change of scenery, when what they need is a change of self. 

And that is the change that Jesus brings.  That is the change that John is proclaiming.  Someone is coming who is bringing real change.    You see.  Jesus doesn’t just bring the illusion of change.  Jesus isn’t magic.  Jesus brings the real thing.   Jesus will bring the mountains down.  He will raise the valleys up.  He will make the crooked straight.  He will make the rough way smooth.   But if Jesus brings this real change, this change that people so yearn for, why doesn’t everybody go for it?    Why instead do you and I so often get caught up in magical thinking instead? 

God answers that question here.  It comes right in the middle of the words we read.  “He (John) went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”   In English, we don’t have a good word for what is translated here, repentance.  When folks think of that word repentance, they usually think of some regret about the past or some change in future behavior.  But the word here, the Greek word metanoia means far more than that.  Metanoia means a profound change, a change in our perspective, a change in our goals, a change in our mind, in everything about our life.   Metanoia means a completely new-minded way of looking at, of living life.

And that folks may not always be so excited about.   So, folks want change yes, but they’re not so sure about being changed.  They want what change brings.  But they’re not so sure about paying what change costs.   Sure you want the new, but letting go of the old?  I don’t know.  So, folks stay caught up in the magic.  After all, magic may not bring real change, but it doesn’t call for real change in folks either.  So, when it comes to fully facing what real change brings, often people choose to stay with the illusion, with the lie. 

I recently started wearing a fit bit.  And I’m loving it.  But I discovered some painful realities.  It’s not magic.   Even if I get my 10,000 steps, it ain’t going to burn off that late night candy bar.  If I want to really get to my goal weight and stay there, things are going to need to change.   I can’t indulge my every appetite.   I’ll need to get back to that gym and keep getting back there week after week.  And even then, the change will be slow.

And the change that John is proclaiming here goes way deeper than dropping a few pounds.   John is talking about change that goes to the very heart of who you are.  And when you realize, you can be tempted to not go there, to stay in the illusion of change rather than face what real change means. But life, real life, won’t be found in the magic, in the illusion.   And if you expect it from there, you are expecting magic to do what magic can never do.  

So how does Jesus bring you change?   Jesus does bring. it instantly.  But that instant change still takes a lifetime to sink in.   What do I mean?   Do you know that famous Bible story where Charlton Heston (oops I mean Moses) parts the waters of the Red Sea? Now when the Israelite slaves goes through those waters, they become free.   When their Egyptian masters perish in the waves behind them, God has liberated them.  In those moments, God delivers them out of slavery.  But it will take a lifetime for God to get the slavery out of them.  

And in Jesus, God delivers you even more profoundly.   In Jesus, you can know that you are loved, that you are valuable, that you have infinite worth.  Why? The creator of everything became you, a human being. And that change wasn’t some magic trick.  No God got vulnerable.  God suffered.  God even died.   But all of that tells you, that this love isn’t an illusion.  It’s real.  It’s a love sealed with God’s very life, God’s flesh and blood.  And why did God do that?  So, God could bring you home, so God make you his beloved child, so that you can know whatever happens, this love will never change. You get it.  You are invited.  You are welcomed.  You are loved.  You are truly, infinitely, totally, completely loved. And the more you know that, the freer you become, the more you become.  And as that change comes, it goes deep down, right to the foundations.  And as by God’s love and grace, you come to believe that love, to trust it, to rest in it, then you discover joy and hope and love and meaning not just for yourself but for others, for this entire world.  You discover it not because of anything you’ve done, but because you have come to know, what God in God’s amazing love has already done for you.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

In An Increasingly Impatient World, How Do You Find the Patience to Wait? Here's How

Growing up, this time of year used to drive me nuts.  Christmas seemed to come soooo slow. That date, December 25th seemed to hang out there, way further down the calendar than I wanted.  Of course, I didn’t want it to come so we could celebrate the baby Jesus a little earlier.  No, I wanted the Santa loot.  I wanted the swag under the tree.   I wanted the presents, thank you very much.     

Now I tried to speed up the process.   I tried the Hanukkah argument.  Those Jewish folks got a bunch of days to open their presents.  So, I’d ask.  Couldn’t we do the same thing?    We could do it in stages. So, we could begin the present opening in Advent, kind of like a Christmas Hanukkah, a Christakah?   I’m sure Santa wouldn’t mind.   But that argument, can you believe it, did not work.  I couldn’t convince my parents, much less Santa.  

I did get my parents to agree that we could open one family gift on Christmas Eve.  But that just made it worst.   Once I got that little taste of the Christmas loot, I wanted it all.    

Then one year, I discovered a loophole or at least I thought I had discovered it.  I woke up Christmas morning, super early, who knows maybe 5 AM or even 4.   I went to check the tree, And, what a joyous sight I saw.  Santa had delivered!  Christmas had come! 

Now granted no one else knew, but I did.   There the presents lay, just waiting to be opened.  I tried to wake the family.   But Mom and Dad were not excited at all.  They even seemed irritated.  Dad even yelled for me to get back to bed right now!

But how could I do that!  Santa had come.  Those presents yearned to be opened. I could feel it. And I was ready and waiting to open them.  And well, it was Christmas Day.   So, I began to rip away.   I did hear a little voice inside saying, “Ken, is this really a good idea?”  But I told myself.  “It’s Christmas, and the presents are here.  This is perfectly legit.”    But when my parents woke up, they didn’t see my reasoning at all.  My dad even yelled at me.  He said, “Ken, you’re 25 years old.  You should know better.”    And looking back, I admit, he might have been right.         

I sat around while everybody else opened up their gifts.   And as they did, I regretted my solo act.   It paled in comparison to what was happening around me.  I had had no one with whom I could share the joy.   I realized.  I had missed something, something wonderful that I would not get back, at least not that Christmas, all because I couldn’t wait.

Now, ironically, Christmas still drives me nuts.  But this time, it drives me nuts because it seems to come too fast.   Christmas already?  I’ve still got so much to do! 

And whatever you feel about Christmas, whether it comes too fast or too slow, do you ever get frustrated at the timing of things.  Do you find it hard to wait?    If anything, people find it harder to wait more now than ever.  Forget waiting for Christmas.  We get frustrated if a webpage takes more than a few seconds to load.   And Amazon first did two-day delivery.  Now it’s one-day.  And soon, it will be one hour.  Why?   People just can’t wait.
But is that good?   Sometimes in life, you need to wait, don’t you?  If a baby comes too early, that early arrival risks that child’s very life.   And in life, have you ever not waited and wished you had, like I did that Christmas?  Have you spoken rash words you wish you could take back?  Have you made rushed decisions that you now regret?  Or maybe you wonder if you gave up too soon?  If only you had waited.  

Waiting carries more wisdom than we might like to admit.  But still you can resist it.  So how do you wait?  How do you do it with patience, even when you’re so tempted to lose it.  In this season of waiting Christians call Advent, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

How do you wait when waiting feels so hard?  In these words, God tells you.   The reason folks struggle to wait has very little to do with the timetable.  But it has everything to do with the perspective.  What needs to change isn’t the timetable.  What needs to change is your perspective.

Just take a look at these folks to whom James is writing.  They were expecting Jesus to return but Jesus wasn’t.   And that was becoming a big problem.  Things were getting scary.  Persecutions were heating up.   Life was getting harder than ever.  And they were asking.  Where is Jesus?  When is he coming?  When is he going to deliver us? 

And in James words, how does God answer those questions.  God tells them “It’s not your time-table.”     Now you want it to be your timetable.  But that’s your problem.   It’s why God talks about farmers.  After all farmers know that their farms don’t operate on their timetable.  The sprouts don’t pop out of the ground on their schedule.   The rains don’t come when they expect them.  They get it.  They realize.  We’re not the ones in control here.  They can only do their part, and then wait for God to do the rest.   And if a farmer doesn’t do that, well, that farmer’s not going to have much of a crop.

And that essential truth, the truth of perspective is what God is reminding you of in this passage.  When you and I get impatient, it’s because we’ve forgotten a crucial truth.  We’ve forgotten what time we’re living in. 

For my part, I like to think I live in KST.   Do you know what KST is?  It’s Kennedy Standard Time.   That’s the time when everything is supposed to happen when I want it to.   So, if I want to get 20 miles in 15 minutes to be on time for a meeting, then I will.   If I want to get an hour long task done in 30 minutes, then it will get done.   

But KST means more than just things happening when I want them to.  No in KST, the people around me will do what I want when I want them to too.   If I want someone to see something my way, then they will instantly.   If I expect someone to change their attitude or behavior, then boom, it will get done.  But here’s the problem.  KST doesn’t exist.  Heck, it doesn’t even exist for me.  I can’t even get on Kennedy Standard Time, much less the rest of the world.  You likely have your own version of KST, geared to your timing, your expectations. 

And yes, even though you know it’s not real, you still can live with the expectation it is.  And when you do, and then things don’t go the way you want, you’ve got a problem.  You get frustrated with God, with yourself, with others. You start that grumbling against one another that James talks about.  You start judging them.  Why can’t they get it together?  Don’t they know what time it is?  

But the problem isn’t with God or with the folks around you or even with yourself.  The problem lies with your perspective.   You’re placing expectations on God and others and even at times on yourself that have no basis in reality.  You’re living in a world that doesn’t exist.   And thank God, it doesn’t.  Because, to be honest, if the world ran according to Kennedy Standard Time, it would be a pretty sorry place.   And I don’t doubt it would be the same with your standard time either. 

After all, what happens when you get worried or anxious about something? Why are you getting worried?   It’s because you think you know.   You know how things need to go.  You know what needs to happen.  But here’s the shocking truth.  You don’t.   You don’t know.   But James is saying God does know.  And thank God, literally for that.  Sure, you may not know God’s timing, but that doesn’t mean, God’s timing doesn’t exist.   

Years ago, a member of my family struggled with addiction.  In fact, she struggled for years.  And I was talking with Warren, an old friend who had many years in recovery.  He asked me how she was doing.  I told him.  She’s still drinking.  I thought he would say something like, “I can’t believe that.  Doesn’t she see what she’s doing to herself?”  Then, we’d commiserate on what a disaster she was.   But he didn’t say that at all.  He simply said.  “Well, she’s not ready.  When she’s ready, she’ll go.”   Do you get what Warren was telling me?

Warren was saying, “Kennedy, stop grumbling against this person you love.  Love her, pray for her, do what you can to encourage her, but then let it go.  Let her and God work it out. I know that you want her to be ready, but she’s not.  And that readiness, that’s not your call.  Ir never was, and it never will be”

And I got it.   Because, if you’re dealing with someone with an addiction, and you start believing that their readiness to get sober is your call, then guess what.  They’re not the only one with a problem. You’ve got one too.  You’re addicted to trying to control what you can’t.  And that addiction creates its own path of destruction.  In fact, it might even work in a perverse way to stop the person you love from getting the very help they need. 
That’s the irony.  When you live in your version of Kennedy Standard Time, not only do the things or people you want to change not change, your impatience can even prevent that change from happening.

Yet still you can find yourself doing it?  Have you ever found yourself angry at God because you expected your life to work by a timetable that doesn’t even exist?  Have you ever become frustrated because you tried to change someone, and they didn’t cooperate?  Have you ever beaten yourself up not because of who you were but because of unrealistic expectations of who you wanted yourself to be?   Have you ever lost perspective like that?  Are there places in your life right now where those things are happening right now? 

How do your free yourself from that desire to control?  How do you wake up from the false timetables that can lead you to try to control what you cannot?    How do you learn to wait? 

Well, learning to wait will carry you only so far. On your own, you can’t produce the patience you need.  Now, you can fake it.  You can act patient when inside you are seething.   You can behave as if you are letting it all go, even when you know you are so not.   In fact, lots of religious folks do that.  But everyone can still see, they’re faking it.   So, if you can’t produce the patience, how does it come?  How do you become patient? 

You realize on your own, you can’t.  At least you can’t anymore than a farmer can grow a plant.  
But what you can’t grow, Jesus can grow within you.  And that happens the more you see how Jesus has been so incredibly patient with you.   In love, God reached out again and again over thousands of years through a small nation called Israel, and still folks didn’t get it.  Even, a lot of times even the Israelites didn’t get it.  Even when God sent prophets, they didn’t listen. But God didn’t stop reaching out in love.    And in ways, that folks could hardly see, God was patiently, powerfully working.  And then in Jesus, God showed up like never before.  And again, so many didn’t see it.  Yet God stayed patient.  In Jesus, God even stayed patient even as he was brutally dying on that cross.   And in that awful event, God’s patient love was even then changing everything.  And thousands of years later that love still hasn’t stopped changing everything.  Even all along that way, even when so many Christians didn’t fully get it, when they went on violent crusades, and did awful persecutions, God’s patient love didn’t give up.   And God keeps loving like that, patiently, unrelentingly, and in that love, God is changing everything still. 

And as you realize how God loves you like that, it frees you to patiently love too.  It frees you to let go of your concerns about others, knowing God is patiently loving them too.    And as Jesus’ love for you patiently grows within, you will start letting go of the false timetables, the unrealistic expectations of others, your own perfectionistic desires.  You will find yourself worrying less and trusting more.  And then, like a seed bursting from the soil, you will discover your patience blossoming in ways you could not have imagined.   You will see Jesus working as you patiently love others, as you invite and welcome them into the love of this God who loves each of us no matter what.   And you will see that love working in you in way that will stun and even humble you.  Yet even as God’s powerful loves moves within you, even as God’s loving purpose gets accomplished through you, patient you will remain, grateful for the One who is infinitely patient with you, who patiently loves you even on your worst days, this Jesus who loves you no matter what. 

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Could You Be Asleep Right Now and Not Even Know It? Here's How You Wake Up.

It drove my dad nuts.   I tried to explain.  “Dad, I can’t help it.   It’s just something I do.   I don’t even know I’m doing it!   I’m asleep, for Pete’s sake.” 

On Saturday mornings, heck, all day Saturday if he could, my dad loved to work in his three gardens.   He was kind of a frustrated farmer.  And he enjoyed having me, his son, work with him.   Let’s say, I didn’t enjoy that whole working together in the garden as much as my dad did.  

So, here’s how it went.  Early Saturday morning, my dad called up the stairs to my bedroom.   He’d ask.  “What do you want for breakfast?”   I’d tell him.   I’d yell out, “Toast, eggs over easy, bacon.”  But when I said all that, I was still sleeping.  Some people can talk while they’re sleeping.  And yeah, walking while you’re asleep, that’s pretty wild.  But how many folks can order breakfast while they sleep?  Well, I could. 

When I came downstairs a few hours later. My dad angrily pointed to the cold breakfast on the counter.  He said. “That’s yours!”  But I had no idea what he was talking about.   It took me a while to realize.  I could not just talk while I slept.  I could hold whole conversations.   In fact, to be honest, I’m asleep right now.  So please be quiet while I preach, I’m trying to sleep.  Now my dad did not appreciate my sleep conversation abilities.  He just told me to eat my cold breakfast, get out and tie up those tomato plants.    

I don’t know if I can still converse in my sleep.   But I know this.  I still sure like to sleep, not that I get that much with a six-year-old.  I love slipping underneath those covers.  I cherish those few brief hours of blissful slumber.  Yet as much as I like it, I can’t sleep all the time.   Sleeping is great, but a life asleep, that’s hardly a life. You gotta wake up sometime.  

Yet sometimes I wonder how awake I really am.  In fact, I wonder sometimes how awake anyone is.  You see.  You can be walking around, talking, even preaching, and still be in a very deep way asleep.  Has anyone ever seen that play Our Town?   In some ways, that play has everything to do with the danger of being asleep. 

In the play, a young mom, Emily, dies hardly before she’s begun her life.  She asks.  Can I go back to relive just one day of my live?  And heaven says yes.  So, she chooses her 12th birthday.  But as she relives that day, she discovers something almost horrifying.   Her family is missing everything.  Her dad is wrapped up with business problems. Mom is caught up in kitchen duties.  None of them see what or who truly matters.   Emily cries out.  "Oh Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me.  Mama, 14 years have gone by. I’m dead!" But still they don’t see, and as Emily breaks into tears, she realizes the painful truth. "We don’t have time to look at one another. . . . Goodbye, world! , . . Goodbye, Mama and Papa. . . . Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you!”  And she concludes with this haunting question.  “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it -- every, every minute?"

That question haunts me.  Do we realize our life while we live it?  Or are we missing it?  Are we walking around asleep and we don’t even know it? If you are asleep, how do you know.  More crucially, how do you wake up?  How do you stay awake?  In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.   

Is it true?  Can you miss your life while you live it?  In these words, God tells you yes.  But more than that, God tells you how you can wake up.   That waking up happens when you realize how Jesus has changed everything.  When Jesus wakes that up inside you, you will see the world as you never saw it before.  You will see the world as Jesus sees it.  But before you see that, you need to see easily you can fall asleep, even before you realize it.   

In this passage God even gives you a few of the ways that sleeping happens.   God talks about drunkenness, sexual immorality, dissension.  And in those things, God isn’t giving you a moralistic lecture.   God is showing you some of the things that lure you into sleep.

This past week, I got a call from a friend.  He shared that he was struggling with his regrets about falling into some bad habits that he thought he had moved past.  I got what was going on.  He had been trying to get this big goal done at work.   And it was totally stressing him out.  I told him. Walk away from focusing on that goal today.  Instead do things that give you life.   Later he sent me a message.  He had decided to take the day to listen to worship music, to walk in nature, to just eat and rest.   Now in giving him that advice, I was simply telling him this.  Wake up!  Wake up to what is real.  If this goal doesn’t happen, it won’t be the end of your life.  Let it go for a bit.  Get some perspective.   

But do you know what I realized as I gave that advice?  I was doing the same thing I was telling him not to do.   Last week, I had two days to get everything done I normally get done in four.  So, as I was talking to him, I was feverishly going through my own to do list, one that I thought allowed me no significant time to consciously connect with God.   So, we agreed.  He’d do his self-care, and I would pull myself away from my to-do list to take that time with God.    

Now in telling you that, don’t get the wrong idea.  I’m not giving you some Christian to do list to help you wake up and not do bad things.  No, I’m describing how the whole falling asleep thing happens.     You see, everyone has stresses in their life, things you worry about.  It may be a personal or family problem.  It may be a challenge at work or health concern.   It may be the problems of the world.  But whatever it is, your first instinct is to focus on it.  I’ve got to fix this or work to fix it.  But often that focus will lead you right into sleep.  What do I mean?

If I had stayed focused on that work, I know what would have happened. I’d fall asleep. In fact, that sleep was already happening.  A scout in our church's troop had taken on the renovation of our labyrinth, and while it looked terrific, I’d noticed that the scouts had not gotten the labyrinth exactly right.  And it was freaking me out.  I’d literally been outside moving the bricks around.  While talking to him, I was still trying to figure out when I could find time to move more.    Do you know what was happening?  I was falling asleep.  Heck, I was already asleep.  In his case, his bad habits were his sleeping pill.  Mine was control.  I wanted that labyrinth to be just right.  I was scared that wasn’t going to happen.  So, I was going to make it happen.     

Now when I sat down and took a few minutes to connect with God, I started waking up.  I sensed God saying to me.  “Ken, that labyrinth isn’t your job.  Let it go.”   And after those moments, not only did I get the work done, I did it awake.  I did it appreciating the people around me, the satisfaction my work gave me, my gratitude for all the hard work those scouts had already done.   And if I had not done that, if I had not let go of my need for control, not only would I have wrecked that day.  If I had kept it up, I would have done a lot to wreck my life. 

In the case of my friend, bad habits were putting him to sleep, dulling his senses, deceiving him into thinking that would help him cope with the stresses overwhelming him.   In my case, my desire for control was dulling my senses in the same way.   And if we had kept them up, it would have wreaked destruction in both our lives.  This sort of sleeping will do that.  So, what woke us both up?   What woke us up was rising above those day to day stresses.  What woke us was discovering some perspective on those issues we were fixating on.  And what helped us do that?  We, in our own ways, connected with God or as Paul put it clothed ourselves with Christ.  We got Jesus’ perspective.    

And without that perspective, you will fall asleep at the wheel.  And when you do that, trust me, accidents will happen.  Wreckage will follow.   In fact, our nation has, in a very profound way fallen asleep.  And that sleep, if we don’t wake up, it will rip us apart.   What do I mean?

Do you see these warnings about dissensions and quarrels?   As I was thinking about those words, I read a story by the journalist Tom Junod about Mr. Rogers.

Over 20 years ago, Tom Junod’s editor at Esquire magazine assigned him to do a story on Mr. Rogers, the children’s show host.   Tom already had a reputation as a reporter who crossed a lot of lines and burned a lot of bridges to get a story.  His editor thought it would be funny to put together this not very nice reporter with someone folks considered the nicest man in America.  

But when Tom Junod interviewed Mr. Rogers, it changed his life.   Tom didn’t like who he had become.  He had modeled his life on a father, who had left behind a lot of betrayal and hurt in his wake.    But he didn’t know how else to be, until Fred Rogers showed him a different model, how you could be both strong and kind.   And so, Tom wrote his article describing just that transformation.  It became such a legendary story it has now become a major motion picture with Tom Hanks.    To coincide with the film’s release, Junod just wrote a follow up story for The Atlantic magazine, one he called What Would Mister Rogers Do?  

In it, he tells a story about Pam Bondi, Florida's former attorney general.   At the time, the family separations on the border were happening.  Bondi, as a strong supporter of President Trump had become identified with them.   And during that time, one June night, Bondi and her boyfriend went to see a documentary about Mr. Rogers.  But when she got to the theatre, it turned others had followed her there.  Enraged by the suffering on the border, these folks yelled at her calling her a “horrible person.”  In fact, Junod writes.  They “shouted in her face with such vehemence that she was flecked with spit.” Even though they tried to stop her, she made it into a movie, though she recounted that “she was shaking the whole time.”   As she left, they accosted her again, and screamed these words.  “Would Mister Rogers take children away from their parents….What would Mister Rogers think about you…” 

So, Tom Junod pondered that very question.  And from his friendship with Fred Rogers, he knew the answer.  It has come in an email from Fred during the impeachment of Bill Clinton, where he wrote of grace and forgiveness, and ended with this line.  “The attitude which makes me (sometimes physically) sick is the “holier than thou” one.”     So, here is Tom Junod’s conclusion.  He writes.  “What Rogers would have thought of Pam Bondi’s politics is one thing; what he would have thought of Pam Bondi is quite another, because he prayed for the strength to think the same way about everyone.  She is special; there has never been anyone exactly like her, and there never will be anyone exactly like her ever again; God loves her exactly as she is.” 

If you know anything about Mr. Rogers, a deeply devoted Christian and ordainedPresbyterian minister, you need to know this.  He was profoundly awake.  He sought every day to clothe himself with Christ, and that meant he had perspective.  Whatever concerns he might have about our current President’s actions, above all, he would say about our President what he said about everyone.  Donald Trump was a child once.  He would invite the President to remember that in order that he might remember that he was still a child, a child of God.   And he would have prayed that our President realize that every day. 

As we enter into an election, one that now lies less than a year away, gaining that perspective is exactly what it means to clothe ourselves with Christ.   After all, even on that cross, as people brutalized and murdered him, what did Jesus do.  He prayed for them.  He prayed.  “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  And every day, Jesus prays for each of us, even in our darkest moments, even we are most deeply asleep.  He prays that in the midst of all our sleeping we wake up to who we already are, God’s beloved children.     

So, in these coming days, vote your conscience, support your candidate, even talk about your thoughts on the issues with others.  But please don’t do it asleep with dissensions and quarrels.   Do it with the wakefulness of love.  Do it with the perspective that no matter what happens, God’s love is already winning the victory.   No matter how dark the night seems, trust the perspective that the day is almost here.  And live in the light of that day even now.   Let Jesus put on you the armor of his light, of this God who loves each of us no matter what.  And as you let Jesus’ love wake you, he will give you the perspective to see beyond your fears and anxieties.   He will help you to see all the works of darkness for the dead ends they are.   Bit by bit, day by day, his love will invite you more deeply into his love, into who you truly are, God’s beloved child.   And you will live in that light, because you know.  That light is living within you.

Let the love of Jesus awaken you to what really matters.  Let Jesus enable you to rise up and love everyone even as Jesus loves you. In the name of the God who spoke light into being with a single word, who came as the light of the world, and who awakens in us a love more powerful and beautiful than we could ever dream or imagine. Amen.