Sunday, February 24, 2019

What is the One Prayer that Opens You to Abundance Like No Other?

When he first said it, it shocked me. Then, as I thought about it, it offended me.  But then, then, the words made a disturbing amount of sense.   And since that day I can’t shake off what Andy said.

I heard the words at a leadership conference.  Andy Stanley, a Christian leader, I especially admire was speaking.   I couldn’t tell you now exactly what he was talking about.   But in the middle of it, he said something like this.   “Why are we always praying for people who are sick to get well?   Is that really that important?  After all, eventually we’re all going to die.”  Do you see why that shocked even offended me? I thought. Shouldn’t we pray for the sick?   Andy, what are you saying? 

Then I got it.   Andy wasn’t telling people to not pray for the sick.  But he was saying, don’t only do that.  You see when it comes to prayer, that’s almost always what Christians or just about everyone prays about.    And that’s good. Keep praying for sick folks.   But if that’s all or even mostly what you pray about, you are missing so much of what God created prayer to be.    If that’s all you’re doing, you are missing the most important praying of all.  And when you miss that, you miss the door that opens you and this world to the abundance, God yearns for you and everyone to have.   So, what is this praying that you and, to be honest, I often miss?  In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

God yearns for you to have so much, to fill you with joy, peace, fulfillment.  Yet you miss it.  Why?  You’re missing the prayer that Paul prays here.  You see. To receive the abundance God has for you, you need a whole lot less of you, and a whole lot more of God.   And isn’t that what Paul is praying for here?   

Paul is writing to a church undergoing persecution, hardships.   But what does Paul pray for them?  He prays for them to be filled with the fullness of God.   And in his words, God is pointing you to the door that leads to a fuller, richer, more amazing life than you could ever have dreamed. 

But here’s the problem.  You read these words, and if you’re like me.   You think.  Gosh, that’s nice.  You could almost put that on a Hallmark card, filled with the fullness of God.  But what the heck does it mean?   How do you even get filled with the fullness of God?  And what does that even do for you in day to day life?  Well it pushes you out of the way. 

You see.  That’s your main problem.  You or at least what you think of as you. That’s your problem.   That’s why you need this prayer of Paul’s more than any other.   After all, hopefully, you are only sick some of the time.  But you, that you are stuck with all the time.  And that “you” is messing you up more than you realize. 

What am I talking about?  Well, about twenty years ago, scientists discovered you.  A neurologist named Marcus Raichle was doing tests using a MRI machine.  And he noticed something puzzling.   When his patients were laying down doing nothing, one section of their brain was super busy.  It was lighting up all the over the place.  He realized.   He had discovered the human default mode, the place where you go, when nothing much outside of you is going on.   

He had discovered the part of your brain where your day-dreams come from or that cranks up when you’re remembering something or thinking about the future.  Not only that, this part of your brain, called the default mode network, it’s your capital city.   It controls everything else.  And that makes sense.   Because this part of the brain contains what you think of as you.   Some scientists even call it the “me network.”   For example, if I give you a word like happiness, and I ask you.  Would you describe yourself as happy?  Well, as you think about that question, you know what is lighting up inside you, your default mode network.             

Now you need this part of your brain.  It helps you plan.  It helps you learn from the past.  It helps you do all sorts of amazing things. But it limits you in serious ways.  

It limits what you see.   It only directs your attention to what it thinks matters to you.  Essentially, it blinds you to anything else.  As far as you’re concerned, it doesn’t exist.   In other words, it makes you think of yourself as kind of separate from everything and everyone else.   But here’s the problem.  You are so not separated.  That’s why Albert Einstein called this sense of separateness, an “optical illusion of your consciousness.”     

But beyond delusions like that, this network generates pretty much everything that makes you miserable.   When you’re depressed, your default mode network is working hard.  When you’re anxious, your default mode network is getting busy.   When you’re obsessed about something, yep, that’s your default mode network going to town. 

But here’s something that scientists have also discovered.  When you are praying, especially praying in the way Paul describes, this part of your brain goes quiet.   In other words, you start disappearing.   And the more you pray like that, the more and more this “you” disappears.

And when that happens you open yourself up to a reality that is more amazing, more incredible, more beautiful, then you could have imagined.  You open yourself to be filled with the fullness of God.   And that shifts everything.  As you pray like that, you see people around you differently.  You see yourself differently.   You feel less fear, less worry, less obsessiveness.  You become more loving, more peaceful; more happy; more content.  You become more of everything you desire to be.   It just happens.  

How does it happen?  When I was growing up, every now and then, we’d get a snowstorm.  And we’d pull out our sleds, and head over to a hill to go down.  But after several runs it always happened.   The sleds would start to only go certain ways.  You might start someplace different at the top. But you went down, it would slip into one of the grooves already made as you slid down the hill.  

In the same way, you fall into grooves, ways of thinking about yourself, about the world, about everything.   And you try to change, but those old grooves pull you right back in.  But as you pray, as God’s fullness fills you, it blows the old grooves away.  It opens the way for new grooves, for new ways of going down the hill.  It opens the way for new ways, for true ways of living your life, for in the best of ways, becoming a child. 

That’s part of why Jesus said you must become as a child to enter the kingdom of heaven.   It’s because in young children, the default mode network isn’t there.  That’s why kids hug so readily, why they don’t stress out comparing themselves to others; why they can feel close to God.   Their “you” isn’t yet getting in the way.

So how do you pray like Paul describes?  It can happen in lots of ways.  You can take a small piece of scripture, and just read it, maybe even write about it.  It’s called lectio divina or divine reading.  Google it, or e-mail me, and I’ll tell you more. Or you could spend time in prayer reflecting on the names for God in the Bible, bright and morning star, rock, refuge, shelter, light, the list goes on and on.  Or you could take a walk and open yourself to the beauty of creation.   And in a few moments, I’ll give you a chance to experience a way of prayer that many Christians have used to enter into this prayer of Paul’s.    

And in all these ways, you’ll start to experience one thing, a sense of awe, of wonder at how amazing God is.   And believe it or not, just experiencing awe changes you.   Researchers at UC-Berkeley had volunteers go to a eucalypus grove on the campus.  Some they asked to stare up at the trees for a minute.  Others they asked to stare at a nearby building.   Then they had a woman come by, stumble and scatter her pens.  Guess who were more likely to come to her aid?   If you guessed the eucalyptus-gazers you’d be right.  So, imagine if a minute pondering trees does that, what pondering God will do?

So, let’s do that.  Set an alarm on your phone for three minutes from now.  And in those three minutes, all I want you to do is, take a few deep breaths, close your eyes and focus on a sacred word or phrase.  It could be Jesus or love or God.   I often use the prayer, Jesus, lamb of God, have mercy on me a sinner.  But that’s just me.  The word or phrase isn’t important.  It’s an intention, a way of letting God know you’re wanting God to come be with you.   And as you quiet, that “you” inside you will crank up, sending all sorts of thoughts your way.  Ignore them.  Imagine they are boats on a stream, a stream of God’s love and let them float away.   Instead, return to the word, repeat it in your mind, until it too fades away.  Don’t think anything has to happen.  Just let Jesus work in these three minutes, however Jesus wants to. 

Let’s begin now – 3 minutes.

Now, this journey to God’s presence, to God’s fullness, to some of you, you know it already.  For others, it may be new.   But whatever the case, if you do this, you will find two things always happening.  First, you will find the “you” inside you resisting, telling you, you don’t have time for that or what about this you need to do.  Your “you” does not like to be quieted.  It likes to be in charge.   Second, as you do this, even for a few minutes a day or even on some days and not others, it will change you, slowly but surely, it will open you up to what Paul prays for here.   And don’t get stressed about doing it right.  That’s your “you” talking.   The only way you mess this up is to not do it. Period. 

And why do it?  You do it ultimately because God in Jesus offered up everything so you can.  Jesus on that cross tore away the barriers between you and God.   In Jesus, God died for you so you might have this sort of life in all its fullness.  In Jesus, God suffered utter separation so that you can experience this utter communion, a love nearer to you than your own hands and feet.   That’s how much God loves you.  All you need to do is just receive it.   

Sunday, February 17, 2019

How Does God Enable Your Weakness to Become Your Strength? Here's How

They say a picture paints a thousand words.  So, let me ask you.  Can you remember having a day like this?   On that day, you felt on top of the world.   You felt like you could do anything because anything and everything seemed possible.     Or maybe it was a day where you felt incredibly close to God on a spiritual high or maybe just an emotional high or a day where everything went right.   I love days like that.
But how many days like that do you have?  No one stays on the mountaintop forever.  Even that guy had to come down at some point.   

So that means, you likely have a lot more days like these. These days aren’t terrible.  They’re days
where the road seems long, days where you get weary, days that become one foot in front of another.    But those valley days wear you down.  They drain you. You feel your weaknesses more, and your strengths less.

Yet, these valley days open you to abundance and fulfillment in ways mountaintops never could.  How can that be?  How can every day, even dull days in the valley become days of fulfillment and blessing? In these words God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

In these words from Paul, God gives you a crucial insight for the road that leads to abundance.  God tells you.  Don’t ignore your weakness.  Embrace it.  For in God’s hands your weakness becomes your strength.  How can that be?

Before you can see that, you need to understand how your strength can become your greatest weakness.  Do you see how Paul starts out?  He tells you of “someone” who had this incredible spiritual experience.  But you know who he is talking about.  He is talking about himself.  He is just doing a false modesty thing.

And Paul is talking about something awesome.  I hope everyone has at least a glimpse in their life of what Paul describes.   Like any relationship, a relationship with God has its high points, its times where you feel deeply God’s love.    But like any relationship, high points don’t last. 

They didn’t last for Paul.  No matter how high Paul remembers this spiritual mountaintop to be, he knows.  He ain’t there now.   And he knows too.  Not being there is a good thing.  Why?
Have you ever gone to see a film you loved?  This movie rocked your world.  So, you decided.  I’ll see it again.   But this time, it didn’t rock your world so much.   It wasn’t as good the second time around.  

And even for the rare film that you can watch again and again, you know.  As much as you love it, you have to move beyond it.   You have new movies to see.   The same holds true for everything, new books to read, new places to visit, new friends to meet.  The list goes on. 

But when it comes to God, you can get stuck looking for God in all the places you experienced God before, that song that touched you, that book you read, that place you went, whatever it is.  But do you know what usually the greatest obstacle to the next experience of God is in your life?   It’s your last experience of God.  You make an absolute out of it, as if, that’s the only place God can show up.   But your experience isn’t God.  God is God.  Experiences come and go. God doesn’t.  But Paul could easily have been tempted to get the experience and God confused.  Maybe he did.

Maybe that’s why God allowed that thorn in the flesh, something that limited his life, made his life harder.  Maybe God used that thorn so Paul could find God again. 

I am not a fan of statements where folks ascribe horrible things to God.  Some child dies of cancer.  And some well-meaning person says “Well, God needed another angel.”  No God didn’t.  And even if God did, God wouldn’t give a kid cancer or for the matter anyone cancer to add to his angel ranks.  In cancer, your own cells attack you.  And God never intended that ever.  Cancer is evil.  And God never authors evil.  God fights evil.  God defeats evil.  But that doesn’t mean that God can’t use evil things that happen for good. 

Years ago I remember something that a colleague told me that I can’t forget. We were attending several days of church meetings.  And one night after a particularly long day, she and I and several others got together to drink.  When preachers and alcohol come together, you’re gonna get some theological shop talk.  That night, we were talking about how irritating we all found those comments like “God needed another angel.”  

That’s when she spoke up.   She said to some of the folks in the room who knew her well.  “Do you remember last year, when my home burned down.”  They all nodded, remembering how horrible it was.   She said.  “It was awful. Thankfully none of us got hurt.”   But then she went on.  She said.  Even as I faced the painful loss of so much stuff, I remembered.  I remember what I had been asking God for months before.   I prayed about how my life had become so cluttered, so packed full of stuff, and how it overwhelmed me.  Then she said.  “Well, after that fire, I didn’t have that problem anymore.”  And I realized again how God works in our lives.  God can and will take anything and everything and find a way to use it for good.   Look at what lies at the center of our faith, this cross.  Look at how God used that.

So, I get what Paul means, by God using this thorn in the flesh.   In life, you will encounter hard things.   In those things, you can wonder where God is working.  But God is working, often working most powerfully in the middle of your hardest things, in your deepest thorns.

Years ago, long before I met my wife, I fell deeply in love with a woman I thought I would spend the rest of my life with.   I thought that until she gave me the ring back.   I have never felt as devastated as I did after that loss.   In the midst of that pain, I landed at a family reunion.   As soon as I got there, my cousin Martha reached out to me.   But she didn’t do it to comfort me.  She did it to tell me she envied me. 

Years before her marriage had collapsed.  She discovered the man she married was far from the man she thought he was.  Much had changed since that loss.  She had remarried, begun a family.   But when she reached out to me, in the midst of my pain, she said.  She envied me.  Why?  

She said.  I know how God came to me in the middle of my heartbreak.  I have never felt closer to God then I did in those days.   And as she said it.  I knew exactly what she meant.   In my heartbreak, in my weakness, with my defenses down, God drew nearer to me than God ever has.   Or you more accurately, I drew nearer to God than I ever have.  But it took the most devastating loss of my life to bring me there. When you are weak, in God’s hands, you become strong. 

Still, those moments, thank God, come along rarely.   Much of life, you face the more day to day thorns, the sort of thorn that plagued Paul.   And in those thorns, in that weakness, God can seem hard to find.   But if you look, if you let go, if you’re willing to become weak, God’s strength comes.
Over the last five years, one thorn in the flesh has plagued me like no other.  It has cost me.   It has drained me emotionally, financially.  And it has deeply embarrassed me.   For the last five years, I have hardly gone four months without having an auto accident.  No matter what I do, I can’t catch a break.  If I don’t hit anyone, someone hits me.  Just this past Thursday morning, I took our new car, the one we got after I totaled our old one, for an oil change.  I went to pick it up.   I discovered that someone had dented it, while it was parked at the dealership.      

And later that afternoon, on Valentine’s Day, I gave my wife a new car.   But I didn’t intend too.  I was driving my son to his swim lesson.  And a van turning left crashed right into us.  It ripped apart our front end.  Then it slid all the way down the driver’s side and then pushed us into yet another car.   It was terrifying.  I never saw what hit me.   The first thing I remember was finding myself sandwiched between two cars with my son in the back seat. 

Thankfully everyone walked away.  But my son was so scared.  I tried to comfort him.  At the same time, questions were coming at me from deputies, insurance representatives.   That’s when Nathalie showed up.  One of her friends had been in the accident.  And she came to me and said.   I’m a mom.  Let me take care of your son.  I have a four-year-old in my van.  And in my weakness, I let her, a stranger.   And on that afternoon, Patrick got a new friend named Jacob.  He got two home-baked chocolate chip cookies.   And Patrick and Jacob might get a play date soon too. 

And what I got, what I got was hope.  Earlier that week, I learned a colleague of mine had done a reprehensible thing and caused deep damage to another person.   The news shook me.  And then of course, this Valentine’s Day, how could I forget what happened only a year ago here in this county?   But that day, in the aftermath of a horrible accident, a mom named Nathalie stopped with her two kids, Jacob and Benjamin.  She gave a refuge to my son in his fear and dismay.   She stayed there as long as it took for my wife to arrive.  She was kind and patient and giving.   And she reminded me. Goodness lies all around me.  And God shows up everywhere, including in a Jewish mom taking care of a Presbyterian preacher’s kid.   I learned that in my weakness, God’s strength always finds a way to show up.

So, wherever you are, however weak you feel, whatever thorns plague you.  Know this. When you are weak, God is strong.  If you doubt that, look at this cross. There in the seeming weakness of that broken man, God was strong, so strong that on that cross, in that broken man, God made you and me whole.   In that dying man, God gave you life.   On that day surrounded by hatred, that dying man showed you how powerful God’s love can be.   On that day, God became utterly weak so that, in Jesus, you could become utterly strong; so that no matter weak you feel, you can know, God’s strength will never ever leave you behind.  

Sunday, February 10, 2019

What Is the One Thing that Opens You to the Abundance of Life That You Can So Easily Miss?

He can’t get enough.  When he’s not watching it, he’s imagining it.  He’s a ninja in Lego Ninjago.  My son loves that cartoon.   I get it.  Growing up, I had a cartoon I couldn’t get enough of either.  Does anyone remember Gigantor?    If you’re not sure, this could jog your memory.  Or if nothing else, it’ll tell you more than I’d rather admit about just how old I am.

Looking back, it looks kind of lame.   But when it came to that cartoon, my son and I had the same problem.   The time for dinner came to our home.   My parents called me to come.   They’d call me again and again.   But they didn’t understand.  I was watching Gigantor.  Even when I did make it to the dinner table, I could hardly concentrate.  What did Mom say?  I don’t know.  I was thinking about Gigantor.  The food, whatever it was, I wolfed that down.  After all, maybe I could catch the last five minutes when Gigantor saves the day.  So, when that stuff happens with my son, I get it.   But I also get how foolish it is.    My obsession with Gigantor has disappeared.  But the relationships built around that family table, they have not.   And now that she is gone, what I would give for one more meal around that table with my mom.    

But have things changed all that much from my childhood?  It may not be Gigantor.  But every day, life pulls me, pulls you away from the meals that truly matter.   Life lures you with bright shiny things that in the end leave you empty.  Meanwhile what truly fills you lies neglected, not even noticed, much less savored and enjoyed.   In the midst of life, you can miss what really gives you life.  So, how do you not miss that?  In these words, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

This week, I remembered a quote from the preacher, Eugene Peterson that made me sad.  Peterson wrote thats: People can think correctly and behave rightly and worship politely but still live badly: live anemically, live individualistically self-enclosed lives, live bored and insipid and trivial lives.  Who wants a life like that, an anemic life, an isolated life, a bored, trivial life?  Yet many live it.  You can go through your life and miss so much of the abundance God wants to give you.  It’s not because it’s hard to find. It’s right in front of you yet still you miss it, I miss it.  So how do you tap into that abundance?  How do you not miss it?  Here God tells you.  God says. You come and listen.  But to come and listen, you’ve got to buy and delight.

In fact, the words from Isaiah all work together to lead you to abundance. Take the words come and listen.  When I was sitting in front of Gigantor, my mom would call, but I honestly didn’t hear her.  And as noisy as my life was as a kid, the world has become even noisier.  And in that noise, you don’t only miss God’s voice, you miss your voice.  You can’t even hear yourself.  And because you can’t hear yourself, you don’t know you need to come.  If if you do come, you usually don’t come to where you can actually get what you need.  What do I mean?

Every now and then I’ll run to get a thing or two from the grocery store without realizing one important fact.  I’m hungry.   And if that’s happened to you, you know what happens.  All of a sudden, you want to buy way more than one or two things. Lots of things look good, so good they just gotta go in your cart.   In those moments if you’re like me, you’re not craving broccoli and Brussel sprouts.  No, you’re craving potato chips and Oreos, Fried Chicken and ham croquettes.  Mmmmm. That stuff sure feels good in the moment.  But you can’t live off it.  It doesn’t feed what you need.   In the end, it leaves you empty, empty of what you really need.

In the same way, you can go through your life thirsty, and not even know it.  You’re thirsting for some peace in your life, some relief from anxieties and fears.  And just like the hunger in the grocery store, you go for what fills you in the moment, what distracts you from the fear.  Maybe you immerse yourself in more activity.  Or maybe you turn to screens, to Netflix or Facebook or a video game, whatever. Or maybe you choose food or alcohol, something else that can numb you.   Or let’s say you yearn for security, some way to quiet insecurities that lie inside you.   So, you try to build your resume or get more stuff or try to please your friends more. All of these things, sure, they fill you for a bit.  But in the end, they leave your thirst still unquenched, your hunger still unmet.  That’s why God says, come and listen to me.

Listen to what your heart is telling you, what it is really hungering for, really yearning to receive.  And then come, God says.   I have a feast that fills you up, that quenches your thirst.  But for this feast to work, the listening has to move, from listening to yourself to listening to God. And when that happens, the filling comes.

Pretty much every day I can, I do two things.  First, I exercise, because well, those potato chips gotta go somewhere, and I’d rather it not be around my middle.  But, secondly, and more crucially, I take time to listen to God, read the Bible, pray.   I do that, because, I’ve come to learn, nothing feeds what I need more than that. 

And what I need these days most of all is hope.  I need God to fill me with hope. I get discouraged by the dysfunctions of our democracy. I get heartbroken by story after story of senseless, unfair suffering in our world.  I get intimidated by challenges we face as a church, heck, challenges I confront as your pastor.   And listening to the news channels, to the talking heads doesn’t give me hope.  Facebook and Twitter don’t do it.  Not even reading a ministry blog or how to be more effective book doesn’t do it.  But coming to God does.  It always does.

This past Friday, I was running on the treadmill at the gym. At the same time, I was looking at this app I use for my time with God.  And the passage we just read came up randomly as a scripture for the day.   But as I read it, I realized.  I hadn’t read all of it.  I had read just the part I was going to preach on.   But what God said after those words, that just blew me away.  Here is some of what God said.

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on God while he is near…...“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.   “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.  As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth:  It will not return to me empty.  It will accomplish what I desire and achieve. the purpose for which I sent it.  You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands….This will be for the Lord’s renown, for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever.”

I heard God telling me.  I know you’re stressed out by all the stuff you don’t know, about the world, the nation, the church, yourself.  But I know, God said, and I know what my word sets out to do, gets done.  And you, Kennedy McGowan may not always feel large and in charge, but no worries, because I am.  And like the rain waters the earth, and makes things grow.  You keep sharing my word, and what needs to get done will get done. You will go out in joy.  You will be led forth in peace.

And just in case, I didn’t get it, God put Steve in the locker room that day.  When Steve shows up, I’m not too excited.  He’s a bit of a kooky Catholic, who loves to talk. He talks to me about the mystical body of Christ, his guardian angel, stuff like that.  But I know this.  Steve loves Jesus and know that Jesus loves him.   But Steve has had a tough time.  He’s a retired nurse but lives on a very limited income.  He’s become an Uber drive to make ends meet.  But that stressed him out, because he had a lease car with limited mileage.  And on top of that he had no idea what he would do for a car once that lease ran out. 

So, this past week, he came to the gym because he had nothing better to do.  He came angry and discouraged.  But he told me, my guardian angel, she kept talking to me, telling me to hope, to trust.  And then it happened, his key got stuck in his ignition. He couldn’t get it out.   He thought.  Oh great. So he drove to his dealership.  And while he was there waiting for the car, he talked.  He talked about this mess of a lease he was in, how it was stressing him out.  And the sales manager said.  We can fix that.  For about 70 bucks more a month, Steve said, I was able to buy the car.   And then the mechanic came and said to me.  Your key works fine. It’s not stuck.  Steve tried it.   Sure enough, the key went in and out like butter.  But Steve knew.  “I’m no dummy.” He said, “That key was stuck.  My guardian angel was just taking care of me one more time.”   And I believe him.  Because God’s word does get things done.  It gives hope.  It gives hope to me and to Steve. It gives hope to you, to everyone.    

But in order to come and listen, you’ve gotta buy into that hope, You’ve gotta delight in it.   And why would you do that?  Because this God has bought into you.  This God delights in you.   This God loves you so profoundly, so infinitely, he became one of you, one of us.   And as one of us, he offered up everything to give you a hope that not even death can defeat.  So you can go out in joy.  So you can be led forth in peace.  So, this week, each day, make time, even five minutes, to come and listen, to buy and delight.  In fact, we’ll start today with these words we read.  Close your eyes and read the passage below, every place you find a space, put in your name, to make these words God’s personal message to you.  So come and listen, buy and delight.  Listen to what God has to say to you.

Come everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;_______ and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, ______buy wine and milk without money and without price. _____Why do you spend your money for what is not bread, and your labor for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, _______ eat what is good, delight yourselves in rich food.  Incline your ear, and come to me;_______ listen, so that you may live. I will make with you, _______ an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for you.    

Sunday, February 3, 2019

What Is the One Key Thing That Is Sabotaging Your Life, and You Don't Even Know It

Hold on a moment!  I’m going to do a magic trick.   I’m going to disappear right in front of your eyes.   Here it goes.   (I put my hands over my eyes.)   

Hey did it work?  Did I disappear?   Have you ever played a hide and seek game like that with a child?  She goes over in the corner and closes her eyes.  And she is absolutely certain that you can’t see her.   You might even play along.  In fact, that’s what makes it fun.

But in a very real way, you are still playing that game.  Except in this game, you’re not only hiding from others.  You are hiding from yourself too.  Every day, thoughts capture you, resentful thoughts, fearful thoughts, all types of twisted thinking.  But you think if you close your eyes to them, they’ll go away or at least you’ll go away from them.  But they don’t go away.  And you don’t go away from them, any more than I disappeared when I covered my eyes.  Instead, these thoughts hijack your life, limiting you, holding you back, even hurting you. 

How do you move from a place where you have your thoughts rather than your thoughts having you?  In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

How do you not let your thoughts capture you?  How do you become a person whose has thoughts instead of someone whose thoughts have you?   In this prayer we just heard, God shows you the way.  God tells you.  You turn to the one who knows your thoughts already, so that in God’s light you can see what is real and what is not.

But before you can experience that answer, you need to face up to the difficult truth of how unaware you can be of your own thoughts.   Do you see what this prayer assumes?   It assumes that a lot of times you don’t really know what you’re thinking.   Now how can that be? 

Well, have you ever seen those Febreze commercials?   You know the ones where people sit in a room or car with all this rotting food or stinky stuff around, but they don’t notice a thing.  Why?  Well, of course, it’s because Febreze does that good a job of covering up the stink.   Your not knowing your thoughts is kinda like that but worse.

Years ago, I traveled with this hippie bus company called the Green Tortoise.  This company had retrofitted old buses to sleep about 35 people pretty comfortably.   And over two weeks, these buses carried you across the country, stopping at parks and other sites.  The company said.  “Hey, you may not get a bath, but you’ll swim almost every day.  I had a blast on that trip, but something pretty intense was developing on that bus.   Near the end, I learned what that was.  We were visiting some national park.   Someone saw our cool bus and asked if he could look inside.  Being pretty proud of our funky mode of transportation, we said.  “Of course.”  But he only stepped in a few feet, and then made a very quick retreat.   We wondered.  What was that about?  Then we realized, our funky mode of transportation, was very, very funky, as in it stunk.  Two weeks of 35 unwashed people creates a pretty potent, even offensive aroma.  But here’s the point.  We did not smell a thing.   We were nose-blind.

And in your head, you have thoughts that stink.  But you don’t smell a thing.  That’s why the writer of this psalm asks God to help him see what he can’t see anymore, the offensive stuff, the stuff that stinks. 

Too often in religious circles, people think that what draws them away from God has to do with what they do.  But what disconnects you from God doesn’t begin with what you do. It ends up there sure.  But it begins with what you think. 

So how do you notice the stink, the thoughts that are messing you up?  You notice the emotions they generate.   When you are feeling anxiety or panic or insecurity or discouragement or despair, behind all those painful emotions you have thoughts giving them life.   And as you follow your emotions, you’ll find the thoughts.   And almost invariably those thoughts stink.  But don’t freak out when you find a stinking thought.  Just notice it.   Step back and witness it.  Give it some understanding, some compassion.   But at the same time, let it go.  Let it pass through you.  Don’t let it rent space in your head.

But saying that, only gives you half the picture.   The real answer to the thoughts that capture you is discovering the truth that will free you.   It’s what the writer of this psalm means when he says, “Lead me in the way everlasting.”   What is that way?

This morning, we shared with the kids that come to WaumbaLand, the story where Jesus calms the storm.    In the story, Jesus and his disciples are crossing this big inland lake called the Sea of Galilee.  A huge storm starts up. It begins swamping the boat.   But here’s the kicker.   While the disciples are busy bailing, Jesus is sleeping.   Eventually, totally terrified, they scream at him to wake up.  Jesus wakes up, looks at the raging storm, and simply says.  “Be quiet!”  And the storm stops.   And Jesus asks, puzzled.  Why are you so afraid?

Now you might think.  Duh, Jesus!  There was a storm.  But here’s the point.  That storm represented the circumstances of their situation.  But it did not represent the truth of their situation.  The truth of their situation was sleeping peacefully at the back of the boat. 

When fearful, self-destructive thoughts rise up; thoughts that stink up your life, they don’t come from nowhere.  They come from circumstances in your past or circumstances you’re experiencing right now, often a combination of those two.  But when you know those circumstances are not the truth of your situation, that truth gives you the power to let those thoughts go.   

And what is that truth that frees you?  It’s knowing this: how deeply God loves you, how profoundly God is for you, how God even became one of you, how God even died for you to bring you home, to give you life, even life everlasting.  And when you know that truth, it shows you the falseness of every stinking thought.   Those thoughts still come, but they don’t stay.  Why?  You know. They’re not the truth of your situation.  God’s love, that is the truth of your situation.   And that truth, the more you know it, really know it, the more it sets you free.