Sunday, June 30, 2019

What is It That Can Lead So Many Christians to be well....UnChristian?

It’s been almost ten years since I read it.  And still the authors’ conclusions haunt me.   I can’t get them out of my head.   They haunt me because I know.  They tell the truth.   After all, they asked people, thousands of people, these questions.   They did the research.  They got the data.  And the data doesn’t lie.   The researchers David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons asked basically this question to outsiders to Christianity.  They asked. How would you describe Christians?   They got three top answers.  They went in this order: Anti-gay, judgmental and hypocritical.  And the lower ranked answers did not get any better.  Almost every descriptor was negative.  

These outsiders didn’t come to these conclusions because of TV or movies or some other media.  They came to those conclusions because of Christians they had met.   They came to those conclusions because of a church they had attended or grown up in.   So Kinnaman and Lyons came to a painful conclusion.  How did outsiders view Christians?  They viewed them as UnChristian.  Thus, that became the title of their book, UnChristian.

Those negative perceptions have only gotten worse.  Now one in four Americans describe themselves as nones, as in no religion at all.    That pretty much ties them with Evangelicals and Catholics respectively.  And the younger you go, the bigger the numbers get.   For those between the ages of 18 and 44, almost one out of every two claim no religion.   Don’t get me wrong.  Most still believe in God.  But living out that belief in a church?  No way.

These problems have to some extent always been around.   Fifty years ago, the writer Sheldon Vanauken said it this way.

The best argument for Christianity is Christians: their joy, their certainty, their completeness.  But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians – when they are somber and joyless, when they are self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration, when they are narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.

How do those thousand deaths happen?  They happen because Christians forget one absolutely crucial truth.    And when Christians do, literally everything goes to hell. What is that truth?  In these words, God shows you the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

What is that truth, that if you forget it, messes up everything?   In just six words, in what you just heard, God tells you.  Basically, God says in these words.   All you need is Jesus, nothing more, nothing less.   But that truth you can easily miss, including here.   More than that, you can even think you are living that truth, when you may be missing it more than you think.  What do I mean?

To understand that you need to understand more what Paul is talking about here.  Paul is giving you some history.   When Paul share the good news of Jesus with Gentiles, he got serious pushback from other Christians.   So, Paul, along with his co-worker, Barnabas, went straight to the top.  They went to Jerusalem.   They went to Jerusalem to tell the Apostles, the top leaders of the church, exactly what they were saying.   So, what did those top leaders tell them.   In six short words, Paul tells you.  He says.  “these leaders contributed nothing to me.”  Now what the heck does that mean?   To be honest, this translation can make you think Paul means he didn’t get any monies or support from them.  It’s like Paul is saying.   I did it all on my own. 

But that’s not what this means at all.   Basically, Paul is saying.  I told these leaders the message I’ve been sharing.   And what did they say?  They said.   We’ve got nothing to add.   You’ve got the message down, Paul.   You don’t need to add a thing.

And that’s crucial because the people pushing back on Paul were telling him the exact opposite.  You do got to add something...  Sure, talk about Jesus.  But don’t stop there.  No, you’ve got to give them Jesus and…this.   And what was this?   These folks were saying.  You’ve got to give them the clean laws.  You’ve got to talk about things like circumcision, keeping kosher, all that stuff.

But Paul said to them.  No way!  I am not going there ever!   Now, I like my bacon, and certainly circumcision is no picnic, but still come on Paul.  What’s the big deal?  Couldn’t Paul have been a little more easy-going, maybe met them half-way on the rules?  No, Paul couldn’t.   Paul knew.  Paul knew why these laws existed. 

You see. These laws qualified you for the presence of God.   If you messed up these rules, you could not go to the temple.  You could not be part of the family of God.   You were not fit to stand in God’s presence.  You were unclean.   And they had a lot of these rules.   Touch a dead body? Unclean.  Have a wet dream?  Unclean.   Be on your period.  Unclean.  

Now these rules came about for some reasonable reasons.  They helped the Israelites find an identity that kept them from getting coopted by all the other religions around them.  More crucially, in these rules, God was making a crucial point.  God was saying.    You can never be clean enough to come before me.   You cannot make that happen.  So, I God will make it happen.  I’ll make a way for you to get clean.  That’s why God put all the sacrifices in place.  God was making it clear in these sacrifices. Cleaning you up, even for a little while, costs something.   It does not come free.

But in those sacrifices, God was getting them ready. God was getting them ready for the ultimate sacrifice that God was going to make.   In Jesus, made that sacrifice.  In Jesus, God sacrificed everything, everything to make you clean, not just for a little while, but for forever.  In Jesus, God offered up everything so that nothing would keep you from the presence of God ever again.   God opened that door forever.  And nothing, God says, not even death will close it. 

But Paul knew. Putting those clean rules out there again, that changes the whole message.   Those rules told you.   Jesus is not enough to get you there.  You need more.  You need more to be clean.  You need more to be fit for the presence of God.   But you don’t.  That’s the whole point.    All you need is Jesus, nothing more, nothing less. 

Now you might think.  Ok, that’s great and all.   But I eat bacon.   And sure, I may not want to touch a dead body, but not because I think it takes me away from God.  What does any of this stuff have to do with me?   It has to do with you because you may have your own cleanliness code and not even know it.   What do I mean?

When God gave the children of Israel these rules, they backfired.  They began to think they could keep them.   They could make themselves clean.   But this delusion just gave them anxiety and fear.   It gave them self-righteous and judgmentalism.  It didn’t bring them closer to God.  It took them further away.  But they thought, they were closer to God than ever.  It made them slaves.  But they thought they were free. 

The same thing can happen to you.   It happened to these folks criticizing Paul.  They thought they were Christians.  But they didn’t get it at all. 

You can believe in Jesus, even become super-involved in your church, and miss the truth.   You can think you’re close to God when you are further away than ever.  How?  You’re not really believing it’s Jesus, nothing more, nothing less. No, you believe.  It’s Jesus, yes and….(you fill in the blank)

How do you know, you might have a Jesus and something else?  Let me ask you a few questions. 

Is there some-thing that if you fail at in your life it crushes you, overwhelms you with guilt.  It makes you doubt yourself, your worth, your value.   You’ve got a Jesus and…   

Is there something that you fear or get anxious about not having or losing too much?  You’ve got a Jesus and…...

Is there something you are driven to have?  You feel you must have this or your life will not be complete, fulfilled?   You’ve got a Jesus and…..

Is there something that if you don’t get it or you lose it, you get so angry.  Why?  It means that much to you.   You’ve got a Jesus and…..

Something is enslaving you.  It has come to mean too much.   Think about it.  If all you ultimately need is Jesus, nothing more and nothing less, then you don’t need to sweat anything ultimately.   To riff off of the well-known book title.  Don’t sweat the small stuff.  And when you have Jesus, it’s all small stuff.   

Or think about it another way.   If you attend a church, have you seen someone in church and thought?   It’s nice that they’re here but they really need to do something about that smell or that attitude or that behavior.   But if it’s Jesus alone, nothing more and nothing less, does that ultimately matter?   Is it possible that you are putting in an "and" after Jesus?  As in yes, you need Jesus, but you kinda also need to do this to fit in here.  But if Jesus has taken you just as you are, with all your baggage.   Then that means, everyone who comes in belongs here.  It’s not our family.  It’s God’s.  And in Jesus, God paid the ultimate price so that you can come, I can come, anyone and everyone can come, so that everyone belongs.   It’s Jesus, nothing more, nothing less.  

And when we forget that, that’s when the judgmentalism rises up, when the self-righteousness comes, when we fall back into slavery, when Christianity dies a thousand deaths.   But when God reminds you that nothing matters but Jesus, what God has done for you in him, that frees you.  It frees you to live in this glorious truth.  God has made you and I utterly clean, utterly worthy, utterly beloved.  And nothing can change that now or forever amen. 

Sunday, June 23, 2019

How is Life more like that Classic Movie The Matrix than You Might Think?

I can’t believe it.  It’s been twenty years since it came out.  When I saw it, I thought.  This is such a cool movie.   Lots of other agreed.  It made almost half a billion at the box office.  It scored four academy awards.  Twenty years later, I still think it’s one of the coolest movies I’ve ever seen.  And this clip below may give you some idea of how cool this movie is.  See what you think or if you've seen it before, then simply enjoy! 

For those who don't know the movie, it tells a story of how evil supercomputers have taken over the world.  They have put human beings into this virtual reality world.  That way, they can use our bodies as batteries to keep up their evil computer ways, while we don’t have a clue.   The movie has these incredible special effects, slow-motion kung fu moves. 

But beyond all that, Christians, lots of Christians, got super excited about this movie.   Why?  They saw in this movie what had happened to them, what happens to everyone who gets the gospel.  And they were kinda right.  If you’ve truly experienced the gospel then this movie, The Matrix, has more to say to that experience then you might think.  How does an action movie with super computers and kung fu do that? In these words, God points the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

What the heck do the heroes in this movie, The Matrix. have in common with people who have experienced the gospel?   More than you think.   In “The Matrix”, when Neo, the character played by Keanu Reeves takes that red pill you just saw in that scene.  That red pill changes everything.  His whole perspective on himself, on the world around him changes radically.  He still walks around in that world.  But he knows.  He will never see himself or that world the same way again.   And when you experience the gospel, that happens to you.  In the words you just heard, God shows you how.

Right at the beginning you see the first way that the gospel changes you in one simple word, that word “called” as in:  I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ.  

That word called may not seem all that significant because for us calling doesn’t have that much power.   If you’ve ever had kids or worked with them, you know that.   

Pretty much every morning, I have the job of getting my son, Patrick into the shower.   I shower first, and then I call him.   And I call, and I call, and I call, and finally, Patrick shows up.  I get it.  I behaved no differently.   As one person put it.  “A good way to prepare yourself for parenthood is to talk to rocks.  They have similar listening habits.” But it’s not just kids. 

In our lives calling doesn’t have that much power even with animals.   Heck, I might call my cat, but who knows if he’ll even show up.  Sometimes he does.  Sometimes he doesn’t.  And dogs aren’t much better.   The famed cowboy Will Rogers put it well.  “If you get to thinking you're a person of influencetry ordering somebody else's dog around.”  We might call, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to come. 

But when you’ve experienced the gospel, you’ve experienced a call that does have power. It has in some strange way compelled you to come. That call doesn’t need to be some dramatic intervention to have power.

When I first started in ministry, I visited a young mom in the hospital.  I don’t remember why she was there, something relatively minor.   I didn’t even go because she belonged to the church.   The hospital had called because she had put down Presbyterian/Reformed on her intake form.  But when we visited, she did start attending the church.   She got more and more involved until one day she decided to join.

And as the elders, the church leaders, met with her, she shared her story.  She talked how she had grown up in a Reformed church in upstate New York, how she always enjoyed church.  But then her story took a turn.  She said.  “But ever since I started coming here I want to read and study the Bible so much.   I just find myself wanting to pray all the time.  I don’t know what is happening to me!”  And Lydia, this dignified Puerto-Rican preacher’s daughter, looked at her and said. “That’s conversion, honey! That’s what’s happening to you.”   The whole place cracked up. 

And if you’ve experienced the gospel, whether it happened dramatically or more like with that young mom, you know this.  Some power has acted on you.  That power has called to you in a way that has changed you.   You’re not the same person.   A power has intervened in your life.    

And why is that?  You know something.  Like Neo, you have discovered a truth, an insight, that changes everything, everything about how you see yourself and how you see the world. 

But here’s the strange thing, it’s easy to get the truth confused with something that’s not the truth at all.   They look the same but they’re not.  In fact, you can be active in churches for years and still not get it.    It’s easy to get the message confused.  After all, the Galatians did. That’s why Paul is writing them.  Folks have duped them with what Paul calls a perverted message, a twisted, inside out, version of the gospel.

Every now and then it happens.  I’m rushing to get ready in the morning.  I throw on my undershirt, and other clothes and off I go.   But then that night as get undressed, something seems a little off.  I realize, I had gone the whole day wearing my undershirt inside out.  Yet I had not noticed anything off at all.   The same thing happens when you experience the twisted gospel.  Except you don’t just go for a day with the message turned inside out.  You go for years like that.    

It’s been over twenty years ago, but I remember the scene like it was yesterday.  Two of the elders in the church I served on Long Island, Doris and John, were taking an evangelism course from me.   They were learning a simple way to explain the gospel to someone who was seeking.   I quickly laid out this gospel explanation and asked if they had any questions.  They just stared at me with the most puzzled expressions. 

Then one of them said.   I don’t think I’ve done that.   But I thought.  They were elders.  Heck, one of them served on the search team that brought me to the church.  He led our mission to El Salvador.   So, I explained it again.  And this time, they both looked at me and said.  “No, we haven’t done that.”   Stunned I asked. “What do you think the message of the gospel is?”  Basically, they said. 
 “Well, God wants us to do our best, and then God will see our sincere efforts and reward us.”  

They thought it was all about what they did for God.   But that night, they realized. The gospel had nothing to do with that at all.   It had everything to do what God had done for them.   Their doing had nothing to do with that at all.   So that night, two dedicated elders became Christians.   After decades of being in church, they finally got the message.            

And when you get the message, the real message, it does change everything.  You suddenly see the falseness in the world that has been there all along.   You realize as Paul puts it God has rescued you from this present evil age. 

In the Matrix, when Keanu Reeves’ character, Neo, takes that red pill, he realizes. The whole world he knows has been an elaborate lie.   It looks real, but it isn’t real at all.   Now we don’t live in a computer simulation, but have no doubt, most people are living in worlds, at least inside their heads, that are elaborate lies.   

People live thinking.  Oh, if I experience just enough pleasure or money or success or have a great family or a loving spouse or popularity or whatever, the list goes on and on.  Then I’ll know.   I have value.  I have worth.  I’ll be content.   But it never happens.   So, they go through life, living in this false world, and wonder why they sense something is always missing. It’s because something is.   They’re missing the truth.  They think they’re free, but they’re not at all.   They’re slaves to the lies. 

But when you see, the creator of the universe became one just like you.  When you see in Jesus this God gave up everything just to bring you home. You get it.  I already have ultimate value.   I already have love without end.   Then you see the world for what it is, a place filled with God’s love.  And once you see that world of love, you see how false all those other worlds are.  

And you know that not just because of some message.  You know that because in this message  you have come to know God not as a fact or idea, but as a person, someone who loves you like no other.   Close to 2000 years ago, an African Christian named Augustine described it well.
You called, You cried, You shattered my deafness,
You sparkled, You blazed, You drove away my blindness,
You shed your fragrance, and I drew in my breath and I pant for You.
I tasted and I hunger and thirst.
You touched me, and now I burn with longing for Your peace.

When you get the gospel, you get that.  You get Jesus.  Once you have Jesus, you never want to let him go.  Instead you want more.  Every day, you love talking with him.  You love his presence, his love, his utter faithfulness.   And if you feel that or even yearn to feel it, the gospel has taken hold of you.   Has the gospel done that?  Has it taken hold?  If not, make today the day you let it.  

Sunday, June 16, 2019

What is a Christian, anyway? Really?

Over a 150 years ago he wrote it about something that, thank God, doesn’t even exist anymore, at least in this country.  But gosh his words shook me.   He painted an awful picture, one I couldn’t deny.   What he was writing had to be true.  No other explanation existed. 

In the 1840s, a man wrote and then published a book destined to be an American classic.  He called it; Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Am American Slave written by well, Frederick Douglass.    And what he writes of his awful suffering as a slave deeply troubles me.   How could it not?   But that’s not what shook me.   What shook me is this.  All but one of Frederick’s owners, men and women who brutalized him and others, these people who regularly terrorized, even murdered defenseless human beings, they all proclaimed themselves to be Christians.  And the one owner who treated him the least cruelly.  That guy wasn’t a Christian at all.

How could that be?   Douglass, a devout Christian himself, comes to only one conclusion.  He puts it this way at the end of his book.   He writes:

What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the slaveholding religion of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest, possible difference--so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. 

And trust me, it doesn’t get any better from there.  Douglass talks of slave-holding pastors who did horrifying things to vulnerable human beings Monday through Saturday, and then preached to their congregations on Sunday.   And do you know what shakes me about that?  These folks really thought they were Christians.   They honestly believed that.   But they weren’t, not at all.   Frederick Douglass was right. 

Here’s the truth.  You can get deeply involved in a church, even become a leader, a pastor even, and never become a Christian.  You think you are.  In fact, you may be sure you are.  But that doesn’t change the fact.  You’re not.  You don’t really get the gospel at all.  And that’s as true now as it was when Douglass wrote those words.   How can that be?   More crucially, how do you know, you’ve gotten it, really gotten the message?   In these words, God points the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

How do you know you’ve got it?   How do you know you’ve truly experienced what Jesus came to bring?   What is it that makes a Christian after all?    In these brief words, God tells you.  What makes you a Christian has absolutely nothing to do with what you do.   It has everything to do with what you believe. 

In fact, this whole idea of doing messes up everything.  Ok, it’s not so much the doing as what people think the doing means. 

Let’s say you are married.   And you develop an attraction to a nice-looking co-worker.  One thing leads to another.   You end up having an affair.   It goes on for a while, until your spouse finds out.   Once that happens, it only gets worse.  The marriage crashes and burns: divorce, custody battles, the whole ugly mess.   Now once that happens.  What do you think about yourself? 

Let’s say, you think like this.  What an awful person I am, selfish, destructive, hurtful to others. And you know what.  You would be exactly right.  But you’re having an affair and blowing up your marriage didn’t make that true.  Sure, all that ugliness inside of you showed up in how you messed up your marriage.  But the ugliness existed before that.  It existed in you from the beginning.   Don’t feel too bad.   You’re not alone.   The same ugliness exists in everyone.    Nobody gets a pass.

But here’s the problem.   Let’s say you are married.  And you never cheat on your spouse.   You stay totally faithful over decades and decades of marriage.   So, what do you think then?   Would you think?   What an awful person I am, selfish, destructive, hurtful to others.   If you’d think to yourself, no, that couldn’t be me, you would be wrong.   It is you.  It is you because it is everybody.  Nobody gets a pass.   Your “not cheating on your spouse” doesn’t change that at all.  But if you think it does change things, you’ve got a big problem. 

Now, why would that be a big problem?  Well, first, let’s get honest.   Nobody keeps accurate scorecards.   You go through your life, always grading yourself on a curve.  But you don’t grade anybody else that way.   You see someone texting on the road, and you think, “Sheesh how reckless of them.  They’re going to kill someone.”  But then you are driving and a text pops up.  And as you reply, you think.  “Well, this is too important.  I have to reply now or I’m not like those other drivers, I can text safely.”   It’s why Dave Barry, the columnist for the Miami Herald  wrote these wise words.   The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion or ethnic background, is that we all believe we are above-average drivers.”

Everybody grades themselves on a curve.  But all this grading on a curve points to the deeper problem.   It means you think it’s about the grades.   Somehow there exists out there a cosmic passing grade.  And all you need to do is get it.    

Decades ago, I was having dinner with an old friend in New York.   We had grown up in the same church.   Now, he had become a successful magazine editor.   And he was flying pretty high, cushy expense account, the right parties, the right people.  But still he worried if he was right.  He said to me.  “Kennedy, I think I am just staying good enough so that I will be ok with God in the end.”   And I said to him, “Kelly, it doesn’t work that way, not at all.”    But he thought it did.  

And because people think that way, the whole world gets messed up.  Those slave-owners that brutalized Frederick Douglass and countless others, they had a cosmic grading system.  And somehow that system rationalized all sorts of cruelty. It even deceived them into even thinking they were doing something good.  After all the Nazi’s had a cosmic grading system too.  But the systems don’t have to be that evil to be destructive.  People create all sorts of cosmic grading systems.   If I am successful financially, then I am good.  Or if I have power or fame or popularity, I’m good.  If I’m a good spouse or parent or worker or whatever, I’m good.  I could go on.  You have countless versions of these cosmic passing grades.  But none of them, none of them are right.   And none of them brings you or this world peace, but instead the opposite.

Still, they are right in this.  There is a cosmic passing grade.   But don’t worry about it.  You’ve already failed.   Everybody has.

And in just a few words in the opening of this letter, Paul is pointing both to that painful reality, and to its solution.  In fact, in just five of Paul’s words of greeting here, he gives you that solution.   He writes.  Grace to you and peace.   Paul is saying.  You want peace. You’ve got to experience grace.   But what the heck is grace?

Basically, grace simply means someone rescues you.   If you’re drowning in the ocean, and the lifeguard sees you.   Does she evaluate first whether she thinks you’re worthy of rescue?  No.   You could be a drunken, reckless idiot drowning in the waves.   She’ll still go after you.  But for her to rescue you, you do have to be willing to be rescued.  You need to admit.  Only her intervention will save you from death.   You can do nothing.  She has to do everything.      

That’s exactly what Jesus did.  Jesus became the cosmic lifeguard that “rescues us from this present evil age” as Paul puts it.   And in that rescue, he died to save you.   What did Jesus save you from?  He was saving you from the delusion you could save yourself, that you could make the passing grade.    That’s the heart of this present evil age, that delusion.   But for Jesus to rescue you, you have to admit you need to be rescued.   You have to admit you are drowning, that your deadly doing is killing you.  

And for that rescue to happen, you need to believe two things.  First, your doing can do nothing.  And nothing you do will change that.   But then you must believe that God loves you as you are with all the awfulness, all the selfishness, all the brokenness your doing tries to hide.  In fact, God loves you so profoundly that in Jesus God gave up everything to rescue you. 

And as Jesus enables you to believe in that love in the deepest part of who you are, it does change what you do.   But it begins with believing.  It begins with knowing deeply who you are, a beloved and broken child of God, a child for which God gave everything to bring home.   And when you know that, really know that, then you know the gospel.  And that knowing frees you to live more freely then you ever thought possible. It frees you from judgment and self-righteousness because you know how messed up you and everyone is.  And it frees you from anxiety and insecurity because you know how utterly valued and loved you are even in your brokenness.   And as you experience that freedom more and more, you realize how beautiful, how wondrous, how utterly life-changing this good news is.  

Sunday, June 9, 2019

How do You Know When to Hold on, and When to Let Go? Here's How

I’ll be honest.  I don’t think I’ve even heard the whole song.   At least, I don’t remember hearing it.  But I do remember this famous line.  You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, and it goes on from there.   It’s an oldie but goodie, The Gambler, Kenny Rogers

Why was I thinking of that song?  It’s because I was asking myself that question.  How do you know?   How do you know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em?    How do you know when you are heading down a dead-end road, that you need to cut your losses and move on?  How do you know when you do need to hold on, to not give up, no matter how difficult it seems? 

In these words, God points the way.  So, let’s listen and hear what God has to say.  And today as we hear God’s word, we’re going to hear it in a unique way.  Today, we celebrate what you might call the Birthday of the church, a church that now crosses countless cultures and languages, that spans the world.  So, to honor the wondrous diversity God has created you will hear the passage in just a few of those languages in which God’s good news has come. 

How do you know?  How do you know when to hold ‘em, and when to fold ‘em?  How do you know when you need to hold on, and when you need to let go?   In this story, God tells you.   You will know when you know what voice you are truly listening to, the voice of fear or the voice of love? 
After all, why does Elisha stay with Elijah?  At first, I thought it was because Elisha wanted the pay-off.   He wanted a double helping of Elijah’s spirit.  He wanted the power.   But now I get it.  He didn’t stay with Elijah because he wanted something.  He simply wanted Elijah. He stayed because he loved his friend, his teacher.   And he asked for that double portion of spirit for the same reason.  It took a poem written by a dead son to his dad for me to get that. 

Have you ever heard the name Leighton Ford?   At one time, he was a  big deal in the Christian world.   He preached in stadiums to tens of thousands.   Since he was the brother-in-law of Billy Graham, Time Magazine even speculated he would succeed Billy if he retired. 
And, Leighton had a son, Sandy, who aspired to follow in his dad’s footsteps.  But, at 14 Sandy had been diagnosed with a syndrome that creates arrythmias in the heart.  Still after surgery at Duke University all seemed fine.  For a few years, it was. Sandy ran track.  He enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill.  He even fell in love.   But shortly after he turned 21, Sandy went running and an arrthymia struck. He died on an operating table a few days later.  

After he died, his dad found this unfinished poem on his son’s desk.  Sandy had titled it.  “To Dad, for his 50th birthday.”   And there, Leighton read these words.  

What a golden honor it would be to don your mantle, to inherit twice times your spirit.
For then you would be me and I would continue to be you.
In that poem, Sandy Ford was remembering this story.  He saw it for what it was, the story of a great love.   Elisha had left everything behind to follow Elijah, to be mentored as a prophet.  And his love had become so strong that nothing, not even Elijah’s own words would pull him away from his side.   He didn’t want Elijah’s spirit because he wanted power.  He wanted the spirit because he wanted Elijah.  He wanted his spirit, his presence with him always. 
And when Leighton Ford read those words, words of his son’s great love for him, words of an Elisha written to his own Elijah, it changed his life’s direction.   He developed a ministry to mentor others.  He became an Elijah to the Elisha’s coming up in the world.  He invested in a small group of women and men to help them “run their race” for God.  
You see, at first, I was going to tell you to never give up, to persist no matter what.  But does that make sense?  Do you tell that to a woman getting beat up by her husband night after night?  No.   You tell her to get out of there.   And it’s not what God is telling you in this story at all. 
A woman in an abusive situation doesn’t stay out of love.  She might tell herself that, but it’s not true.  She stays out of fear, fear of her husband, fear of the unknown, fear of failure and embarrassment even. 
But Elisha stayed with Elijah out of love.  He wanted to be with his beloved teacher to the very end.  And God recognized that love and gave him that double spirit for which he yearned.
How do you know when to hold ‘em or when to fold ‘em.  You ask yourself what voice are you listening to?  Are you listening to the voice of love or the voice of fear?
After all, when Leighton Ford started that mentoring ministry, he had to fold ‘em a bit.  He had been with Billy Graham for close to thirty years.   He had become an important leader in the church around the world.   To start this new direction, he would leave a ministry where he preached to tens of thousands so he could sit and invest in a room of just ten.   Why did he do it?  He listened to the voice of love, to a God who said.  This is what I want you to do.  Fear would have led him to stay with the familiar, with what had made him famous.  But love led him in a different direction, one he has never regretted.
But when love calls you to persist, to hold on, it will not always be easy.  Sometimes, it will be hard, scarily hard.  You will hear the voice of fear telling you to let go, to give up, to walk away.   But if love has called you there, then love will get you through.
A month or so ago, I read a story about the Paumari people in Brazil.   The Paumari live in some of the remotest regions of the Amazon.   But after their encounters with outsiders, the Jara as the Paumari call them, they found.  These Jara often despised them.  As a result the Paumari had come to hate being Paumari.   And in that situation almost 40 years ago, a 19-year-old woman, Braulia Ribiero, decided to join a four-person team to plant a mission station in a remote Paumari village.   Two members of the team had grown up in the Amazon.  But Braulia had grown up in the city and had no clue.  So why was she there?  She had some training in the Paumari language. 
To reach the village, they first traveled for five days by river to Labrea, a small town in the middle of the Amazon.   But from there, they still had a week to go.  For that they needed a boat that would take them there.   But here was the problem. They had only a few hundred dollars left.   They had planned to use that money for three months of supplies so they could survive.   That left no money for a boat. 
 But then they heard God saying to them.  Give up all you have.  Trust me for the rest.  And amazingly that’s exactly what they did.  They commissioned the smallest boat they could find.  And when they asked the price.  He gave exactly the amount of money they had left.   So, they went on that boat with no walls, no bathroom, no kitchen, just a small diesel engine.   It took five days to get to the mouth of the Cunhua river. There they found a man with a canoe who would take them to Manicoa lake where these Paumari had their floating village.  
When they got there, they got off in front of the first hut they saw on a sort of floating dock.  Braulia used her Paumari to say hello.  “Ivaniti”  Is that you in Paumari.    An old woman answered.  Ha’ a hovani “Yes, it’s me.”   She didn’t seem surprised by these strangers.   Instead, she invited them in for a dinner of fried fish.   And, after an hour of visiting she asked them who they actually were.   Braulia said in her broken Paumari.  We are missionaries.  
At first the woman looked puzzled then she called to her grandson, Danilo.   “Come over Danilo. The missionaries have arrived.  Take them to their home.”   Puzzled Braulia and her friends asked.  “Our home?”  Yes, she said.   Danilo and I built it for you two years ago.   We heard on the radio about the creator, God, and how his son, Jesus wants to help us.  So, I said.  “If that is true, he will send his people.  So, we built the hut for you.”
Braulia and her friends stayed there for six months. They taught the Paumari to read and write in their own language.   They opened a makeshift medical clinic.   They taught the adults better math so that the river merchants wouldn’t swindle them.  But more than that, they changed how these Paumari viewed themselves.   After all, these outsiders, these Jara, depended on them, the Paumari to survive.   Their dependency was mutual.  Their relationship was equal.   And they began to be proud to be Paumari again.   Their years later, that village, now a thriving, productive Christian community still remains proud to be Paumari    
Faced with that choice between food and a boat, fear said to them, Give up, go home. But in the midst of the fear, they heard a voice of love saying.  Trust me and go.  And because they did, they discovered that God had already prepared the way two years before. 
Today we remember how Jesus asked his fear-filled followers to stay behind in Jerusalem, to wait for the Spirit to come.   Their fear told them to go home, where it was safe and secure.  But they stayed and prayed in that city. Why?  Jesus, the one they loved, the one who so loved them, had asked them to.  And so, trusting in that love, they did.  And the Spirit did come, and the world has never been the same.
In the church I serve we face great challenges to reach our community with that same love of Jesus.  And it will take great persistence sometimes against great odds.  At times, fear might tell us to give up or not risk or not try new things for fear of failure.  But if we listen to the love, if we commit to love others as Jesus has loved us, freely and generously, without condition, then that love, that love that has given everything for us, will show us the way. 
And in your own life, when the questions come.   Do I fold ‘em or do I hold ‘em.  Ask yourself. What voice am I listening to the voice of love or the voice of fear?  And whatever the answer, let love be your guide.   And in that love, you will find your way, even on the scariest of days.  For if love has called you there, then love will get you through.   

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Why Your Life Has More in Store Than You Could Ever Imagine

What can you say?  We sat.  We shared stories.  We ate.  We drank.  Folks said words they meant to be comforting.   You can be grateful for the years you had together.  Just know that you were there for her.  She felt your support, your love.  And yes, the words meant something.  But they fell short.   Any words would fall short. 

Last week, I sat at the home of a bereaved husband, the husband of our church’s beloved bookkeeper, Nathalia Meier.   A year ago, Nathalia had seemed health, whole, and now she was gone.   And yes, she and her husband Doug had seven wonderful years together, but they should have had thirty.   Now teenaged kids don’t have a mom in those years when they so need one. Cancer has taken that away.

This week, I got an e-mail from my sister, Becky.   She wrote that her husband, Randy, had maybe six months.   The disease of ALS was slowly taking his speech away.  He could no longer swallow anything but shakes and smoothies.  He could barely walk.   Sure, his spirit remained strong and positive.  But it wouldn’t stop the progression of this disease, the one that has taken Lou Gehrig and so many others.  In fact, this same week, I sat with Joe Dorsey, an old member of the church I lead, and learned that it was ALS that had killed his beloved wife, Marilyn.

And what each of these folks faces everyone will face if they haven’t already.  No one escapes death.    And long before you die, you face the incredible pain of losing those you love.    No matter how old or young they are when they go, their loss still hurts in ways that nothing else does.   That’s why the words that you’re about to hear have such huge importance.  How do you navigate a world where death lives, where it often even seems to rule?   In these powerful words, God shows the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

How do you find comfort and hope in the face of death, not simply your death, but the death of those you love?   In these words, God tells you.  God says.  Christianity doesn’t simply give you a philosophy to live your life.  In Jesus’ resurrection, Christianity redefines what life is.   So, what is your life in that redefinition?   Your life is a seed.  That means, the greatest, most wondrous part of your life is still to come.  

But before you get to this whole seed thing, you first need to understand how God views death in the first place.   In God’s eyes, you don’t ignore death and you certainly don’t befriend it.  You fight it.  And in Jesus God did exactly that.  God fought death and won.   That means.  Christians don’t have any delusions about death.   Death is awful and brutal.  It’s ugly and wrong.  But it’s also defeated. 

Today, generally our world tends to go in two directions when it comes to death.   Some folks ignore it.   It’s too painful to address.   I had friends whose cat died.    How did they deal with it?  When the kids were at school, they buried the cat.  When they got home, they acted as if the cat hadn’t ever existed.  Eventually, the kids figured it out.  Now, that’s extreme.   But our world has lots of ways of denying death. 

Why do stars of a certain age have a hard time getting big roles.  They look old.  It’s why so many of them get plastic surgery.   Heck, in South Florida, where I live, lots of folks get work done for the same reason, to not look old.   After all, old means you’re getting closer to the whole death thing.   And already, parts of your life start dying long before you do.  You may need to give up your car or your home.   Your health gets more and more limited.  So, folks find all sorts of ways of denying what death brings.     

Now, other people say.  Let’s befriend it.   Think of dying as just a natural part of living.  It’s a nice thought if it were true.  But no human being thinks of death that way really.  We resist death, even the death of our pets.    Why do we fight disease, look for cures, celebrate the growth of life spans?   We do it because we know deep within.  It’s not supposed to be this way.   Death isn’t our friend.  It’s not even natural. Death is our enemy. 

So, Christians have no illusions about that or about denying that death exists.  At the center of our churches we even have an instrument of death, a cross.   And, in a lot of churches, we show God brutally dying there.  Heck, right outside these doors we have a place where we bury the ashes of the dead.  So how can Christians be that comfortable around death.  Christians know it’s a defeated enemy.    That’s why Paul even taunts death here.  “O Death, where is your sting?   Where is your victory?”   

And that means death doesn’t bring the end.  It becomes a door to something more, more than anything you or I could imagine.   Forget all those images of harps and clouds.  You won’t find them in the Bible. Think instead of a seed as Paul does here.  

It’s been forty years since I’ve helped to plant a garden, but I still remember how the whole experience kind of bewildered me.  You’d begin with this tiny seed.  Then, often fairly quickly, this tiny seed produced this exponentially bigger, incredibly abundant living thing.  It’s why centuries ago, people thought of human procreation like that, like planting a seed.  It makes sense.  From these microscopic cells comes a being rooted in the cells yes, but so, so, much more than those cells, that it’s almost incomprehensible that one came from the other. 

And Jesus describes his death as a seed.  Paul describes your death as a seed too.  Do you get what that means?  Death’s defeat has opened the way to something extraordinarily more.  It will be a life deeply rooted in your life here.  You won’t be a drop in the ocean or a spirit floating around.  You’ll be you in the deepest sense of the word.  But you will become infinitely more than that.  You will become so infinitely more that it will be almost incomprehensible that one came from the other.   

And when you know that, you don’t need to deny death.  It’s real.  And it still brings heartache and pain.   It’s still an enemy.   But it’s an enemy that has lost the last word.  God in Jesus has that.  And in God’s love, a glory awaits you that cannot be even imagined.  For you are but a seed of what is to come.  In the words of Paul, “what is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.  It is sown in dishonor.  It is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness.  It is raised in power.”   That will be your life to come, a life so wondrous, an existence so breathtaking that it goes far beyond anything we could ever imagine.   It's that good.