Sunday, September 29, 2019

How Do You Find Rest in a World that Never Seems to Stop? Here's How

I hate a cluttered sink.  When I do the dishes, I feel sooo good.  But with my mom, it got a little crazy.   It even made us late, a lot.  I remember countless times sitting in the car, my dad impatiently waiting for my mom to come out.   Her delay often made us late, which drove my dad nuts.   What was she doing?  My mom would start to walk out.  But then she’d see one last dish to be washed.  She just couldn’t leave it there. She had to do it.   She just couldn’t let that last dish go. 

And I get it.  Dishes I can let go for a bit, but other stuff.  That gets me in trouble.  Some scheduled appointment approaches.  I’m getting ready to head out the door.  But then, I think, oh let me finish this last task.  Let me reply to this e-mail before I leave.  Then the I’m driving like crazy to make that appointment on time, usually not successfully.  Why? I couldn’t let something go.  I just had to do it.     
Letting go can be so hard.   And forget tasks.  What about people?  Has someone ever said a remark that bugs you.  Then you find yourself turning it over again and again in your mind.  What did that person mean?  You know.  The turning it over doesn’t help, but you can’t let it go.  Or maybe you’re thinking of some meeting you dread or some challenging task that lies before you.  You start worrying about it.  You know.  The worrying does nothing to help.  But you just can’t let it go. 

Do you know what I mean?  When you don’t let go like that, it so messes up your life.  You create stress you don’t need.  You overload your life.  But more than that, when you don’t let go, it often squeezes out the most important stuff in your life.  What do I mean?  

My dad, who was a pastor, couldn’t let go his work at the church growing up.  He always had one more meeting to attend, one more person to visit.    So, for many years, we, his kids, simply weren’t a big part of his life.  And that has had painful impacts in his life and our lives to this day.   When you don’t let go, it won’t just stress you out or make you late or overload your life.  It will take away the things that really matter.  It will even destroy your health.   It will mess up the most significant relationships of your life.  But still, it’s so hard to let go.   How do you do it?

Here, God gives you the key.  And since God knows how crucially important it is, God doesn’t just suggest it.  God commands it.  In these words, God shows you the way.   Let’s hear what God has to say. 

Why does God give us a commandment to rest?  Sheesh, does anybody need a commandment to take a break?  Well, it seems that we do.

Of all the commandments, God takes more time explaining this one than any other.  God even gets super specific about what exactly no work means.  No work, God says, means no one works.  Not only do you not work, your servants don’t work, not even your animals.  But why?  Why does God get that detailed?  God does it because God knew not only do we need a commandment to take a break.  God knew.  More than any other commandment, people would want to play fast and loose with this one. It sounds bizarre doesn’t it?  God commands you to take a rest, to take a day off.  So, why do you need a commandment to rest?  Why does God think you’d be so likely to break it? 

It’s because human beings get addicted to work, to productivity, to doing stuff.  No, that’s not it exactly.  They get addicted to how all that productivity makes them feel.  Getting stuff done makes you feel useful, important, worthy even.  Your worth even depends on what you do.  And you start to buy into the illusion that if you stopped at all much less for 24 hours, then everything would come crashing down around you.  So, instead of realizing you are created in the image of God, you start to think you are God.

So, God says. don’t slack.  Do your work six days out of seven.  But take one day out of every week to simply rest.  Remember for that one day that it’s not all about you.   Each week, you need one day where you realize you’re not God. 

You need one day where you simply stop, where you let go.   In fact, that’s what the word sabbath, shabbat literally means.  It means stop.  And you don’t stop because you’ve done everything.  You don’t stop because you’ve completed your task list.  You stop period.  Whatever isn’t done can wait.  Why?  You’re not so important that one day of your stopping will bring all creation to a halt. 

Heck, the Bible tells us that even God stopped, and creation didn’t come to a halt, even then.  On the seventh day of creation, God rested.  Yet, nothing disastrous happened.   So, if even God can stop without everything stopping, we can do it too.    

But something in people resists that.  Even though you can know that this command is here.  Even though you know it’s good for you.  You still resist it.   Why can’t we let things go for just one day a week?  Why is it so hard to rest, to let things go?

Essentially, you make yourself too big and God too small.  What do I mean?  Sometimes, I run late to a meeting.  And often, it’s not for any good reason.  I run late because I think that last little thing I’m doing is sooo important.  It’s not.   In that case, not only am I making myself too big, I am also making other folks way too small, inconveniencing them with my self-importance.   

Or maybe you can’t stop because you fear what would happen if you did.  What would other people think?   More crucially, what would you think about yourself?  Do you have an internal voice that rises up to criticize you?  Or maybe you have a voice of fear that warns you of the dire consequences of stopping.  But do you see what lies behind both those things.  You’ve become too big and God has become too small. 

On Long Island where I used to live, many of the farmers that worked on the eastern end of the island had almost become legends in their own time.   Maybe the most legendary farmer of all was a guy named John Wickham.   John came from a family that had farmed on Long Island for over 350 years.  His experiments with growing grapes had helped birth the huge wine industry that dominated the East End.  But Wickham (a Presbyterian by the way) had a quaint practice.  Every Sunday without fail, he shut down his huge farm stand.  One day, a newspaper reporter friend of his named Steve Wick, asked him about it.  He asked him, “John, why do you shut that farm stand?  Thousands of people come to the East End on Sunday.  Look at all the business you’re missing.”   John just turned to Steve and said, “Steve, while you’re at it, which one of the other Ten Commandments do you want me to break?”  Steve never asked him again. 

One thing that I think helped Wickham keep that sabbath is every day he looked at his farm, his apple orchards, his other crops and he realized.   Ultimately, he had very little to do with their success.   Sure, he did his part, but without God that didn’t matter much at all.  God gave the growth.  God generated the fruit, not him.   He realized.  Ultimately, God is a lot bigger than I am.   I can take the break.  It’s going to be ok.  And because he took a break, his workers and the land got a break too.   

For when you make yourself too big, and God too small, when you don’t stop, it doesn’t just impact you, it impacts everything.  

God brings up those years in slavery in this commandment for a very good reason.   God is saying.  You lived in a world where you couldn’t stop.  Your masters made you work all the time.  You know the injustice of that.  You know the pain and the suffering it brought you.   Don’t make the same mistake with those who work for you. 

And yet, we live in a world today that has made that mistake.  Nothing ever stops.  Stores don’t close.   The internet never shuts down.   And it is killing us.  It is forcing people to work and work without rest.  It is even destroying the planet.   And it is all happening because people can’t stop. 

I’ve often said to people that if you want to know your priorities, just take a look at your calendars and check books.  That word about calendars is not simply a way to monitor how much you’re doing.  It’s also to monitor what you’re not.  If you’re not taking a day to stop each week, to simply rest and play, then what does that say about your priorities?  Does it say you don’t trust God enough to let go of your work and stop and trust God to take care what needs to get done.  Does it say you’re more interested in pleasing others than pleasing God?  What does it say that you and I find it so easy to constantly violate this explicit commandment of God?

And so, our life diminishes bit by bit.  We become enslaved to the expectations of others.  We become addicted to the myth that the world can’t go on without us.  We become more disconnected from God and often from one another.   We lose joy, peace, even health simply because we won’t stop, we won’t let go.

But if you leave here today with simply a new-found resolution to rest, you’ll mess yourself all up.  You’ll try to figure out what rest really means and what it doesn’t, or if it has to be Sunday or if another day will do. Your rest will just become another form of work. 

So how do you live into Sabbath?  How do you free yourself from your obsessive reluctance to simply stop?  You don’t.  You let go and let God free you as only God can. 

God doesn’t only end his words reminding them of their time in slavery.  God ends his words here reminding them of how God delivered them from slavery.   God is saying. This is who I am.   I am the God who delivered you out of bondage to the greatest power of the age.  Don’t you think I can take care of things while you take a day to rest?   

But more than that, God is saying.  Don’t you see what you mean to me.  I did that for you.  Your work doesn’t make you more valuable or lovable to me.   I value you, I love you, no matter what you do.  I loved you so much that I carried you out of slavery and into this new land.

And you and I have a deliverance more wondrous than even that.  God has delivered you and I from the ultimate slavery, from even death itself.   God has shown you, your true worth.  God has shown you how utterly valuable you are and how it has nothing to do with what you do.  God showed you that in Jesus.   In Jesus, God gave up everything to give you everything.  And, if God did that for you, you don’t need your work or achievements to give you value or worth.   In Jesus, you already have it. 

And as you let that love that gave everything for you live and grow in you, it will free you.  Jesus will break the fear that prevents you from letting things go.  He will free you of the delusion that thinks that you have to do it all.    He will shatter the lie that anything beyond God’s approval, an approval you already have, truly matters.  And as you let that reality rest in you, the easier those Sabbath days will come.  You won’t feel the need to do one more thing, to cling to one last task.   More and more you’ll hear the voice of Jesus within you calling you away, calling you to receive his gift of rest.  And Sabbath will not become a burden or even a command.  It will become a gift.  It will become the gracious gift of a gracious God that this God always intended it to be. 

In the name of the God who rested on the seventh day, in the name of the God who came to us as Lord of the Sabbath, and in the name of the God whose grace is sufficient for our every need.  Amen.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Names Are More Powerful Than You Think, Especially This One. Here's Why

It always happened when we got my dad mad.   He’d call us, his own kids by the wrong name!  He’d call me Jesse, my brother’s name or one of my sisters’ name.   Sometimes, he’d run through the whole list until he got to the right one.   We’d correct him, usually with a sarcastic tone.   No, I’m Ken, dad.   That irritated him! 

But I get it.  He had five kids.  But I don’t have that excuse.   I’ve got one kid.  Yet it still happens. Sometimes my cat, Moonie can’t decide if he wants to come in off the porch or not.  It drives me nuts.  So, in my irritation, out it comes, Patrick, in or out?  Or it’ll happen the other way, and Patrick becomes Moonie.   Sheesh, at least my dad got confused between human beings.   I get confused between two different species!  

I’m not surprised.   I struggle with names.  Too often, folks remember my name, but I can’t remember theirs.   I remember where I met them; when I last saw them; even the latest news they shared, but that name.   That just escapes me.   It drives me nuts.  Names are important.   It matters when someone knows your name.   You try to think of good names for your kids or even your pets.  

But too often, you can miss how you can mess up the most important name of all.   Yet when you mess up this name, it leads to disillusionment, to disbelief, to a disastrous disconnection between the name and the reality.   How do you make sure you get that name right?  In these words, God shows the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.  

You might be wondering.   How did this one end up in the top ten?   Is saying a bad word that bad?   But God isn’t talking so much about that. What God is telling you here, goes deeper than a curse word.   God is talking about the power of a name.   

In the ancient world, people thought.  If you knew someone’s name, especially the name of a God, you had power.  They were kind of right.   A name does have power.  If you know someone’s name, you can stop the person right in their tracks.   If someone calls your name, isn’t that what happens?  It stops you.  You look around.  You check out who called me.  But the power of a name goes beyond that.  A name can change your life.  It can change the life of the world.   

Near my dad’s home in Georgia, you’ll find a place called Eagle Ranch.   There on this multi-million-dollar campus, a dedicated staff cares for about a hundred children.  Their parents are in such crisis, they can no longer live with them.   And how did this place, Eagle Ranch, begin?  It began with the power of a name.   A guy named Eddie Staub had a dream for this home.  But he and his wife had nothing.  They were literally living out of their car.   But somehow Eddie got a meeting with a wealthy Christian named Loyd Strickland.   Eddie told him of his dream of this home.  Lloyd listened.  Then he wrote a check for $10,000.00.  But Lloyd did far more thanthat.  He gave Eddie the names and numbers of 20 of his friends.  Lloyd said, “Call them.  Tell them.  Lloyd Strickland asked you to call. Then when you meet, say to them.  “Lloyd Strickland believes in you and your dream and he wants you to believe too.”   With the power of that name, Eddie’s dream became a reality.  It happened because Lloyd Strickland not only gave a check to Eddie’s vision, he gave his name. 

Names carry power.  And if Lloyd Strickland’s name had that power, can you imagine the power of God’s name?   When God gave the Israelites that name, God was saying to them, “I’m giving you access to me, to my power in your life.  You are now the people called by my name.”  And with that name comes responsibility.   So God says here.  Don’t misuse it.  Honor me by honoring my name.”   It makes sense. 

If Eddie had used Lloyd’s name to make himself rich, how horrible that would be, to misuse his name like that.   But you don’t have to go there.  Just think of one of the scariest crimes of the modern age, identity theft.   What is identity theft?  It’s a misuse and abuse of your name?  And nobody wants that ever.  Why? Once someone has abused your name like that, it’s incredibly hard to get it back.   Do you see what God is telling you here?  

God is saying here; “I’m trusting you with my name.   Don’t abuse it.”   That’s how the commandment got connected with cursing?   If you say God damn something, you’re saying a prayer.   You’re asking God to damn someone, to cast that person out of God’s presence.  Now, you may not like something or somebody, but do you really want that?  Do you want to damn them?   But abusing God’s name goes beyond that.   It goes to how you live your life. 

Pretty much every day during the week, I wear a shirt that has our church’s logo on it.  This past Thursday, I was impatient to get into a store.   I sort of rudely rushed past the person going into the store ahead of me.  Then I thought.  Oh, I hope she didn’t notice my shirt.   I realized.   I was carrying this church’s name wherever I went.   And if I messed up, they wouldn’t know my name. But they could see this name.     

But I don’t just represent the church.   No God has given me and you a much deeper identity.   Early in the life of the Jesus movement, outsiders began to give Jesus followers a name.   They called them Christ-ians.   Christians.  Do you get it?  Every day, if you follow Jesus, you carry around his name.  

Almost twenty years ago, two Christian researchers, Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman, wrote a book on the perceptions of outsiders between 18 and 29 towards Christians.   And the words they reported hearing again and again sent shock waves through American Christianity.  How did these outsiders see Christians? They used these words: judgmental, anti-homosexual, self-righteous, overly political, and the list goes on.   And so, Lyons and Kinnaman entitled the book on their findings, UnChristian.  That’s how these outsiders saw Christians, as un-Christian.  Talk about identity theft.   

That’s why this vision God has given the church I serve; of Inviting and Welcoming Everyone into God’s amazing Love, is so important.   Because here’s the truth, if you and I are honest, we’ve had our own moments of identity theft.  We’ve carried the name of Christ, when we were not acting like Christ at all.   But even in those moments, God still invites us home.  God still welcomes you.  God still loves you.   And if God does that for you in your worst moments, then God does that for everyone.   Yet so many don’t know that.   They don’t know God invites them like that, that God welcomes them like that.  They don’t know Jesus loves them like that.   And how will they know? They will only know if those who bear Jesus’ name show them, tell them, if Christians live out that welcome and love ourselves, in everything they do and are. 

How do you do that?  On your own, you can’t.   But you’re not on your own.  You can let the name of the one who lives in you do what you cannot.  Remember how Jesus invited you into the love.  Remember how Jesus still welcomes you even on your worst days.  Look at that cross, and see how deep and wide, how full and rich and beautiful his love for you is.   And as you let that love grow in you, Jesus will shape you into the reality of the name you bear.   As Jesus has invited you, he will give you the loving boldness to invite family members, friends, neighbors into the love.  And as that love fills you, it will flow out in welcome and love to everyone you meet, to everyone who encounters this Christ in you.  You will discover.  Jesus has inscribed his name on your very heart.  And you will realize what the Christian, Paul, meant when he said, “It is no longer who I live.  It is Christ who lives in me.”   Amen.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

What one thing powerfully limits your relationships, your connection with God, even yourself? This does.

My dad watches Fox News, a lot.   He also voted for our current President.  He might do it again.   When you hear those two facts, you might be surprised to learn he worked to help poor factory workers while he went to college; that he risked his own job to integrate the church he served in Tennessee.  Or you might find those facts not surprising at all, thank you very much.  

But today, when folks hear someone voted for this candidate or that candidate, many assume they know what that means.   But they don’t.  If someone voted for this candidate, do you know what that tells you?  It tells you that they voted for that candidate.  Period.  But people make lots of assumptions based on that one action.  In other words, people pigeonhole.   And who likes to be pigeonholed?   I don’t. 

It bugs me when people assume that because I serve as pastor at a church, I’m going to act a certain way.   I love it when someone says, “You don’t act like a pastor type at all.”   I don’t want to be a pastor type.   Heck, I don’t know of a pastor that does. 

Do you like someone pigeon-holing you?  Doesn’t it bug you when someone categorizes you with some label?    But it’s more than irritating, it’s wrong.   We’re too complex for that. Heck, even dogs or cats are too complex for that, even pigeons.    

Yet we still find ourselves doing it.   If someone cuts me off in traffic, my pigeonhole comes out.  What a rude and selfish guy!   But do I know that?  No.  He could have just not seen me or even be rushing his wife to the hospital to deliver their baby.   And even if he was being rude, is that the whole story?  Does that driver always fit in that particular pigeonhole because he acted that way on that day?  I doubt it.        

But forget the random stranger on the road, you can pigeon-hole the people closest to you.  You assume (because you know them so well) how they will react to something.   But then you turn out to be wrong.   And that can get you into big trouble.  And even if you’re right on that occasion, it doesn’t mean you always will be.  Nobody fits in the pigeon-hole, ever.     

But right now, pigeonholing has become so rampant, it’s tearing our nation apart.  And too often, people pigeonhole their way right out of marriages and friendships.   They limit their lives because of the limits they’ve assumed about others, even about themselves.   But ultimately all this pigeonholing goes deeper to the ultimate pigeonhole.  And this pigeonhole messes up your life like no other.  It messes up hundreds, thousands, even millions of lives right now. And it could mess them up for generations.   What pigeonhole can do that?  More crucially, how do you avoid falling into it.   In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

When you’re going through the Ten Commandments, this commandment can puzzle you.  Didn’t God just talk about no other gods before me in commandment number one?  So, why does God go there again?  Did God lose track? 

But God isn’t repeating himself.  God is making a whole different point.    God isn’t saying. “Don’t make images of other gods.”  God did cover that in the first commandment. No.  God is saying.  “Don’t engrave any images of me.” 

When God said that, God went against every religion, human beings had ever known.   In religion, graven images is what you did.  You’ve gotta have an image.  That tells you who this god is.   This good looks like a man or woman or some sort of animal.   This god takes care of the sun or the moon.  But God says, don’t do that.  Don’t represent me at all.    

But why?  Why does God hate images so much?  Why does God want the Israelites to go against everything that religion has always meant?  It’s simple.

God is saying.  Don’t pigeonhole me.  That’s what religion does.  It pigeonholes.  And God doesn’t want to be pigeonholed.  God doesn’t want to be pigeonholed for the same reason you don’t want to be.  It’s not just irritating.  It’s wrong.  If you can’t be labeled like that, certainly God can’t.  God is saying, don’t limit me.  Don’t define me to some god category.   And when you make images, that’s what happens.  So, don’t do it. 

If you begin to pigeonhole God, if you define God with some label or set of labels even, what happens?   You’re no longer worshipping God.   You’re worshipping something that may have some aspects of God, but you’re not worshipping God. 

Still, God does get pretty harsh.  What’s the deal with punishment for four generations?   Is God going to go on some sort of vengeance spree on our great grand kids.  No.  God is saying, you disobey this command, it doesn’t only hurt you.  It hurts generation after generation.  

It’s like when you pigeonhole a person.  When you pigeonhole, you have, in a very real sense, stopped relating to that actual person.  You are relating instead to an image you’ve constructed of that person.   You start fitting this person into that image, into the assumptions you’ve made. That person stops being a living breathing person to you.  Instead, they become an object in our head.  And when you do that, you not only distort the person.  You distort any relationship you could have in serious ways.   Now as bad as that is with a person, when you do that with God, it gets a lot worse.    

When you start connecting to a distorted image of God, you have lost touch not simply with another person.  You have lost touch with reality.   That distorted image leads you to distorted relationships not only with God but everyone.  It leads to all sorts of distorted ideas that twist you up, that steer you wrong.  And then if you share those same distortions with your kids then they share it with their kids and so on.   Generations pass, centuries even before that distortion gets made right.   Pigeonholing God doesn’t just wreck your life.  It wrecks life for generations to come. 

You see.  Images limit you.  They can never say enough.   So, instead God uses language.  And that makes sense.   Words have almost limitless potential.   Yet even words, no matter how good they may be, fully get God.   Language helps you understand yes, things like God is love, or God is good or faithful.    Language helps you discover who God is.  But still language can never fully get God.  Nothing can.   That’s why the Bible uses all sorts of words to describe God. Here are a few.   Fire, Refuge, Gardener, King, Warrior, Mother Hen, Shepherd, Bread, Aroma, Clothing, Water, Crown, King, Leader, Holy One, Help, Peace, Banner, Rock.   I could go on, but you get the idea.   But even those words don’t fully get it.  No words can.   

Still like with people, you’ve got to call God something.  So, you and I come up with a word or even a few we like for God, like well, the word God.  That’s ok.  You’ve got to call God something.   It can’t just be.  Hey You.    But what can happen is you start mistaking your words for the real thing.  Without even noticing it, you replace the infinite, indefinable God with your own pigeon-holed version.  And that pigeonhole can twist you up in some serious ways. 

Last year, I did a whole series on images of God from the Bible.  We talked about God as an aroma, as clothing, all sorts of stuff.   But then I talked about God as a woman in labor, an image you find in the Bible.  Sheesh the e-mails I got.   But I shouldn’t be surprised. 

Years ago, I had a pastor couple who did a similar series in their church.  I even happened to be worshipping with them the Sunday that one of them preached a sermon to calm the blowback that series created.    After worship, she invited folks to continue the discussion in the assembly hall next door.   So, I went to check it out.  I figured.  There would be some interesting discussion on what they had been talking about.   I did find the discussion interesting but not in the way I thought.   These pastors walked into a buzz saw of rage.  These pastors had dared to say you could describe God with feminine images, again something the Bible does.   But people got so upset.  The sacrilege, the horror.   I was stunned.  Ok, maybe that’s not your chosen words for God, but come on.  Why are you so upset?  As I look back, I get it.  These folks thought they had been worshipping God.   But they were only worshipping a certain image of God. They had their particular pigeonhole of God, but they had mistaken that for the real deal.  In other words, they had created an idol.  And when their pastors came along, and broke that idol apart, they got mad, really mad.  But a distorted image of God does more than make folks mad.  A distorted image turns people away from the real God altogether. 

When I lived in New York City, I went out to a dance club with some folks.  As we rode in the cab to the club, I started talking religion with the cabbie, who was Sikh.   He asked me.  What do you believe?   I shared about God’s love and how that love in Jesus had changed my life.   But one of the guys in the cab looked at me with this puzzled expression on his face.   As we got out of the cab, he turned to me and said, “That’s what it’s about?  In the church I grew up in, all I heard about was a God of vengeance and judgment.”   And that twisted image of God had turned him away from experiencing the real deal. 

I often meet people who have turned away from any relationship with God because of a distorted image of God that others gave them.   People threw up an idol in their face and said believe this or else.   And they turned away.  And they were right.  What they were seeing wasn’t God.  It was an idol, a pigeon-holed version, a distorted image of the real thing.  But sadly, they believed they were seeing God.  So, when someone talks about God to them now, all they see is that distorted image.   It could be generations before someone breaks free of the distortion and experiences the real God. 

It used to bug me that I couldn’t figure God out.  People would come up to me and ask me a question about God that I couldn’t answer.  I felt inadequate.  I’m a pastor.  I should know the answer.   Now I realize how ridiculous that all is.  I can’t even figure out the people around me. Why in the world do I think that I can figure out God?

In fact, if you ever get to a point where you think you’ve figured out everything about God, than you are in trouble.  You may not even be connecting with God anymore.  You’ll be connecting with some pigeon-holed image you’ve come up with on your own.  You’ll be worshipping an idol.  If God could be figured out, then God wouldn’t be God.  That’s why, God says, “don’t pigeon-hole me.”  The minute you do that, you’ve lost touch with God. 

Still, it’s so easy to do.  So, how do you avoid it?  How do you avoid getting caught up in a false image, a pigeon-hole of who God is?  Well, you can’t on your own.  But God can do what you can’t. 

Do you know what it’s like when you have a deep relationship with someone, how the deeper it goes, the more mysterious and complex the person becomes?  You discover depths in that person you never saw before.  Your assumptions get blown away.  You realize.  You’ll never be able to truly know that person.  But that doesn’t make you value the relationship less.  It makes you value it more.  You realize the wondrous mystery that this person is, that every person is. 

And God wants that sort of relationship with you.   In Jesus, God even became one of us so that relationship could happen.   In Jesus, God even died to make it happen.   That means.  God can become as real to you as the person sitting next to you in the pew, as near as the air you breathe.  All you need to do is tell God.  I want that.  I want to know you like that. 

And if you know God like that already, simply ask this.  God, show me more.  Show me more of who you are.   Use what God has given you to help you see more too.  Read in the Bible.   Talk to God.  Just be quiet and let God speak to you.   Get to know someone and ask how they view God and why. 

But wherever you are in that God relationship, don’t limit it.  Talk to God with different words.  Call God your refuge or your rock or your friend or even your lover (that’s in the Bible too.).   And the more you experience this infinitely beautiful God, the more God will fill you with his love, with her faithfulness, with all the endless wonder of who God is.   In the face of that beauty, you will see every pigeonhole, every idol, for the limited thing it really is.   And the more you live in that beauty, you’ll realize.  You don’t want to settle for anything less.     

Sunday, September 1, 2019

What You Need to Pay Attention To in a Hurricane and in Life More Than Anything Else

It’s happened twice in two weeks.  Someone has run into my car.  The first time someone backed into it while I was dropping my son at school.  And this past Wednesday, I was the fourth car in a cascade of rear end hits.  Thankfully in both cases, my car had no damage.   But it reminded me. Those things can happen so easily.  And they can be so scary.  

A little more than six months ago a car slammed into me.  It pushed me so hard, that I hit another car heading the opposite direction.  The whole time, my son was sitting in the back in his car seat.  Ever since that day, I don’t enter an intersection without paying serious attention.  I don’t want that to ever happen again.  

But here’s what scares me.  I know how easy it is to lose that focus, to stop paying attention.   And today, paying attention seems harder than ever.   My phone beeps at me way too often.  And let’s be honest, it doesn’t have to beep to distract me.  I let it distract me without any beeps at all.   My son can tell you that.  How many times, he has told me; “Daddy put down your phone!” 

And with this hurricane, it can capture our thoughts even after we’ve made the preparations, done everything we need to do.  And you can understand that sort of distractedness.  It’s a hurricane after all But like the dangers of the road or the lure of the cell phone, it points to a deeper issue.  Too often, we’re paying attention to the wrong things.  

Let’s say, stressed out by the hurricane, I yell at my family.  Here’s the difference.  The hurricane passes, but my family doesn’t.  Do you get what I mean?  Have you ever focused on people or situations that in the end weren’t that important, and missed the people or things that were?  Too often you and I minimize those things.  And that is dangerous.  I’ve seen folks not paying attention like that, and big crashes come.  Their marriages crash.  Their friendships crash.   They crash, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.  

And ultimately those crashes happen, because people aren’t paying attention to the One reality that keeps life from just those types of crashes.  And when this distraction lives in your life, it messes up everything.  It messes up you in ways nothing else will.   What distraction has that power?  More crucially how do you make sure you’re not letting that distraction happen?   How do you make sure that you’re paying attention to the most important Reality of all?   In these short sentences, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

How do you pay attention?  How do you pay attention so that the big crashes don’t happen; the ones that crash careers, that crash relationships, that crash you?   In these words, God tells you.  God says.   Pay attention to me. 

God doesn’t say that because God has a craving for attention.  God is saying it because God knows how dangerous not paying attention there can be.  When you lose touch with God, you’re losing touch with reality at its deepest level.  And once you do that, it becomes all too easy to go off track everywhere.     

For the Israelites in the desert, all they had was God.  So it was easier to stay focused.   But Moses is giving these commandments as they get ready to once cross over into Canaan, the Promised Land.  There they’ll be living a whole different lifestyle.  They’ll need to become farmers.   And all the neighboring peoples will tell them.  To be successful farmers, you’ll need to please these fertility gods and goddesses.  You’ve got to give the sacrifices, do the rituals, get those gods working for you.   That’s the way farming is done.  

And in their insecurity, in their desire to belong, God knows.  It will be easy to get distracted.  They’ll be tempted to squeeze God out, not a lot but enough to accommodate some of these new realities (which ironically aren’t actually real at all. They’re false!)  So, as they enter the land, God makes it crystal clear.  Pay attention.  Don’t lose your focus on me.   If you do, you’ll lose focus everywhere.  You’ll start down a road that leads to nothing but destruction and despair.  

And if you read on in the story, you’ll know.  They do lose their focus.  And every time they do, it costs them.  They hurt others.  They hurt themselves.  It does lead to destruction and despair.  And it all begins because they stop paying attention.  And that same lack of attention will bring the same damage and heartache to us.     

I grew up a preacher’s kid.  And my preacher dad got consumed by that work at the church.   He craved the recognition it gave, the status it carried.  Succeeding at it, doing it right often dominated his life    And, that meant that we, his kids got less important.   So, when he was home, he often wasn’t.  A problem at church could made him irritable, even scary at times.   And my dad at the time, thought he was paying attention to God.  But he wasn’t.  He was paying attention to other people, to their approval, to an image of success.   Those things became other Gods competing for attention.   And the more my dad paid attention there, the less he paid attention to the real God, to the God who called him to that work to begin with. 

I have sympathy for my dad.  Why? His false gods have often become my false gods.  I yearn for the approval of others, especially in my work.  And it tempts me to neglect my own family, the family that God says again and again has to come first.   I tell myself.  I’m paying attention to God.  But I’m not.  I’m paying attention to anything but God. 

But this distraction doesn’t only happen to preachers.  Everyone violates this commandment.  That’s why God put it as number one.  It’s because before you break any of the other nine, you always break this one first.  Think about it.     

Can you remember a time when certain fears controlled your life, when your fears factored more in your choices than your love?  When have you been besieged by worry? Or by insecurities? Or by a destructive habit or behavior that you couldn’t let go of?  Or how about those times when something or someone else held your attention instead of the most important people in your life? 

When those things, and the list could go on, have power, you’ve stopped paying attention to God.  You’ve lost your focus.   Here’s the truth.  When you and I are not loving the people around us, we’ve stopped loving God.  Loving God and loving others always go together.

In the days ahead, as this storm hits, remember that.  Remember where your attention needs to ultimately go.  Pay attention to God.    Years ago, I read this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  And today it rings truer than ever.   Emerson wrote.  The wise person in the storm prays to God, not for safety from danger, but deliverance from fear.  It is the storm within that endangers, not the storm without.

Basically, Emerson was saying, pay attention to God.  And the more you do that, the more the real storm, the one within you quiets.  The more you know the peace that passes understanding. 

And you can pay attention to that God, because that God has never paying attention to you.  In fact, this God loves you so much, that in Jesus he even came down.  He came down even to death.  And at the cross, in Jesus, God defeated death forever.  God freed you from slavery, from slavery to death, to fear, to every false thing that draws you away from life. 

That is the liberation, the deliverance that the gospel of Jesus proclaims.   So, as this storm prepares to hit, pay attention to the God who entered the ultimate storm for you, who has stilled the wind and the waves, and whose love has even conquered death.  And as you experience his love, his grace, then his Spirit within you will show you the way.   So, pay attention to this beautiful, loving God.  Taste and see his love for you.  Let it fill you up to you want no more.  In the name of the God who loved us first, who died to set us free, and who can do more even in the fiercest storms of our life than anything we could ask or imagine.  Amen.