Sunday, December 20, 2020

On the Heaviest of Days, How Do You Carry a Lightness Within? Here's How.

Ok, it finally happened!  The first folks got the Covid vaccine this week!   And in the next month, 20 million more should be getting that little shot.  Hallelujah!  But hold on.  That still leaves another 280 million more to go.  And that’s just in this country.   Ok, so yes, we now see a little light at the end of this long dark tunnel.  But we know.   This tunnel still has a ways to go.  And some of its darkest places may lie before us. 

But we’re tired aren’t we?   We’re tired of the social isolation.  We’re tired of the low-grade stress, going around wearing masks and keeping our distance.  We’re tired of this new abnormal that has taken so much from us, and Christmas no less!   So yes, the dawn is coming!  The pandemic is going to be ending. But that old saying rings truer than ever.  Yes, it is always darkest before the dawn.   So how do we make it through that darkness before the dawn?  No, that’s not the question.  We know we’ll make it.   But how do you make it with hope, with peace, with joy even?   How do you do that?  How do we do that?  How do we let the light shine forth even on the darkest of days?

In the words of this prayer, a prayer written to a community going through its own very dark days, God tells you.  For in this prayer, God opens the way to how you can have a fullness of heart even in the darkest of these days?   How can that be?  Here God shows the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Ephesians 3:14-21      

How do you have a fullness of heart even on the darkest of days?  God tells you here.   The more you know the light of the love inside, the more powerful it shines to cut through whatever darkness you face on the outside.   And trust me, these Ephesians were facing some darkness.  Paul is facing some darkness.  He is suffering imprisonment, literally sitting on death row.   And his imprisonment is shaking these Ephesians up.   After all, they are facing persecution too, along with poverty and sickness.  They are facing serious dark times, and they are scared.  

Yet what does Paul pray for?  Does he pray for protection from their enemies?  Does he pray for deliverance from their hardships?   No, Paul doesn’t mention that at all.   Now, Paul certainly cares about that, so why doesn’t he pray for it.  Because Paul knows.  If they get this prayer answered, no darkness they face out there will ever defeat them.  

And Paul prays this prayer fervently, passionately.  He gets down on his knees to pray it.  You see, in those days, folks prayed standing up.  So, when Paul tell you he is kneeling, he is telling you how intense his prayer was.  And what does he ask?   He prays that “according to the riches of his glory, that they will be strengthened in their inner being.”

And in those two words “inner being,” you find the key to this prayer.  You see.  If in your inner life, you have a strength; if in your inner life, you carry a peace; if in your inner life, you have a power, outward circumstances don’t stand a chance of shaking you.   If your inner life is strong, you can handle anything in your outward circumstances. 

But hold on.  Why is Paul asking for that?   These folks follow Christ.  Don’t they already have that strength in their inner being?  Don’t they already have Christ dwelling in their hearts?   Why is Paul asking for what they already have? 

It’s because, it’s one thing to know something.  It’s a whole other thing to experience it.  Let’s say someone gives you a huge plot of land, gorgeous fields, some forest, a stream running through it.   You know you have it.  But knowing that doesn’t compare to walking in it, touching the trees, sticking your hand in that brook, and realizing all this is mine.   For your inner life to be strong, you can’t simply know the truth.  You’ve got to experience it.  And that is what Paul is praying for. 

Let’s take this past week.  I knew that vaccines were coming.  But when I saw the trucks leaving the vaccine plant in Michigan; when I saw pictures of folks actually getting the shot; it felt awesome.  It felt real.  This thing was really happening. This pandemic was going to end.

Now a couple of weeks from now, I won’t feel that same sort of thrill.  That’s normal.  None of us feels that intensity of emotion all the time, not even with our own kids or spouses or family members or close friends   Heck, if you did, you could hardly function.     

But when you do feel it, the feeling stays with you.  I’ll remember seeing those trucks roll out and the people cheering, seeing that nurse in Long Island getting the first shot.  I’ll remember the feeling it gave me.  Feelings like that sustain you.  Whether it be joy at realizing the vaccine is finally here or those moments when you feel deeply the love of someone close to you, those feelings sustain you.   They feed you.  They strengthen you.  Yes, you knew that love was there, but when you feel it, you know it at a level so much deeper.   

And that is why Paul is praying with such passion. He yearns for these believers in Ephesus to feel the deep reality of what they already have.    He knows.  When you grasp God’s love like that, it roots that love deeper than ever.   And everyone needs that 

The Welsh preacher, Martin Lloyd Jones, would counsel troubled Christians and ask them this question.  He’d ask.   “Are you a Christian?”   They’d often respond.  “Well, I’m trying to be.”   And he’d reply. “You don’t get it, do you?”    Being a Christian isn’t something you try to be.   It’s a status, a standing, a reality you already have.    But too many times, even Christians don’t get this reality.  They don’t realize, in the depth of their being how much God loves them.   And if you’ve never felt it, it’s hard to trust that love is there, especially when you struggle or doubt.  

But if you do experience it, the power of that love, it will carry you through anything.  So, Paul prays for that, for an experience of God’s love that not only will you never forget, but the power of that experience will change you forever.  And you pray for it, because in the end, the experience, it comes as a gift. 

You don’t earn it.  But if you ask, it will come.   And you keep asking until it comes.   The great missionary pioneer, Hudson Taylor, kept one prayer in his Bible as a bookmark.  The prayer’s first line went like this.   Lord Jesus make thyself to me, a living, bright reality.  And every day, several times day, Hudson Taylor prayed that.  He asked.  For asking is where it always begins, with simply saying, God, make yourself real to me.   That’s why I’ve given you all these prayers these past weeks –

Search me O God or Break me where I need to be broken or Here am I send me.  Those prayers carry power if you pray them.  And now this one, God, make yourself real – let me grasp the love. 

And when Paul says grasp, he means it.  This word in Greek literally means to wrestle someone to the ground and rob them.    Now why does Paul use this word?  It’s because as you go through life, you can miss the power of God’s love unless you literally grab it and wrestle its reality into your very heart. 

A few weeks ago, I was putting some things away in my bedroom at home, and I saw a folded piece of paper on my bureau.  I wondered.  What is that?  And I opened it to find a note that my son Patrick had written before he and my wife left for Canada.   He wrote in his own six-year-old struggling script these words.  Dad, you are awesome. I will miss you so much in Canada. Love, Patrick.   And seeing those words, remembering him writing it, grasping it in my hand, it was amazing.   I was literally grasping the reality of his love for me.  And doing that, in fact looking at it right now, just feels me with such joy.   

And what I experienced in grasping that note, you can experience in grasping the breadth, length, height and depth of God’s love for you. 

Maybe the breadth means that you grasp no place exists on the face of the earth, where Jesus’ love can’t reach you.  Maybe the length means you grasp that even if you run away, Jesus will go to any length to bring you home.   Have you ever experienced that?  You’ve run away from Jesus, from his love for you, only to find his love seeking you out, searching for you, drawing you home.    Maybe grasping the depth means remembering how Jesus went all the way down, into the very depths of human pain, even death itself, to deliver you.   Maybe you remember the words of the concentration camp survivor, Corrie Ten Boom, who said, “There is no pit so deep that Jesus is not deeper still.”   Maybe the height points to where Jesus is bringing you, into the full glory and beauty of all that God is.      Do you see how grasping onto the love like that has the power to shift your perspective on everything?    

Your worries, your anxieties, your self-pity, your low self-esteem, your jealousies and resentment, no outward shift in your circumstances will resolve those things.  But knowing this love will.  Because if you are not rooted and grounded in love, then your life will become rooted and grounded in fear.  And fear blinds you to the truth.  It blinds you to the truth of this wondrous love that lies all around you, even on the darkest of days.  But the more Jesus roots his love in you, the more you will see clearly what is true and what is not.    And you will grasp how wondrous, how infinite, how far-reaching Jesus’ love is, how utterly surrounded by his love you already are.  And in that love, you will discover a fullness welling up inside you, one that can hardly be contained, that bit by bit will cast every fear and dark place out of you even on the darkest of days.      Then these final words of the prayer will become more real than ever.  You will discover that this power at work in you can and will accomplish abundantly far more than anything you could ever ask or imagine or dream.  

Sunday, December 13, 2020

What Prayer Can Change Your Life Like No Other? This One Can.


Go figure.  I’ve been a pastor for close to thirty years, and I talked about the story you’re about to hear only once.  But this year that changed.  I talked about it two months ago, and now I’m talking about it again, twice in less than three months.   That’s kind of weird. 

You see.  This story doesn’t have anything to do with viruses’ or pandemics or any of the exact challenges that we’re facing.   But the story happens during the same sort of time.   It happened in a time in-between, in what’s known as liminal time.  That word liminal comes from a Latin word.  It simply means the threshold that’s part of every doorway.  And that makes sense.  For liminal time is where you’re stuck in exactly that place.  You can’t go back to where you were.   And yet, you can’t go forward to the next thing.  

Now that may not sound like an awesome place to be.  But in places like that, big changes happen, awesome opportunities open, huge growth occurs.  In fact, researchers first coined this word liminal around manhood rituals, ones they saw in certain premodern cultures.   In those cultures, the tribal elders sent boys of a certain age out together for days into the wild, days that profoundly tested them and changed them too.  For when they returned from confronting the dangers, the boys had become men, men bound together by those days in the in-between, in that space where they were no longer boys but not yet men.

These days have a similar quality for us.  We’re all facing the dangers of this pandemic together.   And we know.  The world we knew won’t return. It’s gone.  Yet we don’t know what the new world is going to look like either. We’re living in the in-between.  But in that space, wondrous things happen.   And in this story, one that takes place in such an in-between time, not only does a wondrous thing happen, but in the prayer that it inspires, God shows you the key step in living out these days.  God shows you, in these days, the prayer you must pray, the thing you must ask.  For in that prayer, God will do powerful things.   What is this prayer God calls you to pray?  Here God shows you the way.  Let’s listen to what God has to say.

Isaiah 6:1-8    

What do you do when you’re stuck in the in between?   What do you do, when you know, once this pandemic ends, it won’t be the same world it was?  But you don’t know what sort of world it will be.   You’re stuck in-between.   Here God tells you.  God tells you, even when you’re stuck, you can go.  You can go because God sends you, and God never gets stuck. 

In this story, you can get distracted by all the special effects of the bizarre divine creatures, the ground quaking, the smoke rising up.  But if you focus on that, you’ll miss why God did all those things, why God showed up in such a powerful way.   God showed up like that because King Uzziah had died.  

You see. King Uzziah had been a terrific king, a great leader of the people.   But nobody had confidence that his son, Ahaz, would follow in those footsteps.   Honestly, Ahaz looked way less impressive than his dad.  And Israel still faced huge challenges especially from the Assyrians, who were looking to gobble them up any day now.   So, Isaiah, like the rest of Israel, felt stuck in between.  Uzziah had died, and no one knew what would happen next.   So, in those moments, Isaiah goes to the temple, and when he does, boom!   Boy, does God shows up!   

And God does that for a reason.   God is saying.   Yes, Uzziah’s gone, and no one knows what the future holds.   But, Isaiah, just because you and Israel are stuck in the in-between, God says, don’t think I am.  No, God says.  I am moving.  I’m taking action.  

And that’s a good thing for us to remember in our own in-between days.  Sure, lots of things no one knows.  No one knows when vaccines will be there for everyone or when this pandemic will truly be over or when things will get back to something that looks even a little familiar.   We are stuck in that in-between.   But God isn’t.   God is moving.  God is taking action.  

And as the passage ends, Isaiah starts moving too.  But before you get there, we’ve gotta talk about what comes before. 

This past Monday I was sitting at home feeling sorry for myself.  You see.  Mondays can be treacherous times for preachers, that day and often Sunday afternoons.   Why?  Well, we get tired, and when we get tired, we often get discouraged.  

I remember years ago, one Sunday evening I was feeling really down about the church I was serving in New York.  So, I called my parents.   And that’s when Mom told me about Sears.   She told me.  One Sunday afternoon, she said, your dad (who was a preacher by the way) got so discouraged, he called up a member of the church who managed the local Sears to ask for a job.  Wisely that manager told my dad to sleep on it.  Then, if he felt the same way in the morning they could talk.   And my dad, who was on the call, reluctantly admitted.  “Yes, that happened.”   And hearing that made me feel good.  Sure, that Sunday, I was feeling bad, but I wasn’t yet feeling looking for a job at Sears bad!

And this past Monday, while I wasn’t ready to go job hunting, I was feeling pretty discouraged.  This whole pandemic thing was getting old.  And as much as I enjoyed the quiche last Sunday, I was hoping we’d have a few more folks show up.   Then I started talking to God about those things.  And well, God wasn’t so understanding.  Basically, God said to me.  “You’re healthy You’re Covid-free You’re relatively comfortable. You’ve got things way better than most and you’re discouraged? You gotta be kidding me.”   I had to admit.   God was right.  

Like Isaiah in that temple, I was looking for God’s perspective.  But the first perspective God gave me was on me.  And in that perspective, I didn’t look that good.  And Isaiah gets that same perspective.  And when he does, he realizes.  He doesn’t look that good either.  The whole nation doesn’t look that good.    Yet, when Isaiah faces that, when he faces up, to, as he puts it, his “unclean lips,” what does God do?  God sends his uncleanness, his guilt, his sin away. 

And this past Monday when God gave me that perspective on me, it didn’t weigh me down.   It freed me.  I felt God’s grace, God’s love.  And I realized all the ways God had been watching out for me and how blind I had been in seeing it.    

Like Isaiah, we can lose perspective.  We can look at the challenges of these days and forget all the signs of God’s love and provision that surround us.  You’ve got the beauty of this space we find ourselves in, the folks who have decorated our patio with garland and lights and ornaments, and the video cameras that we already had ready to go when this pandemic started.  You’ve got the fact that this year, a saint of our church, Bonnie Springer, left at her passing, the largest gift we’ve gotten in twenty years, one that has sustained us in so many ways through this pandemic.  You’ve got the fact that in the middle of a pandemic we opened a new branch of our Learning Center at a church in Hollywood Hills, a campus we got rent free!  And last Sunday, you’ve got the fact that we ate quiche!   We have so much to be grateful for!

And when Isaiah gets his newfound perspective, it prepares him for what happens next.  God starts asking some serious questions.   Who are we going to send?  Who’s going to go for us?   And when God asks, Isaiah answers.  Isaiah answers with one of the most powerful prayers you can ever say.   Isaiah says.  “Here am I; send me!”   For when you pray that prayer, you never know what God will do.  

Has anyone heard of Henrietta Mears?  Mears grew up in Minneapolis near the turn of the 20th century.   And in high school, along with a friend, she prayed Isaiah’s prayer.  She told God.  Wherever you send me, I’ll go.  Send me. Soon after, that friend who prayed that prayer with her went to Japan as a missionary, but not Henrietta.  She didn’t go anywhere.  She wondered why.  Nevertheless, she went on.   Though hampered with terrible eyesight, she graduated with honors from the University of Minnesota, and she became a teacher.   For 14 years she taught in high schools throughout Minnesota.  But then she found herself in the in-between.  She loved teaching, but she felt that God had something more.  She just didn’t know what.  So together with her sister, she took a year off to travel the world.  On the way back, they stopped off in California to visit with a pastor they had heard preach in Minneapolis, Stewart MacLennan.   And MacLennan asked Mears to come and direct the education program at his church, Hollywood Presbyterian.  But Mears wasn’t even a Presbyterian.  She was a Baptist.  Nevertheless, she remembered that prayer to go wherever God sent her, even to the Presbyterians.  So, at age 38, she answered the call and moved to Los Angeles.   And what happened after that?   Well, Hollywood Presbyterian was already pretty big. When she came, it had 400 people in its Sunday School alone, but in two years, under her leadership, that Sunday School grew to over 4000.   And since Mears didn’t like the curriculum, she created her own, founding a publishing company, Gospel Light, that exists to this day.   But Mears didn’t stop there.  She founded a camp in the mountains, Forest Home, where young people could go to develop their faith, a camp that 80 years later still serves 50,000 campers every year.  But more than anything else she taught.  Over 35 years at Hollywood Presbyterian, she developed leaders that created ministry organizations that changed the world.   A couple, Bill and Vonette Bright lived in her house for ten years.  And inspired by her, they started an organization, now known as Cru, that currently has 19,000 workers serving in 190 nations around the world.  Or then there’s the young preacher, struggling with doubts, who she invited to speak at Forest Home one weekend.  There, under Mears’ guidance, that preacher resolved his doubts.  And from that weekend at Forest Home, he went on to do a series of meetings in Los Angeles that launched that preacher, Billy Graham on a path that impacted the entire world.   All in all, Mears inspired over 400 people to go into full time Christian ministry from that one church in Hollywood, and through those folks, she influenced millions more.   One of those called her, the grandmother of us all.   This one woman, who never had a child of her own, became the grandmother of millions.  And all because she said to God.  “Here am I.  Send me.”

Now of course, not everyone, who prays this prayer, will become Henrietta Mears. In fact, only one person did, and her name is Henrietta Mears.  But if you pray this prayer, God will act.  God will move.  

For Isaiah, God moved him to preach a message that at the time didn’t seem to impact anyone at all.  God even told Isaiah that no one would listen but to go preach anyway.   And sadly, because Israel didn’t listen, Assyria did conquer them.    But Isaiah kept preaching and thank God he did.  For Jesus used Isaiah’s very words as his own call to ministry.   And after he died and rose again, Jesus’ disciples looked to Isaiah’s word to understand who Jesus was, and what he had come to do.   And those same words inspired artists and musicians throughout the ages to create works such as Handel’s Messiah.   And today, here, thousands of years later, we’re still listening to Isaiah’s words.   And it all began with a simple prayer.  Here I am. Send me. 

In these difficult days, these days in between, you could just keep your head down and try to endure.   Or you could pray this prayer.   You could say to God.   I don’t know what the future holds.  I don’t know what place I have in it.   But here’s my prayer.  “Here I am.  Send me.”    And in that prayer, you’ll never know exactly what God will do.  But you can know this.   God will do something.  God could do something that for all you know, will impact the world for thousands of years to come.   But it all begins with those words.  Here am I. Send me.   So, will you pray it?  In this in between time, will you pray that prayer, the prayer that Isaiah prayed.   “Here am I, Send me.”   And don’t just pray it today.   Pray it every day.  When you wake up, make that your prayer.  “Here am I.  Send me.”  And if you do, buckle up. Because God is moving, and God is sending you.   

Sunday, December 6, 2020

What is the Prayer That No One Wants yet Everyone Needs? This One.

I had no idea.   I thought.   I’m going to hang out for a week, drink some beer, have cool conversations with the monks.   But in that week, I only spoke to one monk, the one who got me my room.  After that, I hardly spoke to anyone, much less drank a beer with them.  The monks intended it that way.   You ate in silence at every meal.   And in between, I spent long hours reading or staring out the window or taking walks in the fields around the monastery. 

Then one night after dinner, I decided to take one more walk, which was weird.  It was drizzling, foggy, miserable, not at all walking weather.  But I went.  And in the middle of that walk, in a wet, muddy field, I fell right on my face.  I didn’t trip.   I went down intentionally.

I can’t describe what happened exactly, but twenty-five years later, I still feel its power.  God didn’t give me some ecstatic, wondrous experience.  No, basically, God took me down, literally to the ground.  And in those moments, painful moments, I saw my shallowness, my fears, my broken places, stuff I didn’t want to ever see.   And I understood like never before the power of the prayer that we’ll talk about today.  This prayer will change your life like no other.  But no one wants this prayer, but everyone, everyone, at some deep level, desperately needs it. 

And once God opens you to it, breaks you open to it, then what power comes, what change, what new life.   So, what is this prayer that no one wants, yet everyone needs?  In these two stories, Jesus points the way. Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.

Mark 14:3-9, 22-24

In these two stories, two stories that God placed remarkably close together for a reason, God tells you.   In these stories, God is telling you that if you want to break free, then the breaking has to come first.   You may not want it, but you desperately need it. What do I mean?  

The best example of what I mean happens every day of the week not only in every American city and small town, but in countless places across the world.   There people gather, grateful for the breaking that happened in their life.  Why?  If the breaking hadn’t happened, then they would never have broken free.   What places am I talking about?  I’m talking about the rooms of AA or NA or OA or Alanon or any of the other groups that use the 12 steps created by the two founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.   If you know about those steps, you know they begin with a painful admission.  You have to admit you are powerless over alcohol or whatever it might be that you are addicted to.  You have to admit that your life has become unmanageable.  Then in step 2, you admit that you need a power greater than yourself to restore you to sanity.

But folks never decide to admit that powerlessness right away.  No, first they face some sort of bottom, a brokenness that wakes them up.   Maybe their spouse leaves them, or the law comes after them or they lose their job or maybe all those things and more or maybe they simply feel empty.  But before they get to those rooms, before they take the steps that break them free, they  go through the breaking first.  

And in this first story, we are seeing that happen, both the breaking and the breaking free.  Do you see what happens here?   A woman crashes a dinner party, not just any dinner party, the dinner party for a prominent religious leader, all to do a stunning thing.  But before we get there, let’s imagine a bit about who this woman might be. 

The perfume gives us a clue. Only two types of people could afford perfume, the super wealthy, and well, prostitutes because it was a professional expense.   And likely, she was the latter, as she crashes a party that a person of wealth could have got invited to.  A parallel story in Luke, implies too that this is the work she did.  But if she was a prostitute, do you think that’s what she wanted to be? Did she grow up dreaming of becoming a prostitute?    Does anyone?  Still somewhere along the way she came to do just that.  Maybe financial desperation drove her there. Maybe, because of abuse and pain in the past, she didn’t feel worthy to do anything else.   But at some point, to survive, she had reconciled herself to it, to this life.  Maybe she even came to rationalize the life it gave her, the money, the seeming independence.  We don’t know.  The Bible doesn’t give her back story.  All we know is whether she was a prostitute or wealthy or likely both, something changed.    She came to a point where she couldn’t do it anymore, where she knew.  She had to make a change.   She had to break free.

And so, in a radical move, she comes to Jesus.   She had almost certainly seen Jesus before, seen him touch the untouchable, welcome the unacceptable, include women among his closest disciples.  Heck, he’s having dinner in the home of a guy named Simon the leper.  So, that gave her the courage to come to him and to break free in a way so stunning that Jesus said.  No one will forget it ever.  So, what does she do?  She anoints Jesus with perfume, lots of perfume.

Now, you might think.  Ok, that’s nice, in sort of a weird way, but stunning, breathtaking, really?   To understand what she did, you need to understand one word about this perfume, denarii.   A denarius represented the median wage of a worker for a day.  And this bottle of perfume cost 300 of those days, a year’s wages.   More than that, she wore that perfume because it served as a subtle advertisement.   It told everyone that she was available…if you were willing to pay.   And when she broke that bottle, a bottle that she had likely earned through work she wanted to never do again, she was saying to Jesus.  I am breaking free.  I am breaking free of this broken life.  And I will not go back to it again.   And I am literally giving it all to you.  I am taking my wages, my very livelihood and emptying it out over you.   

But to get there, to take that radical a step, she had to come to the end of herself, to a moment when she said, “I can’t do this anymore.”   Before the breaking free, the breaking had to come.

You see, that’s the human problem.  We’re all addicts.  We all get dependent on something or someone too much.   It doesn’t have to be bad.  It just becomes bad because we come to love it or depend on it too much.   So, you become addicted to success or a relationship or a person, to the approval of others, to stuff, to food, to financial security, to your kids, to your work, even work for God.  It could be anything.   But when you love that thing too much, it doesn’t belong to you.  No, you now belong to it.  But too often, you can’t see that.  You can’t see how bound you are until, at some point, a breaking comes.

When I walked in that field at the monastery, that’s what happened.  I broke.  I saw how addicted I was to a certain image of myself, how slavishly attached to the approval of others, how shallow and empty it had made me.   And when I fell down into that field, face down to the ground, I was telling God.  I’m broken, and I’m ready.  I’m finally ready for you to break me free. 

Here’s the stunning truth.  In your life, if you want the freedom God yearns to give you, then the breaking comes first.  Think about it.   In times, when you made a radical change to your life, didn’t something like that happen?   The psychiatrist Scott Peck said it well.  He said “The truth is that our finest moments are more likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. Why?  It is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.”   What was Peck saying?  Before the breaking free, the breaking comes and sometimes that breaking can be brutal.

Have you ever heard the name, Rick Warren?   He leads a mega church, Saddleback in California.  He wrote a book that sold like crazy, over 35 million copies.  But before all that, Warren broke.  He had started the church.  Things were going great.  He was working insane hours, but the church was growing.  And one Sunday, in mid-December, he was preaching until he couldn’t do it anymore.  I mean that literally.  He stopped mid-sermon.  He couldn’t see the words on the page.  He began to fall.  He had just enough time to call his assistant pastor to take over while he found a seat.  For years, Warren had suffered anxiety and depression, but what happened after that Sunday made those pale in comparison.  He and his family left the next day for Arizona, to stay in a home, his wife’s family owned.  He stayed there nearly a month, over Christmas, struggling with overwhelming depression.  Then he heard these words.  “You focus on building people,” God said, “and I will build the church.”  Do you see what God was saying? Now that you’re broken, Rick, you can break free.  You can let go of this idea you’ve gotta build this, not me.   And Warren returned to Saddleback, still fragile but determined to find a way to do this church thing differently.   And out of that struggle came the small groups that became key to the church’s impact to this day.   But before that happened, the breaking had to come first. (this story is taken from the book - Power of Habit)

But you might ask, okay, that’s wonderful for Warren.  But I don’t wanna be broken.  Sheesh, who does want to be broken?  And that’s when this second story comes in, the story where Jesus breaks the bread, where Jesus pours out the wine.  

Do you see what Jesus is telling you?  He is saying.  This is what I did for you.  I was broken to make you whole.   I was poured out to fill you with my love, my forgiveness, my life.   But you have to let go too.  It’s in the breaking, that the breakthrough comes.   It’s the letting go that opens you to get the gift.   It’s the emptying that frees you to be filled.    You see.  The breaking is not the end of the story.  The healing is.  The love is.  The filling is.

But the breaking comes first.  Why?  The breaking breaks your delusions.  It breaks the delusion that whatever you are looking towards, loving too much could ever fill you.  And when the delusions break, then you see.  You see the love God poured out for you, how in Jesus God broke himself for you.  You see the truth of this love, this love that sets you free.    And when you see that, well, everything else pales in comparison.  So whatever needs to be broken and emptied, let it be.   For in that breaking, that emptying, Jesus will break you free.    

Sunday, November 29, 2020

What Can Change Your Life in Unbelievably Powerful Ways? This Prayer Can, and Here's How.

Oh my gosh, do you realize what time it is?  Christmas is coming.   Granted, this Christmas will definitely be different than any Christmas that any of us have experienced, our first pandemic one.  But it’s coming.  Yet, you know. Christians have kind of a weird way of getting ready. 

Out there in the world, people are putting up their Christmas trees, buying stuff to put under them, setting up lights around the house, stuff like that.   And of course, Christians do that stuff.   That’s part of the fun of the holiday.  But none of this stuff is likely going to change your life, in any permanent way, not even the gifts under the tree.  Maybe someone got a gift at Christmas and it inspired them to be a photographer or writer or whatever.  But as much as I loved the gifts I got at Christmas, especially as a kid, none of them changed my life.  

But here, in this worship season, that’s how we get ready.  That’s how we get ready for Christmas.  In this season we call Advent, Christians look for what needs to change in us.  We look for changes that will last, that will grow, long after lights get put away and presents gather dust.  That type of change doesn’t come easy.   But when it does, it changes everything. 

And over the coming weeks, we’re going to look at four prayers that God gives that bring about change, that open us to new ways to see ourselves, to see our world and our place in it.   And if you take these prayers seriously, they will change you.  Not only will they change you, but bit by bit as they work in you they will change your world. 

And today, we start by looking at one of the toughest changes anyone can make, getting honest about what’s happening in your own head.   The preacher, Bill Coffin once said.  Hell is truth seen too late.  To face that hell, you don’t have to die, though you may want to.   And if you’re at all like me, almost always you see the truth too late, not because someone was lying to you.   No, you see it too late because you were lying to yourself.  But by the time you faced that truth, well, the damage had been done, to you, to others, damage you couldn’t really undo.  So, how do you see the truth before it’s too late, before it crushes you or others?  How do you see the truth instead in ways that free you, that change you, that enable you to become the person you yearn to be?    In this prayer, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.  

Psalm 139:23-24 - 

Search me, O God, and know my heart
Test me and know my thoughts
See if there is any hurtful way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting

In this simple prayer, one that you could memorize pretty easily (in fact, do that – it’s powerful to carry this prayer in your mind), God is giving you one of the things that everyone needs more of.   In fact, the more you have the focus of this prayer, the freer and more fulfilled your life becomes.   And what is the focus?  Knowing You.   In this prayer, God is telling you, the more you know you, the more you’ll know me. 

But before you can go deep in knowing you, you need to understand why knowing you is so hard.   The prophet Jeremiah was telling it true when he said these words.  “The heart is devious above all else: it is perverse – who can understand it.”  And come on, you know that’s true.   Have you ever zipped by a highway exit you knew you needed to take, and didn’t even realize it for like miles?  What were you thinking?   Or have you ever said to yourself?  “I gotta remember to pick that up.”  And then five minutes later you forgot completely. 

Then of course, later when you do remember, usually too late, you say to yourself.  “What was I thinking?”    And that’s the point.  You don’t really know what you were thinking.  Heck, the folk singer, Christine Lavin, has been singing a hilarious song with that title for decades.  And she has to change the song constantly.  Why?   She’s always discovering new ways her mind deceives her into doing stupid stuff.  Now, if your mind just messed up a highway exit or forgot a few things, it probably wouldn’t be all that terrible.

But our minds fool us in deeper, more devastating ways than that.  So how do you get free of that?  This prayer points you to the first step.  For, if you say this prayer, do you see what you’re saying?  You’re saying.  I need help.  I can’t do this alone.   And that’s what everyone needs to realize.   As much as we’d like to think differently, too much of our own thinking, we can’t even see until we have someone or even something that helps us see.  What do I mean?

For years, researchers recommended all these techniques for people to lose weight, exercise, strict diets, regular counseling, changing their routines.  Guess what?  None of it, in the end, worked.  But in 2009 the National Institutes of Health discovered what did.  They asked 1600 seriously overweight folks to do just one thing, and only do it one day a week.  Just one day, they asked them.  Write everything you ate that day.  Now it took a little bit of time, but folks started doing it.   Before long, a lot of them were doing it every day.  And as they did, they saw patterns, times they were likely to snack.  Knowing that, they put an apple on their desk around that time. That way, they’d eat that instead of something not so healthy.  Some began planning their meals ahead of time.   And at the end of the study, those who had kept the food logs had lost twice as much weight as those who hadn’t (cited in The Power of Habit.   That’s a 100% difference!   But do you see how it happened?

These folks just started noticing what was actually happening inside them, inside their minds when it came to food.  And just doing that led to change, huge change.  As someone who uses a food log, let me tell you. It works.   But do you see the point?  They couldn’t do it alone.  They needed that notebook to bring their thinking out, to bring the truth out where they could see it.  

Now imagine if just a notebook could do that, what this prayer could do?  Almost all the words of the psalm before these verses talk about how intimately God knows you.  But how do you get a hold of that knowledge God has?  Is there a God notebook you can look at?  Kind of.

Hundreds of years ago, a Spanish Christian, Ignatius of Loyola, created a sort of God notebook.  He called it the Examen.  The religious order he began, the Jesuits, uses the practice to this day. But anyone can use it.  It’s super simple.  All you do is review your day and ask two questions.   What today gave me life?  What today took life away?   Just asking those two simple questions works like that notebook.  It brings out the truth where you can see it.  

When I started doing this, I can’t tell you the number of times I was doing something that I thought gave me life.  Then reviewing my day, I realized.  No, not at all.  It took life away.  And I realized.  I’ve gotta stop doing that.  But doing that review is what enabled God to help me see.  

I love the way the writer Pete Greig describes it.   He calls it the Four Rs – Review, Rejoice (that was awesome), Repent (oh, that wasn’t awesome at all) and then Reboot (how can I do it differently tomorrow).   And as you do it, those four Rs change you.  God helps you search and know your heart.  And God leads you to discover more deeply the hurtful ways within you.

Last Sunday, I talked about the dark days I faced a month or so ago.  But I didn’t tell you what led to them, what made those days dark.  What was it?   I faced the loss of my false gods.  What do I mean?  You don’t know in your life what your false gods are until you face losing them.  Because when you do, that’s how you know.  Their loss freaks you out, leads you to dark days.

So, what were my false gods?  Well, I had become way too invested in having my son’s love.  Now, sure I want my son’s love.  But if I want that love too much, it places a burden on him he can’t bear.   And with him so far away, I feared the loss of that love so much, it started to wreck me.  But I didn’t carry just that false god.  This pandemic has put strain on our church, strain we’ll get through, but a month ago I was a bit scared we might not.  And I realized.  That failure, remote as it was, it scared me way too much.  It had become a false god.      

Those gods were hurting me.  I had to let them go.  But until those dark days tested me, I didn’t even realize I had them.  I had those hurtful ways inside me and didn’t even know it.   But do you know what else I discovered in those dark days.   I rediscovered what was real, what was true.  I discovered in a deeper way than before just how much God loved me. 

Centuries ago, a Christian thinker named John Calvin, made a stunning observation. He observed.  The more you know yourself, the more you know God and vice versa.  The more you know God, the more you know yourself too.  Now what he meant by that doesn’t sound all that awesome at first.  Basically, Calvin meant that the more you know God, the more you see all the lies you tell yourself.  And when you see all those lies, well, you want to know God more to help you come to the truth.   Then as you know God more, well, God helps you discover more lies.  Then you go, gosh, I gotta know God even more.  And this just keeps going on and on.  After all, remember what Jeremiah said. That heart is devious.  It’s tricky.   Who can understand it?

Well, God can.  But here’s the deeper point. God sees all the lies, all the lies we tell ourselves, how they mess us up and yet God loves us still.  In fact, God yearns for you to see the lies, so that you can know that truth; so, you can know more deeply that God does truly, infinitely, unconditionally love you.  Not believing that is the lie that lies behind every lie we tell ourselves.  We fear God doesn’t love us like that.  So, we look elsewhere for the comfort, for the security, for the love that only God can provide.  We look for love in all the wrong places.   But as God shows you how wrong those places are, the lies you tell yourself, God brings you closer to the truth, to how completely, how totally, how unshakably God is for you, how much he loves you.  And the cross shows you that truth like nothing else, a God who even as you kill him prays for you.   And as you come to know that beautiful truth, God is leading you further into the way everlasting.  In fact, that way everlasting points to the description of heaven I love the most. 

 It comes from a brilliant Christian named Gregory of Nyssa.  Gregory said that God’s love is so infinite that heaven will simply be a never-ending journey deeper into that love, into experiencing it, rejoicing in it, living in it, an everlasting way.  And that journey can begin right now in this prayer.  So, pray it and see what God will do.  “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.  See if there is any hurtful way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”   


Sunday, November 22, 2020

In These Dark Times, What Stunning Truth Can Help You Stand Strong No Matter What? This Truth Can.

Wow, did you hear the news?  Now we have not one but two vaccines!   And they are both looking great.  Oooh, but hold on a second…let me look at the small print.   Oh, I see…I see.   Well, yes we have them but we probably won’t get a chance to get one until April.   Oh well.

But hold on a minute, April?  Really?  We need it now.  Our nation has more cases than ever, more than during those bad days in New York.  The virus is spreading everywhere, even in places you’d never think, like the Dakotas.  

And I wish I could tell you that our leaders in Washington are going to help.  But it looks like no one there is thinking about that much at all.  Right now, Washington can’t agree on anything.   Washington can’t even agree on who got elected President.   And as bad as that is, it gets worse.

We have folks out there who still can’t agree that there’s a virus.  This week, I read a heart- breaking tweet from a nurse in South Dakota, Jodi Doering.   She shared how so many of her patients even as they are desperately sick, say things like: “’This can’t be happening.  This virus is not real.’”  And they keep saying that until the breathing tube goes down their throat.  Then they realize how terrifyingly real it is.    She ended her tweet with these sad words; “The South Dakota I love seems far away right now.”    

You might feel similar words as you look at how our nation is struggling, how our entire world is.  So, in all that how do you have hope?   How do you trust that we’ll get through, that God is working to that end?  You hold onto the words we’re about to hear.  Here God shares a truth so stunning, so breathtaking that thousands of years later, we still have yet to grasp it.   But the more you grasp it, the more it opens you to hope, to a bold confidence of better days to come.   What is that truth?  In these words, God points the way.  Let’s hear what God has to say.

Isaiah 49:8-16

These days can be discouraging.   But in these words, words written to folks going through far worse than what we face, God gives you such a wondrously beautiful, totally jaw-dropping insight into who God is that thousands of years later we still struggle to believe it.  Yet, if you believe it, if you trust it, it gives a foundation for your life that nothing can shake.  For here, God tells you not just who God is.  God tells you who you are right now in God’s eyes.  

And we all need to hear that because, well, we’re not terribly good at seeing who we are.   We tend to focus on the worst in ourselves rather than the best.    What do I mean?  Let’s say.   Someone you know gives you a great compliment, but a few minutes later you’re driving in your car.   And a random stranger in another car screams at you, calls you an idiot, and then finishes it off with an obscene gesture.   Let me ask you.  What will you be thinking about, even believing more, the nice compliment or the verbal attack? If you’re like most, it’ll be the attack. 

If someone says something really cruel to us, those words haunt us for years.   Yet at the same time, sometimes share something positive and kind, and you can forget it almost immediately.  We believe the worst rather than the best. 

And here that is happening not just for an individual but a whole nation.  You see.  We are jumping right into the middle of a huge pep talk that God is giving the nation of Israel.   God is talking about how God is going to deliver them; how awesome it’s going to be.   God is laying it on thick.  But then, what does Israel say.  All they say in response to God’s exuberant vision of the future is simply this. “The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.”  The people of Israel can’t see past their setbacks, their mistakes, their misery.   No matter what God says, they can’t see it.  

You see, Israel has lost everything.  Babylon has conquered them, sent them into exile. And they can’t see any way back, any way back to anything better, much less this beautiful vision God gives.  Have you ever been there?   Have you ever been in such a dark place?  

A few weeks ago, I found myself there.  As Halloween approached, I felt more deeply than ever the separation from my wife and son.   Here at the church things were improving but still not enough to ease my worries and fears.   And of course, the news wasn’t helping either. Now, I knew in my head that things would get better, but my heart didn’t feel that at all.  And, honestly, I had it a lot better than those folks in Israel.   No one had conquered my country or carried me away into exile.  So, I can’t imagine how dark it must have been for them.  

So, what do you do, when you find yourself in a dark place like that, a place that you struggle to find hope?   You do what God does here.   You stop and listen but then you argue.   Now the stopping and listening, you may not see so much here, but it happens.  For right after Israel’s dejected response, God’s tone, even his words change radically.   And why?  God had stopped and listened.  

You see, when you find yourself in a dark place, you can’t ignore it.  You can’t ignore the pain of your heart.  You can’t deny it.    If you do, it’ll wreck you.   That pain is real, and you ignore at your peril.    You can know that because you know how it feels when others ignore it. 

When you go through a terrible loss, you don’t need to hear cliches.  You don’t need to hear.  Well, God needed another angel or if God closes a door, he’ll open a window.  No, hold on a second.  Maybe that cliché could help, but you don’t need to hear that first.  No, you first need to know someone hears you, senses your pain, your loss, your hurt.  And in this shift of tone here God is doing just that.  God is feeling the loss, the heartbreak of those he dearly loves.   But God doesn’t stop there.  Why?

You don’t just need someone to listen to your heart.  You also need someone to argue with it, even if that person is you.    When my heart felt so dark, so bereft, I listened yes.  But I knew too.  My heart wasn’t seeing things clearly.   I had to argue with it too.  And that’s what God does here.  God argues with Israel’s heart, and as God does, God tells them as never before just how deeply God loves them, how deeply God loves you. 

Do you see how God describes her love?  I use her on purpose, because God portrays herself as just that a “her”, to be more specific, a nursing mom.   Now why does God choose that image?   God could have described himself as a passionate lover or a faithful father.  So, why here a nursing mother?  It’s because God is sharing something stunning.

If you love somebody but they betray you or do you wrong, you can walk away.  Now, certainly, you have moms that walk away too.  God acknowledges that. God says.  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  But that walking away does not come naturally.  In fact, nature literally stands in the way.   Take a nursing mom.  Until a nursing mom releases that milk, until she can feed her child, she is in pain.  She hurts.  But more than that when a mother releases the milk, heck, even before that, all through pregnancy, her body releases huge amounts of oxytocin, what scientists call the love hormone.   When you feel in love with someone, that’s what courses through your body.  A mom’s very nature, her literal body compels her to love her kids.  When my son falls and hurts himself, yeah, I feel for him.  But my wife, sheesh, she feels it in a way I can’t.  That’s the oxytocin.  

Do you see what God is telling you about her very nature?  God is saying. “Don’t you get it? I can’t help myself.  I have no choice but to love you.  I’m that mom and infinitely more.   I cannot stop myself from loving you.  That’s my very nature.   As the preacher, Tim Keller puts it, God is saying “If I ceased loving you, I’d cease being me.”

That’s crucial to know because too often we live in this default position of a God who is going against his nature to love us.  But God says here. “No, it’s the opposite.”   I can do nothing else but love you.  That’s who I am.   

But God doesn’t stop there.  God says.  “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”   God doesn’t say tattooed or written.  God is saying. I have done what you see out there on those stones in the Memorial Garden.  I have chiseled you into my very body like an artist chisels a sculpture out of stone.   Why that word? 

Because in that word, God is telling you two things.  God is saying. It’s permanent.  Nothing will take your names off my hands.  But more than that, engraving means artistry.   God doesn’t only see you.   God looks at you and is ravished by you, by your beauty.  Do you see how this connects to the mother image?   A mother looks at her child and she is ravished like that, the smell, the feel of the skin, the eyes.  Her child captivates her.   And God says that’s me.  I look at you, and you captivate me. You take my breath away.  And if God sees you like that, then by definition that’s who you are.  It doesn’t matter what your friends say or your family or even yourself or your mirror.  God’s word is definitive.   It’s the first word and the last. 

But it doesn’t stop there.  Where does God engrave your name?  He engraves it on the palm.  When someone says hands up, you know it doesn’t mean this.   It mean’s this, your palms out front.  Palms out means no weapon.  How do you shake a hand?  You shake it palm to palm.  When your palms are open, you are vulnerable, utterly so.  And that’s where God engraves your name.

But how do you do that?  How do you carve into someone’s palm?   Now we know.  For thousands of years later, Jesus said to his disciple Thomas in his moment of darkness and doubt.  Here are my hands and my feet.  This is how real my love is, how intense, how complete.

And in that love, you can know, even at your worst, even at the world’s worst God never walks away.  And even at your worst, God sees you in the full beauty of not only who you are, but who, by God’s grace, you will be.   

In the very last sentence, God says to Israel these puzzling words.  “Your walls are continually before me.”  That doesn’t make any sense.  Israel walls are broken.  They’re nothing but rubble, but not to God.  No, God see beyond the rubble.  God sees when that city, when each of us will be all God has destined us to be, that Jesus died for us to be. 

And if God sees you that way, then see yourself that way.  See yourself as the masterpiece you are by God’s grace.  See those around you that way.   See this world not only for what it is now, but what it is even now becoming, a world healed and restored, transformed by the unstoppable power of God’s love.   Let that love fill you with confidence and peace.  Let it quiet your doubts and fears.  For that love has the last word, not this virus or any other ugly thing in our world.   

So, live in that love.

Invite and welcome others into that love.

Share it joyfully and boldly, just how God loves you, how God loves me, how God loves this entire beautiful, broken world no matter what, and how that love wins over everything.