Friday, July 31, 2020

How Do You Experience Peace, Even Abundance and Vibrancy in These Challenging Days? Here's How

This past week, I was checking out at Publix while of course wearing my handy dandy mask.
   I asked the clerk, who I see a lot when I check out.  “Hey, how are you doing?”  And he said. “I’m just hanging in there like everybody else.”   I nodded with a quick “Yep.”

But that little moment, I couldn’t forget it.  Why?    First, I appreciated his response. He didn’t give me a Publix approved customer service script.   No, he was telling it like it is, at least, like it is with him.  But more than that, I started asking myself the question.  “Is that the best we can do, just hanging in there?”   Now, I don’t want to completely knock hanging in there.  Right now, my sister Anna is sick with Covid, my dad’s new wife, Reba and possibly my niece, Lauren.   I definitely want them all to keep hanging in there.

But in the real struggles of these days, can there be something more?  Can there be something more than just hanging in there?   Can joy, fulfillment, happiness, what the Bible calls blessedness, live and thrive in these days? God says yes.  And in these words, God tells exactly how the blessedness comes.   Here God shows the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Psalm 1

Can you experience joy, peace, happiness in the most troubled of these days?  God says yes.  God even makes it the first word of the psalm.   But the word translated, happy here, means more than that.  The word is actually blessed.  And that word blessed points to deeper fulfillment than simple happiness.   Blessedness means happiness and much more.  And how does blessedness happen?  It happens when you root yourself in the waters, in the only water that can sustain you on even the driest of days.

Now, blessedness doesn’t mean you go through life smiling all the time, singing happy songs.  If you live like that, especially in these days, you’re not happy.  You’re delusional.  You are disconnected from reality.  The psychiatrist Scott Peck said it well, 30 years ago.  Life is difficult.  (And he wasn’t even writing in a pandemic.)  Blessedness doesn’t mean you deny that.  Then it wouldn’t be real.  And blessedness is real.   It does exist.  And it looks like this. It looks like a tree planted by a stream of water, giving fruit in its season.   

That image tells you a lot.   It tells you that the tree’s fulfillment comes from what it draws from inside.  It doesn’t come from circumstances on the outside. 

Now good circumstances are great.  But they don’t last.  That’s why they’re called circumstances.  No, you need something that lasts, that goes deeper, that penetrates to the root.  That’s blessedness.   Heck, even with great circumstances, wonderful spouse, terrific kids, tremendous success, down deep you can still be profoundly unhappy. 

So, circumstances don’t bring you happiness.  But tapping into the waters does.  That’s what the tree does.   It taps into the water, the stream that flows right beside it.    And because it does, its leaf does not wither.  This doesn’t mean everything goes great.   The psalm also tells you.  The tree yields fruit in its season.  In other words, it’s not full of abundance all the time.  It has seasons of abundance yes.  But Winter comes too, famines even.  But even then, it thrives.  It grows.  Its leaf does not wither.

So, blessedness does not mean that you don’t experience sadness or grief.  It doesn’t mean that you don’t face fear or discouragement.  But it does mean this.  It means, no matter what you face, down deep, you have a stream of life from which you draw strength.  You have waters that sustain you no matter what you face.   In fact, not only does tragedy not dry the waters up.  Tragedy moves you to draw deeper, to draw more on those waters than ever before.   But how do you draw on them?  What’s the water?

That’s where most folks, go really?  That’s it.   For the psalm tells you that you draw on the waters by meditating on the law of God.   Dadgummit.  It’s the old Bible bait and switch.   You paint this awesome picture of fulfillment, peace, blessedness, and then you tell me it comes when I read this book?  How does that even happen? 

But hold on, the psalm didn’t say just read it.  It said meditate on it.  You see, lots of folks read it, including lots of folks who go to church, but they never draw on it.  And reading it without drawing on it, without meditating…that’s like dying of thirst, and just looking at the water, and saying wow, that looks good.  That is some clear water, very helpful, very wet.   No, you don’t just read it.  You draw on the waters, like the tree does.  And you do that by meditating on it.

And by meditate, I don’t mean some fancy technique.  No, meditating just means.  You don’t just read the words.  You let the words read you.   Heck, you can do it right now, in just a few seconds.  You just ask yourself.   In these difficult days, what water have you been drawing on?  A lot of times, I’ve been drawing on the water of distraction, on the water of the daily news, on the water of my worries, my frustrations, my anger.   And none of that has brought me joy or happiness, certainly not blessedness.     

But then I think what would it be like to be a tree like this in the psalm just soaking up the water, drawing the clearness, the vibrancy, the life of that water, of that stream into myself?  Doesn’t that sound amazing?  If it does, then you’re meditating, you’re delighting in the law of the Lord.   

You see, don’t think of the law of the Lord here as rules. Think of the law of the Lord more like reality, like the law of gravity.  Law here means delighting in the reality of God, of the reality that lies at the heart of God, God’s love for you.   And this book gives you wondrous image after image, story after story to grasp that ultimate reality, to meditate on it.  That’s the water you need.  Where to start?  Just start with Psalm 1 or any psalm.  Or start reading a gospel.   Let it soak into you.  And don’t expect some magic revelation. You’re a tree, and trees take time to grow, to flourish, to bloom, but if you do meditate, the nourishment, the growth will come. 

I love the way St. Augustine put it.   Augustine wrote:  Neither is God bread, nor is God water, nor is God this light, nor is God garment nor house…and what these things are, God is not, for they are visible things…[but] if you hunger, God is bread to you; if you thirst, God is water to you…if you are naked, God is a garment of immortality to you.  Meditation brings you that reality. 

But God goes beyond this book to give you reality.  For God came as a living word, the word enfleshed in Jesus.  This book tells you of that word, of that reality, of that love come to earth.  For in Jesus, this love, this God, gave up everything for you.   It’s the reality we will celebrate, we will even experience at this table, a God whose love went to death and beyond for you, for me.  And the more you meditate on that reality, at this table, in this book, the more blessedness comes.   That is the path to happiness and no other. 

But don’t come just to get the happiness.  Then, you’re not coming to God.   You’re not worshipping God, not rooting yourself there.  No, you’re worshipping your own happiness, and using an imaginary God to get you there.  That way never brings you happiness nor does it bring you to God. 

No, delighting in the reality of God does that.  And reality you experience at this table.  So, get your bread, your cup, and say to God.  I want to experience your love in this meal, in this book.  I want to delight in that reality.   And as you delight, you will grow in blessedness, no matter the season, no matter the hardships.   And you will discover what one Christian put so eloquently.   “For…Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance.  These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun.  These are but streams.  But God is the ocean.” (Jonathan Edwards) 

And the ocean is there, ready for you, ready to give you life, to give you joy, to give you blessedness even in these days.   So take and read, and eat and drink.  And delight in the reality of the One, the Blessed One, who loves you no matter what.   Let us pray.     

Monday, July 27, 2020

How Do You Not Let These Tough Days Get You Down? Here's How

Have you felt it?   Has the coronavirus been getting you down?  Hmm, that’s not really a good question is it?   How could it not get you down?  

Our nation has been number one for all sorts of things.  But now we’re number one for something heartbreaking.  No nation has as many cases of this virus or as many deaths as we do.     And that hurts, especially as other nations have done better, have flattened the curve.   It’s like our nation used to be the top of the class, and now it feels like we’re back with the slow kids, at least with this.

And I’m not even talking about all the folks who have lost jobs or businesses or the horrible moments, where we’ve seen our nation is not nearly as fair as it should be.   So, with all that, how could you not be at least a little down?  

You don’t need an answer to that question.  But you do need, we all need, an answer to this one.  How do you not get dragged down by the news of these days?  How do you not get caught up in it?   How do you instead find a way to rise above it, to, in the midst of the dark clouds, find the blue skies that still lie above?  Is that even possible?  Yes, it is. And in these words, God shows you the way.   So, let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

How do you not let the challenges of these Covid times bring you down?   How do you not get captured by all the not so good news of these days?   How do you get beyond the clouds enough to at least get a glimpse of the blue skies that lie above?  In these words, God tells you.   God says.  First you recognize your grief.  Then in your grief, you look to the only perspective that ultimately matters. 

When I first looked at this psalm, I didn’t see it.  I didn’t see the grief.  Yes, the writer of this psalm, the musician Asaph, is angry and a bit jealous too.   But why is he angry?  He’s grieving the gap.    He’s grieving the gap between the world as it is, and the world as it should be.  

And in reality, every time you grieve, you are grieving a gap.   God has given human beings an extraordinary insight.   No other creature, at least as far as we know, sees this.   Human beings see the gaps.   We don’t just see the world as it is.   We see the world as God intended it to be.  

A book I read to my son has a section on the strange creatures of the ocean deeps.   And they are strange, wondrously so.  But in one way most of them, in all their different shapes and sizes, have one thing in common.  They can’t see.   But don’t feel too bad for them.  They literally don’t know what they’re missing.  They’ve never lived anywhere but in this deep darkness.  They have no idea what light truly looks like or what wondrous thing light enables you to see.

And years ago, the brilliant Christian writer, C.S. Lewis used a similar observation to point out that human beings see what other creatures seemingly don’t.  They see the dark because they have a sense of the light.  Why do you get angry when you see injustice?   You get angry because inside you know, you see what justice truly is?  Why do you mourn the death of those you love or even the death of someone you didn’t know?   You see. Death isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.  In other words, you see the dark only because you know the light.  You see what the world should be, even when no one has truly seen that at least this side of heaven.    And your anger, your grief is simply you seeing that tragic gap.

And in these days of Covid when you get down, you aren’t just having a bad day.  You are grieving.  You are grieving the gaps.   You are grieving a world where it has become no longer safe to hug or even offer a high five.   You are grieving how this virus hasn’t brought our nation closer together but has divided us more, a key reason why our numbers have gone up.  You are grieving how this virus has exposed gaps in fairness that make it more deadly for poor folks and people of color.  And the list could go on.   And this grieving is good.   You need to grieve.  We need to grieve.  We have things that we have lost, and those losses need to be grieved.   

But in this psalm, the writer Asaph, is grieving too, yes.   He is grieving a world in which, as he puts it, the wicked rich get richer, and the virtuous poor (like himself) get poorer.   Yet, even as he mourns the gap, he right at the beginning warns you.  He tells you his grief had fallen into a dark place, into a place of envy and rage.   And when you fall into that place, you stop seeing the gaps or at least you stop seeing them clearly.  Instead you see yourself on one side of the gap, and all those who enrage you on the other.    And that way of seeing will wreck you.  It will cause as the psalmist puts it, your feet to stumble, your steps to slip.  

Years ago, a preacher named Nicky Gumbel was talking about how most days he took a bike to get to the church he led in London.  And as he rode, every now and then, a car would veer into the bike lane to move forward a little faster.   And Nicky would think.  “What a horrible person!  Doesn’t he know the rules?  His recklessness could hurt someone.”  But then a day would come when he’d be running late, and he’d take his car.   And the traffic would get heavy, and what would he do?  He’d veer into the bike lane.  But he’d tell himself.  “I’m heading to a meeting where I’m going to help people. I’m doing good not like those other folks.”  But then he realized the truth of his double standard, how he had put himself on the “good” side of the gap, so to speak. 

And in this psalm, Asaph does just that.  Do you notice how every rich person is sound and sleek, how they’re all violent and speak with malice, how they’re all always at ease?   Now Asaph might have been largely right.   A lot of wicked rich were getting away with oppression and evil.   But anytime, someone uses words about folks like always and every, every time you generalize like that, you’re not seeing things clearly.  

For do you notice what Asaph says about himself?  “All in vain I have kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence.”  Now, again, I’m sure Asaph was a good guy, but that good?  No one is that good.   In fact, his own words betray his pettiness.   The way he talks about God, it’s clear.  He expects God to be his magical health and wealth machine.  I put in a few coins of goodness and virtue, and God gives me a nice life.   But is that any way to view anyone, as someone you manipulate for your own benefit?  Yet Asaph tells you, he views God just that way. 

And so yes, you need to grieve the gaps, but you need to see them clearly.   None of us live completely on the good side of the gap.   For example, it drives me nuts when people rant about not wearing a mask.  Yet, have I always worn a mask when I should have?   If I’m honest, no, I haven’t.   A few times, I’ve dropped the mask when it would have been wiser, and safer for those around me to keep it on.    I don’t live completely on that side of the gap either.   

But when Asaph does change his tune, when he does begin to see more clearly, it can see like it doesn’t. When he talks about the coming demise of the rich, about their fall to ruin, it can seem like he’s gloating.  But he isn’t gloating.  He is grieving the gap.  He is grieving what could have been, the life they could have had versus the life they do.  He is no longer full of rage.  Instead he is full of pity.  You might have heard that famous phrase.   “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle.”   People like to attribute it to an ancient Greek philosopher.   But actually, aScottish pastor John Watson first said it about 150 years ago, except he didn’t say Be kind.  Instead he said, Be pitiful, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”   Now today that word doesn’t have the same meaning it did in Watson’s day.  When Watson said, “Be pitiful” he meant it literally.  He meant.  Be full of pity.   And when you see the gaps that is good advice.

When I see people rant about masks or acts as if Covid is some made up thing, I could get angry.  But anger doesn’t help, and it puts me on the other side of the gap as someone who knows better.  Instead, I see that behind the rant lies fear, how “they are swept away by terrors.”  And who doesn’t have fears?  I may not have those fears, but when it comes to this virus, I have fears of my own I need to fight.  And seeing that fear fills me with pity, with compassion.  I understand that we’re both dealing with a scary thing.  And yes, their reaction hurts rather than helps, but they are fighting a battle too, even if they are fighting it in the wrong way. 

But what fills Asaph with pity?  What changes his mind?   He goes to the sanctuary.  Now, seeing that, you can get the wrong idea.   You can imagine this sanctuary with its beautiful windows and clean pews.  And the temple Asaph saw did have extraordinary beauty.  But it had something else.  It had blood.   In that sanctuary, they did one thing above all. They sacrificed animals.   And God told the nation of Israel to do those sacrifices for one crucial reason.  God wanted them to remember that the gaps in their lives came at a terrible cost, that these animals were taking the hit for gaps they themselves had made.  And when Asaph saw that, he saw the truth.   He didn’t live on the other side of the gap from these wicked rich.  No, they lived on the wrong side together.   They both needed God’s forgiveness, God’s love.  They both needed God to cross the gap. 

And in that bloody mess, God was pointing to the day when God would cross the gap in the most radical way possible.  God would become the lamb on the altar, the sacrifice that crossed the gap forever.   But in both places, God was saying the same thing.  I will do whatever it takes to heal the gaps, to return you and me and all of creation to a world as it should be, a world of sharing and community, a world of love and justice, a world where God wipes away every tear.  And in Jesus, God did it finally and forever.  God did do whatever it took to bring you across the gap, to bring you home.  And why?  Because God loves you.  God loves you no matter what.

And that’s where the change came.   Asaph stopped looking at God’s hand, looking at what God could give him.  No Asaph started looking at God’s face, this God who loved him, who loved him in his best moments, and in his ugliest moments of envy and self-righteousness.   And he realized in the face of that love, he already had all he could ever dream.  Or as he put it. “Whom have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you.”  

And when you know that, when you see God’s face of love, when you have that perspective. It changes everything.   You know however dark the clouds become they are not the ultimate truth of your situation.  Above those clouds always you will find the blue sky, the love.  To quote the poem ofJohn Magee, a young pilot, a child of missionaries, who died tragically at age 19, you will find:  “You’ve slipped the surly bonds of earth….and you’ve put out your hand and touched the face of God.”  And in that touch, you will realize.  Even in the darkest of days, the light of that love always shines.  And it has crossed every gap, even death itself.   And no darkness, no darkness will ever overcome it. 

Friday, July 17, 2020

How in These Difficult Days Do You Live in Such a Way That You're Stronger Than Before? Here's How.

11,000, 10,000, 12,000, 15,000, 9,000, 10,000, almost 14,000, and today 11,000 plus again...can you guess what those numbers represent?  If you’ve been following the news, you probably have a pretty good guess. Those are the daily coronavirus numbers for the past week in our state.   You don’t want to be in the national headlines for numbers like that.   But now we are.

It’s led my own family to do something unthinkable even a few weeks ago.  Sometime in early August, my wife and son will be moving to Quebec for the first half of the school year.   The Coronavirus is there too, but not near to what we face.  So there at least, my son can have a chance at a sort of normal school experience.  And hopefully, he’ll learn French too.   But I’m not looking forward to their absence nor what my wife will bear as a single parent. 

But, hey, we’re not alone.  Everyone faces challenges in these difficult days.  Some folks started work, and now they have to stop again, and they have bills to pay and food they need to put on their table.    Families are looking at a school year that starts on Zoom rather than a classroom, with all the challenges that entails.   And all of us hoping that at some point, we could leave our homes and have some semblance of normal are realizing those days could be a long time away.   

In other words, you find yourself in a wilderness of sorts, at least how the Bible describes the wilderness.    In the Bible when Jesus goes into the wilderness or the Israelites travel through the wilderness, they’re not going into the woods.  They’re going into the desert.  They’re going into a environment where life becomes much more difficult.  They’re heading into a place where the things you look to sustain your life get harder and harder to find.  And we may not be facing a literal desert. But we are facing a time where much of what we looked to sustain us is drying up. It’s getting harder and harder to find.  

So how do you make it through that wilderness?   How do you go through it so you come out stronger on the other side?   In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

What do you when you find yourself in the wilderness, in the desert so to speak?  How do you make it through?  No, not just that.  How do you come out better rather than bitter?  When you grow weary of the wilderness days, how do you find strength, sustenance, hope?   Here God tells you.  When you find yourself in the wilderness, you look to the rock.  

Now before we get to what that little cryptic phrase means, you may be wondering.  Why am I talking about the wilderness at all?   The word wilderness doesn’t even appear in this psalm.  But trust me, this psalm is telling you about the wilderness.  You can know that because the psalm tells you when to sing it. 

Do you see those words about blowing the trumpet at the new moon, then again at the full moon, about the festal day?  You had only one month in Israel, where you blew the shofar, the horn that signaled a holy day, two times in the same month.  That was at the Festival of the Tabernacles.   And that Festival was all about the wilderness.

For Israelites during this time would set up little tents (tabernacle so to speak) and actually live in them.  Why?  They were remembering.  They were remembering how for forty years as they wandered in the wilderness, they lived in tents like that. So, no Israelite needed to hear the word wilderness to know what the song was about.   

It would be like if I said to you.  As December approaches the end, let us light the candles and sing the songs.  Let us prepare for the coming of the light.   Now, I didn’t mention Christmas or Jesus, but you knew what I was talking about.   And anyone listening would know you sang this song at the one festival that celebrated the wilderness.

But why did God lead the Israelites to remember that?  Hey, let’s take time every year to celebrate forty years wandering in the desert.   It doesn’t sound like such a fun festival to me. 

But in that festival, one that Jewish folks still celebrate, God was making a powerful point.  God was reminding the Israelites, reminding you, you may think you’ve let the desert. But you’re still there.  In fact, this side of heaven, you’ll always be there. 

You see.  In the end, there is one thing you need to know about the desert.  The desert can’t sustain you.   Those Israelites only survived those forty years because God provided for them again and again.   On their own, in that harsh environment, they would have been toast.  And even if you have all the comforts of life this world can give you, God is saying, that won’t ultimately sustain your life either.  Why?   None of that lasts.   It will all fade away.  In the end, everything falls apart.  It’s even a physical law, the second law of thermodynamics.

Think about it like this.  Let’s say, you cook a chicken tonight, and you set it out on the table to cool.   Then you wait a couple of hours.  Well, it’s not going to be so good anymore.  Then you leave it there for a few days.   Now’s it going to be falling apart, stinking a lot.  And let’s say, you leave it there for a few weeks.  Now, that chicken has gotten so gross, it’s a health hazard.   Now, you’re not surprised about that.  That’s what happens.  Things deteriorate.  They fall apart. But when you look at that chicken, you’re looking at your own future.  You’ll fall apart too at some point like that. 

But it goes deeper than that.  Let’s say you get your family right where you want it, where everything’s perfect.  What happens?   Stuff starts falling apart.   You get the perfect job, then what happens.  Some part of it is not so perfect anymore.  Or you get the perfect face or body, trust me, that thing is gonna fall apart too.  

Yet, how often, do you look to something in this world to give the satisfaction, the meaning, the fulfillment you yearn to have?  Yet what happens?  It never lasts.  In the end, it all sort of falls apart.  It may be good, but it can’t provide ultimately what you need.   In other words, you’re still living in the desert.  Everyone is.  You are still living a life, where what you most deeply need, what can never fall apart, only God can provide.  

And times like these, where so much goes wrong, they just make that more clear.  They just help us to see what has always been the case.  What you need most, what you need for a life that is truly life, this world can’t give you.  Only God can.   In the end, this life is a sort of desert.

But in this desert, you can find a rock.  In fact, right in the middle of this song, it sings about that rock.  But again, you won’t see the word.  All you’ll see is God saying.  “I tested you at the waters of Meribah.” 

Now what happened at Meribah?  Two times in that desert place, when the Israelites were dying from thirst, God provided water from a rock.  And if you read in the Bible enough places, you know rocks mean more than that.   You’ll hear phrases like.  God, my rock and my refuge or you hide me in the shelter of the rock.   Or maybe you’ve heard that old gospel song.  Rock of ages cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.

But here’s the point.  You only go running to that rock, when your thirst drives you there.  So, again and again in the Bible, where do people most powerfully encounter God? They encounter God in the desert, in the wilderness.  So, these desert days, if you let them, lead you closer to the rock.  Why?   Only when you feel the heat of the desert, do you know how much you need the shade of the rock   Only when you’re dying of thirst, do you start looking for the water only God can give. 
I love the way the poet W.H. Auden put it.   He wrote:

The garden is right there beside you.  But it’s only the desert that drives you to see it.  

This week as I faced up to my family leaving, I’ve gotten closer to God.  And it’s not because God wasn’t close to me before.  It’s just I sense much I need him in these days, in the days I know that will come.   But God goes further in the psalm than just water.  At the very end, God says, I’ll not only give water.  I’ll give you honey.   I won’t just give you the water you need.  In that desert, I will provide more than you could have imagined.  Out of the most of rocky of times, out of the driest of places, I will bring joy, beauty, even sweetness.

But let’s be clear.  This doesn’t mean the desert isn’t the desert.  God isn’t saying look for the silver lining on every dark cloud.  No, dark clouds are just that dark clouds.  But God is saying if you look to me, out of that dark cloud, I can bring out sweetness. I can bring greater sweetness in you.
But that doesn’t magically happen.  Lots of people go through the desert, and they don’t come out better.  They come out bitter, broken, further away from life than before.   It’s why God pleads here.  O that my people would listen to my voice.   In other words, God is crying out.  Why don’t you come to me? Why don’t you come to the rock? 

But here’s the problem.  No matter how hard you try in the desert, you’ll have times you won’t go.  No, you’ll go somewhere else.  Or you’ll just get bitter and angry and frustrated.   You’ll be tested at the waters of Meribah.  And sometimes you’ll fail, maybe, even a lot of times.  But even then the water will come.  Why?

You see at Meribah, the Israelites failed the test too.  They got angry at God.  It says in most translations, they quarreled with God. But it went deeper.  Basically, they said to God. We want a divorce.  We’re done with you.   And Moses was scared.  He thought. God is going to go after these insolent, ungrateful jerks.   I delivered you out of slavery and you want to divorce me.  Take this, Israelites.  

It looks like it’s going to happen.   God tells Moses to take the rod he carries over to this rock.  And this rod that Moses carries.  God used that rob to deliver plagues in Egypt.  God used that rod to part the Red Sea.  But then God says.   I will go before you and as I do, strike the rock.  In other words, God is saying.  I will take the judgement that belongs to them.  And I will give them the water they need. 

God was saying.   Yes, they failed the test.  They do deserve a divorce from me. But I love them, and I will take the rod so that they may have the water.  And two thousand years later, a follower of Jesus, Paul said this “…that rock was Christ.”

What does that mean for you?   It means no matter how you fail in these desert days, God will not fail you.   It means no matter how many times you wander away, caught up in some mirage of fulfillment, God will not walk away from you.   It means no matter how you fall short in your relationship with God, with others, with yourself, God’s love will never fall short for you.   

And the more you realize that, you more you listen to the one whose love is like a rock, unshakable, unbreakable, the more God will work in you.  God will work in you on the days you pass the test, and on the days you fail it miserably.  And by God’s grace, God will not only bring you the water you need, God will create a sweetness in you that is more than you could have imagined.   You will discover the sweetness of Christ, not just before you, but living in you.  And you will know.  This is not your own doing.  It is the gift of God. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

How in These Hard Days Do You Not Lose Touch with Your Best Self? Here's How

I admit it.   I’m getting tired of this.   This coronavirus life is making me cranky, impatient, frustrated, and yes, a bit sad and angry too.   In August, I’m taking some time away for study leave so I can prepare my sermons for the coming months.   By the way, I’m excited that we’ve already got an awesome guest preacher lined up.  Ben Sorensen, a pastor who currently serves as the vice-mayor of Fort Lauderdale, will be preaching while I am away.

But after I got Ben to fill in, I thought.  Hold on a second!  Where the heck am I going to go away to?  In the past, even if I stayed local for study leave, I had at least libraries to go away to.  But they won’t be opening.  And even if they did, would you feel safe spending hours there, even with a mask?  Heck, I don’t feel safe going to the grocery store for 30 minutes.  So, this year I’ll just come to the church office like I do now.  And I’ll just try to imagine that I am still kind-of away.  

But I get it. All in all, I do have it pretty good.  I’m not sick.  I have food to eat, a roof over my head.  But still, even with all that, these days wear on you, especially when no one has any idea when they will end, when some sort of normal will return.   And in the midst of all that, your nerves can fray.  Your patience can grow short.  You can lose touch with your best self. 

How do you rise above all of that?  How do you not let the challenges of these days hijack your life?   How do you not let your relationships fray, not simply your relationships with others and with God, but your relationship with yourself?   In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

How do these words on confessing your sin of all things help you cope with coronavirus life?  They help you more than you could ever imagine.  Because in these words, God is giving you a key to joy and peace not simply in these days, but for every day.  For in these words, God is simply saying.  Do you wanna be happy?   Then you gotta come out of hiding.

And let’s be clear, God in this psalm is promising you happiness.  Heck, it’s the first word of the Psalm.  “Happy are those who transgression is forgiven; whose sin is covered.”    And that last word, “covered” tells you more about the happiness God will bring you than any other. 

You see, people hide.  But in the beginning, people didn’t hide or at least the first two people didn’t.   It’s right there in Genesis.   “And the man and his wife were both naked, and where not ashamed.”   In other words, they didn’t have to hide.   They had no shame, no embarrassment, no insecurity.  They carried no secrets.  They had no hidden places.  They were naked and unashamed.    

But after the whole snake and the tree thing, that all changed.  No more naked and unashamed.  No, Adam and Eve grabbed fig leaves to hide from each other.   Then they heard God coming, and they hid some more.   And ever since, that’s what people do.   They hide.  And the more you hide, the less happy you become.

And if you don’t think you hide, then imagine if I could zap into your brain, and instead of preaching one Sunday here, I gave a highlight reel of some of the more… “let’s say”… interesting thoughts that you entertained over the past week.   Would you be like “Awesome, I can’t wait for you to share all my thoughts with the entire globe!”   I’d be willing to bet that would not be your reaction.  Heck, it wouldn’t be anybody’s.  We all hide,

But hiding wrecks you.   The folks in the rooms of AA say it well.  You are only as sick as your secrets.  Heck, in this psalm, they are certainly making this guy sick.  He says.  “While I kept silence, my body wasted away.”    That sure doesn’t sound good.  

But why does hiding make you sick?  It’s because the more you hide, the more alone you become.   You grow isolated from others.   You grow isolated from yourself.  You grow isolated from God.   And in your isolation, limited by your fears, your shame, you live a life so much less than what God dreams for you to live.  But you don’t need to hide.  You can be free.  You can live honest and unashamed. 

And you do it the way David who wrote this psalm did.  You bring yourself out of hiding.  But that coming out of hiding doesn’t come easy.  For to do that, you have to honestly face what you’re really hiding from.  That’s why David not only confesses his sin, he also confesses his iniquity.   Hold on.  What the heck is iniquity?  Heck, who even says that word anymore?  But trust me, iniquity is a really helpful word. 

Basically, when David confesses his iniquity.  He is saying to God.  I’m not only going to confess that I’ve done wrong things. No, I’m going to confess how much I liked it, how even though I knew it was wrong, hurtful, I still did it.  David is saying.  I’m going to face not just what I did.  I’m going to face why I did it.   

You see, sometimes, you can say you’re sorry for the wrongs you’ve done.  You can even believe you are genuinely sorry.   But in reality, you’re not so much sorry for the wrong.  You’re just sorry for its consequences.  You’re like that mule that David talks about in the psalm that only goes the right way when he feels the bit inside his mouth.  In other words, you only stop going in the wrong direction, when that direction starts hurting too much. 

The preacher Tim Keller talks about when he started out in ministry, he encountered a husband was be a total jerk to his wife, cold, unavailable, harsh even.  And when she called him on it, he ignored her.  When she asked for counseling, he said no.  Then one day, she told him.  She wanted a divorce.  And that’s when this husband called Tim and asked desperately if he would see them.   And Keller did, and the husband ‘fessed up.   He acknowledged what a total jerk he’d been.  And for six months, he was better, kinder, more loving, more focused on his wife.  But then he thought.  “You know, she’s not going to leave me.”  And boom it was right back to jerk-town.   Well, some more time passed, and again she threatened divorce.  And again the husband called his preacher, desperately seeking counseling.  Now, Keller didn’t share the end of the story, but it sure didn’t sound like this marriage was heading in a good direction.  And do you see why?

This guy was not sorry for being a jerk.  No, he was sorry for the consequences of being a jerk, losing his marriage, failing as a husband, the embarrassment and humiliation of a divorce.  But for him to come out of hiding, he’d have to go deeper.  He’d have to ask some hard questions about why he treated a woman he claimed to love the cold and harsh way he did.  He’d have to face up to his iniquity, to his mess inside.   And that can be hard. 

Lately my son has fallen in love with the most surprising song.  It’s one called Monster by the rock band, Skillet.   For my son, he loves the song because he saw it in a video about Sonic the Hedgehog.   But as I’ve listened to it like a hundred times now, the song has begun to get to me, because its words hit closer to home than I’d like to admit.

The lyrics go like this:
The secret side of me, I never let you see I keep it caged but I can't control it
So stay away from me, the beast is ugly I feel the rage and I just can't hold it
It's scratching on the walls, in the closet, in the halls It comes awake and I can't control it
Hiding under the bed, in my body, in my head
Why won't somebody come and save me from this, make it end?
I feel it deep within, it's just beneath the skin I must confess that I feel like a monster
I hate what I've become, the nightmare's just begun I must confess that I feel like a monster

I don’t carry the level of rage this writer describes.  But I know enough of it to recognize that I carry a version of it.  I have ugliness inside of me, ugliness I’d rather not see.   And to be honest, these days of social isolation and fear and stress and anxiety have made more aware of it than ever. 
And recently, it’s made me more aware in a painfully uncomfortable way of how a lot of the ugliness in the world around me has helped me.   Years ago, I heard someone share the saying.  “If you see a turtle on a fencepost, you know it didn’t get there by itself.”   What I didn’t see is that I was one of those turtles.  You see.  I’m a straight white American male, and those four things, none of which I did anything to get, have given me advantages in life that lots of others didn’t get.  And for the longest time, I wasn’t willing to face just how unfair all that is or how I have even enjoyed basking in that undeserved privilege.  But more and more I see how much pain and loss this system that put me on the fence post has cost so many others.   And I realize. I have a responsibility to do what I can to change that.   And that begins with me not hiding from myself the reality that the world in which I live favors me in ways that hurt and limit others.

So, you come out of hiding, what then?   Well, then the happiness comes.  Why?  Because when you come out of hiding, when you face the ugliness within you and even around you, you have a God that covers it completely.  God says to you.  I get it.  You’ve got stuff you don’t want anyone to ever see.   You have stuff, you don’t even want to see.   But God says.  If you bring it out of hiding, I will cover it all.   I will take away the shame.  I will free you from it.  I will free you from feeling the need to hide ever again.   And with that freedom come happiness, comes joy, comes peace.

In the early Christian communities, when you were baptized, even as an adult, you went in naked.  And when you came out, someone placed on you a sparkling white robe. Someone clothed you in beauty. 

And how can God do that?  How can God cover it all?   God can do that because in Jesus, he was stripped naked and humiliated so you would never be.    In Jesus, God took your shame and ugliness so you can live unashamed, so God can fill you with beauty.  And Jesus did that because he loves you.  He loves you no matter what.  And his love covers a multitude of sins.  And in that love, you have nothing you need to hide.  Instead you can hide in him.   And a thousand years ago, a Byzantine 
monk named Symeon, in a prayer, described just how beautiful that sort of hiding is.      

We awaken in your body, O Christ,
As you awaken in our bodies.
I wake up inside Your Body
Where all my body, all over,
Every most hidden part of it,
Is realized as joy in You
And You make me, utterly, Real,
And everything that is hurt, everything
That seemed to me dark, harsh, shameful,
Maimed, ugly, irreparably
Damaged, is in You transformed
And recognized as whole, as lovely,
And radiant in Your light.

Come out of hiding.  Know that even in the darkest of these days, even in the days when that darkness gets to you, you can live free, naked and unashamed.