Sunday, February 28, 2021

In An Insanely Restless World, How Do You Find Sanity and Peace? Here's How

Justin Earley seemingly had it all.   He had a job he loved.  He had two great kids he adored.  He had a terrific wife.  He lived in a city where he had tons of awesome friends.   And he didn’t even feel all that stressed.  Then one Saturday at midnight he woke up full of panic.  The next day, that Sunday, he walked around in a fog.   And that night again, the same thing happened, except this time he didn’t fall back asleep.   He went through his job the next day like a zombie.   And eventually one night, at 3 AM, he found himself in the ER, looking for answers.   So, what was creating such havoc in his perfect life?  It turned out.  His life wasn’t so perfect.   His waking up were panic attacks.  He had all the classic signs of a serious anxiety disorder.  So, he tried medication.   Then he tried alcohol.   And then he faced the truth.   He wasn’t going insane.   No, he, Justin Earley, had bought into an insane life.     

You know it used to be a thing.  The first billionaire, Rockefeller, even got one.  It knocked him out of work for six months.  Taking care of folks who got these things is how Kellogg got started, why he first made cornflakes, to help people recover from them. So, what thing used to be a thing?  It was called the nervous breakdown.  

And what caused nervous breakdowns?  Well, the doctor who first diagnosed it said it came from technology and the media.  He wrote how this so accelerated everything that it was creating an epidemic of nervous disease.   And when did he write this? He wrote it in 1881!   Can you imagine how much crazier and faster things have become in the 140 years since then?   It’s become so crazy, so fast that no one now even has time for a breakdown.  We just keep going and going and going!  Is it any wonder, that our nation, even our world finds itself in a sort of global nervous breakdown?   But how does it stop?  How do you find sanity in a world that moves at such an insane pace, one so fast it is even burning up the very planet? You find it in the same way that Justin Early did, that guy with the panic attacks.  

You find it in wisdom that God gave at the beginning of everything, wisdom that literally lives in everything, including you.   How do you live a life of peace and sanity in the midst of an insanely intense world?   In these words, in their very rhythm God points the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Genesis 1:1-8, 2:1-3

How do you live a sane life in an insanely paced world?   More to the point, how do you live the life God actually created you to live rather than the one that this insane world drives you to live?   In these words, God tells you.   God tells you.  You live in the rhythm.  Why? If you don’t, well, then not living in it will kill you. 

For most of my life, I didn’t notice this.   I didn’t notice that these words we just read have a rhythm.  In fact, if you read them in the original language, Hebrew, you’d see their rhythm even more clearly.   In these verses, God is not giving you simply a story.  God is giving you poetry.  

And God did that for a reason.  God created a story of creation with a rhythm inside it because God was telling you something crucial.   The story of creation has a rhythm inside of it because creation itself, everything that exists has a rhythm inside it.  In everything you’ll find a rhythm.  Our seven-day weeks, our four-week months place us in the 28-day rhythm of the moon circling the earth.   That rhythm gets repeated 12 times in Earth’s year-long journey around the sun.  And That rhythm shapes other rhythms called seasons.  Everything in creation has a rhythm.  And every moment of your life, you live immersed in them. 

They even live within you.  Your heart beats in rhythm.  Your lungs breathe in rhythms.   Even your brain carries rhythms.   And you can slow down the rhythms or speed them up, but you cannot stop them, at least, without stopping yourself, permanently.   

In the rhythms of this story, that’s what God is telling you.  I have imbedded you in rhythms.    It’s why you love music or dance, things that have rhythm. I built you that way.  I built everything that way.    

But here’s the insanity of our world.  So many ignore the rhythm.   People go and go and go.  And they trample over the notes.   They run right over the rhythm.   And then everyone wonders why our nerves get frayed, our anxieties explode, our sleep has to be medicated, and our life becomes one moving nervous breakdown.  But still folks go on, scrolling the screens or simply staring at them until they fall into some sort of fitful, restless. sleep.   And then they wake up and do it all over again.   We live in a world where people willfully ignore the rhythms.  Think about what that means.  When is the only time when the rhythms stop, when the rhythms become a flat line?  Eeeeee?   Do you recognize that sound?  Is that a good thing?  Who wants that flat line?  Yet, human beings live as if the flat line is the way life is supposed to be.  Do you see how deathly insane seeing the world that way is?    

Great athletes instinctively know this.  Have you ever seen one of those marathon tennis matches that go on for hours?  How do the players have the stamina for that?   In studies of world class tennis players, researchers discovered. They’re only playing tennis 35 percent of the time.  What are they doing the remaining 65 percent? They’re resting.   That’s what the bouncing of the balls is about or the pacing before a serve.  The great players instinctively play in a rhythm, and that rhythm helps make them great.   

In your life, stress stimulates growth yes.  But growth only happens when you are not stressed.  So, if you have lots of stress and no rest, you have no room for growth.   You don’t grow stronger.  You grow weaker.   But when you live in rhythm, you reverse that.  You gain energy.  You experience greater life.    The only sane, the only healthy, the only life sustaining way to live is to live in rhythm.  God created you, God created everything for that. 

And in the end, that’s how Justin Early regained his sanity.  He rediscovered the rhythm.  He discovered a rule for his life.   Almost 1500 years ago, a Christian named Benedict discovered a way to live in rhythm.   And he called this way of life, a rule.  But that name can confuse you.   What Benedict created wasn’t what you would think of as rules.  Benedict created a series of habits by which to order your life. 

To use the image that lies at the center of this series, Benedict created a trellis of sorts, one that leads to a full and abundant life.  And to do that Benedict had a profound insight.  Not all habits are created equal.   Certain habits set you on a certain rhythm.  They become keystones that reset your entire your life.   In Benedict’s case, he created keystone habits, rhythms of life for the communal living of monks, rhythms so powerful that monastic communities use them pretty much unchanged 1500 years later.   

And Justin Early, when his life derailed, instinctively turned in that same direction.  He decided to create a set of small habit changes, ones he hoped could restore his life to sanity.  He created a rule, what he called, the common rule, one based on the wisdom of rules such as Benedict’s but ones that anyone could do.   He divided them into four daily habits, and four weekly habits, eight in total. That’s it.  And in those habits, he discovered a way back not simply to sanity, but a way into a truly abundant life.

And the first habit, in many ways the most crucial one reflects the wisdom of the rhythms of this story.   He resolved that he would kneel in prayer three times a day, morning, midday, and evening.   He didn’t give any length of time for these prayers.  They often would not be long at all.  But he was creating a rhythm, a rhythm to break the maddening, insane pace of his life. 

Now why would just saying a few words three times a day do that?  Well, look at this story.  How did God create the universe?  God did it with words.  How do two people become married?  They do it with words.   In Justin Early’s case, he is a mergers and acquisitions lawyer.  In other words, he uses words to literally reshape entire companies.   More than you realize, words are shaping you right now, words you are telling yourself, words that maybe even casting doubt on you doing this very habit.   

Before trying on this practice, the words that shaped my life each morning were the emails that had arrived on my phone overnight.  And they shaped my life in some pretty stressful ways.   But when I tried this practice on, then the words I lifted to God started to shape my life.  And those words framed all the other words that came my way.   And the stress began to lift.   And so, it came to be with that midday break, and with that letting go of the day as I went to bed.  Now in living into such a habit, don’t get hung up on the rule part of it but focus on the rhythm.

When you schedule a pause with God at the beginning, at the middle and at the end of your day, you are allowing God to set your rhythms or reset them from the insane flat-line delusions of this world.  And as you do that, it will begin to change you.  Do you need to kneel every time?  Maybe, maybe not.  But do you need to schedule such pauses with God in your day, every day?   Yes, most definitely yes.   

And what is the weekly habit? Well, that one, if you haven’t already guessed from the scripture is the one that we’re practicing in some way now.   It’s the rhythm of sabbath.  It’s scheduling one 24-hour period a week (not necessarily Sunday) where you do things, and only those things, in that time that renew and revive you.    It may take you a while to figure out what those things that revive you are, and that’s ok.  The point is to schedule the pause.  And if you say to yourself that you’re too busy.   Then that should tell you how insane not only your life, but your perspective has become.   If God needed to rest, then you can be sure you need to.  

So, are you ready to walk away from the insanity?  Then begin by living in the rhythm, 3 pauses with God each day, beginning, middle and end, and then one 24-hour pause a week.   And why do these things?  Because your life’s value doesn’t begin and end with what you do or produce.  It begins and ends with God.  And this God gave up everything for you.   That’s how radically, infinitely valuable you are to God, and that means, how radically, infinitely valuable you truly are.   Live in that value.  Live in the rhythm for which God created you.  And then discover how in that rhythm God frees you for the very life God created, God even died for you to have.  Let us pray.   

Sunday, February 21, 2021

How Do You Experience a Truly Fulfilled Life? These Pictures Show You. Read More to Find Out Why.

They’d been doing the survey for ten years, when they decided to add something different.  They decided.  They didn’t just want to know how many people were doing it.  They wanted to know what difference it made.    So, they took questions, ones that researchers at Harvard had developed to measure human flourishing, and they put them in.  And last January the survey went out.    Then Covid hit, and they realized.  They had an opportunity.   They could measure again and see the difference.  When the results came back, well, they showed something interesting, even a bit surprising. 

What am I talking about?  For a decade the American Bible Society has done a survey on Bible reading in the country.   And January a year ago, they did it again but with the human flourishing questions I noted above.  Then, as they were compiling that data, Covid hit.   And they thought.  Why don’t we do another survey in June?  We can see how Covid has affected everyone. We’ll see how much hope and happiness went down.  We’ll find out if people’s feelings of meaning and purpose changed.  So, they reached out to Harvard and together did this second study.  And last October, they published the results.   As you can probably guess, all the happiness measures went down, some by a lot.   But in all that, they saw something else. 

They saw that if you read the Bible regularly, as in a couple times a week, you were 50% more hopeful than those who didn’t read the Bible at all.   On a scale of 1 to 100 with 100 being the most hopeful, regular Bible readers scored 75. Non-Bible readers scored around 50.  

But hold on, it gets more complicated.   Folks who read the Bible only occasionally (like 3 or 4 times a year) didn’t have much hope at all.  Heck, they had less hope than those who never read the Bible at all.  So why the difference?   Why did the folks who read the Bible just a little bit have even less hope than those who never read it at all?

 You can likely find the answer in the very thing to which the scripture you’re about to hear points.   This thing determines your human flourishing pretty much more than anything else.   You get this right.  Then your life will experience more fulfillment, more joy, more satisfaction.  You get this wrong, and well, it won’t be so pretty.   And this thing may be something you’re not even noticing.  But it is determining your life more than you could ever know.   How do you make sure it’s determining it towards happiness, towards fulfillment?  In these few short sentences, Jesus points the way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say.

Mark 1:35-39

So why the difference?  Why, in this study, if you read the Bible regularly, you have more hope, but if you read the Bible only occasionally, you have a lot less hope, even less than those who didn’t read the Bible at all?   Well, you can find the answer in the other results in the study.  You see, the study showed that folks who had regular, and I emphasize regular, engagement in certain spiritual practices scored higher in every measure.  They had better mental and physical health.  They had a deeper sense of meaning and character.  They even had better financial stability. That word regular tells you all you need to know.   For you need regular in your life, but it has to be the right regular.  Why?  Well, the wrong regular could kill you.    And those occasional Bible readers were folks who likely had a lot of wrong regulars in their life.  That’s why they only read the Bible occasionally.

You see, every day, you regularly do a lot of things without thinking.  They’ve become such a regular part of your day that you don’t even notice them.   Generally, that’s a great thing. It saves you time and energy.  Heck, without it, you could hardly function.  

You see. As you go through life, your brain figures out short-cuts.  It’s why when you back out of the driveway, you aren’t thinking a lot about it.  You aren’t thinking about checking the mirrors, how much to tap on the accelerator, fastening or not fastening your seatbelt.  Instead, your brain has created a whole set of automatic routines that kick in the moment you get in, so you don’t have to think about it. 

It’s why in this passage, the gospel writer doesn’t tell you about Jesus’ thinking before he went out and prayed.  He doesn’t tell you.  “Well, Jesus woke up a little early that day, and thought.  Hmm, what am I going to do while everybody is asleep?  I guess I could go back to sleep, but I’m not that sleepy.  And I’m not hungry yet, and I’d like to eat breakfast with everyone else.  Oh, I know what I’ll do.  I’ll go somewhere quiet and pray.”    It doesn’t tell you that because Jesus wasn’t thinking about his praying like that at all.   Jesus did that sort of praying regularly.  He didn’t have to think about it.  It had become as automatic as when you pull out of the driveway.  It had become a habit.  

In fact, the only reason his disciples couldn’t find him is that they had only just become his disciples.  They didn’t know his routine yet.   But once they did, they don’t mention the early morning praying again.  Why?  It wasn’t news.  It was just part of Jesus’ regular habits.

But it clearly wasn’t part of theirs, at least in the beginning. And that points you to the problem with habits.  Your brain doesn’t know the difference between good ones and bad ones.  So, if, when you sit down to watch TV, you regularly eat a bag of Doritos, you’ll do that without even thinking about it, until one day, you look at the scale, and go.  “I weigh that much!  Really?” 

But all those habits, good or bad, are pointing you in a certain direction.  They are pointing you in the direction of what you choose to love.   What do I mean? 

Let’s say, I develop a habit of binge-watching Netflix every night to 2 AM.   I wake up the next day too late for any time with God.   Then grouchy and sleep deprived, I snap at my wife.  I get short with my son.  And I go to work, bringing my dark, sleep deprived cloud with me.   Do you see what I am choosing to love?  I am choosing to love binge-watching Netflix over everything, over God, over my wife, my son, my work, my colleagues.   And that’s crazy. 

But I don’t even realize I’m making that choice.  When I regularly say to myself the night before, “Oh just one more episode.  I can get by on five hours of sleep, no worries,” I’m not even thinking really.  My binge-watching has become a habit, one that is slowly but surely hurting me and everyone around me.   And Netflix doesn’t want me to think about it.    

It’s the same reason, you can lose an hour grazing Facebook or TikTok or Instagram before you even realize it.    Did you ever ask yourself?  Why are all those platforms free?   It’s because they’re not.  You are paying them with your time and attention, the most limited resource you have.    Facebook isn’t the product.  You’re the product.  Your time and attention are the product.  And all the platforms have built themselves to get as much of that product, of you as possible.    And to get that, they have to stop you from thinking about it.  They have to make it a habit. 

But if you’re regularly paying attention there, that means you’re not regularly paying attention somewhere else.  But here’s the problem.  Too often, we don’t think a lot about that.  We don’t ask ourselves if our attention is really going to what we say that we love.   But here’s the point.   Your habits tell you the truth more than your words do.   Thousands of years ago, the philosopher Aristotle, made that clear.  He said: “We are what we repeatedly do.”  Think about that.   And ask yourself.    “Is what I repeatedly do, who I really want to be or not?”    

You might notice the image I made as the sermon slide for this series.  If you haven’t guessed what it is, it’s a grape arbor or trellis.   Now, when grapes grow in the wild, they naturally find a tree or something to climb up.  Instinctively, a grape plant knows that it has to climb to be fruitful.  But we human beings like grapes, but we don’t want to climb to the top of a tree to get them.  So long ago, we created our own artificial trees so grapes can climb those.  But if those trees, those trellises aren’t there, what happens?  Well, the grapes continue to grow, but instead of climbing, they just spread and spread.   And when that happens, much of their fruit rots or is eaten, and they never become what they were created to be. 

And human beings too easily become like those grapes running on the ground.  In fact, in many ways our culture tries to keep us there, spreading ourselves out thinner and thinner and letting our fruit rot in the process.  But Jesus points us to a different way.  Jesus points us to a way of living that draws us higher, that bring us closer to the sun, that creates more fruit, more abundance for ourselves and others then we can possibly dream. 

You see. That’s what Jesus was doing early in the morning.  He was living life on the trellis, and as a result of that regular communion with God, he could go out in power.  And if Jesus, the very coming of God in the flesh, needed a trellis, then trust me, you and I need one too.  And here’s the good news, you already have the most powerful trellis of all.  You have the cross. 

And that cross, as it draws you higher and higher, frees you from the habits of self-condemnation that will rot your soul.  It leads you to a life of joyful service and sacrifice that brings you more joy and fulfillment than you could ever imagine.   It draws you into a life that is deeper and richer than you could have ever dreamed.

And in the coming weeks, we’ll talking about some simple habits that draw you further up that cross, further into the fruitful, abundant life God yearns for you.  I’ve been trying many of these habits now for months.  Here’s what I can tell you.  They are more powerful in shaping your life than you could imagine.  And they are not that hard to do.  But as we begin to look at them, I invite you this week to pay attention, to your habits, to the things you are unthinkingly doing and as you do, to ask yourself.   “Is this who I really want to be?  Is this where I want to spend my life?”  And as you ask that question, remember God has one central habit, loving you.   And there’s nothing that God yearns to do more than that, to love, you, me everything.   And as you face your habits good and bad, remember that.   Let us pray.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

In a Deeply Divided Time, How do you Fight for what is Right? Here's How

When it happened on January 6th, I couldn’t believe it.  I couldn’t believe folks would break into the Capital like that.   And they did so with such violence, even murderous rage.  

Yet here’s the strange thing.  Others seemed to be trying to behave better, even calming down the ones who wanted to destroy the place.   And does anyone remember the face-painted guy with the Viking helmet, the Q Shaman, they call him?  Gosh, he looked scary.  But then I saw a video of him deliver, well, how can I say this, a kind of nice prayer in the Senate chambers.

Now, granted, he shouldn’t have been there in the first place.  In this country, that’s not how we roll.  If we don’t like how an election turns out, we don’t crash down doors or murder police officers or put other people in fear of their lives, including public servants in their 80s for Pete’s sake.  We don’t storm the capital.  That’s not what this country is about.   And all that violence didn’t accomplish a thing.   Once law enforcement cleared everyone out, the Congress just returned and did their duty, facilitating yet another peaceful transfer of power, as we’ve been doing now for over 200 years.     

But how did it come to that, to a day of such mayhem and death?  More crucially, how did folks, many who in their day to day lives hardly had a parking ticket, who owned businesses, held down jobs, cared for their families, even regularly attended church get swept up in something so destructive, so hurtful, so horribly misguided?

In these words, God shows us not only how it happened, but how to make sure you don’t ever make the same mistakes.  But God does more than that.  God shows you the weapons that do change things, that do defeat evil as nothing else can.  In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Ephesians 6:10-18

Do you realize that you’re a soldier in a war against dark and powerful forces you can’t even see?   How do you fight a war like that?   More importantly, how do you win it?  How do you make sure you don’t become the very evil that God is enlisting you to fight?   Here God tells you.   You fight the battle with the powerful armor and weapons that God has given you, weapons of love over hate, of redemption over judgment, of life over death.  And as you fight with those weapons, you will discover that no weapons more powerful than those even exist.

Did you ever notice it when you read the Bible, especially the New Testament?  All these followers of Jesus never ask why.  They never ask.  God, why am I being persecuted?  Why are we experiencing so much injustice, so much pain and hurt?   They don’t ask those questions anywhere.  Why?  They already knew the answer.  God had enlisted them in a war, and in a war, when hard times hit, you’re not surprised.  That’s how war is.  

But they understood too, that in that war, Jesus had given them the weapons they needed to win. And God gives you the same weapons, but before we get to how you use them to resist evil in your own life, and in this world, you need to understand something crucial. 

Almost all the things that God lays out here, you use for defense.   That’s because the greatest danger you will face in fighting evil is the evil getting through to you.  And when that happens, the evil won’t kill you.  No, it’ll capture you, and you likely won’t even know it.  You put on the whole armor of God to stand against what, to stand against the brute force of the accuser (that’s what the word Devil means here)?   No, God says, I give you the armor to stand against the wiles of the accuser.  That’s an old-fashioned word, wiles.  So, what are wiles exactly?  Wiles are devious and cunning strategies you use to manipulate or persuade someone to do what you want. And the number one strategy, wile, that the accuser will use is to trick you into thinking that you’re not doing the devil’s work at all, but God’s, that the one leading you is God.   

Years ago, a preacher named Nicky Gumbel, told me something that confirmed a battle I knew very well.   Nicky said: If you hear a voice of condemnation, it will never be the voice of God.   Now, God might come as a voice of conviction, the voice of someone who loves you enough to warn you away from a bad habit or decision.   But God’s voice will never condemn you.   Yet, I knew.  In the past that voice of condemnation had tricked me in just that way.  

When I first started as a pastor, I had unrealistic expectations for what I could do.   And when I inevitably failed to live up to those expectations, I’d hear that voice of condemnation.   You’re not faithful.  You’re lazy, a failure.  Before I got out of the shower, that voice had already so bruised me up, I’d go into my office defeated and discouraged.   

And then, with the help of a wise counselor, I realized.  That voice of condemnation, that abusive conscience wasn’t God at all.  And if I kept listening to it, it would destroy me.  But for longer than I’d like to admit, I believed that voice of evil was the voice of God.   So, if that voice has ever come to you, then fight it, stand against it, and don’t ever believe it is the voice of God.

But, that voice of condemnation doesn’t just lead you to condemn yourself, it leads you to condemn others.  And what hurt that creates.   Those folks storming the capital didn’t think they were attacking our democracy.  They thought they were defending it.    They believe they stood on the side of God.  That’s why the Q-shaman delivered a prayer in the Senate.   And over history, so many got deceived in that same way, with disastrous results.  My great-great grandfather fought to defend slavery of all things.  And he thought he was doing right.   And the folks who called for the crucifixion of Jesus, thought they were on the side of God too.

So how do you protect yourself from that becoming you?  You ask yourself?   What drives me:  fear or love?  Am I trying to convert my enemies or to destroy them?    Can you guess the right answers?   But knowing the right answers and living them out, that’s hard.  That’s where prayer comes in, prayer that enables you to see the truth and to live it out. 

You see, when I first looked at Q-Shaman, that bare-chested Viking come to pillage the capital, I wanted to condemn him, to see him as less than me.  But then when I saw him give that prayer, I realized.   If I condemn him, I condemn myself.   Was he wrong in what he did?  Yes.  Was he caught up in evil?  Yes.  But was he evil?  No, at least no more than I can be.  The great writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky said it well.  Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, and nothing is more difficult than to understand him.   But that’s what Jesus calls us to do.  

And when we do that, we are discovering the weapon which evil cannot stand against.  For Jesus doesn’t call you to be a doormat.  Jesus calls you to be a fighter.   In the armor, God describes here, God gives you no armor to defend your backside.  Why?  Because in God’s army, you don’t ever back down.  You don’t ever run away.  You stand and fight.   And the fighting Jesus calls you to requires more courage, more strength than any weapon of violence ever could. 

Have you heard where Jesus says:  Turn the other cheek or if someone takes your outer garment, give him your inner one too or if a soldier asks you to walk one mile, walk two?   But did you know?  Jesus isn’t giving you strategies to give up.  Jesus is giving you strategies to fight. (These insights and the stories below come from a book by the Biblical scholar Walter Wink - Engaging the Powers)

For example, Jesus says.  If someone hits your right cheek, turn the other also.   And that detail right cheek, tells you what you need to know.  That meant, the person hitting you was giving you a backhanded slap.  That’s the only slap you can give on the right cheek.  You see.  In Jesus’ day, you only used the left hand when you went to the bathroom, and you never used it for anything else.  Let me just say as a left-hander that would have been a crappy world to live in, and yes, I intend the pun.   Now a backhanded slap communicated humiliation.  So, when you turned the other cheek, you threw your assailant off.  He can’t use his left hand to slap you.  But if he hits you, well, that implies respect, that you are his equal.  Now we may not get that but trust me Jesus’ listeners did.   Jesus was telling them how to resist.

And in that whole second garment thing, Jesus was giving folks a way to fight gross injustice.   For a bunch of reasons, debt had become a big problem in Palestine.  Rich folks were always finding ways to get people so deeply in debt, they could take their land, even the shirt off their backs.  But, if you were poor, you only had two garments.  So, if they took the first and you gave them the second, you were naked.  And as embarrassing as that might be for you, it’s worse for them.  In Israel, it was way more shameful to look at someone’s else’s nakedness rather than your own.  So that oppressor would be freaking out, saying, please get your clothes on.

In fact, during apartheid, some South African women took Jesus’ advice.  Soldiers came with bulldozers to demolish their village, telling them: “You have two minutes to clear out.”  So, what did they do? They stood in front of the bulldozers and got naked.  And those soldiers, all church going Afrikaners, got so embarrassed they turned tail and fled.  And they never came back.

And as for the second mile…well, in the Roman army, you could only compel someone to carry your pack for one mile.   If they carried it for two, and your officer found out, you got in big trouble, maybe even trouble that could kill you.  So, if you ask to go another mile, that freaks that soldier out.  It turns the tables on him.  He may even beg you to take his pack off so he doesn’t get in trouble. 

And when you resist in Jesus’ way, not only does it stop violence, but maybe, just maybe, people get changed.

The writer Angie O'Gorman writes of the night a strange man kicked in the door of her bedroom, yelling at her as he came over.  But Angie didn’t scream or fight, she thought.  Whatever he does, won’t just harm me, it will harm him, so let me see if I can stop it.  So, she asked him.  What time is it?  He said 2:30.   And she said: My clock says 2:45.  I hope your watch isn’t broken.” Then I asked him. “How’d you get in?”  He said. “I broke the glass in the back door.”  And she replied.  “That’s a problem, because I don’t got the money to fix that.”   Then he talked about how he had no money.   They talked some more.  She asked him to leave.  And he refused, saying, “I got no place to go.”  So, she said.  “I’ll give you some sheets and you can make your own bed downstairs.”    And so he did.  Was she scared?  You bet.  She didn’t sleep a wink.  But the next morning they had breakfast together, and he left.  

In the same way, a woman was walking down a lonely street, carrying a load of packages.  She sensed a stranger coming up on her from behind.  So, what did she do?  She wheeled around, handed him her packages, and said, “Thank God you showed up!  I hate to walk alone in these streets, and these packages are heavy.”  And he walked her home, safely.

Or take a gang of thugs harassing a village in the Philippines.  The police did nothing, so what could the villagers do?  They could attack and kill them.  They had the numbers. But instead, the churches gathered, and a thousand strong went to the gang leader’s home.  They surrounded it and celebrated communion, but refused it to him, ordering him to leave.  They talked all night.  And by morning, he had surrendered his weapons, disarmed his gang, and repented, even admitting the government, then led by the dictator Marcos, was supporting them all along.    

Do you realize that our own nation is one, that at its best, follows Jesus’ way?   You see, democracy is the most non-violent way of governing the world has even seen.   Back in the day, when power got transferred, somebody died, one leader just killed another.  But our nation showed a way to transfer power by votes and not violence, and that way has changed the world.  

In our work with other churches in Bold Justice, we stand in that way too.  We don’t bring change by threats or violence.  We bring it by calling our leaders to listen to those who elected them, those they serve, and we call them to be converted to a better way, a more just and fair way.  And when we do, we don’t create enemies, we build allies.  We don’t defeat opponents. We win them over to a better way.   And we do it together, conservatives, liberal, moderates, all bound together by a vision of a better way.   And as we do that, evil gets defeated, and God wins.   

Do you know Christians overturned the greatest empire in the world without firing a shot?  How did they do it?  They did it in the Jesus way.   And the Emperor changed from an enemy into an advocate, transformed by the love of God.  In the same way, women won the right to vote.  Dr. King led the victories that defeated the evils of Jim Crow.     For when you walk in Jesus’ way, when you walk in the power of prayer and the loving strength of God, evil doesn’t stand a chance. It may cost you, but you will win.  The cross shows you that.  For the cross stands not as a symbol of defeat, but of victory.  On that day, God showed.  Forgiveness defeats the devil not vengeance.  God’s love destroys every evil, even death itself.   And in that love, the powers aren’t destroyed, they’re redeemed, saved, restored, and so are we.  So, live in the love.  Trust in the love. Pray boldly that God will empower you to stand and fight in the love.  For that love wins, and nothing, not even death, can stand against it.  Let us pray.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

God is Speaking to You....A Lot. But How Do You Listen? Here's How

I gotta admit.  I felt pretty anxious, even a bit scared.  I’d never traveled alone to another country.  Granted, I had gone the safe route, a country that at least spoke my language.  Still that first morning in London, bleary-eyed and sleepless, sitting on my bunk in a cheap hostel, I felt very much alone. 

I feared I had made a big mistake.  Desperately, I said. “God, help me to know you’re with me, that I’m not alone.”  Then suddenly, I had this sense.  You need to get moving now and go to the British Museum.  So, off I went, grabbing breakfast at a café along the way.   And then sitting at that café, again I had a sense.  You need to leave right now for the museum.  So, I did.

I remember walking through the massive gates into the courtyard that led to the entrance.  Hundreds of people were coming in or going out.   But as I walked up the stairs, I glanced to my right and my jaw dropped.  I thought.  I know that guy.   We traveled together in the States years ago.    Again, I had a sense.  Go over and say hello.  I hesitated.  But then I thought.  Nobody knows me here.  What do I got to lose?    And indeed, I did know him.  He had dropped by the museum for a moment to say goodbye to a friend.  Now he and another friend, both art history students, were off to a museum called the Wallace Collection.  He suggested.  “Why don’t you join us.”  So, I did, and I had an awesome day.

But get this.  That friend I met didn’t even live in London.  He lived in Glasgow, Scotland.  He had only come down a few days for a brief visit.  Think about it, in London, one of the largest cities in the world, I meet this friend who lives in a part of Britain hundreds of miles away.  And if I had not been to the museum at just that time, if I had been off by only a minute or two, I would never have seen him at all.  But all along the way, I realized.   God had been prodding, moving me to just this encounter.  And for whatever reason, that day, I had been willing to listen.

Here’s the profound truth.  God is speaking to you more than you would ever think.  And if you develop the ears to hear, who knows what wonders, what amazing opportunities God will open.  Again and again, I’ve experienced just such moments.   A few months ago, I sensed that I needed to talk about Jerry Gensel, a beloved leader of this church, now with God, on the labyrinth.   I had no idea that day was Jerry’s birthday, but God did.   But how do you hear God’s voice?  How do you know it’s God and not just a bad burrito from the night before?  In these words, God points the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.    

I Kings 19:11-13

God is speaking, and a lot more times than you realize, God is speaking to you.  But how do you know?  After all, our world has all sorts of folks saying they heard from God.   Yet when you hear what God told them, you can think. Really?   That doesn’t sound like God to me.  I like that quote by the great women’s rights pioneer Susan B. Anthony.  She said it well when she said: “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I know it always coincides with their own desires.”   

So, if God is speaking to you, how do you know it’s God?   Here God tells you.  God says.  You learn to recognize my voice.   Do you remember those days before our phones told us who was calling?   You’d pick up the phone, and you’d have no idea who was going to be on the other end, that is, until you heard their voice.    Most of the time, if it was someone you knew, you’d say, “Well, hello Bob or Jane or whoever.”   And maybe the other person, surprised, would say.  “How’d you know it was me?”   And you’d say.   “I recognized your voice.”  

After all, that’s what happens here.  Elijah had spent a lifetime listening to God’s voice, heck, Elijah was listening to God’s voice right before the earthquake, fire and wind came.   So, when they did, Elijah knew.   These demonstrations of power looked impressive, but none of them carried God’s voice.    And in those verses, God gives you an important clue on how God’s voice comes.   It rarely comes loudly or with force, but instead quietly, so quietly, it might even come as silence itself.  That’s why the silent listening that I talked about last week has such power.

But God doesn’t only give you this one clue to recognize God’s voice.   The whole Bible gives you those clues.  But here’s the problem.   You can read the Bible without listening to it.  

Have you ever been talking to someone, and you realized.  Holy Moley, they’re not listening to me at all.   They’re not hearing anything I’m trying to tell them.    Or naybe you were the one not listening.   It’s not like that you didn’t intend to not listen.  But life gets distracting. You get preoccupied.   And that happens when it comes to the Bible.

That’s why as part of prayer, Christians for centuries, have practiced a way of reading the Bible that helps you really listen to what God is saying there.   It works like this.  You pick a passage of scripture, usually not a very long one.  And as you read it, you ask yourself one simple question.   What word or phrase is resonating with me here?   Once you ask that question, you read the passage again, and maybe yet again.   Each time, you ask that question.  Is there some word or phrase here that particularly resonates with me?  And then you ask yourself why.

Now when you ask those questions, you’re listening not only to God but to yourself.   And as you do that listening, as you ask those questions, you’ll discover.  Something in that passage is rising up for you.    Maybe it’s because you don’t understand it or because it comforts you.   Maybe you’re not really sure why it is catching your eye, just that it is.    But here’s the crucial point.  In that sort of reflective reading, God is speaking to you. Even if you don’t even know exactly what God is saying, trust me, God is speaking. 

Often, when I’ve practiced this sort of listening to the Bible, I’ve written down a phrase or word that honestly made no sense to me at the time.  But then later that day, I found myself in a situation where that very word or phrase gave me the insight I needed.   Or sometimes, I only realized it after the fact.   After I’d messed up the situation, I’d remember the word or phrase.  And I go.  “Oh, that’s why I noticed that.   Gosh, I wished I’d remembered that an hour ago!”  

But God in this attentive reading isn’t simply interested in giving you an insight for that day.  Heck, lots of days, you’ll have no clue why that phrase connected with you.  No, in this attentive reading, God is training you to recognize God’s voice.  And as God does, when God speaks, not only will you recognize it, but more crucially you’ll grow to trust it.  

So many times, I’ve had moments when I got this sense that I needed to call this person, to reach out to them.  And every time I listened and let that sense lead me, I discovered.  That person was facing a challenge or hardship about which I knew nothing.  Sometimes, they even said.  “How did you know?”  And I told them.   I didn’t, but God did.   I just simply listened.

When I was in seminary, I interned at a church in Nashville, TN.   One of the elders in that church, Andy Spickard, served as a doctor at the Vanderbilt Medical Center.   One day, I happened to be visiting patients from the church there.   Over the course of an hour, I saw Dr. Spickard three times.  And after the third time, he said to me.  In this huge hospital, for us to see each other three times, that’s no coincidence.  God wants us to meet.  And in the midst of his busy day, he took 15 minutes to sit with me.  And here’s the thing. I needed those 15 minutes and the counsel he provided me in them desperately.   It has been 35 years, and I am still grateful for the fact that, when God spoke, he was willing to listen and respond.

Now, when this sort of thing happens, it might seem like an ordinary thought, a whim, so how do you know it’s God?   Well, two questions, ones lifted up by the writer Pete Grieg, help.  You ask yourself first.  Would this be the sort of thing Jesus would do?   And second, you ask.  What’s the worst that could happen if I get this wrong?   If it would be a disaster if you got it wrong, it’s best to hit pause and pray.  For example, if you feel God is leading you to give someone a good tongue-lashing or tell them to quit their job, you better be darn sure that’s from God. 

But taking those questions into account, when you obey that whim, trust that instinct, you’ll discover God is speaking, often in ways so specific you’ll never forget them.  In Pete Grieg’s life, that happened when he got stranded in Chicago.  All the planes heading in his direction had gotten grounded due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland.  So, until they flew, he had to find somewhere to go.  Now, even though he had friends closer, he found himself thinking about a friend 150 miles away in Wisconsin.  So, he emailed him and asked.   “Hey, can I crash on your couch?”    Yet even as he emailed, Pete’s friend had just received terrible news.  And his worried wife had asked him.  “Who do you wish you had on your couch right now?”   His friend replied, “Gosh, I wish it was Pete, but that’s crazy.  He’s in England. He’s never even been to our home.”   Yet within hours of his comment, God had answered that prayer that his friend didn’t even realize was a prayer.  And it all happened because when God spoke, Pete listened.

Now sometimes, God will speak in a far simpler way than that. Years ago, my friend, Calvin invited me to lunch.   At that time, I was struggling with some issues surrounding my family.  As I laid out the problem, Calvin, a fellow pastor, simply said.  “Kennedy, God always wants you to put your family first.”   Well, simple yet wise words were exactly what I needed to hear.    

And yes, sometimes God will speak in ways no one else can.  Roger and Donna, a couple that live in Tulsa, Oklahoma know that all too well.  Many years ago, a sadly neglected baby named Anthony came into their life.   But they soon discovered that, Rhonda, little Anthony’s mother had disappeared without completing the papers to surrender her parental rights.  All they knew is that Rhonda had gone 100 miles west to Oklahoma City.   So, one Sunday morning, Roger, armed with a handful of flyers, made a desperate attempt to find Rhonda in that city of 1.4 million people.   As he drove into Oklahoma City, he asked God to guide him at every corner, at every red light.   And in that tenuous way, he came to this little white mission church in a rough part of town.  As he arrived, the service had ended. Folks were lining up for the meal afterwards.  He asked one of the cooks, showed her the flier.  She simply shrugged and said: “Go ask the pastor.”   The pastor looked at the picture, paused, and said: “Yes, I know her.”   That very hour, they met Rhonda, and she signed the paperwork that enabled Anthony to become Roger and Donna’s son.    Somehow within thirty minutes of driving into the city, he had come to the right man at the right address at exactly the right time, just as that church was emptying.  When God speaks, and you listen, there is no limit to what God can do.

So listen.  For when God speaks, and you listen, who know how God's words will wondrously touch and change your life?