Sunday, March 28, 2021

Even the Best Habits can Wreck Your Life. How? Here's How

When I first saw the article, I thought.  That’s not so bad.   It’s just two pounds.  I’d thought it’d be much worse than that.  Then I realized.   I hadn’t really read the article.   It wasn’t saying just two pounds.  It was saying 2 pounds each month.   All the studies that scientists come up with always amaze me.  And what amazes me more are the people willing to do them, like this one.

Basically, the researchers gave each participant a bathroom scale with a wireless link.  That way the researchers could monitor how much weight they gained or lost during the pandemic.  It turns out, at least in that study, people gained over half a pound every 10 days, or two pounds a month.  Sheesh!  I heard people joking about the Covid 15.  According to that study, it could be the Covid 20 or 25!  

Still, I read the article with a small sense of self-satisfaction.  I’ve actually lost weight during the pandemic.  I decided.  After my wife and son went to Canada (so our son could go to school there) I would work to look better and not worse the next time they saw me.  And I achieved that a bit.  No one is going to put me on the cover of Men’s Health magazine, but I’ve done ok.  And as I felt my self-satisfaction, it reminded me of how deadly these habits we’ve been talking about during Lent can be.  You see. If you don’t watch it, these habits can kill you.  What do I mean?    

Every morning, I weigh myself. (I do it in the morning because I figure that’s when I’m the lightest.)  And, in doing that, I’ve learned two things.  First, my weight can change for reasons I have no way of understanding. Sometimes the change goes in my favor, and sometimes it doesn’t.   And when it doesn’t, it bums me out.  A pound in the wrong direction can derail my day.  I feel defeated.  My scale teacher has given me a failing grade.  I regret the extra potato chips.  I bemoan the 500 steps I didn’t take.   And when that happens, I see so clearly the danger, the danger of what I’ve been talking about for the last five weeks.  

Over these last weeks, I’ve shared a set of spiritual habits that a guy named Justin Earley developed and called the Common Rule(if you’re curious, you can find all of them at his website  He called it Common because he figured they were the sort of habits that anyone might find doable, not easy, but doable.   And I love these habits.  I wouldn’t have preached on them if I didn’t.  But boy, they carry danger.   And if you let that danger rise up, these habits will not bring you life.  No, they will do the opposite.  They will deaden you. They will even threaten to destroy you.   So, how can you make sure, that these habits, heck this whole religion thing, doesn’t do that to you?  In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Ephesians 2:1-10   

These habits that we’ve been talking about these last several weeks have tremendous power.   If you let them work in your life, they will bring you a deeper relationship with God, a better, deeper relationship with those you love, a whole more deeply fulfilled life.   Justin Earley knows that.  Practicing them pretty much saved his life.   I know that, because practicing them has blessed my life too.      

But, like Earley, I know.  These habits don’t only have the power to deepen your life.  They also have the power to wreck it.   And get this.  They’ll wreck it without you even knowing it.  But how could they do that?   How could the very same habits in one case, bless your life and in the other, wreck it.  What makes the difference?  The difference lies in the grace.  It’s grace all the way down.   And if you forget that truth then these habits won’t give you life.  They’ll take your life away. 

Do you remember?  A few minutes ago, I told you how a pound in the wrong direction could derail my day.  But does that make any sense?   Does that pound increase create huge physical dangers for me?   No.   To be honest, I could probably gain way more pounds than that, and I’d be ok.   Will my wife leave me or my son reject me?  No.  Will I lose my job or destroy my finances or get myself in legal trouble?  No, no, and no.  Would it have any adverse effect in any way on what will happen that day.  No, not at all.  So why should it derail my day?   It derails it because of what I believe that pound says about me.  That pound feeds into a lie, a lie that, in its various forms, derails people’s lives all the time.

When that pound derails my day, it’s because I’ve given that scale that weighs me a power it doesn’t have.  That scale doesn’t just determine my weight.  No, that scale now determines my value.    So, when it goes up a little, I can go down a lot.   And that is crazy.   But human beings do that sort of crazy all the time.  

People give power to all sorts of stuff that doesn’t have that power at all.  Maybe they give it to other people’s opinions or their level of success.  Maybe they give it to how well their kids or relationships are doing or how high their bank account is or what car they drive or house they live in or job they have.   They make something that, sure has some importance, but they make it carry ultimate importance.  They act as if that one thing defines their value, as if it quantifies their very worth.   And that’s insane.  And yet human beings do it a lot.  

The writer Artemus Ward said it well.  “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble.  It’s the thing we know that just ain’t so.”   And all of that just ain’t so.  Nothing that exists on the face of the earth can determine your worth.  Nothing.  But if you act like it can, then it will.   To adapt some wise words from a preacher I admire: “A lie that you believe is truth will affect your life as if it is true.”     

And these habits can become that sort of lie to you.  I’ve told you that I’ve been practicing these habits of the common rule.   But have I been practicing them perfectly?  No way.  I told you last week had hard it is for me to turn my phone off for just an hour a day.   And I get tripped up on the other habits too.   And that disappoints me.  But so far, it hasn’t derailed me, but it could.  It could if I forget what these habits do.   They don’t give me any favor with God.  No, they just connect me more deeply to the amazing, breathtaking favor I already have.  

You see. The habits don’t give you grace.  They just help you get in touch with the grace you already have.  But you can start acting as if they can.   So, if you start practicing these habits, and I very much hope you will, and you mess up (which you invariably well), then give yourself the grace you already have.   Don’t let them derail your life.    But hold on!  Those habits carry more deadly power than just that. 

Let’s go back to my scale problem.   Let’s say, when I start looking at that scale, it starts going down.   Maybe it goes down a bit more each day.   Maybe I reach my goal weight and go beyond.   Maybe I even start thinking about sending some selfies to Men’s Health to show my new physique.   Great, right?   No, not really, at least, not really, if I’m still letting that scale determine my worth.   Because now, what am I thinking?  I am thinking what an awesome dude I am, disciplined, fit, a paragon of character and virtue.    And in my new-found status, I start looking around.   I see my friends who could lose a few pounds and think.  “How sad.  If only they had my steely discipline, if only they could turn from their evil ways, then they would have the joy, the fulfillment I have.”     And that lie is the deadliest of them all.

As someone once put it, “When you start looking down at other people, it’s because you’ve stopped looking up at God.”   And if you’re doing that, you’ve started believing the deadliest lie of all.  You’ve begun to think that you and God have more in common than those other folks.  Sure you’re not God. But you sure are a lot closer to the Divine than those other folks.  But here’s the point, you’re not.   You are not ever closer.   You are not ever because what has saved you is not you getting close to God.  What has saved you is God getting close to you.   

That’s what Paul is telling you in the words we heard.  Human beings didn’t just need a little moral tune-up, a little divine work under the hood.  No, God tells you.  “You were good as dead.”  And dead people don’t get anywhere, much less get close to God.  In fact, God says.  “You were so dead, so lost, that on Palm Sunday you cheered for me, and five days later, you killed me.  In fact, my dying is what it took to save you, to wake you up, to bring you back to life.” 

And these habits, if you do them well, in fact the whole religion thing, can lead you to forget that.  You see.  These habits carry even more danger as you start doing them well.  For then, you can start believing the lie.   You can start think you’ve arrived.    The greatest spiritual disease is not thinking you are sick.  God can work with that.   No, the greatest spiritual disease is thinking you are well.   That’s why Jesus saved his harshest words for the religious folks.  He knew how deadly that form of the lie could be.

Several years ago, we hired a new staff person.   And James had a lot of gifts. He also happened to be gay.  And I gotta admit that I liked that.  I gave myself a little pat on the back for how progressive we were, how open-minded.   We weren’t like those other churches that excluded gay folks from leadership.  No, we had moved beyond that.   And, when James came, I thought I was doing a great job supervising him.  We had lunch every week.  We regularly shared and prayed together.  Then, James decided to take a new position, at a church in Tennessee.   But before he left, we had one last lunch.  That’s when he told me.   

 Several months before, a children’s leader had left because her husband didn’t like the fact that James was gay.    And when, James told me, I made this painful rejection into a joke, and not even a good one.  I said something like, “Sheesh, you gays just mess everything up.”   At the time, James just smiled and moved on.   But that day at lunch, he told me how much my words had hurt, how deeply they cut.   I sat there stunned.  I knew I had said them, and I also knew I hadn’t thought twice about them when I did.   But sitting there I knew.  Those words carried within them such ugly bigotry, the sort of bigotry that I thought had moved past.  Yet, I had said them, and until he told me that day, I had never even seen how ugly they were.   I asked his forgiveness.  He graciously gave it.  

But as I sat there, I realized why I had been so blind to my bigotry.  I had begun to believe the lie.   I had begun to believe that it isn’t grace, it isn’t grace all the way down.   No enlightened thinking of mine raised me up.  No, only God’s grace, only God’s loving me no matter what, had done that.  Only God’s grace could make me see.  But I had forgotten that.  I had begun to look down on others as if I had done the saving, not God.  And that lie, if I kept believing it, would not only blind me, it would deaden that very grace, that very life of God within me.

Here’s the truth.  When God came to us, you and I weren’t just sick.  No, we were dead.  We were so dead that we could cheer Jesus in on Palm Sunday, and then 5 days later, kill him on Good Friday.   And we could do that, cheer Jesus one day, and kill him another, and think the whole time we were on God’s side.   That’s how dead we were. 

But God’s love raises the dead.   God’s love has raised you, from death into life.  God’s love gave you that new birth. God’s love has raised you up to be right now into the heavenly places, given you a seat at God’s family table.  And you didn’t have anything to do with it.  No, God’s love gave you all that.  Think about it this way.  You’ve become like a happy turtle sitting on a fencepost.   And like that turtle, you know.  No way did you get there by yourself.    God’s grace put you there.   And how amazing is that!

So, do these habits.  Weave them into your life.  But know they don’t get you anything. They  only get you in touch with the grace you already have.  It’s God’s grace, God’s grace, all the way up, all the way down.  It’s grace on your great days.  It’s grace on your worst days.    And the more you see the grace, the more you’ll see the love.   And as you do, God will keep raising you up, will keep opening your eyes, will keep giving you the wondrous, beautiful life that only God can.  So, in this Holy Week, celebrate the grace, the grace that has saved you, the grace that has saved me, the amazing, wonderful grace that has saved us all.   For by grace, you have been saved, and this is not your own doing, it is the wondrous, amazing gift of God.        

Sunday, March 21, 2021

In This Crazy Busy World, How do you Live in True Freedom? Here's How

I kinda knew it was bad, even though I still do it more than I’d like to admit.  Heck, I was trying hard not to do it while writing this post.  My guess is that you do it too, at least some of the time.   But if you’re like me, you likely have no idea how bad, even dangerous it is.  

I did know this.  I knew it didn’t work.   People think it helps them produce more.  But every study, and I mean every single study, shows it doesn’t do that at all.   No, it makes you produce less, a lot less. It literally makes you stupider.  Your IQ goes down at about the same rate as someone who has smoked marijuana or stayed up all night.  For guys, it gets worse.  When we do it, we get about as sharp as an eight-year-old.  Now, I’m not knocking eight-year-olds, but there’s a reason 8 years olds don’t drive cars or run companies or handle heavy machinery. Just sayin’

It may even damage your brain.  They know folks who do a lot of this are definitely brain damaged.  They just don’t know if the practice created the brain damage or if you do the practice because you are already brain damaged.   It might even lead you to walk into traffic.  In a study of 1400 folks who got hit by a car, one out of ten got hit because they were doing this.  Now this last one, you gotta know.  I sure did.  Doing this totally messes up your relationships.  In other words, it irritates people a lot, including you when others do it to you.    So, to summarize, it messes up everything, your memory, your emotional intelligence, your stress level, your degree of depression and social anxiety.  Yet you almost certainly do it.  Heck, you may be doing it now, while I’m talking to you.

So, what is it?   It’s multi-tasking, you know checking your phone while you’re doing something else, interrupting some other task to check an email, doing one chore while you’re in the middle of another one.  And if you’re thinking right now.  Ok, that’s some people, but that’s not me.  I’m good at multi-tasking.  You are wrong.  It would be like saying that you are good at flying, that you can just flap your arms and achieve altitude.  It’s that crazy.  No human being on the face of the earth can multi-task well.  We just aren’t built that way.  The human brain can only focus on one thing at time.  You start focusing on two things, or God forbid, three or four and it won’t work, ever.   As the writer, Justin Earley puts it.  "To be two places at a time is to be no place at all." 

So, then why do we do it? And how can we find a way to stop it, to stop something that is literally messing up our lives in almost every way.   In these words, from the very beginning of everything, God points the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Genesis 2:10-17

Human beings get so caught up in doing too much stuff, in taking too many things on, that we literally wreck our lives (texting while driving for example -hello?)  Why?  Well, human beings don’t like limits.   And that’s a problem, especially when our limit-breaking ways aren’t just breaking us, they’re now breaking the planet.  So, how do you break yourself of your limit-pushing ways.  Here God shows you.  God shows you that only when you live in the limits do you become truly free.

A few weeks ago, we looked at the first creation story, where God pointed out how all of creation lives in rhythm, and how crucial it is that we do the same.  And now, in God’s second creation story, God gives sort of the sequel to that message, how everything lives in limits, and how crucial it is that you do the same. 

And in this story, God literally gives you the limits.  God tells you how this very particular garden has as its border four different rivers.   And then God says within this garden, you have free rein, except for this one tree.   Please don’t go there.  If you do, you’re gonna be real sorry, so don’t go there ok. 

But do you see what God does not do?  God doesn’t set up angels to prevent the human from touching the tree.  God doesn’t put one of those invisible fences that people put on their yards for their pets that’ll zap them if they get too close.  No.  God basically says to the human. “I’m giving you the freedom to choose.   I’ve told you what I want you to do, but in the end, it’s up to you.”

But at the same time, God frames the conditions of that choice.  God warns.  Your choice, if you make the wrong one, will have certain consequences, really bad consequences.   In other words, human freedom has limits.  And if you ignore the limits of that freedom, then you’re going to get yourselves in trouble.  

 Yet here’s the problem, too often human beings do just that.  Every day, folks, including me, go through life exercising our freedom but paying very little attention to the limits surrounding it.  That’s why folks still multi-task, even when they know it doesn’t work.   They want more even when they know.  More won’t ever work.  Why?  

No one likes to face the limits.  But here’s the problem.  When you ignore the limits, they don’t go away.  No. the limits end up breaking you.  So, you find yourself eating too much, and then get dismayed when the next morning you’ve gained three pounds.  Or you make poor choices with your time, and then get shocked when you don’t have time to do something you really need to do.    Or you treat people around you carelessly and then are surprised when they grow angry or distant.  

And in the last year, limit breaking has hits in a whole new, devastating way.  When Covid came along, no matter what we did, people would have died.  But here’s the tragedy.  It didn’t have to be over half a million.  But too many ignored the limits, and so the virus spread.  And as it spread, more and more got sick, and more and more died.

That’s why God makes this creation story about limits, about the conditions of our freedom.  God is trying to tell us.  Living in the limits doesn’t limit your freedom.  Limits enable your freedom to thrive.  Years ago, I heard a story that helped me see that so clearly, I’ve used it often since.  So, if you think you’ve heard it before, you probably have.

Nicky Gumbel, a leader of a church in England, tells the story.  One afternoon, Nicky took his son to his soccer game.  But once there, they encountered a problem.   The kids had arrived, but not the referee.  So, for some bizarre reason, the parents roped in Nicky to be the referee instead.  But Nicky had several problems.  First, he didn’t have a whistle.  Second, since the kids weren’t wearing uniforms, he didn’t know which side was which.  And most crucially, Nicky didn’t really know the rules. 

So, as the game started, someone called the soccer ball out, and then another boy said, no, that ball was in.  But Nicky didn’t know.  So, what did he do?  He told the boys.  Play on.   And then another boy cried foul, but then the other kids said.  No, no one had committed a foul.  Again, Nicky didn’t know.  So, what did he do? He said, Play on.  After about a half hour. 4 kids had been injured.  Everybody had become totally frustrated.   And the game had disintegrated into complete chaos. Thankfully, when all seemed lost, the ref, who had got the time of the game wrong, arrived.   Nicky got mercifully fired.   The referee set everything in order.  And the kids had a great game. 

But do you see the point?  When the limits got ignored, when no one paid attention to the conditions of the game, what happened?  No one had the freedom to play anything.  The conditions, the limits gave them the freedom to play. And when the limits disappeared so did the freedom.

In many ways, that insight lies behind all the habits that we’ve been discussing over the last four weeks.   When Justin Earley out of desperation created these sets of habits that he called The Common Rule, he discovered that.  As he puts it in his book, Earley said.  “I had lived my whole life thinking that all limits ruin freedom, when all along it’s been the opposite: the right limits create freedom.”

 And these last two of the eight habits in the Habit point that out in some striking ways.  In the daily habit, Earley decided to shut off his phone for one hour a day.   And for his weekly habit, he decided to fast from something (in his case, food) for 24 hours each week.   In both cases, you take something good, food, and yes, these phones are good things, and you set limits on them, limits so that you can live more fully in the blessings they provide. 

 Now, here’s the irony of what happened when I tried to live in these limits.  For my whole life, I’ve struggled to develop a fasting practice, and for me, the fast did need to be food.  (Fasting as a practice doesn’t just need to be food, it can be anything with which you need to set a limit, anything that you might depend on a bit too much).  But I chose food because well, I love food sooo much.   And amazingly, I’ve been able to keep it up.  It’s never easy, but that fast day is always rewarding.   So, where is the irony?

 What I achieved with the weekly habit, I failed miserably at with the daily habit.  I just kept forgetting to turn my phone off for that hour.   And when I remembered, I didn’t do it.  I’d tell myself.  I need it on now, but I’ll turn it off later.  But later never came.  Only this week, have I gotten at all consistent in doing this.  And every time I’ve done it, turning it off has not come easy.   At times, I thought I had turned it off, when in reality I didn’t.  I had to consciously remember to do that last swipe that sent my phone into darkness.  And every time I did, I did not like it.  And I now know.  I find it easier to give up food for 24 hours, then to give up my phone for one.   And knowing that makes it even more clear, that I don’t own my phone so much, as my phone owns me.   It reminds me of why I need the freedom of that limit. 

 In this story, God is reminding you that if you want to live in freedom, then live in the limits.  Only there, will you find the conditions that truly free you. God may give you unconditional love, but God doesn’t give you unconditional freedom.  And why?  God does it for the same reason loving parents give their kids limits.  God loves you.   And God knows that only in the limits will you find the freedom you need. 

Interestingly enough, the very word that, in English, names us makes that clear, a word with roots in this story.   When you see the first person described as Adam, God isn’t giving you a name so much as a pun.  In this second creation story, how does God make this first person?  God makes him from the ground, or in Hebrew, the Adamah.   So, what does God call him?  God calls him the Adam. 

And in English, that word becomes the human.  For where does human come from?  It comes from the Latin word for the ground, humus.  So even our name, human, reminds us.  Human freedom has got to be grounded in the limits around us. In other words, to take another word from humus, freedom require you to have humility, to know your limits and live in them.  For if you lose touch with that humility, eventually, you will lose touch with your freedom as well.

And as you think about those limits, remember the limits that out of love, God took on for you.  In Jesus, God took on all the limits of human existence, and even more, suffered at the hands of our own limits.  In Jesus, God suffered the limitations of poverty and oppression.  He faced the limits of a broken religious system and an unjust government.  Yet even in those limits, he lived free, free to love without limit, even to death and beyond.  And because, you can know that God loves you like that, you can be free to live in the limits, to trust in them, knowing that only there in the grounding of his love, will you find the freedom to become all that God created you to be.      



Sunday, March 14, 2021

How Do You Not Let What You Watch and View Warp You? Here's How

I gotta admit.   The stories get a little scary.   You read about some young mom who starts neglecting her kids, staying up to all hours of the night to check out the latest dispatches on the internet.   Or you read about the dad, who stops any relationship with his adult kids.  Why? He thinks they are in on the conspiracy.  You don’t have to even look that far to find the stories.  I just googled the phrase “Qanon took my parents,” and pages of stories showed up, far too many for me to read.  But the few I did read scared me plenty. 

And here’s what’s really scary.  The folks who go down this rabbit hole aren’t, for the most part, folks you’d think would go down it.   And for so many, it started out so innocently.   They just read one story online, maybe a Facebook post, and it led them to another story and another.   Before long, they were reading Q stories all the time, buying guns and survival gear, and behaving in all sort of strange ways that freaked their families out.

But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized.   I may not have fallen down the Q rabbit hole, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t fall down a different one.  I’ve heard of too many families on all sides of the political spectrum whose members aren’t talking to each other, all because of how someone voted.   Justin Earley described well the profit plans of each and every news channel, all of whom exacerbate these divisions all too well.   Here’s the plan.  It’s simple, really.  “We get mad, they get rich.”   But the news isn’t the only thing that can warp us. 

What about the shows we’re watching?  How are they shaping us in ways we don’t even realize?  How are the electronic habits we’ve built twisted us up in ways we can’t even see?   I read a powerful quote last week from a preacher I admire.   He simply wrote “what consumes our minds controls our lives.”    So how do you make sure that isn’t happening, that social media isn’t doing that or the things we choose to watch on our screens or the countless subtle messages our culture delivers on billboards or the cars we see on the streets or the clothes we see others wear?  How do you live a life controlled by the truth and not by a world trying to sell you a world of their own making, one built not to give you life, but to make them money?   In these words, God points the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

Psalm 119:33-37       

Every day, countless things in your life compete for the most valuable and most limited thing you have.   And it’s not your money.   It’s your time and your attention.   By the way, this competition should help you realize.   The media you watch, even the ones that don’t cost you anything, cost you more than you realize.   They cost you what you can never get back.  They cost you your time and attention.   But as they do, they shape you, even twist you in ways you don’t even realize.  So how do you make sure that doesn’t happen?  Here in these verses God tells you.  God says.  You can only turn your eyes away by turning your heart towards, by turning your hearts towards what is truly real.

Because, here’s the problem.   It’s really, really hard to turn your eyes away.  In fact, you and I live in a world that has created all sorts of ways to turn your eyeballs in their direction.   After all, that’s why every app wants to send you notifications or alerts.  They want your eyes.  Why?  They know once they’ve got your eyes, they can start shaping your life, and do it without you even noticing.  What do I mean? 

Justin Earley, (in his book - The  Common Rule from which this sermon draws)  tells of how when he started out in his job as a lawyer, he was working with a branch of his firm that worked out of London.  That meant, when he woke up each morning, he already had a bunch of emails from his co-workers in London they had written while he slept.  So, motivated by wanting to do a good job, his eyes always went to those emails first thing.  They set the agenda not simply for a lot of his day, but even the first few minutes of each morning.   His email check became a habit. 

Then one morning, he woke up to his son’s cries in the next room.  But even as he got out of bed to calm him, he saw the glow of the phone, the messages that had already arrived.  So, he thought.  I’ll just check those real quick before checking on my boy.  Then he noticed one or two that well, he could respond to quickly.   And as he was typing away, a little thought niggled at him in the back of his mind. Wasn’t there something else he needed to do?  Then he realized. “My son is still crying.”   But how did that happen?  How did he get to a place where emails from an office thousands of miles away, an office likely closed by the way, carry more urgency than the cries of his own son just a room away?  

It happens the way it happens for all of us.  Every day, you do all sorts of things on auto pilot, without even thinking.  That’s why when you get in the shower, you’re not thinking.  “Now how far do I turn the knob to get the temperature I like?  Which part am I gonna wash first?”  That all comes automatically, without you even thinking about it.   But that auto-pilot, if it’s leading you in the wrong direction, will lead you into a crash and burn, into a life more focused on your emails than your son.

Now, emails might not be your problem.  It might be something else, but here’s the point.  What you first focus on in the morning is not only telling you what you need to do.   It’s giving you a message about who you need to be.   Those emails told Earley.  Your value doesn’t lie in the God who made you or the family that loves you.  No, your value lies only in how you perform, what you produce, and nothing else matters more than that.   And without even realizing it, that is a lie that Justin Earley had come to believe. 

Do you know how to get someone to believe a lie?  It’s not hard really.  You just keep repeating the lie.   You repeat it often enough, people eventually believe it.   It’s a glitch in our brains. Researchers even gave it a name, the illusory truth effect. 

But why do we have that?  It likely has to do with how little of our brains we actually use. That hinders us from seeing the difference between what is real and what is not.   Oh, hold on a second.   That whole deal about how little of our brains we use.  That’s a lie.  It’s not true.   But folks have repeated that lie so often, that you might think it is true.   Do you see the point? 

Whatever you repeatedly hear or see, you’ll eventually come to believe.  And what you repeatedly first look at in the morning, even if it’s a lie you’ll start believing is the truth.  That’s why people get depressed looking at social media.  They start believing Fakebook isn’t fake or that Instagram really is real life.   Sometimes what is true can even tell you a lie.  I used to check the news first thing in the morning, often even before I got out of bed.  And what it told me was true.  But here was the problem.  Invariably I’d read something that troubled or worried me.   It affected, and not in a good way, how I related to my wife, to my son, to everything in my day.  Do you see the lie?   I had come to believe that a true thing, but one that in that moment I could do nothing about needed to be more my focus than the very people with whom I lived my life. 

So how do you change that?  Well, you change the first thing you look at.   That’s why Justin Earley make one of his daily habits, simply three words – scripture before phone.   He realized.  If I want to know what is real, then I need to begin with the creator of reality, with God.   And honestly, you can even use your phone to do that. 

When I decided to try out this daily habit, I downloaded one of the many daily prayer apps you can find out there.   It gave me my first thing in the morning prayer, and it gave me some scriptures to look at too.   Now you can also just keep a Bible by your bed and do it that way too. 

And when I began to do this habit, things began to shift.  First, when I did check the news, it didn’t capture me.  I realized.  God was far bigger than whatever the headlines held that day.  And work emails didn’t stress me as much either.  In those scriptures, God had reminded me of who I was, of whose I was, of who ultimately determined my value.  

Where do you start?  Sheesh, it could be anywhere, with a psalm in the morning or if it’s a long one, a portion of one or a chapter in the gospels or simply a story or set of verses in that chapter.  What matters is that whatever you read, you are beginning your day there, with the truth of who God is, of who you are.    And the more you do that, the more clearly you see what is real and what is not, the more you let the truth shape you rather than the subtle lies that our culture can try to sell you. 

But hey, let’s not totally trash the culture.  Out there, you can find beauty and truth in all sorts of amazing places.  But here’s the problem.   We can get lazy and miss the truth and beauty God yearns for us to see.   And that’s where the weekly habit comes in, curating media. 

Now what the heck does that fancy word curating means?   Well, it simply means that when you go to a great art museum, what you see doesn’t begin to represent all they have.   So how do they decide what goes up?  They curate it.  They pick the very best to show you, or at times, they put things together to help you understand something more deeply or see it more clearly.

And right now, in our world, you have the same challenge those art museums have.  You have way more stuff you could watch than you have time to see.  So, what do you do?  You curate it.    You carefully select what you want to see.   Now Earley decided to curate his media down to four hours a week.  But that’s his choice not yours.   You can go with whatever number of hours makes sense to you.  The key is that you think about it, you choose it.   Each year, for example, I pick shows or movies I think it would be good to see.   Some of them I pick because of their beauty and wisdom.  Others I pick because they open my eyes to see a truth more clearly or an injustice more deeply.   And of course, some I pick simply because I think they’ll be fun.  But the point is, don’t let the algorithms choose.  No, you choose.   And ask yourself too.  Is what I’m watching giving me life or taking it away?   For that reason, I limit how much TV news I watch or social media I consume.  I find both those things get toxic in anything but small doses. 

And as you make those choices, as you choose scripture before phone, as you think more carefully about what you choose to watch, do you see what you are doing?  You are rooting yourself in what is real, in the God who loves you, in the beauty and wonder of the world God created.   And as you do that, God will turn your eyes from the vanities of a world whose values are often warped and twisted in destructive ways.    And instead, God will turn your heart towards what is true, this God who loves you, this God who gave everything for you, this God who even now is healing and restoring this world, and who is inviting you to be part of that great work.   And as God turns your heart, God will heal it, God will grow it, God will shape your heart into something bigger, more wondrous, more beautiful, more love-filled than you could ever imagine or dream.  

Sunday, March 7, 2021

In a lonelier and lonelier world, how do you find community? Here's how.

It’s back!  And I am so excited!  But hold on, a second.  Why am I so excited?  How many times can you see folks fight off zombies, and still stay interested?   And sure, each season, they run into some crazy new set of enemies, but you know one way or other, they’re going to beat them, so where’s the suspense in that?   Yet, The Walking Dead has returned, and I am pleased as punch.   And it looks, from the rankings that about 3million other folks are pleased with me.

So, why?  Why after now ten years do so many still love that show?  Well, they love it for the same reason millions binge watched the show The Office during the pandemic or fell in love with that Canadian comedy, Schitts Creek.  It’s the same reason shows like Friends or Seinfeld or Cheers became huge hits and are still streamed today.  What could a show about zombies have in common with not very happy office workers or for that matter a town in Canada with a terrible name.   Each one speaks to something every person yearns to have and yet struggles to find.  But in those shows we see folks who have found it.   And so, the shows capture our hearts.

But of course, these are all TV shows.  What they show us can’t really happen. But what if, in some way, it can?   What if they are showing in their own fantastical way something that is possible, something that in moments in our lives we might have even experienced in some way ourselves?   In these words, words shared with a group of people who did find what so many yearn for, Jesus shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what Jesus has to say. 

John 13:34-35

So, what do those hit shows that I mentioned have in common?  If you haven’t guessed from the scripture, what they all have is a beautiful picture of community.    They show you a group of friends who stand by each other, who do life together, who have found community together.   And when folks see that, they love it.   Heck, they even feel in some way connected to that make believe community.   They feel connected because they all yearn to have it.  Everyone yearns to have a place where, as the old Cheers theme song goes, everyone knows your name.   And who knows?   At times we might have had it, a group of friends in high school or college.  Or maybe it was folks we served with in the armed forces or in another place where we forged deep bonds around common challenges and even dangers.  And if we ever had, we yearn to find it again, to live in that sort of deep, powerful community.   But here’s the problem.   

That sort of community is disappearing.  One out of three Americans admit they have never ever even talked with their neighbors.   The average American has only one close friend. One in four have no close friends at all.   And the younger you go, the worst it gets.   And of course, that’s not good.   In fact, it’s deadly.  Loneliness has the same impact on your life expectancy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.  The less social contact you have, the more quickly things like heart disease or Alzheimer’s hit you, not to mention the dangers of depression or suicide.   And no one wants that.  Do you know of anyone who yearns to be lonely, maybe alone at times yes, but lonely? 

Yet here’s the problem.   What people say they want doesn’t always reflect what they actually do.   We say we want community and then do all sorts of things to avoid it.  It’s why new houses have big decks in the backyard, and no porches on the front. And it’s also why Jesus gives this sort of strange command here.  

Think about it.  Jesus is talking to people who have spent the last three years in deep and intense community with one another.   Yet he feels compelled to command them, to command them to love each other.    And in that commandment, Jesus is telling you something crucial that folks can forget.   If you want community, it requires work, work that you can too easily shirk.  It requires intention that you can too easily ignore.   It requires vulnerability that you too often avoid.  So, in some of his very last words, Jesus makes it a command.  Love one another.  

It happened over 20 years ago, yet I still remember it clearly.  I was driving somewhere, bemoaning to God my sense of isolation, my lack of friends.   And then, God answered back.  God didn’t comfort me or even say yes.  No, God said.  Take care of what you already have.   In other words, God was saying to me.  Why should I give you more friends?   You don’t even take care of the ones you have.   And I knew.   God was telling me a painful truth.

Do you notice?  Jesus didn’t just give them the command to love.  No, Jesus described to them what those words meant.  He told them.   As I have loved you, you also should love one another.  And how did Jesus love them?  He spent time with them, lots of time with them.  He listened and talked with them.  He ate and shared with them.   And that’s of course what love looks like. It’s someone giving you the weight of the most valuable thing you have, your time and attention.   

It’s why in the 8 practices that make up the common rule, this set of habits that saved Justin Early’s sanity and life, he instituted two habits around friendships and time.  He instituted a habit of a daily meal together, and one hour of weekly conversation with a friend.   Now these two habits might require some modifications.  They certainly did once Covid hit.   But they speak to two things you must regularly do.   You must make regular time to talk with those you love, and, as this pandemic eases, to eat with them too.  

But do you see the irony of that habit of a daily meal together in Justin Earley’s life.  Justin Earley lived with a wife and two kids.  And yet, he wasn’t even having one meal a day with the very people with whom he lived.   And yet how easily that happens, with work or with just the temptation of the TV or our phones.  I remember going out with my wife and son to Benihana’s for her birthday, when you could do those things without threat of death.  Across the communal table we saw a family in which every member was on their phone.   And we wondered to ourselves. Why are you even here?      

Yet I can hardly talk.  What God told me about taking care of my friends, over 20 years. I still often don’t do.  Why? I don’t want to risk the vulnerability, the possible rejection.  And so, I avoid.  So, this week, I scrambled to live out this sermon.  I reached out to set up a lunch with my best friend.   I called my brother, who I speak with too rarely.  I even talked to an old friend, one who in almost two decades, I have hardly spoken with at all.   

But you don’t need to do this habit, not simply because Jesus commanded it or because it’s the “right thing” to do.   You need this habit because Jesus knows, you just need it.  I need it.  We all need it more desperately than we even know.

In some of the darkest days of the pandemic, I was feeling the absence of my family so deeply.  And that’s when it happened, when Melissa Dewey died.   I hadn’t seen Melissa Dewey in almost 20 years.  She had been a member of the church youth group I led on Long Island.   Yet, when I heard that she had been run over while trying to flag down help for her disabled car it wrecked me.  It felt so utterly, horribly random for her to die in such a senseless way.  

And then another member of that youth group put all of us together on Facebook Messenger.  And for three days, in a virtual yet profoundly real way, we grieved together.   We shared our pain and our memories.  We passed along pictures of our kids and oohed and aahed over their cuteness.  We came together once again in a community like the ones that those hit shows so tantalizingly portray.   And that group of friends from decades ago, teenagers then and now mostly parents with kids of their own got me through those very dark days.

You see, we need that love.  You need that love.   And no screen or make-believe TV show can ever take its place.    It’s why God came to us, not simply in words, but in skin and bone, in flesh and blood.  And there, in Jesus, he loved us and ate with us and laughed with us, and, in the end, died for us.   And before he died, he said.  Love each other like that, like I loved, like I still love you.  And as you love like that, they’ll see me.  They’ll see the God who yearns to be their friend, to welcome them into the never-ending circle of love that is God.     

So, come and live out the command.   Share the love.  Live in these habits of love.  Talk with a friend, really talk, every week, if not more.  Make time regularly to eat with someone, to break bread even as we do here, even if its virtually.   And know that in that love, in those friendships, you will discover more deeply the love of this God who binds us all together in a love that not even death will defeat.