Sunday, May 30, 2021

Feeling the Post-Pandemic Blues? How do you move through these days in strength? Here's how.

I heard him say the words months ago.  From the moment, I did, I couldn’t get them out of my mind.   I knew.  He was right. The tsunami was coming.  And nothing any of us could do would stop it.   It was coming, in some way, for each and every one of us. 

I heard the phrase in an interview with the church leader Rick Warren.  Warren said: “A tsunami of grief,” as he put it, was heading our way.   And we needed to be prepared for when it hit.  

But come on, who can be prepared for that?  When grief hits, no matter how much you try, you’re never prepared.  It sweeps you up and it carries you with it, whether you like it or not.  And some days, you think you’re ok, then boom, the grief takes your legs right out from under you.     

Has it hit you, that grief?   I didn’t lose anybody close to me to this virus.  I didn’t lose a job or face financial hardship.   But still, I feel it.   Some days, a lot of days, I wake up, and I just feel sad.   I don’t know why, but I do.  I sense something has been lost.    I can’t even put my finger on what it is.    All I know is that whatever it is, I miss it.  I miss it a lot.  

How do you make it through the grief?  How do you find a way to navigate the sadness as you face a world that in some strange way, you know is not what it was?  How do you move forward when some days, you don’t feel like moving much at all?   In these words, God shows you the way.  God shows you how you can find a place to stand even in the grief, even in the days that feel the darkest and most discouraging.  So, let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

I Peter 1:13-21

How do you get through the emotional pain that you feel in these days?  Heck, how do you deal with the emotional pain that you can feel on any day, pandemic or not?   In these words, God tells you.   God shows you the path that enables you to go out in strength on even the saddest of days.    So how does it happen?  It happens when you let God prepare your mind to be holy.

Now, before I get to that word, holy, that, trust me, means not at all what you think it does, we gotta focus on that whole prepare your mind part.  You see.  That’s where the problem begins.     Because human beings, we’re not good at the whole prepare your mind part.  

And when Pater says prepare your mind, he uses a particular Greek work for mind, dianoia.   And if you think of a word like dialogue, you can guess what dianoia means.  If a dialogue is talking things through, well then dianoia is thinking things through.   That’s what Peter is asking these folks to do.   And he’s asking because he knows. We human beings aren’t that good at that, at thinking things through.  What do I mean?

Well, let’s go back to a famous experiment from several decades ago, called the Gorilla Experiment.    The researchers made a film of two teams, passing basketballs.  One team was wearing white shirts, and the other team was wearing black shirts.   Now the viewers of the film were then asked to count the number of passes that only the members of the white team made. 

As you can imagine, that meant they had to concentrate pretty hard on the white team.   But in the middle of the film, a woman in a Gorilla suit walks into the middle of the two teams.  She thumps her gorilla chest, and then moves on.  She appears for nine seconds. 

Now, how many of those counting even noticed she was there at all?   About half did.   Now, the other half not only did not notice her.  They did not believe she had been there at all.  I mean. How could they have missed that?   But they did.  

Do you see what this study tells you?  First, you can be blind to what is literally right in front of you, but not only that.   You’re also blind, well, to your own blindness.    You can’t even see that you can’t see. (By the way, this is what magicians count on with every one of their tricks.)  And the great psychologist Daniel Kahnemann even coined an acronym WYSIATI to communicate this false perception, this fallacy we all have.  What does WYSIATI stand for?  It stands for the fallacy, the false perception, that What You See Is All There Is.   And it’s a fallacy because what you see isn’t all there is.  

That’s why, as I shared last week, most human beings didn’t see blue for hundreds of years simply because they didn’t have a word for it.   Blue was there.  They just didn’t see it. 

Again and again, folks make the WYSIATI mistake.   It’s why in 2002, in a study they discovered let’s call it the “renovation optimism gap.”  They asked homeowners how much they estimated their kitchen renovation would cost.  They guessed around $18,000.00.   How much did it actually cost?  $38,000.00.  Ouch.   And if you’ve ever done a renovation, you might know the reality of the “renovation optimism gap.” 

That’s why Peter tells these folks to think things through.  For their world has changed.   A few years before, it may not have been popular to be a Christian, but it wasn’t dangerous or deadly.   But now, it had become that.   And in a world that had changed like that, your perspective can shift pretty dramatically and not in a good direction. 

So, Peter wants them to think things through, to think beyond those present challenges.   He even uses a clever phrase to emphasize his point.  He tells them to gird up the loins of their mind.   In those days, folks walked around in long robes (mainly because it was cooler).   But the robes weren’t so great if you wanted to run, so what did you do?  You girded up your loins.  You rolled up the robe, tucked it into your belt so you could free up your legs to move.   Today, he might say something like roll up the sleeves of your mind. 

You see, Peter knows that when it comes to tough times in our lives, times when our emotions are strong, it can be all too easy not to think things through.   We can begin to imagine that the emotions are the reality, when they are not.  They are simply our reaction to the reality, our perspective on it.   But what we see is not all that is. 

So, in times like that, we need to roll up our sleeves and think things through.  We need to get up on the balcony.  Now, what do I mean?   Well, when you’re in the middle of a situation, like a pandemic, you can begin to think that’s all there is.  But it’s not.  Remember.  What You See Is Not All There Is.   So, what do you do?  You go somewhere else to get a different perspective.   You get above the fray. You get up on the balcony.

And that’s where that word holy comes in.   Holy doesn’t mean pure or obeying certain rules.  It comes from a Hebrew word, qodesh, that simply means set apart.  

When you apply it to God, that means that God is just that, set apart, as in set apart from, utterly and infinitely beyond everything else.  

By the way, this is what peeves me about that atheist, Richard Dawkins.  He presents this “brilliant” evolutionary argument that as God would need to be really complex, God would need to evolve through natural selection.  And as natural selection could not exist before the universe, God could not exist.   But God doesn’t exist like that.  God doesn’t exist as some sort of super complicated stellar whale.  God doesn’t even live in the universe.  The universe lives in God. Talk about not thinking things through, Richard! (this critique of Dawkins comes from a wonderful book called: Unapologetic)

Ok, so that’s what holy means when it comes to God, but what does it mean when it comes to you.  It means much the same thing.   It means set apart. But our set apartness takes on a different flavor, set apart in the way someone becomes set apart in the military.

Years ago, I heard a story of a soldier who wrote to his mother during World War I, about how muddy things got in the trenches at the front.   She wrote back, alarmed at what the army was doing to her beloved son.    And he wrote back.   “Mom, I belong to the U.S. Army now, and if they want to get their boots muddy, it’s up to them.”  That soldier got it.  He had become set apart, and that set apartness required a different way of seeing things, even himself.    

And Peter is reminding these folks they are set apart too.  How they lived before came because they didn’t know.  They didn’t see things as they really were.  But now, they do. They do see.  They do know.   And what they know has set them apart.  

But what do they know?  They know this.  This God who exists beyond everything, beyond time itself came to them and to you.   This God even became one of them.   Why?  This infinite, inexhaustible God loves them.   This God loved them, loved you so much, that in Jesus, he even gave up his life.  Why? So, he could bring you home, so that you might know who you are.    And who are you?   You are the beloved child of God.  And when you know that, well, that sets you apart.

Both my parents loved me growing up, but I gotta admit my mom really, really loved me.   And do you know how that made me feel?  It made me feel set apart.   I know that I had someone that committed to me.  Someone once said. Everyone needs someone who has an irrational belief in them.   That was my mom. 

And Peter is saying, God has set you apart like that.  You are loved.  You are loved by a God who has an irrational belief in you.  But it’s only irrational because you cannot see what God can.   You cannot see how precious and beautiful you are.   But what you see is not all there is. 

And when you know that, when you know God loves you like that, sees you like that, it sets you apart.  And it gives you perspective.  You realize.  Even in your saddest moments, you are never alone.  No, God is even more present.   After all, if you’re a parent, and your child cries out in distress, what do you do?  You rush to them, to hold them, to love them, to comfort them.   And you have a God who loves you more profoundly than that. 

And as you think that through, you realize.  You don’t set your faith and hope on your emotions or on the news of the day or on the opinion of others.  No, you set your faith and hope in a God who ransomed you from your futile ways with God’s very life.   You set your faith and hope on a God whose love has set you apart, has made you holy.   And when you realize that, then you know, even on your most grief-stricken days, you will be okay.  For you are being held by a love that will never leave you nor forsake you.   So, prepare your mind by pondering that love.  Prepare your mind by resting in that truth.  Prepare your mind by remembering the One who has set you apart, who has by his love, made you holy.  

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Are You Seeing Reality Clearly? No, Not as Much as you Think You Are. How Do You See It More? Here's How.

 I admit it.   I didn’t believe it.  I thought.  How could that be?  Everyone should be able to see that.   It’s there.  How could you miss it?  But it turns out it’s not there, at least the way you think about it. 

For the longest time, most human beings didn’t see blue, and not because they were color blind.   No, it’s just nobody had a word for blue.   And if you don’t have a word for something, well then it doesn’t really exist.   So, for a long time, the color blue, simply didn’t exist.

I first learned about this because of a puzzling description you find in the Greek poet, Homer.   Homer describes the color of the sea as wine-dark.  He never describes it as blue.   How could he?  The Greeks, in his day, had no word for blue.  So, when Homer looked at the sea, he didn’t see blue. He saw something that looked like red wine.  

And the Greeks weren’t alone. Blue didn’t exist in almost every language in the ancient world.  You don’t find blue in the New Testament or the Old Testament either.  You don’t find the word blue in Chinese, Hindu, Arabic, even Icelandic.   The ancient Japanese did have a word for blue, but they used the same word for green, which doesn’t make much sense.  But come on Kennedy, just because you don’t have the word for blue doesn’t mean you can’t see it.

Well, in 2006 a researcher did a study with the Himba tribe in South Africa.  Their language doesn’t have a word for blue either.   So, he created a slide with eleven green boxes and one blue one.  He asked the Himba to pick the one that was different.   The whole thing stumped them.   They couldn’t see any difference.  Now, on the other hand, the Himba had lots of words for green.   They could distinguish shades of green that completely stumped English speakers. 

Do you see what this means?  The world people see isn’t really the world that is there.   No, it’s simply the one you and I have created in our heads.  If people could miss blue for centuries, what else could we be missing? You and I don’t see the world as it is.  No, we see the world as we are, which isn’t all that great. 

And right now, as we come out of this pandemic, it can be even harder to see what is really there.  We can feel that we are living in a strange new world, one that has changed.  But the truth is that the world has always been a bit strange, in fact far stranger than any of us could ever imagine.  And yes it has changed, but in the most crucial way, it remains the same.    

So, how do you get in touch with what is truly there?  You turn to something that can help you see.  And as you do, you will see a more wondrous, more beautiful reality than you could ever have imagined.  So, what helps you see?  Here, God shows the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

1 Peter 1:10-13

How do you see what’s really there?  How do you get in touch with reality?   Here God tells you. You look to God’s word, this book, for when you do, it gives you, bit by bit, the eyes to see the beauty, the wonder that lies at the heart of reality.   But before you can see how a book, this book could do that, you need to understand even more clearly how disconnected from reality we all are. 

This past week, I finally caught up with one of the big hits of the pandemic, the movie, My Octopus Teacher.   If you haven’t seen the film, let me give you a quick rundown.  This filmmaker, who largely makes nature documentaries, burns himself out.  He gets disconnected from his life, his emotions, everything.   So, in desperation, he remembers, how as a kid, he used to love to dive in these kelp forests right off the rocky coast in his home nation of South Africa.  So, he goes there again, living along the coast and diving in the kelp forest.  One day, diving there, he sees this strange pile of shells all stuck together on the ocean bottom.  As he goes to look, the pile literally bursts open, scattering shells everywhere as what held them together speeds away.  He realizes that pile was an octopus, but he can’t figure out what was going on, why she piled the shells around her like that.   But he feels strangely attracted to the mystery.

So, he decides that every day, without fail, he will dive in that kelp forest and look for this octopus.   And the rest of the movie, tells you how that radical decision not only heals his wounded life, but opens him to see that kelp forest as he had never seen it before.  The movie itself is amazing, especially when you realize just what an extraordinary creature an octopus is.   But along the way, the filmmaker talks realizes that everything in that kelp forest is connected.  This forest isn’t a bunch of separate plants and creatures.  It’s a living community, a communal organism even. 

Now, what’s stunning to him about this revelation is how obvious it was once he sees it.  And yet he realizes.  For decades he had missed it.   And he spent his life doing documentaries on nature.  Yet even as he did so, he literally was missing the forest for the trees.  

And what he was doing, human beings do all the time.  We create a frame for the world, and if things don’t fit our frame, well, we simply don’t notice them.   Not only that, when someone does notice them, we still don’t see it.  

Decades ago, a scientist named Suzanne Simard came up with this idea that trees in a forest were communicating with each other.  They were warning each other of certain dangers, even sharing and trading resources.   But when she presented this idea, other scientists scoffed.  That could not be.  In nature, it was dog eat dog, a merciless competition for limited resources.  Then Simard proved it was true.  She proved it was true with brilliant experiments no one could contradict.   Yet even then, many scientists struggled to believe it.  They had a frame, and a community of trees sharing with and looking out for each other did not fit it.  

And what those scientists did we do in one way or the other.  As it becomes more and more clear that how we consume energy is literally burning up the planet, we still resist that reality. Or more personally, we deny a truth about ourselves or someone we love, a truth that even as it is painfully obvious, we still find a way not to see.   

And that’s where the Bible comes in. In the words of this book, you discover the door that opens you to see, to see the truth about yourself, about everything   But, often, people look at this book, and completely miss that.  They look at it as some sort of owner’s manual for life or morality rulebook.    Now, sure it does have helpful insights for life.  It does gives you guidance on how to live morally and ethically in the world.  But that simply skims the surface.  You’ve got to break the surface to see what it really is.  And what is it really?  It’s a set of spectacles. 

A Christian thinker named John Calvin developed that particular image hundreds of years ago, and to me it explains the Bible better than any other.   Calvin said that you can look at the world around you, at the creation, and gain some knowledge of God, who, when you think about it, is Reality with a capital R.  But what you see of God is blurry.   But scripture gives you the spectacles to see it more clearly.  The Bible brings everything into clearer definition. 

And here in these words, Peter is showing you how those spectacles work.   You see the Bible only enables you to see because of the Spirit of God.  To go back to the spectacles, The Bible acts as a lens.  But a lens needs light.  You gotta have light for the spectacles to work.  

So, scripture doesn’t work alone.  It only works with the illumination of the Spirit. The evangelist D.L. Moody put it.  “The Bible without the Holy Spirit is a sundial by moonlight.”   In other words, without the spirit, it doesn’t work.  And Peter makes that clear.  At the beginning of the passage, he talks about how the Spirit of Christ guided the prophets.   Then he talks near the end how that same Spirit of God brought you that good news.   

And how amazing is this news that the Spirit gives.  It’s so amazing that angels yearn to see it for themselves.  They know that this news, this good news points to the very heart of everything.  So what is it?

Well, first, it’s exactly what Peter tells you it is.  It’s news.  The word refers to the sort of information that a messenger or herald would run to tell to the city.  Now, what do you think the herald shared?  Do you think he ran and shouted out, “Hear ye, O citizens, don’t steal from one another!”   Or “Hey citizens, be sure and love each other.”    Now, that’s nice stuff to share, but that’s not news.    No, he yelled out.  “The king has won a great victory and defeated his enemies.”  He shared news.

And what God shares in the Bible is news, news of very real acts that God has done, and not news that folks will forget in a day or two.  No, God shares the sort of news that changes the world, that changes you forever.   God gives you the sort of news that once you see it changes how you see everything.   I love the way C.S. Lewis put it.   He said: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

But what do you see?  What is the stunning new reality God shows you?   Right at the beginning of this passage, Peter tells you, but you can easily miss it.  He tells you about the grace coming to you.   Do you see how that changes everything? 

Let me make it clearer.  In the vision of the gospel, spiritual seekers don’t exist.  They can’t exist.   Why?  You aren’t ever the one seeking God.  No, God is always the One seeking you.   God is seeking you constantly.   God is approaching you in a sunrise.  God is reaching out to you in the smile of a friend.  And God has, above all, broken into the world in the flesh, as one of you.  That’s the wondrous news called the Gospel.  That’s the grace that is coming to yon: that God came and lived among you: that God gave up everything to bring you home.   

When you have a spiritual yearning, you’re simply reacting to this God who is already seeking you, whose grace is already coming to you.   You don’t do anything to receive it either.  It comes as a gift, a gift given out of infinite love for you.   

Today we celebrate the day when the Spirit came on the church.  And how did that happen?  They didn’t travel up some mountain to look for the Spirit.  They waited and the Spirit came for them.  And when the Spirit came, it changed them more radically than they could have ever imagined or dreamed.   

 And do you see what that tells you about reality.  This, everything you see, everything you don’t see, it’s all comes to you as a gift.  It comes as a gift from a radically generous and gracious God, a God who has given even his life for you.   And when you see that, when you see that everything good and beautiful is just part of an infinite outpouring of love from the source of everything, then reality becomes a very, very different place. 

And you realize.  The world has changed post-pandemic in some ways.  But it remains what it always has been, the gift of an infinitely loving and giving God. This God’s very Spirit moves around you.  His Spirit gives life to the words of this book.  This Spirit gives you wondrous news into which angels long to look.  And when the Spirit shows you that news, then, the world can never be the same, because you are not the same.  

No, this God in Jesus has opened your eyes.  This God has shown you the way.  This God has told you who you are, the infinitely loved child of God.    And when you know that, well, it puts a virus and 18 months of pandemic into perspective.   It reminds you not only of what is real, but who is real, the Real, with a capital R that lies around and beneath and even  within you.  So, prepare your minds for action.  Set all your hope on the grace being brought to you in the revelation of Jesus.  And breathe in this God, this God who is wonderfully, beautifully, infinitely real. 


Sunday, May 16, 2021

In these months of pandemic, we have lost so much. How, in the midst of that loss, do you find joy? Here's How.

It happened over forty years ago, but even now, I remember the paralyzing fear, the despair of those terrifying moments.  When I was 14, a bully at my school, Hutch, as we called him began to focus on me.   I got tossed out of windows onto the ground, and various and sundry other humiliations that I’ve long since forgotten.   But I’ve never forgotten the day that Hutch held me by my ankles out of a second story window.  I acted like it was a big joke even though I was terrified.   But God forbid, I show any fear or weakness.  That would have made it worse.  

Going to school in those days, I felt so alone.   I never knew when Hutch would strike or what he would do.  For years, I carried with me the humiliation and pain of that year.   Then several years ago, something changed.   In a seminar I attended, the facilitator asked us to remember a time when we felt utterly powerless.   Immediately that year of bullying came to mind. 

Then he asked us, without judgment, to honestly ask ourselves if we could have made different choices.   Did we ask for help?   If we were younger, did we seek support from our parents?    So, I asked myself that question.  The answer stunned me.  Yes, I had hoped a teacher would help me, but honestly, I had never asked one.  I had never told anyone, not even my parents what was going on.   And knowing that, didn’t make me feel bad at all.  Instead, it gave me a sense of power.  I had choices that might have changed things.  Now, back then, for a lot of reasons, I didn’t act on them, but I could have.   I had had more power than I realized.   In fact, discovering that has given me a greater sense of my power to this very day. 

Now those moments of shame, of sheer terror hold no power over me.  I even tried to reach out to the bully to initiate a conversation (I still haven’t been able to find him).  But do you see how all of that changed?  It changed because I simply answered one simple question. 

But what that facilitator did with that simple question, God was already doing thousands of years ago in the words we’re about to read.   How do you find your way through these difficult almost post-pandemic days?  How do you deal with the continuing uncertainty, with the sense of loss, with just the emotional weariness?  Heck, how do you face whatever troubles life brings you with peace, confidence, even joy?   In these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

I Peter 1:6-9

How do you move through these challenging days as this pandemic wanes?  How do you deal with all the emotional fall out of the last year?  How, in whatever struggles that life brings you, do you move through them in strength, even in joy?   Here God tells you.   You let God's big picture frame the smaller picture of your life, even if your suffering.  Why?  Because God's big picture gives you the perspective you need to not only experience peace and power, but even joy.  

You see, that’s exactly what Peter is doing in his letter.  Remember, these Christians are facing all sorts of troubles, including most terrifyingly of all, an all-powerful state that has moved from tolerance to hostility, from passive acceptance to often violent persecution.   But what does Peter say as this passage begins?   He says: “In this you greatly rejoice….”

Now, what is this?   Peter is simply referring to the big picture that he painted as he opened the letter, that we talked about last week.   Just to give a quick refresher on that big picture.  It went something like this.  God has chosen you even before you were born and sealed his commitment to you with his very life in Jesus’ death.   More than that, Jesus rose from death.  And when Jesus did, in that resurrection, God literally re-conceived you.  You have become different, radically, wonderfully new.   And now you have a living hope.  You know.  In the end, God has the victory.  Love has the victory.   You already know the final score.  God wins.  

Do you see how that bigger picture gives perspective?   You know, whatever you face, God will not walk away from you.   You know, that ultimately, those who persecute you will not write the end of your story.  No, God will do that.   Do you see what power that gives you in even the most powerless of situations?

When the Nazis came to Vienna in the 1930s, they ripped apart the life of the Jewish psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl.  They seized his home.  They destroyed his career.  Then they took his family.  His parents, his brother, and his wife all died in the death camps of the Nazi’s.  They sent Frankl himself to Auschwitz.  There they beat and starved him.  They brutalized and humiliated him.    Yet in the midst of that horrific experience, Frankl began to notice something. 

He noticed how some prisoners, even in their starvation, offered their bread to others.   He saw, how in the most undignified of places, certain prisoners exhibited dignity, even honor.   One day, as he stumbled along on a forced march, he began thinking about his wife.  As he described it, “I heard her answering me, saw her smile, her frank and encouraging look. Real or not, her look was then more luminous than the sun which was beginning to rise.”      Frankl realized.  His Nazi captors could control everything around him.  They even had power over his body, his very life.    But he had power too.   In the end, he and he alone decided how it was going to affect him.  Yes, he could become bitter or depressed.  He could become even as evil as they were.   Or he could choose to rise above it. He had the power to redefine the suffering, to reframe it, as something that would never defeat him, that could never defeat the love of God in him. 

In the power of that love, even in that horrific place, he could be free.  His captors might be able to leave the camp, walk where they choose, spend what they wanted.  They might have more liberty.  But Frankl had more freedom.  The Nazis tried everything short of death to destroy Frankl.   And they completely failed.  Why?  Frankl had found a new frame for that horrific place.   In that frame, he found freedom, even power.   And after the war, he not only wrote a brilliant book on what he faced, Man’s Search for Meaning, but founded an entire method of treating others’ emotional pain based on what all that loss and suffering had taught him.

And in that same way, Peter says when you get the frame of that bigger picture, it gives you a perspective that gives you power, no matter what you face.   But notice too, what it doesn’t give you.   It doesn’t mean all is now sweetness and light.   Peter, yes, talks about joy, but he also talks about grief.   Here is how he puts it exactly.   “In this you greatly rejoice, even though just now you are….grieved by a variety of trials…”

Now honestly, this word grieved only begins to touch on the actual word in Greek.  This word means not simply a grief that comes and goes, but one that lingers, that leaves you deeply distressed or troubled.   It’s likely why the King James version of the Bible used the word heaviness here.   Peter is talking about a grief that holds on to you, that won’t let you go. 

And certainly, if you walk out every day into a world that has, seemingly overnight, turned increasingly hostile to you, even dangerous, simply because of what you believe, well, that’s a pretty big loss.  The folks to which Paul is writing have suffered loss after loss, even the death of friends, simply because of their beliefs.   And that grief is holding onto them.

And ironically, our very different situation holds striking losses that aren’t altogether different.   For quite different reasons, our world turned upside down seemingly overnight too. Kids couldn’t go to school. We couldn’t even count on even grocery stores or restaurants to be safe.  Life became scarily uncertain.  Our relatively safe world became dangerous, deadly even, from an enemy we could not see or detect.   So, when Peter talks about this sort of heaviness, this lingering grief and sadness, we get it.

But here’s the point Peter is making.  You can feel both that grief and experience the joy.   Why?   Because that sentence from 1 Peter I quoted, I didn’t finish.  Here is the full sentence.  “In this you greatly rejoice, even though just now you are….grieved by a variety of trials…for a little while.”   Yes, this grief lingers, but it won’t stay forever.  It will end.  And if you know that, if you know the final score, then even as you grieve, you can rejoice.

I’m fond of an old preacher’s joke.  The preacher asks one of his members, his favorite scripture verse.  And the man, a farmer, thoughtfully replies, “Well, Pastor, my favorite verse is, “And it came to pass.”  Puzzled, the preacher asks “Why that one.”   And the man replies, “Well, the Lord said it came to pass, not to stay.” Do you get both the pain and the wisdom behind that joke?   If you do, it will give you power.  

When this pandemic first hit, I read the book that gives the definitive history of the last one in 1918, The Great Influenza by John Barry.   It helped me first realize that this virus, as deadly as it is, could have been much, much worse.   More than that, it helped me realize that this pandemic, like the last one, will pass.  In fact, when the 1918 pandemic ended, the creativity and vibrancy of the Roaring 20s followed right behind.   This too shall pass.

But even when it does, even when other losses come that bring you grief, you can still hold both the sadness even as you rest in the joy.  You can hold both.  And when you do, the trials you face don’t defeat you, they refine you.  They create in you a beauty, a preciousness that is greater even than gold, that leads to the salvation of your souls. 

Pretty much every day, I take ten minutes in silence with God, and when I do so, I center myself with an ancient prayer that Christians have been saying for 1500 years.  The words are simply, Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.  Now, you might think.  Gosh, that’s a little depressing, that prayer, but I cherish it like no other.  Why?  It leads me to experience the grief so that I can embrace the joy.   You see when I start repeating those words into the silence, I feel the grief, the heaviness of my life, the brokenness of the world.  In many ways, I’ve been avoiding that grief, but in the silence, it hits.  It hits hard.   And I let myself feel it, with all its heaviness, all its weight and substance.  But as the words of the prayer fade away, as I rest in the silence.  Something amazing happens. 

Joy comes.  Joy comes in the middle of the grief!  I feel the mercy, the love, the companionship of Jesus.   I experience, as Peter describes it here, “an indescribable and glorious joy.”   And just to clarify, glorious means weighty, heavy, substantial.  I experience an indescribable, a weighty, substantial joy.   I get what the Catholic mystic Mother Janet Stuart meant when she said.   “Joy is not the absence of suffering but the presence of God.”

And when you let that big picture in, when it frames your troubles, it not only gives you perspective.  It not only gives you power.  It opens you to the presence, to Jesus’ presence.  And in that presence, you find joy.  No, that’s not right.  In that presence, the joy finds you. 

For, who is Jesus?  Jesus is the One who came for you, who has welcomed and loved you, who offered up everything for you.  Jesus is the One who went to death and beyond for you.  And Jesus knows, oh, he knows both suffering and joy.  

I love the way Hebrews 12 puts it.  Jesus, the leader and finisher of faithfulness, who for the sake of the joy that lay before him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame.”  Why did Jesus endure that cross?  For the sake of the joy that lay before him.  Do you get what that joy was?  It was you.  You were that joy.  I was that joy.  We were the joy that lay before him, the joy of bringing us his beloved sisters and brothers home, the joy of freeing us to become the children of God.  And when you know God loves you like that, then yes, joy can come even in the face of great grief and loss.  For in that love, you have a picture of God so big, so wondrous, so amazing, so breathtakingly beautiful that nothing, not even death itself, will defeat it.     

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Feeling Weary in These Waning Pandemic Days? How Do You Move Forward, Even Regain Your Joy? Here's How.

I saw the headline this week, and my heart sank.   I didn’t want to believe it, but I knew it was likely true.  What was the headline?   Herd immunity won’t happen.  We can’t outrun the virus.   We’ll manage it sure, but we’ll have to live with it for a while to come.  But I don’t want to live with it.   

A day later, I was talking with a friend.  We were leaving a meeting that, for the first time in over a year, had actually been in person.  And he said something like.  “Well, it won’t be the same, but we’ll make it through.”    But I do want it to be the same.  Ok, well maybe not exactly the same (Zoom meetings can be really convenient), but close to it. 

But the reality is that what he was saying was right.  And facing that reality, it’s hard.  Millions have lost people they loved.   Everyone has lost something.  Some lost jobs or businesses.  Everyone lost time with family.  Everyone has lost a sense of security.  Remember when you didn’t even think about being in a crowded grocery store aisle?  Remember when you didn’t feel nervous just going to eat in a restaurant?  Boy, those were the days!   

And coping with those losses, well, as a nation we’re not doing so well.   Even before the pandemic drug overdoses were 4 times higher than they were less than 20 years ago.  And now they’ve grown worse.   We were already facing what a former surgeon general called an epidemic of loneliness.  And now that’s worse too.   Before the pandemic, 1 in 10 said they struggled with anxiety and depression.  Now 4 out of 10 do.  The younger you go, the worst it gets.   For those 65 and over, 29% suffer depression and anxiety.  But for those between 50 and 64, it goes to 39%.   For those 25 to 49, it goes higher to 49%.   And for those 18 to 24, it hits over 56%.    Do you get what that means?  If you see two people walking down the street and they’re under 50, and you made a bet that one of them is struggling with serious depression and anxiety, you’d win almost every time.  

This pandemic has hit us hard, and it’s not through with us just yet.   But how do you cope with that heat, the heat of these days of anxiety, of weariness and grief, of sheer emotional exhaustion? How do you find a way to live with joy and hope in these days?   In times like these, we need the words we’re about to hear more than ever.  

In the words of this letter, Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, compares what his hearers are facing to not just heat but a furnace.  What do you do, when it gets that hot, that it’s not only hard, it’s dangerous, even deadly?  How do you come through that heat not only intact, but even stronger and better than before?  In these words, God begins to show the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.  

1 Peter 1:1-5

So, how do you thrive in the heat of these days, these not over the Pandemic yet days?   In these opening words, God shows you the way.   God tells you.   To thrive in these days, to beat this heat, you need to remember this.  You need to remember who and whose you are.   And before we get to what that phrase exactly means, we need to talk first about why everyone needs it.

Years ago, a brilliant writer, David Foster Wallace, gave a commencement address that I never get tired of quoting.   Wallace called his address. “This is Water.” And he opened with that old joke.  It goes like this.  Two young fish were swimming along when an old fish called out.  “Howdy, young’ uns!  How’s the water?”  The young fish just kept swimming along. Then one asked, puzzled.  “What the heck is water?”   And Wallace got the profound point behind the joke.  Every day we swim in stuff that we don’t even see but that can give us life or poison us.   And what did Wallace mean by this water?  He meant, strangely enough, for a man who didn’t adhere to any organized religion, worship.  Here is how he put it.

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.  And the compelling reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

If you worship money and things if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough…worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly.  And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you…Worship power, you will up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear.  Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.  But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is…. they’re unconscious.  They are default settings.

Do you see what he meant by worship?  He meant this.  What defines your identity?  How do you measure your value, your worth, your meaning?    And he might have been too charitable on the spiritual stuff because that can become toxic too.   If you worship a God who is more a scary boss than a loving mother or father, that’s not so good.  But what he was pointing to remains profoundly true.  If you ground your identity in something that cannot be shaken, that doesn’t depend on your circumstances or your popularity or even how you are feeling that day, well, that’s a pretty powerful foundation.  

And that’s what Peter does as he opens this letter, he lays that sort of foundation.    And the folks who got this letter needed that foundation more than ever.  The Roman’s tolerance for Christians had now become hostility.  Violent persecution could erupt almost anywhere, at any time.  And these folks were feeling that heat, feeling like besieged exiles, strangers, in their own lands.  

So, before Peter does anything else.   He lays the foundation.  This is who you are.  This is whose you are.   And those words didn’t just carry power then.  They carry power now.  So, let’s take a few minutes to unpack them. 

First, Peter tells them.  God chose you.  God chose you before you even existed.   And do you see what that tells you?   Your belonging to God doesn’t depend on you.   It depends on God.   God picked you, and because God picked you, God will never walk away from you.  God will never disown you.   You have become God’s beloved child now and forever.   And he points to a famous story from the past to bring that point home. 

When God freed the Israelites from slavery, he made a sacred agreement, a covenant with them.   And to seal that covenant, he sealed it in blood.   For human beings, there’s something about blood.  When you’re a kid, and you want to seal the relationship with your best buddy, what do you do?  You use the blood.  You make a little nick in your fingers and your bond forms.  You are now blood brothers.  

And God, does that with the Israelites, literally.   In the book of Exodus, after their leaders offer the ritual animal sacrifice, they take some of that blood, and literally sprinkle it on the people.   God is saying to them.  I am committed to you with my very blood, my very life.  That’s how unshakeable my bond with you is.    And these followers of Jesus know.  In Jesus, God lived out that very promise.   In Jesus’ death, God had sprinkled them with God’s very blood.  

And when you know God is committed like that to you, it’s pretty powerful.  But is it enough to know God died for you like that?  No, not really.   If God died for you and that’s it, yes, you’ve got a nice memory of God, but not much more.

But of course, Peter says, you don’t just have a memory.  You have a living reality.   Jesus rose.  And when Jesus rose, Peter says, you rose in him.   These words new birth don’t really get at what Peter is saying.   No, in Jesus, Peter is saying, God begat you again.   In other words, in that resurrection, you were conceived again.  You became something radically and wonderfully new.   And in this regeneration, you have a living hope, one that not even death can kill.

And if you have a hope like that, it gives a powerful perspective, even in the face of immense loss.  It’s why this poem that I first read last week touched me so.  Maybe you’ve heard it before. It is a Christian poem about death.   It goes like this.

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship, at my side,
spreads her white sails to the moving breeze and starts
for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength.
I stand and watch her until, at length, she hangs like a speck
of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.
Then, someone at my side says, "There, she is gone"
Gone where?
Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast,
hull and spar as she was when she left my side.
And, she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me -- not in her.
And, just at the moment when someone says, "There, she is gone,"
there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices
ready to take up the glad shout, "Here she comes!"

I love that, “Here she comes!”   But is that enough to get you through the heat?  It helps, but is it enough?   No, you need more.   And in the final words here, Peter provides it.  He says this living hope not only protects you when you die, it protects you right now.  And when Peter says protect, he uses a word that means protected by a veritable fortress.  How can a living hope protect you like that?

The preacher Tim Keller had an old friend named Archie.  He first got to know Archie in the nineties, when a guy named Roger Staubach, quarterbacked the Dallas Cowboys.  Archie loved the Cowboys, but the games stressed him out.  In those days, the Cowboys won a lot, but they often had to come from behind.  And all that uncertainty stressed poor Archie right out. 

Then Archie went into the military and got deployed to Asia.  But now when the Armed Forces Network showed the games, Archie didn’t stress at all.   The Cowboys would fall behind, but Archie was cool.   What had changed?  Now, he knew the final score.  The network always showed the game a day later.  So, no matter what happened, Archie was ok.  He knew the final score.  He knew in the end, no matter what happened, the Cowboys would come out on top. 

And that’s what Peter does here.  He gives the final score.  He tells them. You may not see it yet.  In fact, you may not see it completely in your lifetime.  But you have the end of the story.    In the end, God wins.  Love wins.  Hope wins.   Goodness wins.   And when you know that you have a fortress that can withstand anything. 

During the Vietnam War, Admiral Jim Stockdale became the highest-ranking prisoner in the POW camp, known as the Hanoi Hilton.  Tortured over twenty times in his eight years there, he not only survived, but became a legendary leader of the prisoners. How did he do it? 

In an interview with the writer Jim Collins, he shared his paradox, the paradox that got him through.  He said.  I never lost faith in the end of the story.”  He believed that somehow, some way he would get through this, even come out stronger on the other side.  Collins then asked.  “Well, who didn’t make it out?”  And Stockdale said.   Oh, that’s easy, the optimists.”  Collins puzzled asked him to explain more. 

Stockdale said:  “The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Then he turned to Collins and said, “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be, - in other words -the Stockdale paradox.

But long before Stockdale discovered it, Peter knew it well.  And in his words, God is telling it to you.   You may feel the heat of these days, even feel like an exile in a strange new world.  But you can know that’s not the ultimate end of the story. God’s love is the end of the story, of your story, of every story.   No matter how long and winding and uncertain the journey is along the way, you know the end.  This story ends, not in death but in life, not in despair, but in joy.  You have a living hope.  And in that hope, you can find light on even the darkest of days.  Live in that hope.  Remember who you are.  Remember whose you are.   And remember always, the end of the story, an end so certain that no loss, no setback will defeat it, not even death itself.