Sunday, June 24, 2018

My Final Four Sermons: "You Will Be Here"

My Final Four Sermons:  "You Will Be Here"
Acts 9:1-6

Back when I was in seminary, a psychologist friend of mine recommended I read a book he had picked up.  The title of the book is, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes.  Quite a title.  It was almost an intimidating enough title to keep me from picking it up and read it.

But I did.

One of the main ideas of the author has to do with the structure of the brain and how the brain works.  The brain is formed in two halves, or hemispheres.  The left, major, hemisphere controls logic and math and science, etc.  The right hemisphere controls language and art and music.

In between the two hemispheres is what's called the corpus colosseum.  That part of the brain controls how the two hemispheres communicate with each other, to either blend their strengths or over-power one or the the other.  That communication of the hemispheres is called consciousness.

Now here's Julian Jaynes theory.  Jaynes says that prior to 3 or 4 thousand years ago, humans had no working corpus colosseum—no fully developed individual consciousness.

So what? you say.  And so did I as I was reading this book.  I almost put it down.  Though I like reading about the brain function research, this was all a bit too much.

But then it got interesting.

According to Jaynes, prior to about 3 or 4 thousand years ago, because there was no constant connection between the brain's hemispheres, one side didn't know how to interpret when a rare message fired from one hemisphere to another.  People, according to Jaynes, interpreted this activity of the brain as hearing the Voice of God.

People thought God was talking to them, when in reality it was just the beginnings of the corpus colosseum firing messages back and forth between the hemispheres.  Once full communication between each half of the brain created a whole, there was no reason for God.  There really was no Voice of God anymore.

Thus the reason my psychologist friend asked me to read that book.  That we have misinterpreted basic brain function, the emergence of consciousness, for the Voice of God.

One reviewer of this book recently wrote, "(This book is) either a work of unparalleled genius, or completely out-to-lunch loopy."  Yeah.  But those are the kinds of reactions you get when you talk about the Voice of God, or hearing from God, or thinking about prayer.  Does God really talk to us, or are we just talking to ourselves?  Is this just the two hemispheres of our brain messing with us, or does God really speak to us?

Personally, I have to say ,"Yes", I believe—I know—God speaks to us, because God has spoken to me on several occasions.  None of those times has it been weird, or potentially destructive.  Like, "Take all your people out into the jungle and have them drink the koolaid."

Nothing like the guy I was talking to in a psyche ward one time.  He told me God spoke to him.  I asked, "How does God speak to you?"  I was genuinely interested.
He said, "God comes down into my dog.  Then my dog splits in half, and there's a good half and a bad half.  Sometimes God talks to me out of the good part of the dog, and sometimes God speaks to me out of the bad part, and tells me to do bad things."
The guy stared into my eyes without blinking, looking to see if I believed him.  He clearly believed it himself.  I didn't.

I'm happy to say God has never spoken to me like that.  Each time God's Voice has been affirming.  And brought me back to my original call, which was the first time God spoke to me.  At least the first time I was listening.

I've told the story before.  I was a 7th grader sitting in church with my mom.  Just me and her—the rest of my family was not really into going to church.  But I loved going to church with my mom—I felt like a grown up.

During the sermon, I felt God's Voice say, "Steve, this is what I want you to do."  That was it.  I say I "felt" God's Voice, because each time God has spoken to me, I felt it rather than heard it.  It was like feeling a beautiful piece of music that you hear for the very first time.  It has a way of reaching down into you, penetrating you.

I was so sure of what I heard, I looked around to see if anyone else in the congregation had heard, or felt that Voice.

I sometimes chuckle to myself when I think back to that day.  Because, that Sunday, a harpist was accompanying the church choir.  Hopefully, when God said, "This is what I want you to do," the Lord didn't mean for me to become a harpist.  If so, I severely missed my calling, misread God's Voice, and have wasted the last 40 years of my life.

That's what I've come to believe is one of the main things the Voice of God does—sets your direction, opens your eyes to your purpose, makes you become aware of your gifts and how to use them.  I believe God likes to set people on a journey—an adventure—that you don't entirely know where it's going to lead you.  But the Voice of God sets you out.
The apostle Paul is a great example of that.  Originally, Paul set himself out on his own journey—and was making a mess of it.  Paul had become a well-meaning destroyer.  As the saying goes, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."  That's the journey Paul had put himself on.

It took the Voice of God to knock Paul off the path of that self-guided and destructive journey.  Notice how Paul was knocked to the the ground by the Voice.  Paul didn't just hear the Voice of God.  He felt the Voice of God.  And it had the power to put him on the ground.

Then it's important to understand what the Voice said next, once Paul was on the ground:  "Now get up and go into the city.  There you will be told what you must do."  The Voice of God was about putting Paul on a new journey, a new mission, a new adventure.  That journey was a religious one, but totally different from the one Paul had chosen for himself.

That's what the Voice of God does.  Sometimes shakes up your world.  Sometimes affirms you to stay the course you are on.

One of the churches I served I both liked and hated at the same time.  There were times I didn't think I could last another day.  If that was what the ministry was all about, I was done.  My kids were similarly miserable.

I started looking into getting out.  I started looking into becoming a political or corporate speech writer.  One of the things you may not know is that I really enjoy writing sermons.  I just don't enjoy preaching them.

So, I thought if I could get a job writing speeches, that other people gave, I'd be happy.  I started making contacts with some political speech writers, and one guy in particular was very encouraging.  Through him I was making a lot of contacts with others in that profession.  I was about ready to make the jump.

But then the Voice of God came again.  I used to walk out this dirt road during lunch time.  I was walking and pondering.  The Voice came and I was suddenly put on my knees.  God said, "Steve, you will always be a pastor—and I need you here in this church."  That was all God said.  I broke down, overpowered and in tears.

Again, God's Voice affirmed my call, took me back to that time when I was set out on this adventure.  God again called me by name—God's Voice likes to use names.  God did the same with Paul.  With each of the disciples.  And with some of you, who have told me your stories.

God's Voice set me back on my original journey, and wouldn't let me veer away from that.  That day, that Voice surprised me, because I was thinking and planning to leave my journey.  Give up on my vocation given me by God.  You'd think God would have been angry about what I was planning.  Instead, God's Voice came at me with nothing but affirmation.  I felt affirmed by that Voice, not disciplined.

Paul's life and journey were not perfect by any means.  He struggled with something that grabbed him and wouldn't let go.  He called it "a thorn in the flesh."  No one knows what it was.  I think it was something emotional, like guilt or shame.  Maybe I'm just reading my own experience into it.  Just a hunch I have about Paul.

Prior to coming here, I had gotten myself into a hot mess in California.  I didn't handle a grief-filled event very well.  The presbytery there didn't think I was ready to get back into the ministry.  They dragged their feet about releasing me, and I was becoming more and more despondent.

I moved back out to Kansas and put myself in Charlie and Joan Ayers care out in Leoti.  Charlie did all he could, but the Committee on Ministry in the San Joaquin Presbytery wouldn't budge.

We got Don Owens involved, who was the presbytery Executive here in Southern Kansas.  Unbeknownst to me, at a General Assembly meeting, Don took the executive from the San Joaquin presbytery behind the woodshed and let him have it.

Whether the presbytery out there would release me or not, Don and the COM here wanted to force their hand by pushing ahead.  I was to meet with the COM here in Pratt.  I was sitting up in the tiny lounge waiting to be called down.  Angela was still here—I think in her last week.

So, I'm just sitting there, as nervous as a cat getting a bath.  Then came the Voice.  All the Voice said was, "Steve, you will be here."  That was it.  That was all the Voice said.  I had no sense of deserving to be anywhere, at that point.  I just wanted out from under the thumb of the California presbytery.  I was feeling guilty and ashamed.  Knowing I was going to have to tell the COM here my whole story.

To be told, by the Voice of God I would be here was beyond belief.  In fact, I didn't believe it.

I was beckoned downstairs.  I told my story.  I broke down a couple of times.  Then they spoke.  They said that from what I told them and what Don Owens found out, the COM out in California had totally mishandled my case.  And the people sitting around the table were angrier than I was about it.

Don Owens said his conversation with the exec out there worked.  They were releasing me into this presbytery's "custody," Don said with a smile.  My ordeal was over.

After the meeting was over, Don said to me, "I want you to think about being interim Pastor here in Pratt.  I'm going to give your name to the Session.  Which he did.

So, in one day, God's Voice spoke:  "You will be here."  I was released to this presbytery.  And I was going to be considered as interim of this church.  Again, a huge affirmation of my call, bringing me back to the journey God put me on starting way back as a 7th grader.  It was like the dark cloud over me evaporated, and I was suddenly affirmed and embraced by the Voice.

8 1/2 years later I'm at the end.  Not just the end of my ministry here in Pratt, but my ministry vocation.  I don't believe the Voice has stopped speaking.  With each transition, God kept speaking.  That Voice kept being felt.  The journey continued.  The journey still continues.  The adventure continues.

For both of us, you all and me.  There are many here who have felt that Voice—who feel it still.  Who are following that Voice and leading the church as God's Voice directs.  Follow them, as they follow the Voice.  Listen, as I continue to do, and see where God’s Voice leads.

Monday, June 18, 2018

My Final Four Sermons: What Is The Meaning Of Life?

"My Final Four Sermons:  What Is The Meaning Of Life?"
Matthew 6:33
John 3:1-8

I was working in my office—this was at another church.  I was engrossed in sermon writing.  My desk faced an outer wall with a window, and the door to the office was off to my left and a bit behind my peripheral vision.  Probably not the best feng shui.

I suddenly felt someone’s presence.  I turned towards the door and Grant was standing there leaning against the door frame.  I had no idea how long he was standing there—or, rather, leaning there.

He was drunk.  It was late morning.  He slurred out to me, “Steve, what’s the meaning of life?”

Grant was a well-respected banker in town.  An Executive Vice-President.  There are so many vice-presidents in banks, it’s hard to know what his position meant.

Grant’s wife was the President of the bank.  So, between them, they were doing very well.  They owned a gingerbread styled home in the older, stately part of town.  It was on a half block lot.  Lots of trees in the back with a nice pathway through the back yard.  There was a fountain here or there, and a gazebo.  Their two daughters weddings were in the back yard, and I had done them both.

By all outward appearances, they had a great, and more than comfortable life.

But that was evidently not so.  At least for Grant.  Outward appearances of a cushy life was hiding the fact that Grant was not happy.  And I had no idea he was a drinker, let alone an alcoholic, which I found out that day he was.

Grant’s question to me may seem trite or over worn.   In reality, his question is the number one question that is asked by people, both on the internet and in person.  I would guess, that for most, there is an addendum to that question, which is, “...for me.”  What is the meaning of life...for me?  Part of the reason we put the “for me” on the end is because American culture is basically narcissistic, and it is all about me.  We think, I don’t want to know your meaning of life.  I want to know mine.  I don’t want a general answer to the question that is good for everyone.  I want something that is particular to me—my answer.

If that is your sentiment, your outlook, I’m going to disappoint you this morning.

There are at least two sides of an anxiety coin to this most asked question.  First, is the anxiousness that you feel like there is this hole in your life that you haven’t been able to fill.  You think that if you could just discover life’s meaning, that hole would be filled.  Your emptiness would go away.  That’s part of what Grant was asking me that late morning in my office.

The second side of that coin of anxiety is similar.  It is the feeling there must be something more than this.  The difference between the two sides is the hole is felt in the individual self.  But here, the sense that there has to be something more has to do with life in general, life as you are living it.  There has to be more than the conclusion the writer of Ecclesiastes comes to:
All of life is far more boring
  Than words could ever say.
Our eyes and ears are never satisfied
  With what we see and hear.
Everything that happens
  Has happened before;
Nothing is new,
  Nothing under the sun.  (1:8-9, CEV)

What! You exclaim.  How can that be in the Bible!?  There’s got to be something new.  Something more.  Something different.  Something better than this!  There’s got to be something more than this boring, humdrum, repetitive life!

That’s the main thing Grant was asking me out of his stupor.  “There’s got to be something more to energize me, something more to give me purpose, something more that is new and gives me excitement about being alive!  What is the meaning of life?”

When you think about it, one of the best definitions of what it means to be human is we are meaning-making animals.  No other animal or entity on earth worries or even thinks about personal meaning, or the meaning of their life.  Wildebeest roaming in herds on the Serengeti plains of Africa aren’t standing around having existential conversations at the watering hole about what their life means.  Only humans struggle with those existential questions.

We even try to make meaning out of the rawest of life’s materials:  sickness, war, death, as well as everyday events.  What does it mean?  There’s got to be more than just the event itself.

Those are the two levels of everyday life.  There are the events themselves—the experiences we have.  Some of those experiences are big, life-altering, and even cataclysmic.  But most are everyday, common goings-on kinds of things that we all wade through.

The other level is the meanings we put on those cataclysmic or everyday experiences.  All of those meanings we give to our life experiences are highly individual.  Two people can go through the same or similar experience, but attach entirely different meanings to those events.

What does it mean to be given a surprising diagnosis by your doctor?
What does it mean to lose your job?  Get a new job?
What does it mean to just have a bad day?  Have a good day?
What does it mean to retire?
What does it mean to hear the Voice of God?  (Next weeks sermon.)

Now here’s what happens.  We take all those little meanings of our life events, and they slowly become what we would call, “The Meaning of Life.”  What we normally do is allow our experiences, and the meanings we attach to them, to become our over-arching meaning of life.  We fashion what we come to know as the meaning of life from the bottom up.  It’s all based on us, our experiences, and our meanings.

What eventually happens with that is what happened to Grant in my office:  our meaning of life, that we fashioned based on our own experiences, collapses.  The meaning of life, built from the bottom up, based on us, doesn’t ultimately work out.  Our lives, our structure, our meaning, comes tumbling down like a house of cards.

When that happens, you’ll end up in my office, or someone’s office, asking, “What is the meaning of life?  Everything I built over the last so-many-years, just came crashing down around me.”

What I have learned over 40 years of ministry, and thousands of conversations with people about the meaning of life, is that true meaning of life has to be built from the top down, not the bottom up.

Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.  Basically, Nicodemus has come to Jesus and said, “My life’s not working.  It’s clear you’re a man of God.  I need to hear a clear word of God and get my life on track.”
And what does Jesus reply to Nicodemus?  “I tell you for certain that you must be born from above before you can see God’s kingdom” (John 3:3, CEV).

Jesus’ statement tells us two vital things about the meaning of life.  First, the meaning of life can only come from “above.”  It has to be something over you.  It has to be something bigger than you.  You can’t find true meaning in life based on you, your own experiences, and your own meanings.  You are not big enough to sustain true meaning of life.

That’s what Grant and Nicodemus had tried and failed doing.  Their meaning of life wasn’t over them, or bigger than themselves.  If your meaning in life is bigger than you—over you—then when you have a bad day, or get a negative diagnosis, or whatever, you determine the little meanings of those events by the larger meaning of life that is over you and covers you.  The true meaning of life is born from above—top down.

And the other thing we learn about the meaning of life from Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus is that it has to be about God’s kingdom.  It’s so important to hear this statement of Jesus:  “...before you can see God’s kingdom.”  The meaning of life ultimately has to do with seeing God’s kingdom—God’s activity—in your life.

So, when you experience an everyday or catastrophic event, the question is not, “What does this me?”  The better question is, “How am I seeing God and God’s kingdom at work in this event?”  The best, over-arching meaning of life has to do with the vision—the seeing—of God’s kingdom all around you and through you.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”  In one sentence, there is the meaning of life.  It is one meaning of life for all people in all situations.  It is top down.  It is over-arching.  It has to do with that which is much bigger than ourselves.  It keeps our focus outward—looking for/seeing God’s kingdom and God’s activity, rather than inward on our selves.

Can you imagine what a huge world opens up when you start seeing the kingdom of God—the activity of God—all around you?  Can you imagine how your world changes if you seek the kingdom of God first?  Not just in your life, but in all that is happening.  Can you imagine the meaning in life that can be had when its absolutely about the kingdom of God, and not about your own puny, little kingdom?

if you seek first the kingdom—the activity—of God in and around your life, you won’t be leaning on your pastor’s office door asking about the meaning of life.

Monday, June 11, 2018

My Final Four Sermons: The Dirty Harry Gun

"My Four Last Sermons:  The Dirty Harry Gun"
Psalms 61:1-4

We are all pretty fragile.  It's one of the main lessons I've learned about people during 40 years of ministry.  No matter how tough we think we are, no matter how much of an "I've-got-it-all-together" exterior we show the world, no matter how much we play the rugged individual role in our relationships, there is something that will come along and shatter each one of us.  We will be broken.  It's part of what it means to truly be human—to recognize how fragile we really are.

I have seen, over and over again, that life is precious.  And it is precious because it is so precarious.  All's it takes is a moment—just one single moment—and our bone china lives teeter and fall to the floor, and we find what we thought to be our priceless lives in pieces.

And the main lesson I’ve learned is not only about our fragility and brokenness.  It’s mainly what we do when we are broken.  There are two kinds of broken people I’ve dealt with through 40 years of ministry: those who ask for help, and those who don’t.

Bob was a student at a community college in a town where I was pastor.  Somehow he and I met, he introduced me to his girlfriend, who he had met at the college their freshman year.

Bob was an interesting kid.  He had a lot of musical talent.  One of which was being an Elvis impersonator.  And he was good at it.  He had the voice down.  And all the hip shimming moves.  He could really work it.  He entertained a lot of the kids at the community college in impromptu performances at the dorms or student union.

The only thing that was a bit odd about his Elvis impersonations was that Bob had rusty red hair and a face full of freckles.  He didn't use a black wig.  He just coiffed his own red hair in an Elvis fashion.  But he was still good.

He and his girlfriend started coming to the church where I was the pastor, and they were fairly regular their whole freshman year.  Which is odd, because most college kids pretty much ditch church once they go away to college.

The first year of college went by fast for Bob and his girlfriend.  They kept in touch with me during the summer, and even showed up at church once or twice, traveling the distance from their respective home towns to come see me and be at church.

Once their second year started, they showed back up at church, beaming and holding hands.  It looked like it was going to be another stellar year for the both of them.

But a couple of months into the semester something happened.  Bob's girlfriend found someone else.  As much as she thought she was attached to Bob, she was "totally in love" with the other guy.  She broke up with Bob.

I didn't know all this until Bob called me in the middle of the night one night.  It was after midnight.  I answered the phone.  Bob said, "You gotta come over and you gotta come now!  Please!  Come now!"

Bleary eyed, I got dressed and drove to the mobile home where Bob was living.  I knocked on the door.  He told me to come in.

When I walked in, Bob was sitting on the couch, and had a Dirty Harry gun to his head.  You know, one of those 44 magnum pistols.  I had seen one in a couple Clint Eastwood movies, but had no scope of how big of a pistol those things actually are until I saw Bob holding it to his head.  I was suddenly, fully awake.

He was crying.  Nay, sobbing.  And he was beside himself.  Which is a weird expression.  How can you be beside yourself?  If anybody could, Bob was, that night.  He first blurted out that his girlfriend, whom he thought he was going to marry, had broken up with him and told him about the other guy she was in love with.

In the instant of that conversation with his girlfriend, Bob was shattered.  Totally broken.  The number one reason teenagers and young adults commit suicide is because of boyfriend/girlfriend problems.

Bob felt his life was over.  The past year and a half with his girlfriend seemed, now, like a sham.  Everything had been useless, and all meaning for the present was gone.  Not only that, but the future Bob had created in his mind with his girlfriend was now totally wiped out.  In his mind, there was nothing left to live for.  Life was over, and he was ready to end it with a single blast to the head with his 44 magnum.

Needless to say, I was scared spitless.  All the training in the world doesn't prepare you for the power of emotion that is surging in a suicidal person, and in the person trying to stop the suicide from happening.

I started praying in my own head, begging God to give me wisdom and words to say that would diffuse Bob, and keep him alive.  I calmed all my nerves, so that my anxiety would not fuel Bob's over amped anxiety.  I tried to become a non-anxious presence.

Bob was a good kid.  As a college kid, he had let me into his world.  I cared for the kid.  I didn't want to see his head split open, and brains splattered up against the far wall of his tiny mobile home.

But after about a half hour of talking with Bob, the gun still to his head, he jumped into a fugue state.  If you don't know what that is, it's basically a psychotic break with reality.  Bob started moving in and out of three different personas.  He'd sit on the couch and talk with me for a couple of minutes, seemingly himself, but then suddenly jump up and he was Elvis singing one of Elvis' songs, gyrating his hips.
Are you lonesome tonight,
do you miss me tonight?
Then he'd just as quickly fall down on the couch, pull his knees up to his chest, start sucking his thumb saying in baby talk, "I want my mommy."  Then he'd jump up again as Elvis.
It's now or never,
Come hold me tight
Kiss me my darling,
Be mine tonight
Then sit back down and whine out, "What am I going to do without her, Steve?"  All the while he's also threatening to pull the trigger, and I'm trying to find ways to talk the gun away from him.

That went on for another 45 minutes.  It seemed like 45 hours.  It was one of the most bizarre things I've witnessed.

It takes a lot of energy to maintain a fugue state, and stay in a psychotic break.  Bob finally started tiring, after a couple of hours.  I was able to finally talk him into handing me over the gun.  I took it, pulled all the bullets out of it, and stuffed it down the back of my pants.  That was weird, having such a large gun aimed at my butt, but I was so relieved to get it out of Bob's hands, I didn't care.

I asked Bob if he had any other guns in the home, or any other weapons.  He didn't.  After talking with him another hour, and his fugue state disappeared, I called his parents and took him to the hospital on a psychiatric admit, and had the nurses put him on suicide watch.  His parents came to town later that morning, and took him home.

I put Bob's 44 magnum in a cabinet in my office, on one of the tall upper shelves, way back in a corner, where hopefully no one could get at it.  You'd think I would have been exhausted and slept the next couple of days.  But all the emotions I had suppressed in order to get through that experience all came flooding out.  I went over and over and over again, every moment of that experience with Bob, thinking about everything I said.  I thanked God it ended like it did, and that God was with us, but wondered if I did everything right.  What would have happened if it ended badly?

And I thought about Bob and how fragile and broken he had become so quickly.  How quickly his world was shattered.

It wasn't the only time I talked someone down from a suicide attempt.  Those were rare instances, thank God.  But as rare as they were, there were many, many others, who, even though they never became suicidal, were nonetheless broken by life.  Meaning as they knew it had become shattered.  And hope only seemed like a word that had no connection with the real, disastrous world.  (I'll say more about finding the meaning of life next week.)

Finding the meaning of life is more of a long term question with a long term search for an answer.  With Bob, it was more about trauma.  How do you get through sudden, destructive, and unexpected trauma?  How do you face life that has suddenly demonstrated its fragility?  How do you keep standing when the foundation you thought you had laid in life starts shaking and shifting so violently?

I have been so thankful, privileged really, to all those who have asked me to walk with them through their trauma.  Through their very worst day.  Through that which has the power to evoke the most fear in us.

That fear is not about death.  The fear is about annihilation.  It is the fear that what is being experienced has the power to erase us totally, and make it like we didn't exist at all.

There is only one way to get through that kind of experience.  Anne Lamott wrote a book on prayer titled, Help.  Thanks.  Wow.  She says that those are the only three authentic prayers.

In her section on "Help," she wrote,
…when we finally stop trying to heal our own sick, stressed minds with our sick, stressed minds, when we are truly at the end of our rope and just done, we say the same prayer.  We say, "Help!"

Asking for help is what I have found to be the only way to get through the debilitating trauma of any crisis.  When I am talking with someone under the weight of this kind of trauma, one of the questions I ask is, "What are the resources you have to help you through this?"  And by resources, what I am hoping to hear in their answer is God and other people.  If I don't here anything like that, I know this is going to go badly.

That's one of the great things about being part of the community of a congregation.  It's certainly one of the great things about being a child of God.  That when we say, "Help," in the middle of some trauma we have a God, and we have God's people who come running.

The people I have felt so sorry for are those who do not have anything like a church, or have cut themselves off from God, and when they say, "Help," there is no one there.  They know no one's going to be there, so they might not even say, "Help."  And they stay broken and unhealed.  They stay in tiny fragments, and have no one to help put the pieces back together again.  They never recover because they don't have that one, little word (Help) as a resource.

About a year and a half or two years after my night with Bob and his Dirty Harry gun, he showed up in my office.  He had come just to visit me and tell me thanks for for being there for him.  He didn't remember hardly anything from that night.  But that day, two years later, he looked great.  Fresh.  New.  He told me about what he'd been up to, the therapy he had gotten, how much God meant to him, and that he was even starting a new relationship with a different girl.

And then he said, "I'm ready."
I said, "Ready for what?"
He said, "Ready to have my gun back.  Do you still have it?  I wouldn't be mad if you had gotten rid of it."
My stomach did a bit of a flip-flop, but he looked really good.  I prayed to God that I was doing the right thing.  So I got up, opened the cabinet door, reached back, and brought out the 44 Magnum.  No bullets, though.  The gun was empty.  I said, looking at the gun and then at Bob, "You're sure?"
Bob nodded.  I handed over the gun.

We talked a little more.  We prayed together, and Bob left.  I never saw him again, but I will always, always remember that night.  And will always remember that a person who was in pieces was now put back together, by the grace and power of God, because he was willing to cry out for help.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

My Final Four Sermons: Floyd

"My Last Four Sermons:  Floyd"
Acts 4:36; 9:26-27

Most of the people I've met over my 40 years of ministry, who had the most  Godly personalities, had no idea they had it.  Floyd was one of those people.

Floyd was one of the members of the first church I served.  He was 82 when I arrived on the scene.  He was a little wisp of a man.  Maybe 5'8".  Probably 130 pounds dripping wet.  His clothes hung on him like they were hand-me-downs from an older, much bigger brother.  A 10 MPH wind would have blown him over.

Floyd's last name was Hogg—H o g g.  Floyd Hogg.  Floyd had a son, Dale, who lived in Rolla, Missouri.  Dale was embarrassed by that last name, and when he was old enough, he had Hogg legally changed to Hoge—H o g e.  Floyd was disappointed in his son for making the change.  Floyd had grown up with that name his whole life.  And, sure he had heard all the taunts as a kid.  But he was proud of it, nonetheless.  Floyd just kept that disappointment to himself.  I was the only one Floyd told about his disappointment in his son for changing his name.

One of Floyd's dreams was getting to see the Grand Canyon.  For his 83rd birthday, one of his sons took Floyd to fulfill that life long dream.  When Floyd got back, I asked, "So, Floyd, what did you think?"
Floyd said, "Steve, that's some ditch!  That's some ditch!"

Floyd was a retired mail man.  The stories told about Floyd were that he carried more candy and milkbones than he did mail in his mail bag.  He'd go up and down the streets of that small town like a parade leader, with kids and dogs in procession.  In fact, some dogs would wait at the mailbox for him everyday, as if they had a built-in Floyd clock for his delivery.  Once they got their milkbone, off they'd go about their dog-day's business, tail wagging.

Floyd, walking his mail route, was better than the ice cream man for the kids.  Floyd didn't even need to play any hurdy gurdy music to attract attention.  He just had to walk by and there were kids with eager hands for a piece of candy.  Then the kids would walk in step with Floyd a couple of blocks and Floyd would let them put the mail in the mail boxes.

Floyd sang in the church choir.  The only problem was, he was tone deaf.  And true to people who are tone deaf and don't realize it, he sang louder than anyone else.  You could definitely hear him, and pick out the ambling tune he was singing that had nothing to do with the song the choir was singing.

When I arrived, the choir director had evidently had enough with Floyd's tuneless bucket carrying.  She asked me to ask Floyd to not sing in the choir anymore.  One of the things I discovered about Floyd was that he was a man of the Bible.  He had been Bible reading and Bible studying his whole 82 years.  So in a stroke of pastoral genius—one of my only strokes of genius in 40 years of ministry—I told Floyd I needed him to teach the adult Sunday School class.  The only problem was, he'd have to give up the choir.  Without a second thought, he took me up on my offer.  Choir problem solved.  And I gained one of the best Bible teachers I've known.

One of the guilty pleasures Floyd and I shared was root beer floats.  He loved root beer floats.  So do I.  So Floyd and I would get together, often, and quaff our floats while we played Chinese Checkers.  He loved Chinese Checkers.  I'm not sure how many evenings we got together for that ritual of friendship.  And I’ll never forget the conversations Floyd and I had, and how much they meant to me, how much I learned from him, and he had no idea.

It's one of the reasons I have been teaching the CREW night kids how to play Chinese Checkers.  It brings back those great memories of Floyd and I sitting at either of our kitchen tables.  Maybe I'm hopefully passing a little bit of Floyd along to these current day kids.  It has also been a fun way to bring my ministry to a full circle—starting out playing Chinese Checkers with Floyd, and ending with playing that same game with the kids.

Towards the end of my second year in that church, I took a week of study leave in St. Louis.  During that week, Floyd suddenly came down with pneumonia, and they took him by ambulance to Asbury hospital in Salina.  I kept in touch with Dale, Floyd's son, who said Floyd was holding his own.  I stopped in Salina on my way back from study leave, anxious to see how Floyd was doing, and got to the hospital just in time before Floyd died.

Sunday morning, I could barely talk.  I didn't preach.  I didn't lead worship.  I just sat on the steps in the front of the sanctuary and talked and cried about Floyd and asked them to share memories of Floyd.  They all looked at me, as they usually did, with stupid expressions on their faces, not knowing why I was crying, and what the big deal was.

I left that worship service so angry.  Those stupid and blind and calloused people had no idea who Floyd was.  How powerful he was in his abject humility.  How he was like that congregation's guardian angel and they had no clue.  I wanted to strangle every one of their stiff necks.

I decided, that Sunday, that I couldn't make it in that church without Floyd.  The next day I started the process of getting the heck out of there.  I ended up moving out to California, to get as far away from that church in these United States as possible.  Three years later, the presbytery went in and closed that Godforsaken church.

I'm telling you about Floyd because I learned in that church, with Floyd by my side, I wasn't going to be able to do ministry alone.  I needed someone to lean on.  I needed a go-to person, who would tell me the truth, who would pat me on the back when I was down, who would kick me in the butt when I was too far down.  In a word, I the pastor needed a pastor.

Most ministers have a person like that, but they are more often than not another pastor.  I've had one person like that who is another pastor.  But mostly I would chose a person in my congregation to be my pastor.  A solidly planted, humble leaning post I needed to keep going on doing what I was trying to do in the ministry.

Floyd was my first pastor in the ministry.  He never knew it.  I never told him.  I did the same in every church I've served.  Someone has been my pastor, holding me up, keeping me going, even at times when I felt like giving up.  None of them have ever known what they meant and continue to mean to me.  The pivotal role I gave them in my life.

In another church it was Clara Stevens.  In another, Nan Swanson.  In another, Mabel Kuster.  In another, it was Byron Walker.  (The first time I drove to Wichita from here, and went by the Byron Walker Wildlife Refuge, I broke down crying.  The two Byron Walker's weren't the same person, of course, but just seeing his name, and remembering how the Byron Walker I knew tied on with me and kept my ship from going down in the darkest time of my ministry, was too much.  But that part of my story I will tell in the last sermon of these four.)

What I learned, in my short time with Floyd, was what I've already said.  I was going to need someone like Floyd in every church I served if I was going to make it out of the church business alive.  I was going to need a Floyd, a Mabel, a Byron.

But not just me.  All of you need a Floyd.  Not just a person.  Not just a friend.  A Floyd.  A powerfully Christian person, who has their head on straight, who knows God intimately, who, as the writer of the book of Hebrews says, is one of those angels we entertain unawares.  A humble person whose humility shields their eyes to their own greatness and power and Godliness.

A Barnabas.  Barnabas was that for the Apostle Paul.  Paul was a first class jerk.  A tormentor of Christians.  Anne Lammot wrote in one of her recent books, "The opposite of faith is not doubt.  The opposite of faith is surety."  She described what she meant was that it's the people who are so arrogantly sure of themselves, so sure they are right, so sure they carry the right opinions about everything—they are the ones who do most harm to the church and the rest of the faithful.

That's the kind of person Paul was.  One of those people who knew for sure his way was the right way, and everyone else needs to get on board with him.  People like the early Christian leader Stephen paid with his life at the hands of Paul's surety.

It wasn't until the risen Jesus literally knocked Paul off his high horse of surety, that he finally realized he had been totally wrong all along.  What a terrible realization to come to.  That you spent your whole life up to that point doing the exact wrong thing with your life.

But after Paul had given his life to Jesus, nobody trusted him.  Not the Christians he had been persecuting.  And not the Jewish leaders Paul had been serving and now turned his back upon.  The only thing Paul knew at that point in his life was that Jesus had given him a second chance.  But how was he going to take advantage of that if no one in the church was going to give him a chance?

Enter Barnabas.
Then Barnabas took Paul under his wing. He introduced Paul to the apostles and stood up for him, told them how Paul had seen and spoken to the Master on the Damascus Road and how in Damascus itself he had laid his life on the line with his bold preaching in Jesus’ name.

Without Barnabas, Paul would have never made it into the church and into the ministry.  It took someone who believed in Paul, who saw what God was doing, who was not just in tune with Paul but in tune with God to recognize what was needed.

Barnabas' name means, "son of encouragement."  That's what he was for Paul, and so many others in the early church.

And that's my point.  That's what I learned from God in my very first, but disastrous church as pastor.  I needed a Barnabas.  I needed Floyd.  And Mabel.  And Byron.  And all the others.  I needed a humbly strong person, and I needed to allow that person to shepherd me, to teach me, to lead me, to be my pastor.

Don't we all need a Barnabas?  A Floyd.  Some one who gets it.  Someone who has a life long relationship with the Lord.  Someone who sees with God's eyes.  Someone who feels with God's heart.  And they'll never know.  They'll never know what they mean to you, because you never tell them, because if you do it'll ruin it.  You just smile a thank you to God for putting them in your path and making them a part of your journey.

And who knows.  Maybe, unbeknownst to you, you are Floyd for someone else.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Know Thy God

"Know Thy God"
Isaiah 6:1-7

At the Egyptian temple in Luxor, there are two parts of that temple.  The External Temple is where the beginners were allowed to enter, and the Internal Temple where a person was only allowed to enter after proven worthy and ready to acquire more knowledge and insights. One of the proverbs of the External Temple is "The body is the house of God." In the Internal Temple, one of the main proverbs is "Man, know thyself.”  It is the proverb most quoted by the philosopher, Socrates.  So if you want to enter the inner temple, and seek the deeper wisdom, you can only do so by knowing yourself.

But how does that happen?  It’s been said by those who study the brain, that the only thing the brain can not totally understand is itself.  The brain can figure out how all other things work, except itself.  It seems the same is true for the self, whatever that is.  The self can reach out to all other people and environments the self encounters, and understand them.  But standing back from the self, in some way to understand all of what the self is, seems impossible.

And another philosopher, Pilonius, said, “This above all: to thine own self be true...”. But what if you don’t know your self?  What if you aren’t clear about who that self is?  How can you be true to something you don’t understand or really know?

I think a part of this ignorance of the self comes from when we start delving into the self, we find darkness and dark spots we’d rather not see.  There may be parts of us that are reprehensible.  Disgusting.  Ugly.  We get a glimpse of those and we decide to go no further in self-examination, or shed light on the dark corners of our self.

In his book, Knowing God, J.I. Packer says that God’s love for us is utterly realistic.  What Packer means is that at every point, God already knows the worst about us.  God already knows where all the dark corners are in our lives.  No discovery of skeletons in our closets will disillusion God about us.  We may get disillusioned by discoveries we make about others.  We certainly become disheartened about things we find out about ourselves -- what we are truly capable of.  Things we find out we don’t like about ourselves.

There is, though, great cause for humility (as well as celebration) in the knowledge that God sees all the twisted things about us that others do not.  God sees more corruption in us than what we see in ourselves.  And still, God wants us as friends.  God still desires to be our companion and has constantly worked at revealing that purpose to us.

One of the poignant ironies in that purpose of God is that probably the worst thing about us, that God must certainly see, is that we really don’t want a whole lot to do with God.  One of the characteristics that God evidently doesn’t become disillusioned over is that we know Him so vaguely, and don’t have too much desire to improve on that.  What we see of God is only a fragment, yet we are too easily satisfied with that.  And with what little of God we do see, we over generalize about the rest, making huge assumptions about what God must be like.

People, these days, are so God illiterate that they will accept anything said about God provided it’s spoken with some amount of sincerity and a big smile.  Our attempt at simplifying God has created immense spiritual poverty.  Our lives become tragically reduced.  A limited experience with God translates itself into a life of sloppiness, shallowness, fear, and narrowness.  Not a very deep self.

The amazing thing is that, as J.I. Packer has identified, even though God understands that, going in, still God wants us as friends.  God doesn’t mind being seen with us.  And God doesn’t mind us being seen with him.  Amazing.

When my kids were young, I’d walk them to school every day.  We lived in Colby, and we were a block and a half from the school.  We had some amazing and fun conversations on those short morning walks.  Then in a year or so they said, “Dad, you can walk us to the first block, but you don’t need to go the whole way to school anymore.”  Like they were doing me a favor.  I knew what was going on.  Then they said, “Dad, you can just stand on the front porch and watch us till we’ve crossed the street.”  Then, lastly, it was, “Dad, you don’t need to watch us anymore.”

They were growing up and the “cool” factor was setting in.  It wasn’t cool to be seen with the old man.  I missed our 10 minute conversations on those mornings.  I knew they loved me.  But being seen with me was bordering on the embarrassing.  I understood that, and never let it get in the way of my love for them.  God’s doing the same thing with us.  Even when we think it’s not cool, or even a little embarrassing to be seen with God, it doesn’t change God’s caring about us.  God may miss us, from whatever time we used to have with Him.  But it doesn’t diminish God’s desire to be with us.

Maybe the reason is that God hopes that whenever we are seen with Him, we will see a little bit more of Him.  And just maybe, when we allow God to be seen with us, we will see a little bit more of who we are.   We will grow in our awareness of our selves.

The song of the angel-seraphs, in the presence of Isaiah, lets him know about God:  God is holy, and God’s glory is visible throughout the earth.  What Isaiah discovers is that, in spite of what human alienation has done, it has not been enough to nullify God’s glory.

In the presence of God, Isaiah gains a different perspective about himself.  From his position before this scary self-revelation of God, Isaiah discovered, as he never had before, that he, and everyone around him had “unclean lips.”  That is, before almighty God, we are a people who pay lip service, not only to God, but a host of other things. In reality, with all that lip service, we have no idea what we are talking about.  Isaiah must face the music.  You and I must face the same music.

There’s a funny variation of the story when Jesus asked the disciples about his identity.  Jesus said to his disciples, “Who do the people say I am?”
They answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, others that one of the prophets of old has come back to life.”
“And you,” Jesus asked, “who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the eschatological manifestation of the kerygma in which we find the prototypical standard for all our interpersonal relationships.”
Then Jesus said, “Huh?”

In simple or complex ways, we all are guilty of the unclean lips of God-talk.  Isaiah, already a prophet, thought he knew the One of whom he spoke.  But when the reality of God appeared, Isaiah discovered the bankrupt nature of his own God-talk.  Suddenly, in the holiness and glory of the presence of God, Isaiah realized how unclean, how dirty, how undignified, how shallow, how far from reality his speaking of God has been.

Isaiah, who becomes every one standing singularly before God, recognizes how lame his praise of God has been, how lifeless the songs have been sung, how trite the prayers have been, and how insipid his preaching has been.

Benjamin Franklin once told about a boy who was so smart he could name a horse in nine languages, but was so ignorant that he bought a cow to ride on.  Isaiah found out he had some intelligence, but that intellect only served him, now standing before God, to understand how little he really knew.  Isaiah could talk about God, but in terms of the depth of his spiritual understanding, he might as well have been riding a cow.

We might say that we have a coffee shop understanding of God.  There, at the coffee shop, rumor and gossip is passed off as truth.  Most of the information garnered there is from “reliable sources,” and so goes unquestioned.  Assumptions are coupled with half-truths, and we walk away thinking we know something.

But then we come face-to-face with the person behind the rumors and gossip, and find out in a startling way, what the truth actually is.  We also discover in the scary moment of that personal encounter how we have contributed to the falsehoods and misinformation.  We come face-to-face with the harm we have unthinkingly perpetrated.  Such is what we discover about the bankrupt and harmful coffee shop talk about God, when perchance God reveals himself in His glory, like He did to Isaiah.

Part of the issue here is that it is not only important for us to know about God for our own sakes, but as was the case with Isaiah, there are going to be times when we will have to talk to others about God.  We will be called upon to give some sort of testimony about our relationship with God, and what, exactly, it is that we have come to know and believe.

Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once commented that if he had asked his fellow philosopher, Hegel, for directions to a street address in Copenhagen, Hegel would have given him a map of Europe.  Likewise, some of us, if asked by another for directions to find God, would not have the slightest idea how to answer.  You might be able to talk all around the God-territory, but never be able to home in on any exact location.

So how do we get out of this fix?  How do we grow past the coffee shop chatter about God?  How do we make sure that we aren’t just passing along rumors and gossip about God?  How can we speak out of authentic relationship?  How do we move from shallowness to depth?  How can we sing the song of the angel-seraphs?  How can we know God?

Well, the good news is that God wants to know us.  As I began this message, God wants to be in relationship with us, regardless of what God already knows to be true about us, regardless of the way we have treated God in the past, regardless of how shallow our faith may be, regardless of how much we have tried to hide the fact that we hardly know God at all.  Still, in spite of all that, God wants our friendship.

So much does God want that friendship, that God takes the first big step and appears.  Sometimes, “high, exalted!” as to Isaiah.  Sometimes in a “bush on fire, but not being burnt up” as to Moses.  Sometimes as a baby in a cattle feeding trough, as to those in Bethlehem.  All the time it is God, trying to break into our little spaces, trying to get our attention, trying to get us to look up from our assumed religiosity and really see God for who God is.

In every instance it is a humbling experience.  Isaiah thought he’d be a dead man, because he looked at God as He is.  Moses took off his sandals because he knew he was on holy ground.  Paul fell to the ground before the light and Voice of God.  The shepherds and magi knelt in awe before the child Jesus.  It is something overpowering to smell and see and touch the holy presence of God.

Or to be touched by it.  As if you were being touched on the lips by a live coal from a fire, held in tongs by a flying, singing angel.  You know that when you are touched by such an experience you have come in contact with something so real, so burning, that it will leave its mark on you forever.

There was a pilot on a jumbo jet with a full passenger load coming in to land.  The pilot discovered the wheels had not released.  He radioed the control tower and was told to circle the airport, dump his fuel, and then come in for a belly landing.  Meanwhile, the ground crew would grease the runway with foam and have ambulances, fire engines, and emergency vehicles along the runway.

The plane made the approach.  It was a white-knuckle landing.  As the plane slid along the runway, metal against concrete, the screams of those inside the plane drowned out the sound of the screeching outside.  Miraculously, nobody was injured.

As the passengers left the plane, a priest who was aboard, said to the stewardess at the door, “Remember, now, the rest of your life is a gift.”  The stewardess, who must have been in the presence of God before, responded, “It’s all a gift, sir, from the very beginning.

Isaiah thought he was doomed.  He was doing a belly landing, of sorts, before the very throne of God.  His life was flashing before his eyes, as he stood transfixed and staring at the Almighty.  At that point, everything that he had been, seemed forfeit, that it was all chaff suddenly blown by the winds of God’s amazing and startling presence.  Everything that he had seen for himself and his future was instantly erased.  He was a no one, going no where, thinking he knew everything, but in reality knew nothing.

By the sheer love and friendship of God, Isaiah’s life was not turned to cinders, but was given back to him as a gift, cleansed and purified.  It was a second chance, only this time with the authentic presence of and relationship with God.  With Isaiah, we discover, as we look back and now look forward into an authentic future with God as He is, it is, truly, all a gift, splendidly wrapped in the awesome display of the holiness and glory and tender, grace-full companionship of God.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Speaking The Language

"Speaking The Language"
Acts 2:1-13

I want you to close your eyes.  Get your imagination ready.  Take a deep breath.  Now, imagine a hot day.  You are working out in your yard in the hot sun.  There is no shade.  You feel your arms reddening.  The back of your neck is getting red, and gritty, and sweaty.  You feel the intensity of the heat on your face.  Your t-shirt is sticking to your back with sweat.  It's hot.  It's hard to breathe in the heat.

Now, imagine a child sneaks up behind you.  They have an ice cube.  The child begins dripping the icy water off the ice cube down your neck.  Then that child drops the whole ice cube down down your shirt.  The child presses that solid, frozen piece of ice against the skin of your back and rubs it all around.  Then runs away.

Now, open your eyes.  Did anyone feel the heat as I described it?  And did your back arch a bit as I described the ice water dripping down your back?  Did it make you cringe a little?

The power and impact of that guided imagery certainly had to do with your imaginations.  Your imagination can almost make those sensations real.  But mostly it had to do with words.  With language.  The words I spoke, in the way I spoke them, evoked the image and sensations you were feeling.  The language was the power behind what your were feeling and imagining.

Because, what would have happened if I had said the same thing this way:
A young human male, holding a cube of super refrigerated hydrogen and oxygen molecules, began dripping some of those molecules onto the anterior side of your body, striking the over-heated epidermis and allowing the liquid molecules to run down latitudinally upon the surface of said epidermis.

Would that have created the same effect as my first description?  I basically said the same thing.  I just used different verbiage, different language, different words, in each instance.  The key is not only what I said, but how I said it.  The language I used.  What if I did the guided imagery all over again, but spoke Norwegian?  How many know Norwegian?  It would have been lost on you.

I spoke in last weeks sermon about words and the power of words to build worlds—how vital words are to what we perceive, and how we form reality.  How we decide what is true and what is false.  I want to build on last week's message, and take it a different direction, by talking about what kind of impact we can have on others through our language.

In order to have some kind of impact with language, you need to know at least three different things.  First, you need to know your own language.  You need to know how to speak.  How to form the correct sounds into words; and, then, form those words into sentences so that you can communicate sensibly with another human being.

Secondly, you need to know the language of the person you are talking to.  When I was on a mission trip to Guatemala, we went into the northern mountain region of that country.  The native people still cooked over open fires, and we were building very basic cook stoves for them out of pre-formed cinder blocks.

These people are descendants from the Mayans, and the language they spoke was an ancient Mayan dialect called Coxtial.  I knew some Spanish, and a few on our team spoke Spanish fluently, but it didn't help.  We still needed a translator who, after we translated our English into Spanish, had to then translate the Spanish into Coxtial.  In order to communicate, we needed someone with knowledge of three different languages.

Which brings me to the third thing you have to have in order to make impact with your language, is that if the language of the speaker is different from the listener, you need to know how to translate the one into the other.

I want to expand this beyond just different languages like French, German, Norwegian, or Coxtial.  Let's pretend we in the church are like a foreign country to those who are unchurched or barely in the church.  Don't we have our own language, our own vocabulary, that we just expect every visitor to understand when they walk through the doors?  We throw out words like grace, salvation, gospel, good news, baptism, communion, Savior, prayer, lord, Pentecost, repentance, righteousness, worship, sin, blood, God, Trinity, judgement, etc. etc.  We just expect that everyone who comes in here has some kind of instantaneous, magical understanding of all that religious verbiage.  But we in the church speak a foreign language compared to our Monday morning world.

In her great book, Vocabulary Of Faith, Kathleen Norris wrote:
When I began attending church…I felt bombarded by the vocabulary of the Christian church.  Words…seemed dauntingly abstract to me, even vaguely threatening.  They carried an enormous weight of emotional baggage from my childhood…For reasons I did not comprehend, church seemed a place I needed to be.  But in order to inhabit it, to claim it as mine, I had to rebuild my religious vocabulary.  The words had to become real to me…

We do have our own language in this place, don't we.  We have to understand our language.  That's the first rule of communicating with impact.  How well do you all understand the words we use when we come in here?  How real are the words to you?  Because, if the words we use in here aren't real to you, you are not going to communicate them with any impact to another person out there.

And we also have to understand the language of everyone who comes in here, including the people in our Monday morning world.  That's the second rule of communicating with impact.  If our languages don't measure up, we need to find a way to make what we're saying understandable to those who don't.  That's on us to be understandable.

Look at how Jesus used these three rules.  How did he speak to people.  Did he speak like a priest in the temple?  No.  Did he speak like a Roman ruler?  No.  Did he speak like a rabbi?  Sort of.  How did he speak to people?  He told stories.  Parables.  In language and imagery that spoke to everyday people.  He didn't make them first learn the language of Jewish religiosity.  He spoke in a language that they knew and could understand.  Story language.

I've said this before, probably the hardest thing I do every week in worship is the Children's story.  A lot of the kids have been pre-schoolers.  Pre-schoolers speak a different language.  How do I translate religious language into everyday language and then again into pre-school language?  How do I tell a parable-like story so that it conveys a Godly truth they might be able to understand?  It's the thing I agonize over the most, every week.

Many in the church know their religious language fairly well.  But the problem is, we want to cling to it so badly we don't find ways to "translate" it into other "languages" or situations.  We are so stuck on trying to keep our religious verbiage, it's like we feel we're sinning if we use regular words.  It's like we don't want to do the work of learning how others speak, putting what we've got into their words so they'll understand.

For example, when I read the religious column in the newspaper, I ache for Christianity and the church.  Why can't we ministers learn to speak a different language?  Why do we think everyone understands our religious gobbildy gook?  Why do we think everyone else has to learn our language first before they can be one of us?

Each person, each group, each organization, each "culture" of people, no matter how large or small have their own language.  Hospitals, schools, computer business', even construction workers.

A couple of summers, when off from college, I worked as a laborer on a construction crew in Seattle.  One time, one of the carpenters said to me, "Hand me that international screwdriver over there."  I had no idea what he was talking about.  Do any of you know what he meant?  I looked through all his tools.  Finally, in exasperation, he yelled at me, "The hammer, you idiot!  Don't they teach you anything, college boy!?"  I knew some things.  I just didn't know the language of a carpenter.  He had to translate so I'd get it, and I learned really fast.

Some people just don't have any impact with their language because they either don't know their own language; or, they don't know any other way to say things; or, if they do, they aren't willing to make the translation.

Think of the different "cultures" the different language contexts in which you live every day.  How would you communicate "the great things God has done" in those contexts, and in those languages?

This is the wonder of Pentecost.  That God's Spirit came upon the believers and gave them the knowledge of a different language so they could speak about God to other people.  They were given a new language not so they could impress their friends.  Not so they could order food at a foreign restaurant.  Not so they could get a job at the United Nations.  It was to tell others, in a way that could be understood, about our amazing God.

We can have such an impact.  But we need to know our own language—which is the message we have to speak.  We need to know the language of those who listen to us.  We need to have the patience and sensitivity to listen to how others communicate, to learn those ways.  And thirdly, we need the special assistance from God's Spirit to give us the remarkable ability to translate the Christian message in a way that makes sense to others.  That's our mission.

Monday, May 14, 2018

What Is Truth?

"What Is Truth?"
1 John 5:20-21

Everything we do is shaped by words.  We talk in words.  We think in words.  Virtually everything has a word or words associated with it.  We even have words that explain words.  That's what a dictionary is—words that define words.  And each word in each definition has its own definition made up of words.  It could be said that life is not only about words…life is words.

Words are used to define and shape our perceptions of the world around us and every experience we have in our world.  Two people can have the same experience, maybe even go through it together, but each of them will use different words to describe what happened, and how they felt about what happened.  Those words will then shape how we feel and what we think.

In one of Aesop’s Fables, a donkey walking through the woods finds the skin of a lion. Hunters had killed the lion and left the skin to dry in the sun. The donkey put on the lion’s skin and was happy to discover that all the other animals were terrified of him and ran away when he appeared. Rejoicing in his newfound respect, the donkey brayed his happiness—only to give himself away by his voice—or, at least for a donkey, his words.  The words we use may do more to define who we are than any other way we try to cloak our identity.

So words define our perceptions and others perceptions around us.  And those perceptions become our reality.  What would happen if we changed our words?  Exchanged one word for another.  For example, instead of "loser" we use "risk taker."  Or vice versa.  With one word change, we have changed our perception.  With that change of perception comes a change in our reality.  A change of not only what we think, but how we think.

You can begin to see how important words are.  Words are never just words.  Words are world shapers.  Words are power.  The use of words are means of ultimate control.  Words are the difference between what is true and what is false.

Those words—true and false—are the two I want us to think about this morning.  Those two words are two of the most argued words in any language.

One of the main questions the philosophers discussed (and continue to discuss) is, "What is truth?"  If the change of a single word can change your perception, and your changed perception determines your sense of truth, then what actually is the truth?  What, then, is actually true?  Is a thing only true by the words we choose to describe it?  Is there anything that is true in itself in all times and in all circumstances?  Or does each user of words shape and determine their own truth, so that truth is such, merely to each individual?

This is not just a philosophical question.  It's not hard to see how every day life is affected by what, with our words, we determine what is true and false.

In a recent article about President Trump's constant pathological lying, the problem is not just with the president.  We the people are also playing a role in untruth because we have been barraged with lie after lie to the point of not knowing what the truth is.  From either side of any issue or circumstance.  And we have given up trying to figure it out.  In the article I just mentioned, titled, "When Everything Is Possible and Nothing Is True," political analyst Hanna Arendt wrote:

In an ever changing, incomprehensible world, the masses have reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible, and nothing was true…

Is that not a sad state of the human condition—that when lies have become the norm, we have given up the belief or the hope that nothing can be true anymore.  What is truth?

Michael Edwards wrote a book titled, Toward A Christian Poetics.  In that book he tries to pinpoint what original sin is, and how humanity passes it along.

Edwards comes to the conclusion that original sin is ultimately a sin of language, or the use of language.  What Eve discovered in her conversation with the serpent in the Garden of Eden was how to use words differently to shape one's perception of truth.  The serpent took God's words to Eve and Adam, concerning God's rule about not taking fruit from a certain tree in the Garden and reshaped those words for its own purposes.

What Eve and Adam learned from that conversation with the serpent was that you can alter truth with your words.  You can make a lie sound like the truth.  That conversation between Adam and Eve and the serpent opened up a whole new world—a whole new reality—for Adam and Eve.  That whole new reality is the total misuse of words; and that is the original sin, according to Edwards in his book.

It's not hard to see how we pass that sin along.  As the main character in the past television show, "House," liked to say often, "Everybody lies."  That is, all of us are mainly about the business of constantly shaping or misshaping reality with our words, so that we keep others in such a state of confusion, we, in Arendt's estimation, "…believe everything and nothing…" at the same time.  To be sinfully human is to be constantly about the business of spinning words that confuse and cloud the truth.

And you know what?  It just makes everyone so weary trying to figure out what is true and what is false.  So weary.  Aren't you tired trying to figure it all out?

In our weariness we wonder, "Is there anything out there that is true?"  Is there anything that is true all the time in all circumstances, no matter what?  Are there any words, when put together, are the truth?

At the very end of John's first letter, those questions are answered.  Let me read again what John wrote:

And we know the Son of God came so we could recognize and understand the truth of God—what a gift!—and we are living in the truth itself in God's Son, Jesus Christ.  This Jesus is both True God and Real Life.  Dear children, be on guard against all clever facsimiles.  (5:20-21)

And there you have it.  At the end of John's great letter, we read what we have all longed to read.  We read the truth that Hannah Arendt also wrote:  we live in a world of facsimiles.  Facsimiles.  Counterfeits.  Knock-offs.  Dupes.  Falsehoods.  Lies.  That's our world.

But in that world of falsehoods, there is a lighthouse, a beacon of bright truth.  In our world of constant lies, of words, words, words, fashioned and used to distort life, there is a truth.  In this world that makes us weary with its barrage of wordy lies, there is truth.  In the midst of all of our own lies and lying, all of the wordy distortions we create, all the facsimiles we project about ourselves, all the false world-building we do with our own words, there is Truth with a capital T that burns all that stuff up and turns it to ash.

We have built ourselves false houses with our words and we have lived in them too long.  We need to move out and live in a house built by truth.  That lighthouse, that new home, has to be the truth of God.

In the last two lines of his letter, John uses the word true or truth three times  Three times in two sentences.  "Truth of God…"  "…living in the truth…"  And, "…True God."  Let's look at what true means by looking at its opposites, in the Greek in which John wrote.  Something that is not true is imperfect, defective, frail, or uncertain.

So, for something to be true means it is perfect.  What that means literally is that everything measures up.  When they built the St. Louis Arch, they built both sides at the same time.  So, everything had to meet in the middle at the top.  They couldn't afford to be off at all for the two sides to meet and be connected.  Everything had to perfect—that is, measure up, connect at exactly all the right places.  In other words, be true.

Secondly, that which is true has no defects.  It has to be exactly what it is with no distortions or aberrations.

Thirdly, because truth has no defects or distortions, it is not frail.  It's solid and strong.  No weak points in truth that might endanger the wholeness and integrity of itself.

And finally, there are no uncertainties in truth.  No gray areas.  No, possibly this… or possibly that…  Remember in last week's sermon when I talked about the three qualities of faith:  persuasion, conviction, and reliance.  Those three qualities could also be said of truth in God, in terms of no uncertainties.  Truth in God is something in which we are totally persuaded, convicted of, and rely upon.

What I always keep in mind with the true God and the truth of God, is that living in that house of truth with God, God will always tell you the truth.  That's a good thing, but a scary thing.  You have to be always ready for the truth with God.  God's words will always ring true.  As John wrote, "What a gift!"  What a gift to know you're going to get the truth every time.  No questions.  No wondering if God is being straight with you.  It's kind of disconcerting at first, because being around God, being with God is so different from being in the lying world all the time.  But you get used to it and appreciate it for the gift it is.

There was a guy who was taking in the view of a deep valley at the edge of a cliff.  He got too close to the edge and started sliding down and over the edge.  At the last second he grabbed a scrubby bush and held on for dear life.  The guy called up towards the sky, "Help!  Is there any one up there who can help me?!"
"Yes," came a voice back from the heavens.  "I can help."
"What do I need to do?" the guy called back.
"Just let go of the bush you're hanging on to," the heavenly voice replied.
The guy thought for a few seconds and called back, "Is there anyone else up there?"

If we want to live in the truth of God, and live as true people of Jesus, we have to first let go of the bushes that are made up of all the words we used to hang on to that held our life in place.  The bush of lies.  We have to let go of all those falsehoods and facsimiles, created by our own words and other's words.  We have created our security by hanging on to the bushes made up of all those false words.  But what we haven't been able to see is that those same words have clouded our sense of self and our sense of reality so much, we can't see that that bush we think we're hanging on to is a totally false security.

It's time to let go.  It's time to move out of the house of falsehood we have all built, and move in to the brightness of God's lighthouse of truth, in Jesus Christ.  And finally live.  Finally be free to live an authentically true life.