Monday, July 24, 2017

Do Something

"Do Something"
Proverbs 10:5; 10:26; 13:4;19:15; 19:24

"Do Something!"
Proverbs 10:5; 10:26; 13:4; 19:15;

How many of you have a To-Do list?  There are so many apps you can buy for your mobile devices that help you organize your To-Do list.  Most of them are very good.  If you use them.

That's my problem.  I have two of the better To-Do list apps, and I spent the time getting them all organized.  I can categorize all the tasks and dreams I have on my to-do list into levels of importance, and put dates and times on all those items as to when I want them done.  My life is organized!  I'm ready to go!  I even put the To-Do app icon down on that bottom row of my iPhone and iPad so it's always visible, to remind me of what needs to get done.  But then I don't look at it.

Every single day, my to-do list is a reminder of all the things I haven’t started. They may be things I want to do, or want to set myself up for some future time that I ‘just don’t have time’ to do now. And when I do have time? That familiar friend—laziness—comes knocking at my door.  I'm generally not a lazy person.  But in looking at my to-do list and keeping it up to date, I can be very lazy.

Bonnie Ware, a nurse who cared for patients in their final weeks of life, published the most common regrets she heard.  Not chasing dreams was number one.  She wrote:
“When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made."

That's the main issue with to-do lists.  Those lists should contain not just every day tasks and work that need to be done—but also our long term goals and dreams in life.  Those need just as much work and planning as our every day tasks.  Every single day we choose how we spend what few hours we have. Yet, despite the constant warnings to chase after what we believe, we often fall victim to procrastination and laziness and a fear of even just starting.  Just starting!

Laziness keeps us from just starting.  And not starting has terrible consequences.  Most of the Proverbs read this morning had to do with laziness and starving.  If you don't start, you don't work; if you don't work, you don't eat.  When you don't eat, you die.  I love Proverbs 19:24 that describes a person who puts the spoon or fork into the food, but is too lazy to even lift that food to the mouth.  Now that's laziness!

To-Do apps and time management only go so far in dealing with our laziness.  You can put on all the to-do lists you want, "lift spoon to mouth", but if out of laziness you don't do that, you eventually starve.  Laziness isn't simply putting off things until a later date.  It's intentionally putting aside important work, knowing there will be negative consequences in the future, but putting them off anyway.

We aren’t just being forgetful, or complacent. We’re purposefully hurting ourselves by focusing on short-term pleasure at the cost of the long-term good. Almost all studies agree that laziness leads to to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and poorer well-being.

Dr. Piers Steel, an organizational behavior professor at the University of Calgary, has proposed a simple formula to determine why we make certain choices.
                                    Expectancy + Value  =  Motivation
       Impulsiveness + Delay

At the top of the equation, expectancy is the odds of an outcome coming from your choice.  Value refers to how rewarding that outcome might be.  Underneath, impulsiveness is your sensitivity to delays (how easily you get distracted, or how lazy you are), and delay is how long you think you will have to wait to receive the reward.  Work out that equation and it will tell you what your motivation level is, or the drive you will have for a course of action.

According to this motivation equation, one of the main factors killing our motivation and bringing on deeper laziness is impulsiveness.  There are two aspects of how impulsive we are: locomotion and assessment.  Locomotion is the process of setting yourself a goal, deciding what kinds of behavior will best help you meet that goal, and then not allowing any distractions or delays get in the way of you completing that goal.   This aspect of impulse control is about the "getting on with it" or "making something happen"—action that keeps you motivated and heading in only one direction.

So, all of our choices come down to the expectation of a good result vs. how long a task is likely to take us.  The longer we think the task will take, the lazier we become in getting it done.  Seems basic, right? We weigh the potential value against the effort involved.  Should I lift my spoon to my mouth in order to get nourishment?

Recent studies into chronically lazy people have uncovered what Dr. Fuschia Sirois, a psychology professor at the University of Sheffield, England, has called “temporal myopia,” or the inability to see into your future.

One of the qualities that makes us human is the ability to gaze into the future, through planning and setting goals, as well as anticipating activities.  But for lazy people, that vision is blurry. It’s more abstract and impersonal, and the lazy often feel an emotional disconnect between who they are, and who they could become.

Another problem that started in the 1960's is a marked decrease in the value of delayed gratification.  That is, we have become less and less willing to work towards a reward in the future.  We want that reward now, so that we value immediate rewards rather than working toward some future goal.  Our motivation to start any task depends on us seeing value in it, yet we place more value on what is happening currently over what the future holds and justify this decision by emotionally disconnecting ourselves from our future self.  It's easier to get very lazy about future goals, than it is about getting pleasure now.

Keep score.  How much of what you are doing is for the present you vs. the future you?

Ancient Greek philosophers developed a word to describe this type of behavior: Akrasia. Simply put, Akrasia is being weak-willed—unable to see long-term value and giving in to instant gratification.

It’s why the ability to delay gratification is such a huge predictor of future success. Success takes hard work. Long hours of concentration with no absolute promise of reward. Yet the world around us and what it’s done to our brains makes it all too easy to just give in and take the low-hanging fruit.  Or be totally lazy, and not even reach for the low-hanging fruit from our lay-down posture.

Ironically, the guilt and frustration we feel from not starting is often worse than the pain of actually doing work.  In the words of writer and theorist Eliezer Yudkowsky:
“On a moment to moment basis, being in the middle of doing the work is usually less painful than being in the middle of (being lazy).”

It’s that hump of ‘just start’, just do something, that is so hard to get over. Yet once we do, momentum takes over. We see immediate results from the work we’re doing and instead of looking for ways to avoid it, we look at ways to finish.

So, how do we get over the fear of just starting?  Are there ways to combat laziness, or even see it coming and adjust course?

Part of the problem is allowing the small losses to accumulate.  A great example is Billy in the "Family Circus" cartoon.  Several of the cartoons have to do with Billy being given a task, and then getting lost in all the small distractions along the way.  Here's one of those cartoons.

All those smaller losses add up, and the larger milestones we are trying to accomplish don't get done.  The smaller losses have to do with our laziness more often than not.  The more we let the small losses to accumulate through our choices, the more we will feel regret.  That is, according the the Proverbs, the less we will eat.  The less we will be fed.  The less we will be strengthened for the larger task.

The more you keep at a task, there’s a mental process called the Zeigarnik Effect, which kicks in when you are close to finishing, propelling you towards the finish line like you’re running from a hoard of zombies. You feel as though you just cannot stop until you’re done.  The writer, Ernest Hemingway would always stop writing for the day in mid-sentence so that when he returned to the typewriter the next day he could pick up where he left off, effectively forcing himself into ‘must finish’ mode.

Just starting is a mental battle, one that we sometimes have to turn into something physical before we can be victorious. One way to do this is by using some strategy that will make it hard for you to continue with negative behaviors.  For Victor Hugo, the author of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and one of my favorite books, Les Miserables, that meant locking all his clothes in a closet so he wouldn’t be able to go out socializing or entertain and would be forced to write.

Battling laziness most often comes down to this, "just getting started."  Just start!  The fear of starting is often so much less than the pain of actually working. Yet, our brains can fool us into thinking the opposite is true. And once we’ve engrained those beliefs it’s hard to break out of them.  We have to change how we think, in order to break the bonds of laziness.  Just remember the greatest achievements don’t happen without starting.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Pride Goes Before The Fall

"Pride Goes Before The Fall"
Proverbs 6:16-19; 8:13; 11:2; 16:5, 18; 21:24

    The Greeks distrusted arrogance because they believed that to be arrogant about one's gifts or good fortune was to incite the jealousy of the gods. Greek poets and philsophers loved to tell stories of the downfall of powerful, arrogant men whose hubris, or excessive arrogance, tripped them up when they least expected.

    There is the story told by the historian Herodatus about a powerful, but tyrannical and arrogant king named Polycrates. Herodatus was a great traveller, and gathered folk wisdom and stories not only from his native Greece, but also from Egypt, Persia, and other countries around the Mediterranean. Herodatus conveyed history in the form of stories because he believed that stories--not logical expositions--most accurately captured the reality of human history and human experience.

     King Polycrates was a rich and powerful ruler who seemed to have all that life had to offer.  What he did not have, he took.   Polycrates' good friend, the king of Egypt, became worried about him. He wrote Polycrates a letter and said that he wished for himself and his friends some failures mixed in with their successes. "I have never heard of anyone," wrote the Egyptian king, "whose good fortune was complete and who did not end up in complete ruin." He then urged his friend to give up something that he cherished.

   On reading the letter, Polycrates thought that his friend from Egypt was giving him good advice. He decided to give up an emerald ring made of gold which was very precious to him. Reluctantly, he sailed far out to sea on one of the ships of his formidable navy, and threw the treasured ring overboard. Then he went back to his palace and mourned his loss.

    A week later a fisherman in Polycrates' kingdom caught a large and beautiful fish. He decided to make a gift of the fish to the king. When the palace cook cut open the fish, he found inside it the ring that the king had thrown into the sea. Polycrates was joyful to have his ring returned, and wrote to his friend in Egypt to tell him of his good fortune.  Polycrates thought he was blessed by the gods, and must have been a much better person than all others, since he got his ring back.  His arrogance only increased instead of decrease, as the King of Egypt hoped.

     This was enough to scare his friend. The king of Egypt wanted nothing more to do with Polycrates because he knew that his friend was headed for big trouble. He didn't want to suffer in his soul while he watched his friend meet a horrible fate. And so he ended his friendship with Polycrates right then and there. And he was right to do so, because Polycrates had allied himself secretly with the king of Persia to attack and take over Egypt.

Shortly after, during the war, Polycrates was murdered in a horrible way.  Polycrates thought he was better than all others, and it was that arrogance that led to his awful death at the hands of those he trusted.

Arrogance is one of the most addressed qualities in the book of Proverbs.  It is one of the worst human qualities talked about in the Bible.  It is the part of humanity that God detests the most.  (I confess I used to be really arrogant, but I fixed that and now I'm perfect.)

A group called the Knowledge and Media Research Center, in Tuebingen, Germany, did a study of arrogance.  Their study determined that arrogance reflects an interpersonal quality that desires to over power others.  So arrogance is about power, the accumulation of power, and making sure you have power over as many people as possible.

The philosopher Nietzsche said the main drive of human beings was what he called, "the will to power."  Looking at the world, especially today and what's going on with our national leaders, it's not hard to disagree.  Or, if we are honest with ourselves, none of us likes to feel powerless.  None of us likes to feel like we just keep getting stepped on and we don't get to step on anyone back.  We want to be sure we have some kind of power over certain situations or people in our life.

But, like the King of Egypt was worried about Polycrates, too much pride and arrogance in the form of power is destructive to self and others.  The study I mentioned a moment ago that came out of the German group found that arrogant, power motivated people are drawn to words like affluence, authority, dominance, fortune, money, prestige, reputation, and status.

Arrogant people are driven by a desire to edge out others seen as competitors.  It's an over confidence in your own ability to actually win.  But it's not just about winning.  It's seeing yourself as deserving to win.

Proverbs 11:2 stated,
When arrogance comes, then comes disgrace;
But with the humble is wisdom.
The Hebrew word for arrogance there means presumption.  Presumption is an idea you take as true, but you don't know for certain.  Even though you don't know for certain, you still use it as a building block for other ideas about self-importance.  So if the presumption is that you deserve to win over others, you assume that presumption is true and act as if it is.  That is the building block of arrogance.

Arrogant people seek status.  But they acquire that status through intimidation and aggression.  In Proverbs 8:13, it is God speaking through the writer where it says,
…pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.

The Hebrew word for arrogance here literally means to swell.  God hates people who swell themselves up by intimidating and pushing power and being aggressive.  It's an arrogance that swells itself up by deflating others.

It's interesting to me that just about every word in the Proverbs for the word arrogance is a different word in Hebrew.  They had all kinds of ways of saying "arrogant."  Most of them are pictorial words like swelling up, or rising up, or tilting the head back.  And all these word pictures have horrible consequences to those who do them:  being fractured or broken, tottering, stumbling and falling, being disgusting and morally revulsive, a disgrace, and dishonorable.  The problem is, the arrogant, while pushing their arrogance, are totally oblivious to all that.

A captain of a battleship was told there was a light ahead, apparently another ship headed right for them.  The captain signaled, "Veer 5 degrees to the starboard."  A reply came back saying, "You veer 15 degrees to the port."  The captain messaged back, "Steer 5 degrees to the starboard—this is a battle ship!"  Then came the return message, "Steer 15 degrees to the port—this is a lighthouse."  That's how the arrogant are—steering themselves into the rocks not caring they are heading to ruin, because they are a battleship!

In their study of arrogance, the German research center discovered that the opposite of arrogance is affiliation.  That surprised me because I assumed, arrogantly, that the opposite of arrogance is humility.  But it is affiliation, which is the desire to build relationships and get along with others.

People who are strong on the affiliation scale are attracted to words like attachment, belonging, closeness, collaboration, community, cooperation, family, harmony, and relationships.  Whereas the arrogant are using people or stepping on people to get what they want, the affiliative people are creating closeness and relationship in order to get through life.

Charles Osgood has a podcast called the "Osgood File."  He also hosts a television show called "Sunday Morning" on Sunday mornings.  Maybe some of you have watched it.

In one of the segments on his "Sunday Morning" show, he told the story of two ladies who lived in a convalescent center.  One was named Ruth and the other Margaret.  Both of these ladies were accomplished pianists, having performed with famous orchestra's across the United States, as well as in solo performance.  Both had reason to be prideful, even arrogant about their own accomplishments.  But both these ladies gave up any hope of playing the piano again.  Each had suffered an incapacitating stroke.  Margaret's stroke left her left side restricted, while Ruth's stroke damaged her right side.  For them it was over.

The director of the center had an idea.  There just happened to be an upright grand piano in the chapel at the convalescent center.  The director had them both brought into the chapel sat them down at the piano.  She put a piece of classical music up on the music stand of the piano and encouraged them to play the solo piece together.

Which they did, and a beautiful friendship developed between the two women as they played piece after piece cooperating with each with their good hands.

That is the affiliation side of our Proverbs for today.  Certainly there is a part of us that is prideful and arrogant.  It is that part of us that only wants power, influence and affluence.  All of us have to recognize the presence of that in us.  But it is God's desire that we put that arrogance aside and develop relationships through affiliation and cooperation.  It is God's constant mention of a frustration, even a hatred, of human arrogance that hopefully motivates us the other way towards cooperation and affiliative relationships.

Monday, July 10, 2017


Proverbs 12:6, 18-19; 14:3; 15:4; 18:7, 21:23

The average person spends one-fifth of his or her life talking.  According to research, each of us will open our mouth an average of 700 times a day.  In those 700 times, you will use an average of 18,000 words. If all of our words were put into print, a single day's words would fill a 50-page book. In a year's time the average person's words would fill 66 books of 800 pages each.  Every year you write with your spoken words 66 volumes.  If you lived 70 years, you will have "written" 4,620 books of 800 pages each with your spoken words.

Of course, that's the average.  There are some who talk more.  And some who talk less.  I was telling my daughter, Kristin, this, when I saw her up in Kansas City this past week.  She said we should call people who talk a lot, "book fillers."  So you could say to a person, "You're one of those 'book fillers,'" and they'd have no idea we just described them as someone who talks too much.

That is a lot of stuff coming out of our mouths.  Some people have what's been called, diarrhea of the mouth:  too many words.  Or as one guy said, who was trying to get his chatty wife to leave church, after worship was over, out to the parking lot so they could go home, "Every time my wife starts talking, all the blood runs to her lips.

The point of this is not about talking too much, or too little, though.  The point is, a lot of words come out of our mouths—but what kind of words?  With so many words coming out of our mouths, some are bound to be hurtful and destructive.  And some are hopefully healing, instructive, and peacemaking.

The Hebrew word for mouth means, literally, the hole you blow through; thus, blowhole.  It may be related to fire, in that you have to blow to get the fire started and then rekindled in the morning when the fire has almost gone out.  So the words we speak come out of our blow hole—both good and bad words.

That's what our Proverbs are about for this week's message.  What kind of words come out of our mouths—our blowholes?  That's the wisdom lesson the Proverbs I've chosen for this morning's message are teaching.  Let me go through two or three of the Proverbs I've picked, and see what we learn.

First, Proverbs 12:6.
The words of the wicked are a deadly ambush,
but the speech of the upright rescues them.  (Holman)

This Proverb is saying that different kinds of words are going to come out of a person depending on whether the person is "wicked" or "upright."  Therefore, it's not just the words coming out of your mouth, but your character that determines your vocabulary.  This Proverb is calling us not only to assess what kind of words we speak, but check out our very character out of which we speak.  Are you wicked, or are you upright?  Check out your words—that will give you an indication.

Are you someone who likes to ambush with your words?  Usually we think of a person being the ambusher.  But here, it is words.  When you are ambushed, you did not expect that to happen.  You are surprised, caught off guard.  Prior to the ambush you may have been confident, feeling safe and unafraid.  Just tootling along through your day.  Then, BAM! out of the blue, words jump out at you and cause injury.

That's how you know if maybe you lean toward being wicked with your words.  You use your words to ambush others, to surprise others with a quick and unexpected attack.

By contrast, the upright use their words to "rescue" others.  The word for rescue, in Hebrew means to snatch away.  To rescue someone is to snatch them from harm and hurt by the words you speak.  Someone's mouth can ambush you, but another person can snatch you out of that ambush with their words.

My daughter and her husband sometimes have a conversation around the question, "If you could have a superpower, what would it be?"  And, what if that superpower had to do with our mouth and our words?

There's a new television series coming out called, "Inhumans."  It is about people who live on the moon called the "Inhumans."  They have superpowers, and have been isolated on the moon because of the powers.  Some powers can be both constructive and destructive.  Just to be safe, these inhumans have been banished to a moon colony.  But they want to be on earth with normal people in the larger population.  One of the inhumans never speaks.  The reason is, if he even whispers a word, it comes out with such force, it could destroy whole cities.  So he keeps his mouth shut and has to decide when he should speak and when not to.  It's not that he's evil—he just has a catastrophic superpower.

Imagine having the opposite superpower—to utter a single word and you can rescue people, deliver them from an evil ambush.  Which do you use your mouth—your superpower—for?  Ambush and destruction, or rescue and saving?

Our second Proverb is chapter 12, verses 18 and 19.
There is one who speaks rashly,

                like a piercing sword;

                but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

Truthful lips endure forever,

                but a lying tongue, only a moment.

The Hebrew word for speaking rashly literally means to babble or speak thoughtlessly.  There are people who just go on and on and on and really say nothing.  Like politicians.  I ran across this "Instant Buzzword Generator."  You can make up any kind of amazing sounding phrase by joining a word from column 1 with a word from columns 2 and 3.

Instant Buzzword Generator
Column 1 Column 2 Column 3
Integrated Management         Options
Total Organizational Flexibility
Systematized          Monitored Compatibility
Parallel          Reciprocal Mobility
Functional Digital         Programming
Responsive Logic         Concept
Optical          Transitional Time phase
Synchronized          Incremental Projection
Compatible Third generation Hardware
Balanced Policy         Contingency

I was thinking, on our Vivid Vision statement that our Grow The Church Team put together, we could have thrown in some of these buzzword terms.  Like having a "functional policy projection."  Or a "synchronized incremental time phase."  They are amazing sounding phrases, but what the heck do they mean?  Who knows?  But that's how some people babble on, saying a lot of stuff that has no meaning.

But as this Proverb states, the darker side of this babbling or thoughtless speaking is to turn words into a piercing sword.  Imagine a list of words like the Buzzword Generator, only the three columns have hurtful, destructive, and demeaning words.  Words that are "sword thrusts."  The destruction of these sword thrusted and thoughtless words is that they are intentionally hurting.  If you are thrusting these words at another person, you aren't defending yourself.  You are trying to stab another person deeply and intentionally.  You are trying to injure someone with your words.

The second part of this verse is about "truthful lips" vs. a "lying tongue."  Truthful lips endure forever.  The word in Hebrew for endure, literally means to be buried like a post.  If you've dug post holes, you know the deeper you put them in the ground the sturdier they will be.  That's what truthful lips are like—solid and immovable in their truth telling.

But the main part of this parable has to do with time.  Telling the truth, having truthful lips lasts forever.  Truth has a forever kind of quality.  Whereas lying may get you through a moment, but that's all.  Eventually that moment will pass, your lie will be found out, and the timeless truth will be demanded of you.

The last Proverb about our blowhole that I'll highlight is 15:4.

Kind words are good medicine,

                but deceitful words can really hurt.  (CEV)

Thousands of Tasmanian Devils have died from a rare type of cancer called Devil Facial Tumor Disease. Scientists discovered that the cancer began in the mouth of a single Tasmanian devil and spread through the bites of that animal. Tasmanian Devils bite each other around the mouth very frequently, and this cancer spread through those bites. Over the course of several years, over forty percent of the Tasmanian Devil population has died because of this cancer.

Some people's words are like those Tasmanian Devil bites.  It isn't just the one bite that injures.  The bite creates a disease which kills the animal.  Just so, there are words we utter in a biting way.  Those words act like a disease in a person that eats away at them, sometimes, their whole lives.  Words that create the cancer of worthlessness, bitterness, guilt, or shame.  Words that are spoken out of deceit.  Words that are intended to hurt.

On the flip side, there are words that act like good medicine.  Words have that amazing healing quality.  Words like, "I'm sorry."  Or, "I love you."  Or, "I am praying for you."  Those kinds of words have a way of going right to the location of our pain, and beginning the healing.  They are "good medicine" words.

We speak a lot of words, every day.  Listen to your own words.  Make sure they are words that rescue, words that are truthful, and words that are healing.

Monday, July 3, 2017

The Dance of Love

"The Dance of Love"
Proverbs 19:13; 21:9, 19; 27:15

OK; the drip, drip, drip of a nagging wife.  Ever hear a sermon about nagging wives?  That's not what I'm going to preach about.  Rest easy, all wives present.  There are also many traits of the opposite sex, we men, and if you are a husband, that are probably just as irritating.

I just got through reading a book that we used for our book group that I'm in with my daughter and her husband.  The title of the book was, Men:  Explain It To Me.  It's about a trait that we men evidently have, called "mansplaining."  It's how we men/husbands talk down to our wives/women as if they don't know anything, and need us overly intelligent men to explain everything to them, just because they're women.

So, if it's the drip, drip, drip nagging, or the arrogance of mansplaining, there's enough on both sides of the marriage relationship to erode marital bliss.

What is strange to me about the Proverbs that have been read is that they were written by King Solomon, one of King David's sons.  Solomon was supposed to be one of the wisest people who has ever lived.  But 1 Kings 11 lets us know that Solomon married 700 women.  Of course, some of those were marriages of convenience in order to keep the peace with some neighboring tribe or nation.  But still, what did he expect having that many wives?  One is certainly enough for most men.

But on top of that, Solomon also had 300 concubines.  A concubine was basically a kept woman, who had less status than a wife.  Solomon, as the story in 1 Kings 11 eludes, had poor impulse control.  Every pretty woman he saw, he grabbed for himself.  He just couldn't stop himself.

Then he complained about nagging wives in the Proverbs, and how awful that was for him.  Well, "hello!"  Don't have so many wives!  Women, can you imagine having 1000 men around you all the time explaining stuff to you that you don't need explained—how annoying that would be.  Whether husband or wife, why get yourself into that mess by having so many spouses!?  For all his wisdom, Solomon evidently was not very wise about relationship stuff.

Or was he?  As a counterpoint to these "drip, drip, drip" proverbs, Solomon was also the author of another book in the Old Testament, "Song of Songs" or "Song of Solomon."  In Proverbs, he writes about nagging wives.  In Song of Songs he writes one of the most beautiful love songs between a groom and a bride.

I wonder if Solomon wrote this love song, and then used it 700 times on 700 different women to woo them as wives.  Then they all get together in the back room of the harem, and have a conversation.  "Wait a minute; he said what!?  That's the same song he sang to me!"  Then all the other 699 women would chime in saying, "That's what he sang to me, too!"  And it's no wonder he wrote the Proverbs about drip, drip, drip nagging.  It's would have been his own darn fault!

Sooo, what I want to talk about this morning is neither nagging or mansplaining.  What I want to do is transition from the Proverbs to their opposite in the Song of Songs.  I want to talk about what love looks like between a man and a woman.

It all started at the beginning, in the Garden of Eden.  At first the man is alone.  God sees something is not quite right with Adam.  The man is alone.  We are all alone, essentially.  Individual entities with a unique mixture of body, mind and soul.  We are all alone, but it is how we handle that aloneness that matters—that makes us who we are.

God watched Adam for a long time.  There was something not quite right, God was thinking.  Adam is mopey.  He is withdrawn.  He is not quite as connected to his surroundings as God thought he should be.  Finally, God realized Adam was reacting to being alone by being lonely.

So God changed the situation, thinking he was making things better for Adam.  God made a woman.  But a whole new can of worms would be opened, that I wonder if God anticipated.  I always assume God knows what God is doing, and exactly what might come of each action God takes.

When Adam woke up from his rib removing surgery, opening his eyes to find a naked woman standing there, he is inspired to break out into poetry:
At last!
Bone of my bones
Flesh of my flesh!
A woman!

Or, loosely translated:  "Va va va voom!"  Or, "Hubba hubba hubba."  Whichever you choose.

Both the  man and woman fly at each other in a fit of mutual attraction and wonder.  But despite their innocent love, they would quickly find out that getting along in an ongoing relationship would be much more difficult than they imagined.  Certainly the man and woman loved being in each other's arms.  But fully understanding each other was going to be another matter all together.

I can't remember if I told the story about the man who was so pleasing to God that God came to him and said, "You are a great guy.  I am really proud of the way you have turned out.  I want to make one of your dreams come true.  Ask me anything, and I will do it for you!"

The guy stood there a minute, a bit overwhelmed, but finally said, "You know, I'd love a bridge between California and Hawaii.  I love going to Hawaii, but it is so expensive to fly there all the time.  If there was a long bridge, I could just drive there."

God looked at the guy and said, "You have got to be kidding!  That would be a bridge across the Pacific Ocean, stretching for hundreds of miles.  That would be nearly impossible.  Can you not think of another dream you would like fulfilled?"

The guy thought for another minute, then said, "Well, I would really like to understand women.  I would like to know exactly how they think and why.  I want to know what makes them tick, and how to read their emotions exactly.  I would really like to fully know how to figure out women, inside and out."

Then God paused for a long minute and finally said, "Would you like that bridge with two lanes or four?"

I wonder, if by creating a woman, God was creating someone even God would have a hard time figuring out.  God created us men as fairly simple creatures.  Not much mystery there.  In the movement from creating man to creating woman, God was going in the direction from the simple to the complex, the banal to the sublime, the animal to the aesthetic, the blank canvas to a piece of art.  And somehow those two would have to come together in a relationship.  All of a sudden the man and woman would be asking new questions, like, "What is love?"  And, "How do I love this other?"

That is what the Song of Songs is all about.  It is a love song.  There are three parts in this love song:  one sung by the husband, one sung by the wife, and the third sung by a choir who are are watching this love relationship unfold.

The Song of Songs is realistic about love.  It recognizes that love can take you to the top of the world, and it can sink you into the valley of sadness and a deeper loneliness than that which comes from being alone.  This love poem knows that sometimes a relationship is like a woman's drippy nagging or man's condescending blah blah blah.

I'm just going to hit some highlights in the Song of Songs, hopefully letting them sink in as you think about your love relationship.

In the first chapter, the bride sings, "…the very mention of your name is like spreading perfume."  Love and intimacy has to do with personal names.  There is nothing abstract or casual about love.  Instead, it is personal and familiar.  Love with a person who has a name is the corrective to how love, in our day, has become nothing but hook ups and pornographic and lusting, where there are no names.  True romantic, and loving intimacy does not treat a person like a thing, but a person with a name, and all that name signifies.

And then comes a string of compliments sung back and forth between the man and woman.  It isn't cutting remarks like dripping faucets and denigrating mansplaining.  In the Song of Songs, both the man and woman are intent on building each other up.  Like true artists and poets, they see the beauty that lies within each other, and they celebrate, out loud, what they see.  How much stronger relationships are when lovers look at each other with the artist or poet's eyes, and paint complements on each other rather than smudging each other up with the degrading and demeaning.

In the next movement of the Song of Songs the man sings about the seasons of love:

Rise up my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of the singing birds is come,
and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
The fig tree putteth forth her green figs,
and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.  (2:10-13)

Winter is used by poets to describe the time of self-reflection and evaluation.  It is during the winter of the soul when a person (or a couple) searches for their identity and meaning in life.  Or for a new identity and meaning.

Spring is used by the poets to describe the challenge of finally seeing everything differently.  It is the challenge of following the Spirit.  It is the time of testing the truth of what you have come to see during your Winter searching.  Spring is the time to approve or reject the new that is around you.

Summer is described by the poets as the invitation to live in love and companionship.  To feel love's warmth on your face and soul.

And Autumn is described as the time to come face-to-face with big life decisions.  It is the time of maturity when you decide to choose love and commit yourself to live life in that love.

These are all the seasons of love that are described here in the Song of Songs.  The images of the seasons speak poetically about how love and intimacy are not easily achieved, and don't just automatically come to us.  That is one of the fallacies in our modern thinking about love, that we just fall into it, and it is so easy after that.

Instead, the Song of Songs realistically, through the imagery of the seasons, lets us know that love comes with a lot of reflection, searching, and testing.  There are times when intimate love, and the one you love seem distant, distracted, aloof, and detached emotionally.  Love becomes hard work in constantly defining and redefining what love is at each new season.

The final point I want to make about intimate love in the Song of Songs is in the first seven verses of the 4th chapter.  This part of the song is considered the wedding song.  Part of the wedding ritual in that culture was that the bride danced before those assembled at the wedding feast.  The groom, in turn, sang her beauty.  The various movements of the dance made the entire body of the bride an expression of adoration, joy, and enthusiasm before her groom.

It is interesting also, that dance to the ancient Hebrew people was a form of prayer.  It was getting caught up in the expression of worship, making the whole body a prayer message of adoration to the glory of God.

In the song sung by the man to his dancing bride, look beyond the descriptions of her body parts to the feelings they invoke:  awe, reverence, desire, gratitude.  These are the kinds of feelings that fuel a deep and meaningful human love between a man and a woman.

But they also describe well the feelings and sensations evoked in prayer.  Both prayer and intimate love have to do with feelings that are evoked by another.  Prayer is the language spoken by us when we are captivated by the beauty, passion, and power of God.

Love is dance, a dance not only of intimate romance, but of true relationship.  So, dance.  I encourage you to move beyond any snippy comments that denigrate each other, and dance, and sing your love for each other.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Ambulance, Firefighter Or Fence?

"Ambulance, Firefighter, Or Fence?"
Matthew 9:35-38

The story of the missionary, Irene Webster Smith, is told in her biography titled, Sensei, by Russell Hitt.  She was a Quaker missionary to Japan for 50 years.  She first went to Japan in 1915 from her native Ireland with an organization called the "Japan Evangelistic Band."  Her first assignment was to serve in the Tokyo Rescue Home.  The Home sought to save prostitutes from their entrapment in the government-licensed brothels.

In this early experience, Sensei (as Irene came to be known to the Japanese) learned how these young girls, unwanted by their parents (mainly because of the male child-oriented culture) were sold into a life of perversion and trained from their earliest years to know no other experience.

Those days in the Tokyo Rescue Home were discouraging to Sensei.  The girls, no matter how they seemed to repent of their past, would so often revert to the sex trade life on the streets as soon as they regained their health.  In the midst of that frustrating work, a thought came to Sensei.  Her thought, written in her journal, was this:  "It would be better to put a fence at the top of the precipice than have an ambulance at the bottom."

With that thought, a vision was born—a vision of a home for the unwanted girls when they were still at a young age.  It would be a home where little girls, once destined for brothels and disease could be brought up in happiness, and experience joyful, Christian living.  For many years, Sensei turned to the work of keeping young girls from falling over this particular cliff in life.

When we ponder our own acts of Christian compassion, we must ask ourselves what God would have us do.  Pick up the pieces in people's lives after calamity has struck?  Run a spiritual ambulance service?  Or should we be like spiritual firefighters, holding on to a life net and calling people to jump from the "burning buildings" their lives have become?  Or, like Sensei, should we be fence builders on the jagged cliffs of life, keeping people from falling in the first place?  In other words, provide a practice of preventative spiritual medicine?  All three are valid and all three are needed when people are hurting.

As Jesus went from village to village, teaching and proclaiming the Good News, healing people of every imaginable disease and illness, witnessing their distressed and downcast lives, his compassion was inflamed by a frustration that the fence building ministry was not being provided by anyone of his day.

The reason he saw so much hurt and misery was because nothing was being provided up front to keep the people from falling into such a state of hopelessness.  Jesus saw himself providing a spiritual ambulance service for the walking wounded—indeed, the nearly perishing—and wondered out loud where the people were who were supposed to be watching over the flock.  It was so frustrating for Jesus to see that the people's wounds, and their lostness and their disease wouldn't have progressed to such an alarming state.

"Alarming state" doesn't even begin to describe what Jesus witnessed in the people.  As he looked upon them, Jesus described the people as "distressed" and "downcast."

Let's get the full impact of what Jesus was saying here.  Elsewhere in the Bible, the word "distressed" is used to describe people in three different states.  First, the word is used to describe a person who had been literally flayed and mangled to death in some tragic way.  (pic). Jesus looked around him and saw spiritually tragic and emotionally damaged people.  Walking corpses.  Life had dealt them a blow, seemingly beyond recovery.

Or, maybe it was a slower process, as John Killinger wrote about in one of his books, titled, Christ In The Seasons Of Ministry."  (pic). In that book Killinger described being distressed as, "life in the piranha bowl."  It's where people, or situations, or life in general, always seems to be taking little pieces of you.  A little bite here and a little bite there.  Pretty soon we feel like nothing is left except a red stain in the water.

A second way this word, "distressed," is used in the Bible is when it describes someone who is plundered by predatorily evil people.  (pic). It describes the state of the man who was jumped and robbed and beaten in Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan.  Jesus looked around at those to whom he preached and ministered and saw a people who had been attacked by the worst the world has to offer.  That they had been robbed of something precious in their lives—maybe even of life itself.

A third way this word is used is to describe someone who is wearied by a journey which seems to know no end.  In a previous church, I was counseling a young couple.  Life had been hard on this couple, not long married.  The wife mentioned she had seen a copy of the book, Tough Times Never Last, But Tough People Do."  It had been almost a year since she finished reading that book, and she was still waiting for the "tough times" to end.

Jesus, looking at and listening to people, describes them as those who have been wearied by their circumstances in life.  Jesus is sensitively and intuitively hearing their wondering if it's ever going to end.

All of these three uses of the term "distressed" help us get a clearer picture of Jesus' description of what he saw etched on the faces and lives of people.

But that's not all.  Jesus used another word as he looked upon the people during his journeys.  He described them as "downcast."  (pic). Again, there is more to this word than meets the eye.  It is a word that is used to describe the person who has literally been thrown down to the ground, stepped on, and laid out flat, usually with mortal wounds.

Just last year, at least eight people were killed and 28 were injured in a stampede over food aid, held by a church group in Zambia's capital, Lusaka.  Imagine people so hungry that they caused injury and death running over each other for food.  Not even knowing—or did they—that they were trampling others bodies.

Even when taken figuratively, as Jesus intended, it is still a powerful word and image that portrays a person under the weight of an utterly destructive force, unable to even stand up or protect themselves.

By using these two words—distressed and downcast—Jesus' imagery paints the picture of a people being neglected by those who could help.  Those two words portray people as being tormented and almost totally exhausted by life—even to the point of death.  As Jesus looked out over the throngs of faces, he lifted his eyes toward heaven, praying to the Father God, "Where are the people who will give of themselves to these hurting others?  How can others not see, and let these distressed and downcast go for so long?"

In reaction to the great need, Christians and Christian organizations have reacted in one of three ways.  The first is the ambulance.  That style of ministry to the distressed and downcast has been to pick people out of the gutter when they've already been run over by life and/or their choices.

Mother Teresa, now a Saint in the Catholic Church, ran a whole ministry to the distressed not only in Calcutta, India, but around the world.  Much of her ministry—the Sisters of Charity ministry—was basically of the ambulance kind.  (pic).

In her book, No Greater Love, Mother Teresa wrote:

In twenty-five years, we have picked up more than thirty-six thousand people from the streets and more than eighteen thousand have died a most beautiful death.  When we pick them up from the street we give them a plate of rice.  In no time we revive them.  A few nights ago we picked up four people.  One was in a most terrible condition, covered with wounds, full of maggots.  I told the sisters that I would take care of her while they attended to the other three.  I really did all that my love could do for her.  I put her in bed and then she took hold of my hand.  She had such a beautiful smile on her face and she said only, "Thank you."  Then she died.  There was a greatness of love.  She was hungry for love, and she received love before she died.  She spoke only two words, but her understanding love was expressed in those two words.

That's the ambulance form of Christian compassion.  It's waiting at the bottom of the cliffs, because one way or another people will go over the edge, turning their hurt into the tragic.

(pic). The firefighter form of Christian compassion, is also a waiting at the bottom of the cliffs.  But with a safety net—something to catch those who go over the edge.  Not letting them hit the rocks below, so you can only read them their last rites.

Remember in my opening illustration, about Irene Webster Smith, how she tried the firefighter approach.  She caught so many young women who were throwing themselves out of the burning building of peddling themselves for sex.  The only problem, as she found out, was that once the girls and young women got cleaned up, and healed of any STD's, back they'd go into the burning building.  Only to repeat the cycle of having to hurl themselves out the window again, be caught again, cleaned up again, going back again.   It's frustrating for those who are called to the compassionate Christian role of firefighter.

The fence building form of Christian compassion is probably the hardest of all.  It is so because it's an ongoing commitment of preventing people from ever needing the ambulance or the firefighter.  If need be, you can take a break from being the ambulance or firefighter.  But like Irene Smith, once you start taking in baby girls, you are in it for the long haul.

All three forms of Christian compassion are vital and necessary.  They take special gifts, so you have to assess where you would fit in best.  As Jesus looked around at the crowds that day, he was asking, "Where are my ambulances?  Where are my firefighters?  Where are my fence builders?

We need to be ready with an answer as to which of those roles we can fulfill the best.

We are not going to see the kinds of distressed and downcast people like a Mother Teresa would see.  But you walk by people every day who are suffering with loneliness, depression, and grief.  You ask them how they're doing and they reply, "Fine."  You may be one of those people yourself.  Deep down, you, or they, might just be yearning that someone would notice them.

Jesus does.  Jesus notices all the hurting people.  But wouldn't it be great to be one of those who notice like Jesus does.  To be able to approach someone and say, "Jesus notices you're not doing well right now.  And I notice, too."  Then, do something.  Like Mother Teresa said, people are hungry for love.  Be ready to pick them up off the rocks below the cliffs, to catch them jumping out of the building of their burning lives, to build the protection around people that would keep them from needing an ambulance or safety net in the first place.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Before And After

"Before And After"
1 Corinthians 12:12

If our television shows are any indication, we are currently enamored with pictures of before and after.  There have been shows like 10 Years Younger, What Not To Wear, and The Biggest Loser that show us what our bodies and our selves can look like before and after a makeover.  There have been shows like Extreme Home Makeover, Trading Spaces, and Flip That House, that demonstrate what your home and landscape can look like before and after.

We evidently like to see those kinds of sensational transformations unfold before our eyes.  “It’s amazing what people can do,” we think to ourselves.  “It’s mind-boggling the kinds of changes people make to their bodies, their looks, their homes,” we continue in our thoughts.  And then comes the wall in a word:  “But, I don’t think I could do that.”  It’s that little word, “but,” that makes all the difference when we try to imagine those same kinds of changes being made in our lives.  We enjoy watching it happen to others, and we kind of live our lives, imaginatively, through what we are watching; but, we never make the personal jump and imagine it happening to us.  Could a before-and-after transformation really happen, in any shape or form, in our lives?  We have all kinds of reasons and excuses why it would never happen to us, don’t we?

I always have a question, though, when I watched shows like that.  The people on those shows, who have had a before and after transformation, all say, “This has changed my life.”  But that’s my question.  Has it really changed their lives?  Has putting on new and different clothes, has losing 100 pounds, has a new hair style, or a skin peel, or even getting a new home, totally and substantively changed the people from one kind of person to a new kind of person?  Has dealing with a person’s exterior done anything to the kind of person they are?  Has it changed their character?  Has it changed their personality?  Has it changed their sense of self?  I don’t know those kinds of answers.  Those shows never dealt with those kinds of questions.

That would be some kind of show to watch, wouldn’t it?  Extreme Personality Makeover.  Or maybe a show title like Major Life Overhaul.  That would be something to see.  Is that kind of internal change of self possible?  If it was, would you do it?

In his letter to the Corinthian Christians, Paul says that just such a life overhaul is possible.  This kind of life change isn’t done by some “glam squad” on a TV show.  It isn’t done by a contractor who builds new houses.  For Paul, and the whole New Testament for that matter, this kind of 180 degree change of the self can only be effected by the Holy Spirit.  In one verse here in chapter 12, Paul gives us one of those before-and-after pictures that is not only intriguing and amazing, it is doable for anyone.  Let me read that verse once again, and then I’ll break it down into this amazing before-and-after transformation:

By means of his one Spirit
we all said goodbye to our
piecemeal lives.
We each used to
call our own shots;
then we entered into a
integrated life
in which
the Holy Spirit has the final say
in everything.

Did you notice there’s a “but” right in the middle of that verse?  I’m going to deal with that but at the end of the message.  That but is the major change word in this verse.  So let’s hold on to the but, and deal with it at the end.

What I want you to notice is that there are three parts of a person’s character on each side of the but in this verse.  On one side of the but is the before picture.  On the other side of the but there is the after picture.

Paul says on the before side, our living looks partial, piecemeal, and we are calling our own shots.  On the after side, our living looks larger, integrated, and the Holy Spirit has the final say.  Notice how each of the three characteristics on each side correspond to each other:  partial living vs. living large; piecemeal living vs. living integrated; calling your own shots vs. the Holy Spirit having the final say in everything.  Let’s look at those two very different kinds of living in detail.

First, partial living vs. living large.  Partial living creates a feeling in us that we are incomplete.  Nothing feels whole.  Another way of putting it would be, living small, or living a small life.  When I was in seminary, my New Testament professor defined heresy as, “making a part the whole.”  So, living small, would be like living a heresy.  It would be coming at life, zeroing in on only a small part of it, and then falsely making the assumption that this small part of life is really the whole of what can be grasped.  It’s like taking only a small part of the life of God, and living out of that smallness, while at the same time missing out on so much more.  Living small, or living partial, means becoming too easily and too quickly satisfied with so little of what is available to make a great life.

I think there are times when God uses that feeling we have that something is missing, that we are incomplete, that we just aren’t whole, to give us a hunger to look for that which will change our partial into wholeness.  In that search, God hopes we will find Him.

As I was thinking about how people live small, partial lives, I came up with the image of a supermarket.  Let’s imagine there’s a supermarket called, “The Holy Spirit’s Life Store.”  Rows and rows, shelf upon shelf of life.  But instead of getting a shopping cart when we enter, or one of those huge pallet carts like at COSTCO, we get a little hand basket.  We wander up and down the aisles for hours and put 2 or 3 little things in our hand basket, go to the register to check out, get our items bagged, get out our wallet to pay, and are told by the Holy Spirit (who is the cashier), “No charge!  It’s all free!”  And we think to ourselves as we walk out with our little bag, “Wow! I could have gotten a lot more.”

Or it would be like running into that same life store, looking at all the things on the shelves and saying to ourselves, “I can’t possibly afford anything like this,” and walking out with nothing, not realizing it was all free.

And it’s not just stuff in the Holy Spirit’s Life Store.  There are aisles filled with values.  There are shelves of characteristics.  There are displays of outlooks.  There are cases of new dreams.  Tables loaded with attitudes.  There are baskets full of fresh insights.  There are packages of emotions.  Cartons of ideas.  There are fresh-baked and tantalizing prospects.  Racks of new angles.  Piles of opportunities.

At different stages of our lives we need different things.  We would shop differently at the Life Store as we age.  Pieces we were missing that made us feel small and partial when we were younger, or at mid-life are different.  Old age creates even different needs, and we shop a different part of the Life Store then.  Pieces we didn’t even think or worry about at one stage become vital at another.

Don’t we get so tired of a life lived only partially?  We have talked and walked ourselves into that kind of living, though.   Paul says the Holy Spirit wants to talk us out of it.  The after picture of the Holy Spirit is a shopping spree in God’s Life Store, opening our eyes not only to the ways we have chosen to live small, but the after picture of a large life offered freely to us, with so many more choices than we could have imagined.

Living large, as the Holy Spirit wants us to, means understanding and seeing the extent of all that God is, all that God has to offer in terms of relationship and life.  It’s going into The Holy Spirit’s Life Store and using God’s “But” card.  It’s saying to ourselves, “I used to spend myself buying into this kind of life, BUT, I can make a change and get this instead.  I can live much larger; I can live a life that is whole and full.  And I can afford it.

The second before and after picture has to do with living piecemeal vs. living integrated.  Living piecemeal means that you are living your life in pieces.  Each part is segmented, and is kept apart from all the others.  It’s not allowing any overlap or interchange between all the segments of your life.

You have a part of you that contains your marriage, another part that contains your job, another part that contains your church life, another part that has to do with your relationship with God (because that can be entirely different than your church life), a part that holds your social life, a segment for yourself as a parent or grandparent, a segment for education, and on and on.  Each compartment is totally separate.  When you are in a certain compartment, you may have a totally separate mode of being.  It’s like we have created a different personage and way of being for each segment, so that we only know how to act a certain way when we’re in that compartment of our lives.

I did a personality profile with young couples at a retreat.  I had the couples take the profile twice: once for how they saw themselves, and again for how they saw their spouse.  Then we compared how they saw themselves with how their spouse saw them.  One couple was baffled because he saw himself one way, but she saw him the exact opposite.  The more we talked we finally realized he took the test as he saw himself at work; she described him as she saw him at home and with the family.  He had compartmentalized his life and had developed two very different ways of being in those two separate compartments.

The after picture, with the Holy Spirit’s help, is to live an integrated life.  Living in the Holy Spirit’s after picture means recognizing that organizing ourselves into compartments is just a control game.  It not only keeps us in individual compartments, but it is also our attempt at controlling and keeping everyone else in their place.  It is our unintegrated way of keeping others in our control, only allowing them in certain segments of our life.  We assume that we are in control of those compartments, especially as that means who gets to move in and out of them.

The major problem with living piecemeal and unintegrated lives, trying to have that kind of control is that we quickly assume we can do the same with God.  We can keep God in our “church” compartment, or in our “spiritual life” compartment, and not allow God into other areas of our lives, like work, family, marriage, etc.

What the Holy Spirit does for us, in creating an integrated life, which is the after picture, is to kick the walls down of our compartments and fragmented lives.  The Holy Spirit wishes us to integrate all the compartments of our lives, so that they all inform each other, all intersect with each other in some way, all interact with each other.  Most importantly, by living an integrated life, we are taking control away from ourselves and allowing God to roam freely and speak openly to all parts of our lives.  Isn’t it interesting that the word integrated and the word integrity come from the same word.  To live an integrated, non-segmented life is to live a life of integrity where nothing is hidden, and nothing goes uninformed by God, and everything is one whole.

The final piece of the before-and-after picture really ties the first two together:  living  independently, calling your own shots vs. living with God’s Spirit having the final say in all things.  When we look at the way the church at Corinth was, we see how this part of the before and after picture is played out.

The people of Corinth generally had a reputation in the ancient world as an unruly, hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous bunch of people.  They brought these characteristics right into the church.  The Corinthian converts simply took their “calling their own shots” kind of lives into the church and spiritualized it, rather than allowing their faith to help them rise above their lifestyles.

For example, in the church at Corinth there was a man who was sleeping with his mother.  Sounds like a segment for a Jerry Springer show.  Pot luck suppers became food orgies at which the poor were left out.  Spiritual gifts were only used as ways to decide who was cool and who wasn’t, who was in and who was out.  The rich snubbed the poor, the charismatics snubbed the traditionalists; each faction said it was the best:  one faction followed Paul, another faction followed Apollos (because he really knew how to preach), and yet another faction of purists said they were the best because they only followed Jesus.

It was a mess, and it was all brought about because people wanted to call their own shots.  Paul was in Corinth a year and a half, trying to hold that church together, and I think one of the happiest days of his life was when he finally walked out of town.  The problem with living a life in which you think you get to call your own shots is that it ends up making all of life factional and schismatic.  It destroys all your relationships, it destroys the church, and everyone ends up getting hurt in the end.

The “after” part of this picture is living in which God’s Spirit has the control.  It is living a life that allows the Spirit of God to have the final say in our lives.  Whenever schisms happen between two people or two groups of people, neither party wants to feel like they’ve given up or lost control and power.  Control and power is all about living to and for the self.  It sets up a win-lose situation.

So, in order for something new to happen, it’s not a matter of one side giving in to the other.  It’s more a matter of both sides giving up, and giving in to that which is bigger than both of them; which is, God’s Spirit.  It’s not a matter of one side having their self-inflated say over the other side.  It’s more about both giving up their say, and giving that say over to God.  The after picture is a picture of losing in order to ultimately win.  It’s a matter of giving into God, so that we can then give in to each other, and create an entirely different kind of relationship.

The question we need to ask ourselves, as we look at this before-and-after picture that Paul has drawn for us, is the same question I ask myself when I watch those before and after shows:  Can the Spirit of God fundamentally change who a person is?  Can you really become a different person?  Is a 180 degree life switch possible?

And, is this possible not just for individuals, but for a congregation as well?  Can a church move from living out of a small, partial vision of itself, to living large?  Can a congregation move from living a piecemeal, fragmented existence, to a whole and integrated kind of ministry?  Can a church move from calling it’s own shots, to letting God’s Spirit have the lead and take control?  Can a congregation move from a before picture to an after picture, and thus becoming founded upon and working out of a Godly sense of integrity?

I firmly believe that the answer to all these questions is a big, YES!  That’s what the but is all about in the middle of this verse.  The word but signals to us that something new can, will, and is about to happen.  That we lived one way, but an exception is being made so that we can live an entirely different way.  The word but is a word of grace that erases what is past, so that we can live into a new vision of self and church.  Paul says we can all say “goodbye” to that before picture, and looking into the mirror of the Holy Spirit, catch a glimpse of the after picture and say, “Wow!  What a difference!”

Monday, May 29, 2017

Living Like Jesus Prayed

"Living Like Jesus Prayed"
John 17:1-11

In John's gospel, this prayer in the 17th chapter, is the last prayer Jesus makes.  In the other gospels, Jesus prays his last prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.  No one knows what Jesus said entirely in that garden prayer—the disciples kept falling asleep.

But in the gospel of John, there is no account of the Garden of Gethsemane prayer.  Just this long one in chapter 17.  The last thing Jesus said to his disciples was actually a prayer to God.  But it was a prayer heard by all the disciples, and it was a significant enough prayer to them that they wrote it down.

In this prayer, Jesus talked to God about five basic ways he hoped the disciples would carry on in the task they would have when Jesus left them.  These five themes make up a great short list for we believers in living out our witness.


The first theme Jesus prays for is that the Son (that is, himself) be glorified.  When Jesus asked that he be glorified, he was asking to be more than honored.  Honoring someone is a lot less than being glorified.

Being glorified meant that the invisible identity of God's divine splendor, power and radiance would be made visible in Jesus.  Before the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, the glory of God was not plainly visible in Jesus.  If it was, he wouldn't have been rejected and crucified.  Jesus knew that his time had come.  With his death and Resurrection, everyone would see unmistakably who Jesus was.

Whitworth College, where I attended, had a library.  At least I think it did.  Let's just say if you were given frequent flyer miles for the amount of time spent there, I wouldn't have earned any free trips or even an upgrade.

The only thing I really remember about Whitworth's library was a picture.  It took up the better part of a wall once you got inside the front door.  It didn't look like a normal painting.  It was black and white, and what it looked like was a huge conglomeration of Guernsey dairy cattle markings and shapes.  I ignored it most of the time, because I couldn't see any rhyme or reason to it.  I had no idea why the mural was there.  I asked the librarian about it one time and she would only say, "Keep looking at it; you'll see."

Then one day I saw it.  I wasn't even in the library.  I was outside on the sidewalk talking with some friends.  I happened to glance through the glass doors, see the shapes, and it all suddenly was clear.  It was the face of Christ.  I didn't know why I didn't see it before.  There he was, all the time, and I couldn't even see it—see him.

That, in a way, is what Christ prayed for, asking to be glorified.  He wanted people to see him, once and for all, for who he really was—the divine Son of God.  People had spent at least three years looking and looking at him and not seeing.  Now it was time that they saw his true glory.

In a Time magazine article from several years back, the cover article was the question, "Who Was Jesus?"  What caught my eye about that title was the past tense, as if Jesus was someone but isn't anymore.

In the article, four possible answers were given to that headline question.  Jesus was either an "itinerant sage," a "hellenistic cynic," an "apocalyptic prophet," or, an "inspired rabbi."  Notice what was left out of that list.  None of the answers included the "glorified Son of God," the one with the visible identity and radiance of God himself.

If we are going to live like Jesus prayed, then first and foremost, we must recognize Jesus for who he really is—present tense.  If we don't get this point of his prayer right, all the other themes of his prayer go mute.  What Jesus wants in the first place is that we would all see the unmistakable divine connection between himself and God.


The second theme Jesus prays for is that each of his followers would receive eternal life.  Jesus knew that there was a question that every person asks in their heart of hearts.  It is a question that has probably been put there by God himself—a question that draws us all towards him.

It is the question that the great Presbyterian preacher of the early 1900's, Clarence Macartney, illustrated as he was on a walking tour of Norway.  It was a bright July day.  He sat at the top of a low hill overlooking a village which was but a cluster of cottages.  Most of the people of the village were gathered outside the door of one of those cottages.

Then a group of men came out of the house carrying a crude coffin.  It was laid on the flatbed of a low wagon, and the procession started for the road.  Down the steep hill rumbled the wagon, followed by the company of mourners.  At the foot of the hill, they took a road which led them through fields of sweet new-mown hay.  After a pause at the gate of the churchyard, they came to the doorway of the gleaming white-steepled church.

The coffin was carried into the church, and in the space of a half hour they came out again into the clear sunlight and gathered around the freshly, hand-dug grave.  For a little time there was a holy quieting that brooded over the fields of hay and the silver fjord beyond.  Then the company broke up and went their several ways.

As the people came slowly up the hill again, Macartney said the question on his own mind, and must have been in the minds of those faithful folk, formed itself into a poem that he wrote in his journal as he sat there:

One question, more than all others,
From thoughtful minds implores reply,
It is, as breathed from star and pall,
What fate awaits us when we die?

Jesus, in his final prayer wanted to answer that question for all disciples and all time.  Eternal life awaits those who have known and believed in Jesus as the Son of God.


Thirdly, Jesus prayed that he had finished the work God had given him to do.  What a great feeling it must have been to look back over his short life and saw his life's purpose accomplished.  Henry Ford once said, "You can't build your reputation on what you're going to do."  Jesus' reputation had been built solidly on knowing what God's purpose for him was, and then setting out with a single-mindedness to accomplish that purpose.

Gian-Carlo Menotti, the composer of the musical, "Amahl and the Night Visitors," once said,
Hell begins on that day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts we wasted, of all that we might have done but did not do.

What Jesus prayed, and therefore what our task becomes in order to live fully, is to know clearly what it is that God has for us, and what his purpose for our lives is, and then accomplish that.  It is in bringing our purpose to completion that gives us that great feeling of accomplishment when our life on earth is over.

In baseball, victory is determined not by hits but by runs.  The player who gets to third base and no further doesn't get credit for three-quarters of a run.  And so, with Jesus, one of the last things he said on the Cross was, "It is finished (or accomplished)."  Jesus didn't say, "I almost got it done."


The fourth theme Jesus prays is that he had made God's name known to those God had given him.  Notice what Jesus said there.  He didn't say he had made God's name known to the whole world.  He had only made God's name known to the people whom God had led his way.

Count Zinzendorf was part of a Lutheran splinter group called the Moravians, back in the early 1700's.  The Moravians were known for their zeal for missions, and spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Count Zinzendorf once told a group of mission volunteers who were being commissioned,
You are not to aim at the conversion of whole nations.  You must simply look for seekers after truth who, like the Ethiopian eunuch (in Acts chapter 8), seem ready to welcome the gospel.

Thus, the Moravian missionaries didn't go out with exaggerated or unrealistic expectations.  They simply and forcefully shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with those individuals and small groups God gave them.

That's what Jesus prayed and is how we are to live.  We aren't expected to transform the whole world for Christ.  But we are responsible for those God has given us.


And lastly, Jesus prayed, as he was leaving this world, for those who would remain in the world.  Jesus was going to be with the heavenly Father God.  But his disciples and followers would be left behind in a world that crucified him.  Jesus knew it was going to be tough living in such a world.  The reality is, the world is a hostile place for those of us who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

The Bible's message seems to be this message.  From the Garden of Eden when the deceitful serpent appeared, to Moses negotiating with Pharaoh, to Abraham and Lot dealing with the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the prophets preaching against the secularization and the compromising of religion, to the Crucifixion of Jesus, all the way to the final overthrow of evil in the book of Revelation, the one theme is this world has become so corrupt that it is an extremely difficult place for those faithful to God.

Jesus knew his followers would need special protection from God if they were to go on without him.  So that is what he prayed for.  If Jesus prayed for it, you know he got what he prayed for.  Thus, we are to live as Jesus prayed—which means we are to live in this hostile world knowing we are under the protection of God Almighty. Knowing that, we can be bold and courageous in our discipleship.  As it says in the book of Hebrews, "So we can take courage and say, 'The Lord is my helper, I will not fear; what can man do to me?'" (Hebrews 13:6).

So these are the five themes Jesus prayed for in his final prayer before his death:  glorify the Son, Jesus Christ; live life now with the joy of knowing you have eternal life; finish the work God has given you to do; make God's name known to those whom God has brought into your life; and, live as a fearless disciple, under God's ever watchful protection.