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.

Monday, May 7, 2018


1 John 5:1-5

At the Battle of Shiloh, during the Civil War, where Johnston tried to push Grant into the Tennessee River, there was nothing but victory and enthusiasm for the Confederates on the first day.  Yet, Henry M. Stanley, a correspondent wrote this view of the day:

It was the first Field of Glory I had seen in my May of life, and the first time that Glory sickened me with its repulsive aspect and made me suspect it was all a glittering lie.  My thoughts reverted to the time when these festering bodies were idolized objects of their mother’s passionate love, their father’s standing by, half fearing to touch the fragile things, and the wings of civil law outspread to protect parents and children in their family loves, their coming and going followed with pride and praise, and the blessing of the Almighty overshadowing all.

Then, as they were nearing manhood, through some strange warp of society, men in authority summoned them from school and shop, field and farms, to meet in the weeds in a Sunday morning for mutual butchery with the deadliest instruments ever invented.  Civil Law, Religion, Morality all complaisantly stood aside while 90,000 young men who had been preached and moralized to for years were let loose to engage in the carnival of slaughter.

War is brutal and ugly and devastating.  Most of the men and women I’ve met and known who fought in one war or another, don’t want to talk about it.  Won’t talk about it.  They resist with passionate strength from remembering and calling forth the images of the horrors they witnessed.

Some of us by luck or by fate or by high lottery number weren’t called up for military service, and therefore were spared such nightmares, exempted from serving in the military.

But regardless of who you are, there is one Great War that is being fought, generation after generation.  It is a war that started in the Garden of Eden.  In this terrible war, none are exempted from service.  All are drafted and everyone must serve.

Further, if you are wounded in this battle, you must fight on with no reprieve.  It doesn’t matter how long you have served or waged resistance in the battle, you must fight on.  No one is ever allowed to retire with a chest of medals in this war.  The writer of Ecclesiastes stated, “There is no escape in this time of war, and no one can hide from its evil” (8:8).  The child who was just born and the person who just turned 90 must fight side-by-side in the ranks.

Some who fight are but raw recruits.  All they know about the battle is the manual in their hands and the theory of how their weapons work.  Their banners are unworn and their uniforms are new and unstained with blood or dirt.

But others are in the forefront of the hottest fighting, giving and receiving a multitude of wounds and blows, with no thought and no sound but that of the war and the conflict.

Still others are near the end of the fight, bearing the scars of many conflicts, and soon for them will sound the trumpet taps of release and recall.

John wasn’t the first to describe life as a battle that we all find ourselves waging.   But John and the whole New Testament are strong to say that we can win the battle.  “Every child of God can defeat the world, and our faith is what gives us the victory.”  Think of what that single statement of John assumes.  It assumes that we as God’s children can defeat the world.  But it also means the world is the enemy.  The world is something that needs to be defeated.  The opposite assumption also becomes true:  If we can defeat the world, the world as our enemy can defeat us.

The main question I asked myself, as I pondered these verses this week, is, What do these verses assume?  There are a lot of assumptions behind John's statements about conquering the world.

The first assumption is that there are the world's ways and there is God's way.  The Message translation uses the phrase, "the world's ways."  Other translations simply use the word, "world."  So the assumption of John is that there is "the world" and there is something else.  There are the ways of the world, as the Message has it, and along with that is the further assumption that there is some other way.

The first question we must ask ourselves is, what does John mean by "the world" or, "the world's ways"?  We have to be clear on this because John is telling us that it (the world or the world's ways) should be conquered or overcome.  So, we need to be as clear as possible about what it is we are to conquer.

The reason we have to be clear about it is because God created the world and everything in it, from the stars and the skies all the way down to the depths of the seas.  When God was done creating it all, including human beings, God called it "very good."  What is John referring to, then, when he writes about the world or the world's ways?

The word in Greek that John uses for the word world is kosmos.  The kosmos is not just the world, but the harmonious arrangement of that world.  It's how the world has been put together in such an order as to work perfectly together.

The kosmos is also the whole circle of earthly things:  endowments, riches, advantages, good pleasures.  Two bad things can happen with all that.  First, there are factions in the world that are working hard to undo God's harmonious arrangement of the world.  There is an attempt to dismantle that order so things don't work together as they should.  That’s one of the things John means by the world.

And secondly, even though the endowments, riches, advantages and good pleasures are basically hollow, frail and fleeting, they still seduce people away from God, becoming obstacles to the godly life.  For example, riches or wealth or money is basically amoral.  That is, money has no inherent morality of its own.  It's what we do with our wealth that then dresses that money up in morality or immorality.  Same goes with advantages, and pleasure.  That’s the other thing John is meaning when he says the world.

The question John is forcing us to ask is on the personal level.  John isn't talking philosophy here.  John is asking, what is it about the world or the world's ways that are hardest on you?  How are you fighting to uphold God's harmonious arrangement of the world?  How are you making sure that you see the endowments, riches, advantages, and good pleasures you are enjoying as gifts from God, and not things you think you deserve and end up craving more and more to the point of allowing them to control your life?

Next is the word conquer.  There are a number of assumptions concerning this word as well.  To conquer means to prevail, to have supremacy over something or someone.  Conquering doesn't mean passive living.  It doesn't mean just shuffling through life or just taking life as it comes.

In order for there to be a conquering victory, somebody or something wins and somebody or something loses.  It means there is a battle.  And it means there is no sidelines to that battle where people can leisurely sit on their folding chairs and watch.

John assumes that it is the world, or the world's ways, that need to be defeated.  He assumes we are in a battle, and the world is our adversary.  If the world's ways are to be conquered, that assumes we are not to give it any room.  If the world's ways are to be defeated, that assumes those ways are not supposed to be or become our ways.

The battle involves two strategies, one defensive, one offensive.  Defensively we are to keep from being defeated by the world.  The world is bent on not just infiltrating our lives, not just finding the chinks in our armor, but bowling us over with its bravado and power.  The world is manipulative and tricky.  Therefore, our defenses must never let down or let up.

The battle involves the offensive strategy, as well.  We are not only to stand our ground and protect ourselves, we are to push the battle line further on.  We aren’t, as Christians, trained just in self-defense.  We are to be offensive to the point of pushing for victory.  We are ultimately able to defeat the world.

Some of the soldiers of the army of the Potomac were being interviewed by a correspondent.  These soldiers were in the Battle of Gettysburg, and had taken part in the famous march from Manchester to Gettysburg.  Many of the soldiers said that march, with the clouds of dust, the perspiration mixed with blood trickling down into their boots, their aching limbs, was the hardest experience of their war service.

A large part of the battle against the world may simply be the march, the endurance of putting one step in front of the other, more so than any battle.  The battle against the world is a test, not only of immediate courage, but also a test of endurance.  Many have given up, not at the battles along the way, but during the long march between the battles.  Some have gone only part way and quit.  Some have given up or given in.  Some have stopped too long to rest and became side-tracked, until the powers of the world caught up to them, and easily overcame them.

There is only one way, says John, that we will be able to defeat the world:  “No one can defeat the world without having faith in Jesus as the Son of God” (5:5).

Faith is a great word.  In the Greek John wrote in, faith means persuasion—a total persuasion of the things that you believe.  Faith means conviction—having a complete conviction of the truth of God and God’s ways.  Faith means reliance—reliance upon Christ and Christ alone.  Persuasion.  Conviction.  Reliance.

Faith is the weapon by which we overcome the world.  In Ephesians (6:16), in describing the whole armor of God, Paul wrote:  “Pick up the shield of faith.  With it you can put out all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”  So, our shield in the battle with the world and the evil one is our faith.  That shield is made out of the metal of our conviction of the truth of God.  The thickness of the metal of our shield is determined by how much we are persuaded by that truth.  The strength of the handhold, behind the shield, is determined by the depth of our reliance upon Christ.

Those three qualities of faith that go along with the shield (conviction, persuasion, and reliance) are forged in battle after battle after battle.  We cannot grow our conviction, persuasion, or reliance upon God and Christ sitting on the sidelines watching others in the battle.  At some point we need to stand up and march in.

A soldier in the army of Alexander the Great was not acting bravely in battle.  When he should have been joining the battle and pressing ahead, he was lingering behind.  The great general approached him and asked, “What is your name, soldier?”
The man replied, “My name, sir, is Alexander.”
The general looked at him straight in the eyes and said firmly, “Soldier, get in there and fight, or change your name!”

Alexander wanted his name to be a symbol of courage and valor.  So it is with the name of Christ.  As Christians, we take his name with us into our battle against the world.  As Christians in the battle, you are to either resist and fight with valor, or you should change your name.  But know this:  if you fight with faith in Christ as your weapon, you will defeat the world.

I say to you, despite the horrors you may see in this battle with the world, fight on with Christ as your goal, with Christ as your name, and with faith in Christ as your shield.  And we will overcome.

Monday, April 30, 2018

All You Need Is Love

"All You Need Is Love"
1 John 4:7-21

Most of the advice we get about love comes from an odd source.  People may check out self-help books about love and loving, but that’s not the main place we find out about what love really is.  My guess is, most people find out what love is all about from the songs they listen to.

It used to be that poets and wandering bards were the ones who taught people, by their epic poetry, what true love is.  Now, the bards and poets have been replaced by song writers and lyricists.  It doesn’t matter if it’s country, pop, rap, or rock-and-roll.  All these song writers give us their take on love, what it means to be in love, what happens when love is torn apart, how to find love, the power of love, and on and on.  You may listen to it all day, while riding around in your car.  Whether you believe what you’re hearing, you are still being bombarded by so-called poetic experts about the subject of love.  Their words shape our current day understandings of love, which in my mind, sets us up for constant misery and frustration.

Pop diva, and star of her own Las Vegas stage show, Celine Dion, sang in her hit song, “Have You Ever Been In Love,”:

Have you ever been in love
You could touch the moonlight
When your heart is shooting stars
You’re holding heaven in your arms
Have you ever been so in love.

Have you ever walked on air
Ever felt like you were dreamin’
When you never thought it could
But it will, it feels that good
Have you ever been so in love.

Have you ever said a prayer
And found that it was answered
All my hopes have been restored
And I’m not looking anymore
Have you ever been so in love, have you.

Or, there is the classic Beatles song, from which I took my sermon title for this morning, “All You Need Is Love.”  It’s a silly song, totally weak on lyric quality, but somehow became a hit.  Part of this agonizingly repetitive song goes:

All you need is love, all you need is love
All you need is love, love, love is all you need.

And then, for all you cynics, who have been hurt by love and don’t think there’s any such thing, there is Tina Turner’s song, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”  The refrain of that song goes:

Oh what’s love got to do, got to do with it
What’s love but a second hand emotion
What’s love got to do, got to do with it
Who needs a heart
When a heart can be broken.

There’s a huge problem with the word love.  The problem is the weight of all the meanings that get heaped upon that one word, love.  As a kid, I caught a glimpse of the mystery of the many meanings of love.  While eating breakfast as a kid, my usual two or three bowls of some super sugary cereal, I might have said something like, “I love Lucky Charms.”  Then one of my brothers or sister would shoot back some sarcastic statement like, “Oh yeah; so what are going to do?  Marry it?”

So even as kids, we caught a glimpse of an understanding of how many ways we use the word love, and get all those uses mixed up together.  Think of how you might use the word love in the course of a day.
“I love that outfit.”
“I love that movie.”
“I love playing basketball.”
“I love that song.”
“I love you.”
“I love that book.”
“I love these cool mornings.”
“I love my grandkids.”

And on and on.  We use one word to describe a feeling we have for all kinds of things, people, and situations.  The word, love, collapses under the weight of so much usage and meanings.  In the dictionary, I counted no less than 18 meanings for the word love.  A word with so much meaning, used in so many ways, becomes not full of meaning, but meaningless.

So, my assumption is that most of you sitting here are a little mixed up, if not down right intimidated, by the word love.  When you were younger, you may have thought you knew what love meant, and what you meant when you used the word.  But now it’s a word awash in sentimentality that you’re not sure of.

And you have changed since you were younger.  You are a long history of human experiences.  Looking back, you’re not sure now what love is or what was the most loving thing to do in certain situations.

That’s why the words of John in this first letter are so important.  John clarifies for us what love is exactly.  By telling us what love is, John is at the same time telling us what it is not.  John strips the word love from all of its sappy sentiment, all of its cultural baggage.

John is on a mission, making his way into the jungle that has grown up around the singular altar of love.  He hacks away all the vines and foliage of meanings that have grown up around the word love.  Clearing the word away of all the overgrowth, John brings the word love back to a pristine and pure condition.

John takes the word love, and yanks it out of the world’s control.  He brings it back into the realm of God where it belongs, and where love finds its most authentic meaning.

The first thing John states in verse 7 is that “love comes from God.”  This statement alone clears away most of the overgrowth and rubbish that has covered over the core of what love is.  Most of us say things like, “I love you with all my heart.”  Or, “I love you with all that I am.”  We, all of us, have made a very basic error by thinking that love, real love, comes from the heart.  Comes from within us.  Comes from some place deep inside of us.

To think that love is generated from within us is what we have bought into.  But not John.  If love is a product of the human heart, then it comes from a center that is fickle, that is adulterous, that is full of lies, that is blown about by whim and desire.  To think that love is something that comes from deep within us is to acknowledge that that depth is often so shallow.  The depth of our love, if it comes from within us is, as C.S. Lewis once put it, more influenced by indigestion and a grizzly bit of beef than by anything else.

All of us know what kind and quality of love we produce when it comes from us.  We flux.  We flow.  Our feelings are up.  Then down.  We think we love a thing or person so much one day.  The next, after a hurtful argument, we wonder what the heck we were thinking.  We think that love is, like Celine Dion’s song, a touch of moonlight, shooting stars, or like a dream.  Then, another day, what we thought was love becomes a lightless darkness, the stars all fall out of the sky, and the dream is more a nightmare than anything else.  A month later, we’re back in the moonlight.

One of the great qualities of authentic love, says John, is its stability.  It’s a stability not founded in the human heart, but in the heart of God.  It’s the basis of love that we need to get right, says John.  If we don’t understand exactly where love comes from, if we get that wrong from the get-go, then we are going to be doomed to a whole lot of pain and misunderstanding in life.

If love comes from God, as John says it does, and if you are experiencing and feeling real love, what you are actually experiencing is a “relationship with God.”  It’s the relationship with God that has to come first.  John says, “You can’t know love if you don’t know God.”  Authentic love is based on an authentic relationship with God.  Knowing God is to know love.

The word, “to know,” that is used here in John’s letter, as well as elsewhere in the Bible, means not just knowing about someone or something.  I can know about some famous person, a movie star, or political figure.  I can read.  I can look them up on Wikipedia and find out all about them.  But that doesn’t mean I really know them.  I have no personal experience with them.  That’s what the word, “to know,” means in Greek.  It is to have deep and abiding personal experience with another person.  It describes having intimate knowledge of another person.  It’s not to just know about them, but to really know them.

That’s what John is saying authentic love is all about.  It’s not knowing about love.  It’s about knowing God—having an intimate relationship with God.  It’s knowing God in an ongoing and sustained relationship.  It’s wanting to get as close to God as you can.

The fascinating thing is that when you are developing that kind of intimate closeness with God, when you are going deeper and deeper into the heart of God, you are also, at the same time, going deeper and deeper into love.  Authentic love.

John goes on to state, “...not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he first loved us ... First we were loved, now we love.”  Our love, our best love is a response.  God is the initiator of love.  Once loved by God we respond to that love with love.  That’s how we learn about love.  God models it, shows us how, first.  We respond by loving God back in the same way God first loved us.  And we respond to God by loving others as God first loved us.

There is a Greek legend about the sculptor Pygmalion.  According to the legend, Pygmalion was one of the greatest sculptors in all of Greece.  His skill at forming women out of stone and ivory brought people from all around the world to witness his sculptures.

Even though he was a master at carving women, he vowed to himself that he would never fall in love.  He would never allow his heart to feel love.  He would remain single his whole life.

But out of one particular block of pure white ivory, he carved the most beautiful statue of a woman he had ever sculpted.  He named her Galatea, a name which means, “she who is milk white.”  The more he looked at her, the more he became enamored with her.  That infatuation beguiled Pygmalion, and grew into love.  It was like the more he loved the statue, the more it glowed.  He had fallen in love with his own piece of art—a statue, a thing with no real life of its own.

The more he loved it, the more the capacity to love grew in him.  Finally, he asked the gods for a wife that was like Galatea.  The gods granted his request, and instead of giving him a wife like Galatea, they made the statue Galatea come to life and become a real woman.

There are many beautiful paintings that have been made depicting the moment in this Greek legend when Galatea came to life and artwork and artist embraced for the first time.  It was as if all the love he had heaped upon the statue was somehow received and returned to the artist.  He first loved her, and that love brought her to life, and she returned his love.

It’s one of the great legends and love stories.  But it’s not as great as the true story of God’s first love for his creation, men and women.  Each and every day, God moves about amongst us, looking into each of our eyes, the eyes of his creation, and is more and more in love.  That love is heaped upon us, whether we are going through life statue-like or alive.

You can see it in Jesus Christ’s eyes as you read about him in the gospels, walking amongst so many people, now moving amongst us, and upon each person, Jesus looks with so much love.  Those who meet Jesus’ eyes, meet God’s eyes.  Those who meet God’s eyes, meet love’s eyes.  The more we look into God’s eyes of love, the more we love, the more we understand authentic love, the more we want to love, the more we want to give ourselves over to that love—to God himself, who first loved us.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Quit Being So Adultish

"Quit Being So Adultish"
1 John 3:1-3

When I was at the church up in Hickman, Nebraska, some kids were playing in the church.  Their moms were getting things set up for Vacation Bible School.  The kids were in and out of my office, grabbing root beer candies, drawing on my whiteboard, typing stuff on my computer while I was trying to write my sermon (I just left the stuff on there that they typed, so it would remind me of that day and what it means to be a kid).

They asked if I'd turn on the microphones in the sanctuary so they could sing.  I said, "Sure."  I didn't think twice.  After a few minutes of their singing, the secretary came storming into my office, and said with a slight smile on her face, "Why are you letting them do that!?  You know why?  Because you're just a kid like they are!"

It was one of the best compliments I've ever received.  I'm hoping she meant it as such.  I am a big kid.  I wanna be a big kid.  I wanna play and have fun in life.   Walt Disney said that he took it as a compliment that people said he had "not quite grown up."  So I'm in good company.  It’s part of who I am.

The believers John was writing to must have been confused about who they were.  It is kind of confusing, isn’t it, to know who we are as Christians.  It’s kind of sad that it’s so unclear.  There are so many “brands” of Christians.  It’s always been that way.  I’m not talking about denominations either.  I’m talking about all the little and large subgroups of Christians who say you have to believe this or that to be a “true” Christian. Or, in order to be an authentic Christian, you have to act a certain way, or vote a certain way, or believe a certain way.

There are charismatics.  There are contemplative or monastic Christians.  There are evangelicals.  There are orthodox.   There are those who are spiritual but not religious.  There are liturgical Christians.  There are even Christians who don’t call themselves Christian.  And on and on.

What is a congregation supposed to do if it has within itself, several of these different kinds of Christians who define themselves very differently?

It’s been a problem for a very long time.  Since the beginning of the Christian church.  When John wrote his letters, there were Gnostic Christians who believed that Jesus didn’t have a body.  They believed that anything physical, or that had to do with this world was tainted and evil.  Only the spiritual was real.

And there were Jewish Christians who said you have to follow all the Jewish laws in order to be a Christian.  You had to follow Jewish dietary regulations and, if a male, be circumcised in order to be a true Christian.  This group continues today under the classification of “Messianic Jews.”

How are we supposed to wade through all the self-definitions that Christians have used to try to figure out who we are and we’re supposed to be like?

I think it would be best to try to figure that out by how God sees us.  That’s what John is telling the believers in this part of his letter:  See yourself as God sees you and then live according to that.  Don’t define yourself.  It’s not up to you.  It’s up to God.  So, what does God say?

What God says, through this letter, is that God sees us as children.  But not just children generally.  God sees us as His children.  We are God’s children.  That, says John, is why people never pay any attention to us, or recognize who we are.  That’s the way the world has always treated children, as invisible, unimportant, and powerless.

People hardly ever pay attention to children.  Even parents give their second best (at best) to their own children.  Study after study has shown that fathers in particular spend an average of just five minutes a day giving their children significant, undistracted attention.  Children are supposed to be seen, not heard, as the axiom goes.  Children are treated as unimportant, unintelligent, and unworthy by most societies—not just American society.  Just look what happens when there’s a big family gathering.  Where do the kids sit?  And what’s the message those kids are getting by being segregated to the “kiddie table”?

Children, back when we were an agrarian society, contributed significantly to the family’s economy and well-being.  That’s one of the reasons couples had large families—to help out with all that needed to be done on the farm.

Now, in our modern, enlightened, progressive, technological society, children aren’t looked to as significant contributors to anything.  They are given no significant roles in the family that encourages their growth, self-esteem, or sense that they are really important to that family, or anyone in particular.

So, if God calls us children, and that’s what we are, if that’s how the world looks upon Christians, then it’s no wonder society doesn’t see the Christian gospel as having anything significant to say about life.  If we are God’s children, but we presume children are non-contributors, then we take the next logical step in our thinking, and presume we must not mean that much to God.  And what can children know, anyway?  They don’t know about the adult realities of life.

That’s even how the disciples treated children.  Mothers brought their children to see Jesus, to be blessed by him.  What do the disciples say?  “Shoo, shoo!  You mothers keeps your snotty-nosed, bratty, bothersome kids away from the Master.  He’s got better things to do than have to deal with your kids.  So keep them back.  Back ‘em up, back ‘em up!”

But notice what Jesus does.  He gets irate.  He blasts the disciples and says, “Don’t push these children away...These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom!  Mark this:  Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in” (Mark 10:13ff).  Jesus didn’t want the children to back away.  Jesus said, “Bring ‘em on!”

Why does Jesus emphasize this important quality of childlikeness for discipleship so often?  John did the same thing in his letters and in his gospel.  Maybe one of the reasons is that children, for the most part, are the only ones who are comfortable being who they are.  Children only know how to be one thing—children.  They never worry about issues of self-definition.  They are simply and beautifully comfortable being who and what they are—kids!

Watch how uninhibited children are at being children.  Look at Evelyn.  I love her spontaneity.  I love how she sometimes runs the circuit around the pews during worship.  How she comes up to me and pretends to shoot me and I fall back like she got me, and then she giggles.  How many of you adults would run around the pews during worship?  What happens to us?

Here’s another story from a number of years ago, when I was the pastor in Hickman, Nebraska.  I had a meeting with a group of Presbyterian pastors in Lincoln.  We were meeting at First Presbyterian Church in what they called, “The Great Hall.”

We were sitting around a huge set of square tables having a deeply ecclesiastical discussion of some kind or another.  Good friends of mine, Steve and Kim Nofel (who were both pastors in a little town near the little town where I lived) were sitting next to me.

They had brought Chuck, who at the time was almost two years old.  Chuck was running around the big empty part of the Great Hall as if the rest of us didn’t even exist.  Chuck was enjoying his own two year old world.  We pious and serious pastors were being held captive by the self-importance of our own discussion, which most assuredly must have been appropriate for the Great Hall.

All of a sudden, Chuck stopped running around and went, “pbbbbfffffffttttt!”  Ron Bump, the soon to be retired pastor of Southern Heights Presbyterian Church in Lincoln was there.  Now Ron, in my experience had always appeared to be a straight-laced, sober, and very Presbyterian kind of person.  Ron rose up in his chair, after hearing Chuck let loose, and interrupted our discussion and said, “You know there are times in worship, or at meetings, I wish I could just go, ‘pbbbbfffffftttttt!’”  We all broke out laughing, because we all knew exactly what he was saying.

What happens?  When do we stop being a kid?  Or when do we stop thinking being a child is not the right thing anymore?   You know when it happens?  It happens when we adults tell children that message.  We adults, we grown-ups, we who certainly have it all together, we in our adultish sophistication, tell children to stop being so childish.  After all, we learned it from our parents.  It must be right.  So we pass it on.

A little boy whispered to his father during church, "I have to go potty."  So the father took him by the hand and quietly led his boy down the aisle.  When they were almost to the back of the church, the little boy turned and shouted, "I'll be right back, God; I just have to go to the potty!"

Now we all laugh.  Isn't that cute.  How many of you adults would feel uninhibited enough to do that?  Why isn't it just as cute for an adult to do such a thing?  Well, an adult should know better.  It's just not proper.  Why is it proper, even cute, for a child to do such a thing?  Well, they don't know any better.  They haven't learned yet, so it's excusable.

Listen to those words:  "...haven't learned yet..."  Learned from who?  And, learned what?  Who gets to decide what's childish and what's adultish?  Who gets to decide what's proper and improper for how a grown-up is supposed to act?  Think about that.  There is no rule book out there that says, This is childish, and, This is not childish.  There is no person out there, whom we as society have given the power to decide what it is to act like a child and what it is to act like an adult.

But that’s not what God says.  That’s not what Jesus told the disciples.  “We’re children of God!  That’s who we really are,” says John.  We, as God’s children, are at the very center of the kingdom of God.

If we’re going to be comfortable with our identity as Christians, as that’s defined from God’s perspective, then we better become comfortable being a child and trusting God as our parent.  To be free as a child is to be all that children are:  sometimes flexible and adaptive, while at other times rigid and demanding; sometimes able to endure amazing trauma, while at other times whining about a nearly invisible scratch.

To be children means to know how to make a game out of any situation and have fun with life.  Like the boy who was standing next to the escalator hand railing.  His mother, who was nearby browsing, called him over to stand closer to her, and he yelled back, “Just a minute; I’m waiting for my gum to come back around.”

To be a child is to live life in an unselfconscious and uninhibited way.  The reason children can live so unselfconscious is because they have absolute trust in their parents.  The same thing happens spiritually.  If we have absolute trust in our Father God, then we can be totally free as a child of God.

Also, as adults, we worry so much what others think about us, how we dress, how we behave, etc. etc.  Alan Luttrell has what he calls the “18-40-60 rule.”  At age 18 life is about you and the mirror.  It’s about how you worry all the time about how you look, dress, etc.  The worry comes from what you think people are thinking about you.  At age 40 you come to decide that you don’t really care what others think about you.  At age 60 you finally figure out that other people were never really thinking about you at all.

Why can’t we get to that age 60 kind of thinking at an earlier age?  Why can’t we be like children?  Because, children just are.  They are content with who they are as children.  Each day is a new adventure.  And again, the reason that is all true is because of the absolute trust and confidence they have in their parents.  And for we believers, that means our absolute trust in the Father God.

Ellen Cantrow once wrote in a newspaper column,
Making the decision to have a child is momentous.  It is to decide forever to have your heart walking around outside your body.

I like that, especially when I think of our relationship to God as our parent and we as God’s children.  As God’s children, we are a piece of God’s heart walking around outside God’s being.  It gives me a tender picture of how God sees us and relates to us.  It tells me how important each of us is to God as a part of God’s heart—as God’s children.

So, when someone asks you, “Just who do you think you are?” you can reply, “Well, as a matter of fact I’m a child.  I’m one of God’s children!”  Then you can go, “ppbbbbbffffftttt”, and happily skip away.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Hate And Love

"Hate And Love"
1 John 2:9-11, 15-17

Where does hatred come from?

Psychologists believe hatred was developed in the human mind and heart back in the primitive caveman days of humankind.  Humans, sadly, had to develop the ability to quickly separate friend from enemy in order to survive.

Think about it.  When you meet someone for the first time, or you see someone you don’t know walking towards you, what does your mind do?  Whether you sense it or not, your mind goes on high alert.  You are checking the person out in all kinds of ways.  Their facial expression.  How they dress.  How they are walking and how they carry themselves.  You may think you are just doing a quick mental scan to judge them.  But all those basic prejudices you have developed and are using can be reduced down to two:  enemy or friend.  Whether you realize it or not, you are making that evaluation every time you meet someone, including those you already know.

So your mental assessment will do one of two things with your body:  tense you up and get you ready for combat, or relax you and get you ready for welcome.

We have learned, through hundreds of thousands of years, to make this quick assessment of others.  If we mistake an enemy for a friend, it could be fatal.  So, it is the theory that this primal judgement of determining who was an enemy formed the basis for the development of hate.  It was out of one’s constant alertness to a physical threat that hatred began—because hatred was one way to keep yourself alive or at least safe.

But today, many threats in our daily lives aren’t physical.  They are psychological.  With each person you meet, you aren’t having to quickly evaluate if they are going to attack or try to kill you or not (unless you lived in the Middle East).  Instead, you may be assessing if they are an emotional enemy—someone you’re not sure you can trust.  Or, wondering if they really have your best interest in mind.  Or, if they are just wanting information for the gossip mill in order to attack your character.  Your defenses don’t involve pulling out your sword, but instead putting on a face or demeanor that is sober and unreadable, while inwardly your emotions may be starting to boil into hate.

No matter which kind of threat we might be sensing, physical or psychological, there is that primitive impulse that wells up within us which seeks to destroy the threat.  We may not express it out loud, but we know our own thoughts.  The passions of hate come from deep within us, and from this nearly unconscious way we evaluate and think of others.

There are several features of how hate bubbles up from the way we think.

First, hate wants to assign blame for some kind of misfortune you may have experienced.  When bad things happen, or are happening to us, who do we hold responsible?  A majority of the time, we don’t blame ourselves.  Since we don’t like bad things to happen to us, or those we love, and since we quickly move to blame for the bad things that happen to us, we make those we blame into an enemy, and we hate them for it.

But that kind of hatred, which comes out in the form of blaming, is often based on bad thinking on our part.  For example, we may think we have to always be right, even when we are not.  It’s easier to blame an enemy and bubble up hatred, rather than do some deeper self-examination in order to figure out how we are involved in our own current condition.

Our thinking process doesn’t want to face the fact that there are almost always many causes that contribute towards all kinds of hate producing emotions.  A big piece of the truth that we may not want to see is that probably a majority share in the blame for escalation of our intense emotions and subsequent hatred lies within our own bad thinking.

And besides, there are some times it just may be unavoidable bad luck that happens to everyone.  Blame doesn’t rest on anyone in particular.  Instead of seeing how many sides there are to all situations, we would rather make it an us-against-them situation, lighting the match of hatred.

Secondly, we give rise to hatred out of a misguided effort to keep our group, our family, our circle of friendships, even our congregation, the “in-group,” while at the same time making everyone else the hated out-group.  As long as we are keeping ourselves in the in-group, we can find all kinds of reasons to see ourselves as superior.  This kind of discrimination goes back to our primitive ways of separating others into friends and enemies, loving only friends and hating the enemy to the point of desiring to grind them into the dust.  And we pass that hatred from generation to generation.

Thirdly, if we fall for the in-group/out-group kind of thinking, it’s a quick jump towards giving ourselves permission to destroy those who are hated.  If we see ourselves as victims to some evil other, some repulsive person or group of persons, this gives us a false sense of permission or power to do away with them, either by severe exclusion or death.

This means we are usually thinking of ourselves as the good people.  Then we label others as evil, or beastly, or dangerous for one reason or another.  We think we are protecting ourselves by denigrating others.  And that gives us the false permission to hate others and do them harm.  Or do them in, entirely.

I hope you are beginning to see that hate begins subtly, but can blossom into something unbelievably powerful and bad.  Hate is an awful virus.  It twists life and makes everything sideways.  It destroys relationships, including our healthy ones.  If you’re getting what I’m saying about hate clear in your minds, you can easily understand why John wrote in his letter that, “Anyone who claims to live in God’s light and hates a brother or sister is still in the dark.”

That’s why I think John wrote that “brother and sister” means, primarily, those within the communion of Christ’s fellowship.  But I also have the feeling that it doesn’t stop there with just the church.  Certainly Jesus’ view was much broader and more inclusive than any of us would like.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said,
This is what God does.  He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless:  the good and bad, the nice and nasty.  If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus?  Anybody can do that.  If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal?  Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.  In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up.  You’re kingdom subjects.  Now live like it.  Live out your God-created identity.  Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you” (Matthew 5:46-48).

What Jesus is doing is over-riding our primordial instinct to immediately judge if another is enemy or friend, worthy of hatred or love.  The power of God over-rides that internal judgement and we get to make only one evaluation and response to others:  greet all people as friends and love them.

In another place in that same Sermon on the Mount, Jesus also said,
Your eyes are windows into your body.  If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light.  If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar.  If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have!”  (Matthew 6:22-23)

Notice how both Jesus and John use the imagery of being in the light or in the dark when describing how we deal with people in distrust, greed, and hate.  John uses a reverse kind of image in order to make his point even more strongly.  He wrote that people who hate are “...blinded by the darkness.”  Usually we think of being blinded by the light, not the darkness.  But darkness is just as effective at cutting off our ability to see life, see life situations, or see others clearly.

By describing hate in terms of light and dark, both Jesus and John are not allowing for any gray here.  You are either of the light or the dark.  You either hate or you don’t.  You either live in the realm of love and light, or of darkness and hate.  If you claim to be a follower of Jesus, you don’t get to choose the dark side, the side of hate.  It would be living a life of contradiction.  You would be living a lie.  That kind of life-lie isn’t allowed by John or Jesus.

As Christians, we aren’t given the option of hating.  We don’t get to choose whom we will put on our hate list.  The truth is, that list doesn’t even get to exist.  That means we aren’t allowed to hate others in any way, shape, or form.  Paul wrote in Romans 12:9, “Hate what is evil.”  Since John is further equating hate with evil, then we must hate hate.  The only thing we are allowed to hate is hate itself.

In the next section of chapter 2, John moves us further along, looking at love by telling us what love is not, and what we shouldn’t love:  “Don’t love the world’s ways.  Don’t love the world’s goods.  Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father.”

John, in this part of his letter, is not saying, “Don’t love.”  Rather, John is saying that we need to take stock of what we do love.  Certain loves, certain ways we love, have a way of squeezing out and pressing down upon other objects of love, and other ways we love.

Here’s a little exercise I’d like you to do.  On the blank sheet of paper in the bulletin I’d like you to draw a big circle.  Now, beneath the circle, or on the back of the paper, make a quick list of all the people and things you would say you love.  You can either be general or specific.  For example, you could put down, “my children,” on the list, or you could list each child individually.

After you’ve made your list, look at the circle.  It’s going to be a pie chart.  It represents all the love you have.  You have to now divide up all that love you have and put each person/thing from your list into the pie chart, in proportion to how much love you have for them.  I’ll give you a couple of minutes to do all that.  Go.

(After everyone looks done). If you’re done, take a good look at your pie chart.  What is it telling you?  What do you see?  What is going on in light of the love you have to give in your life?  Have you been absolutely honest with yourself?  Hearing that question, would you, in all honesty, go back and adjust the size of any of the pieces of your pie, smaller or larger?

Part of what it seems to me that John is saying about love is that we only have so much love.  What love there is, is divided up into slices.  The size of each piece will determine where we put the effort of our loving.

I wonder, if you did this exercise 10, 20, 30 years ago, what your pie chart would have looked like.  How has it changed over the years, and why?  Or, how has the size of your total pie—thus the amount of love you have to work with—changed?  Is your pie—your love—tiny, like the size of a tart?  Or is it huge, the size of one of those Costco pies?  Maybe it’s not just the sizes of the pieces that changes, but the size of your sense of how much love you have to begin with.

And here’s the most important question.  The main question for John is, how big is the slice of this pie that you have labeled, “God”?  I’m not going to make you raise you hands, but what does it tell you if you forgot to, or didn’t even think to put a slice for God in your pie chart?  What adjustments need to be made as you look at your chart and see how God fits in, concerning the objects of your love?

It’s not just the objects of love that may be in conflict with God, but also why we love what we love.  A more authentic and properly motivated love, according to John, is a love which gives God the priority sized piece in our pie, and then doing what God wants because God is our main love priority.  Love comes not from the self, and is not about the self.  Love is about God and it’s by God.

So, following John’s thoughts here, God is not only to be the primary and greatest object of our love, God is also supposed to be the main way we love.  To love most authentically and fully, God is both the ends and the means of all our loving.

So, hate and love.  John, in his black and white, either/or way of thinking, is making the point we live out of either hate or love.  In God, or not.  Our purpose, as Christians, is to move from the one (hate) to the other (love).  To move from darkness to light.  That can only happen, not simply by choices we make but by making one choice—to be transformed by God.  To make God the destination and the direction for all of who we are, so that we may truly know what Love is.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Lizard On Your Shoulder

"The Lizard On Your Shoulder"
1 John 1:8-10

I want to start out this mornings message by reading from an imaginative story by C.S. Lewis, titled, The Great Divorce.  The story is about a group of passengers who take a bus ride from hell to Heaven.  Once they have had a chance to look around, the travelers are given the choice if they would like to stay in Heaven or not.

Hell is described as a dark, cloudy, stinky, drizzly, cramped city, where everyone is waiting in one line or another, but not knowing what the line is leading to.  Heaven is described as an expansive countryside of rolling hills, mountains on the horizon, fresh air, and a waterfall fed brook of startling clarity.

There are a group of angelic figures that are ready to greet each of the passengers.  Each of the passengers has some sort of conversation with one of the angels, and it is one of those conversations that I’d like to read for you.  (One other thing I need to mention is that the passengers are described as ghosts, who only appear smoke-like compared to the sharp realities of the heavenly scene and people.)

I saw coming towards us a Ghost who carried something on his shoulder.  What sat on his shoulder was a...lizard, and it was twitching its tail like a whip and whispering things in his ear.  As we caught sight of him he turned his head to the reptile with a snarl of impatience.  “Shut up, I tell you!” he said.  It wagged its tail and continued to whisper to him.  He ceased snarling and presently began to smile.  Then he turned and started to limp westward, away from the mountains and back to the bus.
“Off so soon? said a voice.
The speaker was more or less human in shape but larger than a man, and so bright that I could hardly look at him.  He presence smote on my eyes and on my body too (for there was heat coming from him as well as light) like the morning sun at the beginning of a tyrannous summer day.
“Yes.  I’m off,” said the Ghost.  “Thanks for all your hospitality.  But it’s no good, you see.  I told this little chap,” (here he indicated the lizard), “that he’d have to be quiet if he came--which he insisted on doing.  Of course his stuff won’t do here: I realize that.  But he won’t stop.  I shall just have to go home.”
“Would you like me to make him quiet?” said the flaming Spirit--an angel, as I now understood.
“Of course I would,” said the Ghost.
“Then I will kill him,” said the Angel, taking a step forward.
“Oh--ah--look out!  Your burning me.  Keep away,” said the Ghost, retreating.
“Don’t you want him killed?”
“You didn’t say anything about killing him at first.  I hardly meant to bother you with anything so drastic as that.”
“It’s the only way,” said the Angel, whose burning hands were now very close to the lizard.  “Shall I kill it?”
“Well, that’s a further question.  I’m quite open to consider it, but it’s a new point, isn’t it?  I mean, for the moment I was only thinking about silencing it because up here--well, it’s so dang embarrassing.”
“May I kill it?”
“Well, there’s time to discuss that later.”
“There is no time.  May I kill it?”
“Please, I never meant to be such a nuisance.  Please--really--don’t bother.  Look!  It’s gone to sleep of its own accord.  I’m sure it’ll be all right now.  Thanks ever so much.”
“May I kill it?”
“Honestly, I don’t think there’s the slightest necessity for that.  I’m sure I shall be able to keep it in order now.  I think the gradual process would be far better than killing it.”
“The gradual process is of no use at all.”
“Don’t you think so?  Well, I’ll think it over what you’ve said very carefully.  I honestly will.  In fact I’d let you kill it now, but as a matter of fact I’m not feeling frightfully well today.  It would be silly to do it now.  I’d need to be in good health for the operation.  Some other day, perhaps.”
“There is no other day.  All days are present now.”
“Get back!  You’re burning me.  How can I tell you to kill it?  You’ll kill me if you do.”
“It is not so.”
“Why, you’re hurting me now.”
“I never said it wouldn’t hurt you.  I said it wouldn’t kill you.”
“Oh, I know.  You think I’m a coward.  But it isn’t that.  Really it isn’t.  I say!  Let me run back by tonight’s bus and get an opinion from my own doctor.  I’ll come again the first moment I can.”
“This moment contains all other moments.”
“Why are you torturing me?  You are jeering at me.  How can I let you tear me to pieces?  If you wanted to help me, why didn’t you kill the darn thing without asking me--before I knew?  It would be all over by now if you had.”
“I cannot kill it against your will.  It is impossible.  Have I your permission?”
The Angel’s hands were almost closed on the Lizard, but not quite.  Then the Lizard began chattering to the Ghost so loud that even I could hear what it was saying.
“Be careful,” it said.  “He can do what he says.  One fatal word from you and he will!  Then you’ll be without me for ever and ever.  It’s not natural.  How could you live?  You’d be only a sort of ghost, not a real man as you are now.  He doesn’t understand.  He’s only a cold, bloodless abstract being...And I’ll be good.  I admit I’ve sometimes gone too far in the past, but I promise I won’t do it again.  I’ll give you nothing but really nice dreams--all sweet and fresh and almost innocent.”
“Have I your permission?” said the Angel to the Ghost.
“I know it will kill me.”
“It won’t.  But supposing it did?”
“You’re right.  It would be better to be dead than to live with this creature.”
“Then may I?”
“Oh dang and blast you!  Go on can’t you?  Get it over.  Do what you like,” bellowed the Ghost: but ended, whimpering, “God help me.  God help me.”
Next moment the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth.  The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile: twisted it, while it bit and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.
“Ow!  That’s done for me,” gasped the Ghost, reeling backwards.

At that point, a wondrous transformation takes place where the Ghost turns into a shinning figure of a real man, and the reptile turns into a great, white stallion.  The new man jumps up on the horse’s back and rides joyfully off toward the mountains.  The ghost, turned into someone real was one of only two people from the bus from hell who decided to stay in Heaven.

The truth is, we all have lizards on our shoulders.  Does that surprise you?  Look around; everyone’s got one.  It is our sinfulness.  It is the embodiment of everything in us that desires to stay away from God.  It is the fleshing out of everything in us that represents the hurtful things we have done in our lives that have gone unconfessed, rationalized, and what we thought to be strangely excusable.  The lizard is the concrete expression of all our bad choices that we try to explain away.

A newspaper story told of a man who returned to his car in a parking lot and found a note under the windshield wiper.  It read,
I have just smashed into your car.  The people who saw the accident are watching me.  They think I’m writing down my name and address.  They are wrong.”
That’s all the note said.  It’s so easy, sometimes, to find ways of avoiding the responsibility for our mistakes and choices.  But clever as we may be at covering up and rationalizing our misdeeds, the consequences are merely postponed, never fully evaded.

We have a number of choices before us, once we recognize there is that lizard on our shoulder--that sinfulness in our lives.

We can do like the Ghost did in the story.  We can tell ourselves, others, and God that it’s really not that big of a deal.  We do a lot of this because our pride doesn’t like to deal with the guilt.  It will not allow us to have that low of an opinion of ourselves.  In the story, the Ghost only wanted the lizard out of the way because it was “embarrassing.”  It wouldn’t keep quiet.  If only it would stay low key--at least pretend it was asleep.

Though it was clear the lizard was in control, the Ghost thought that once back home, in his own little world, he could make the thing behave.  Isn’t that what the lizard promised?  But the Angel knew the thing would never be quiet, would never give up control, unless...
Unless the Ghost confessed his sinfulness.
Unless the Ghost recognized the visibleness of his sinfulness to God.
Unless the Ghost sensed deeply the repugnance of that sinfulness in God’s sight (because the only good sin is a dead sin).
Unless the Ghost expressed his need, desire and will that the sinfulness be totally destroyed.

And the same is true for us.

What we need to remember here is Who it is that is telling us all we have lizards on our shoulders.  It’s not me.  It’s not those sitting around you.  It is God.  John, in the first chapter of his letter stated, “If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves...If we claim that we’ve never sinned, we out-and-out contradict God--make a liar out of him.  A claim like that only shows off our ignorance of God.”

The only card we can honestly play at this point is that of confession of what both God and we know to be true.  We are forced to see and deal with the definite particulars of our sinfulness, because vague generalities are only furthering our evasion of the truth.

That leads us to another point having to do with admitting our sinfulness before God.  Don’t we feel some sorrow, once we have recognized the creature we have allowed on our shoulders, giving ear to it, and letting it have sway over our lives?  Don’t we feel a sense of revulsion that this thing is part of our lives?  Isn’t there grief that we have offended God by allowing something so repugnant as a determiner of our choices?

This is one of the truths behind the beatitude, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  It’s not just a sense of mourning because you’re sad about some loss in your life.  It’s also about mourning over our sinfulness.  It’s about crying over that dark side of us that has not been confessed and yielded to God, so that it might be (using Lewis’ imagery) killed and crushed.

The mother of a little girl was preparing to attend a very special social event she had been looking forward to with pleasure for a long time.  The new dress she had bought for the occasion was carefully laid out on her bed.  But her little daughter didn’t want her parents to go out that night, and made a huge fuss about it.

When the mother was out of the bedroom, the little girl thought she had found a way to keep her mother home.  She took a pair of sewing shears and she slashed the new party dress.  Ruined it completely!  When the mother came back into the room she just couldn’t believe her eyes.  She was almost stupefied by what she saw.  Instead of exploding and becoming out-of-control angry, she just fell across the bed crying bitterly, completely oblivious to her daughter’s presence in the room.

When the little girl saw her mother’s reaction, she realized the seriousness of what she had done.  She started to tug at her mother’s skirt, crying out, “Mommy, mommy,”  But her mother continued to ignore her, acting as though her daughter wasn’t even there.  The little girl, more and more desperate, cried out louder, “Mommy, please!”  At last the mother responded, “What!?  What is it you could want?”  The little girl answered, “Mommy, please take me back.”

The little girl had seen through to the heart of what she had done.  She realized she had done something very hurtful to her mother.  The sorrow of the mother brought the impact home in a heavy way that was almost too much for the girl to bear.  She sensed, with great shock, the pain her awful choice had caused.  The little girl sensed that the main problem at the moment was not the cut up dress, but the broken relationship between herself and her mother.  So she cried out, “Mommy, please take me back,” just like the man in Lewis’ story finally cried out, “God help me; God help me.”

Only by being crushed, can our sinfulness be transformed.  Only by feeling the great shock and sorrow of what we have done, can we find the strength to face God and the Angels and freely allow them to expunge the darkness from our lives.  Our remorse takes away our fear of God--a fear that our sinfulness has won by whispering its lies in our ears.  Our remorse takes away our fear of God, so that we realize, with a finality that grasps and gasps for life that only by God’s hand will we find freedom and transformation.

That is what it means to find comfort from our mourning--because part of comfort comes from knowing we are utterly forgiven.  Not just excused, but forgiven.  Excusing says, “I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.”  Forgiveness says, “I see that you could help it, you did mean it, and you really were to blame; BUT, I accept your confession, I accept you, I embrace you with grace and everything is forgotten.  Completely.”

When, out of our sorrow for our hurtful ways, we confess our sinfulness, and turn to God, and by so doing catch a glimpse of God’s forgiveness, a new motivation begins to take hold in our lives.  When we discover that God’s main desire is to forgive and give, that God is the loving father in the parable of the prodigal son who runs to meet us, hugging us and kissing us, only because we were willing to face honestly the mess we had made of our lives; when we discover all this about God, a parallel yearning grows in our souls--a yearning for living in God’s light, and a hatred for the darkness we were in.

Those two determinations--the yearning for a new start with God, and, the hatred of our sinfulness--must both grow together.  One will not grow with out the other.  It is in that yearning, once we have confessed that we have a lizard on our shoulder, once we have felt the crushing yet forgiving hand of God upon that lizard, we also suddenly realize we are being transformed.  Even our sinfulness is being transformed by God.  A God who transformed the most sinful action of human history--the Crucifixion--into the most glorious Resurrection, can certainly take what we have done, as lizardly as it may be, and refashion it into something glorious.  If only we will let him.

There is a legend about the Day of the Lord, the last days of the world that the Bible talks about.  In Paradise on this Last Day everyone is celebrating, dancing, singing and shouting with great jubilation.  Everyone, that is, except Jesus.  Jesus is standing very quietly in the shadows of one of the gates of Paradise.  One of the angels asks him what he’s doing in the midst of all the celebrating.  With quiet soberness, Jesus replies, “I am waiting here for Judas.”

Will he, and will we, come to Christ and say, “I have this lizard on my shoulder.  Both you and I know that it’s there.  Both you and I know how it got there.  Will you destroy it?