Sunday, December 21, 2014

No Room for Jesus

Vicki and I were standing in line at Price Chopper Friday afternoon and, to pass the time, I was scanning the headlines on all the magazines they adorn the waiting area of the checkout line with. It was there, at the bottom of this month’s edition of Woman’s Day that I read “Got Junk? Clutter Cleanout.” It confronted me with the fact that we humans seem to have a natural tendency to accumulate stuff and as it gets less important, it gets less organized. Rather than get rid of it, we hold on to it – filling every square inch of our homes with it. I remember when I was settling my mom’s estate and the task of getting the house ready to sell fell solely on Vicki and me. I spent every free moment I had for three weeks sorting through the contents of the house we had moved into 40 years earlier. I filled a dumpster that was 22 feet long with stuff that had no sentimental or commercial value and there was still a house full of items that either went to family members or to the estate sale. In the basement, most of the contents were from the lake house my mom and stepdad had owned. When my stepdad’s health deteriorated, they sold it and we moved everything that wasn’t part of the sale to their house in Blue Springs. With my stepdad’s woodworking tools, work benches and the washer and dryer already in the basement, there was no room for anything else. Upstairs was more organized and much of the clutter lurked in the closets, cabinets and drawers. Even so, like the basement, there was no room for anything else.
I would like to say I learned from that experience – but I didn’t. When I look in our basement and in our closets, they are filled just like my mom’s basement and closets. When we moved from our home in Prairie Village to a much larger house, we used the opportunity to get rid of some of the stuff that hadn’t been used or even thought of for over a decade. Our new home seemed to have space to spare when we first moved in. But now, ten years later, our stuff has grown to fill the space available. There isn’t any room for anything else.

Our nature to fill the available space isn’t limited to the physical dimension of our lives. We often fill our lives with so much stuff there isn’t any room for anything or anybody else. We fill our lives with work, hobbies and entertainment to the point where it’s impossible to include anything else – even if it is something that is good for us. Spending time with those we love, exercise, spiritual development and a host of other essential activities are often crowded out of our lives by things that are far less important and even detrimental.

So, what exactly does that have to do with Christmas? Not exactly a story of the merriment, good cheer and joy that we typically associate with Christmas. It does, however, connect with the Christmas story we find in Luke.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7, NRSV)

Just as there was no more room in my mom’s house or in our house, Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem at a time when there was no more room – not even for a young couple who were about to become parents. They had to settle for the stable below the inn. As a grandparent expecting a new great grandson any day now, I can imagine how upset I would be if my granddaughter and her husband were told there was no room for them at the hospital other than a parking garage. But, the baby Mary was going to deliver wasn’t just any baby – the angel Gabriel had told her he was the “Son of the Most High”, the “Son of God”, who would sit on the throne of David and rule God’s people forever. Can you imagine how Mary must have felt as they were turned away from one place and then the next – eventually ending up in a stable? The image of the nativity scene above, like so many other artist renditions of this scene, attempts to soften the edges of this harsh picture. However, if we consider that Jesus was there because there was no room anywhere else, it’s still a troubling scene.
Even though it’s troubling, it seems to predict the future of Jesus’ life. Thirty years later Jesus commented that, Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.” I don’t think Jesus was speaking literally as much as he was figuratively. While it is true there is no evidence of Jesus owning a home or even staying in the family home, the bigger issue was that Jesus didn’t have a place in the religious and political establishment of his day. For the religious establishment to make room for Jesus, much of their traditional understanding of God would have to go. Their lives were so filled with this tradition, to part with it would have been traumatic – it would have even affected some of them financially. For the political establishment to make room would have meant that the emperor of Rome would have to acknowledge a higher authority and this would have meant an end to the Roman Empire.

It’s pretty easy and convenient for me to look back and ask: What was the wrong with these people? For the residents of Bethlehem – couldn’t they make a little room for the Son of God to be born? For the religious establishment – couldn’t they open their minds to a better understanding of God? For the political establishment – couldn’t they give up their corrupt kingdom for the kingdom of heaven? However, if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I often don’t have room for Jesus in my life either. I let the “busyness” of life crowd him out. I let the worries of life crowd him out. I let my own comfort crowd him out.

Sure, I pray, I read the Bible and I come to church every Sunday, but all too often this is to address my own needs. I pray seeking help for my struggles or the struggles of those I care about. I read the Bible seeking answers to my own questions and comfort for my pain. I worship to rejuvenate my spirit after a week of challenges and disappointments. I’m not making room in my life as much as I’m trying to find room in God’s life for my issues. This is a problem that I need to deal with personally, but it does raise the question: Does the church have a problem with not making room for Jesus too?

Before you answer that question, remember the test Jesus gave us to determine how open we have been to him. When we feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, give clothes to those without, comfort the sick and visit those who are in prison we are in fact doing these things to Jesus – making room for him. Mother Teresa once commented on this passage and said:
At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by “I was hungry and you gave me eat. I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless and you took me in.” Hungry not only for bread – but hungry for love. Naked not only for clothing – but naked for human dignity and respect. Homeless not only for want of a room – but homeless because of rejection.
Just as none of us will personally be judged on the basis of our education, wealth or personal accomplishments, the church won’t be judged on its membership rolls, the quality or size of its building or the number of programs it supports. When we fail to address the underlying needs of the individual and when we ignore the social, political and economic systems that result in a hungering and thirsting for love, dignity, respect and acceptance, we have failed to make room for Jesus.
If we are to be the kind of church Jesus intended us to be, we have to make room for him both in the planning process and in the plans that come out of it. We can’t let the artifacts of our past, our present struggles or our future concerns take up so much space that there’s no room for Jesus. If we take to heart Mother Teresa’s understanding of how we will be judged, it isn’t enough for us to increase the size of our food pantry, we have to make sure that the hungry experience the love of Christ through our thoughts, words and deeds. It isn’t enough to provide more coats, gloves or scarves to clothing drives, we need to work toward solving the issue of poverty that robs people of their dignity and respect. It isn’t enough to increase the diversity of those who use our building Monday through Saturday, we need to find ways to include those who have traditionally been rejected by the church – to bring them into the fellowship of the church.
Jesus said, “I stand at the door and knock. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in, and we will share a meal together as friends.” One of the names for Jesus is Emmanuel – God With Us. We don’t worship a “God Up There Somewhere” who we hope will transport us out of our current struggles. We worship a God who is present in the midst of those struggles. However, there are two things that stand out in Jesus’ statement. First, he doesn’t enter without an invitation. He is always present, but we have to let him into our lives. Second, for Jesus to come into our lives, there has to be space for him. I don’t have any doubt that all of you here this morning have answered the knock at the door, but have we cleared an ample place in our lives to let him in? Is there ample space in your life to let Jesus in? Is there ample space in your church to let Jesus in? What do we need to throw in the dumpster to make room for Jesus?


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Blessed or cursed?

I recently asked friends and family to respond to the question: “What does it mean to be blessed?” All of the responses were consistent with definitions of “blessed” that you find in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: “of or enjoying happiness, bringing pleasure, contentment or good fortune.” I certainly feel blessed when (to quote James Brown) “I feel good”, when the situations of life are calm or when good fortune comes my way. If, however, happiness is evidence of or synonymous with being blessed, how do we understand the times of pain, chaos or misfortune in our lives? How do we comfort others who are deprived of love, health or the necessities of life? What do we say to those who have been victims of a crime or the casualty of an accident? If happiness = blessed does unhappiness = cursed? 

In Matthew 5:1-11 and Luke 6:20-26, Jesus delivers a list of what are known as “The Beatitudes.”  Beatitude isn’t a word that I use on a daily basis and I doubt that you do either.  It simply means “blessed” or “happy” and The Beatitudes are a list of situations in which people are considered to be “blessed” or “happy” (you will find both words used depending on the biblical translation you read). The difficulty with the lists found in both books is that those who are called “blessed” or “happy” are those who would have been considered “cursed” in Jesus day and in the present time. In Matthew’s list, they are those who are “poor in spirit”, those who “mourn”, those who are “meek”, those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness”. In Luke’s list, it those who are “poor”, “hungry” and who “weep.” It seems contradictory to say: “Blessed are the poor, hungry or sad” when we consider “happy” to be a synonym for “blessed.” Maybe there is a fuller meaning to being blessed.

If we go back to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the first definition of “blessed” is “held in reverence.” To revere someone is to respect them and consider them “worthy of great honor.” This adds a new dimension to what it means to be blessed and it opens up a different perspective on what Jesus is saying to the first century Judean crowds and to us today. We could paraphrase what Jesus is saying as: “Those who are suffering from pain, affliction, abuse, neglect, persecution, poverty, homelessness or hunger are worthy of God’s honor and respect if they persevere in their faith through the difficult times.” The fact that Jesus says it is those who hunger, mourn and weep is a confirmation that we aren’t being instructed to deny the reality of the bad situations in life, but we are being instructed to face them and endure them in faith. 

Even though we go through difficult times – times of poverty, times of hunger, times of mourning – Jesus says that those who do and who hold onto their faith will be given the kingdom of heaven, will have their hunger satisfied and be comforted. However, these promises are given in a future tense. We may have to suffer in this fallen world that has been corrupted by sin, but, we have the hope of the words of Jesus that someday that suffering will not only end, but will be the source of eternal joy and happiness. The catastrophes of our lives are not evidence of being cursed, but an opportunity to demonstrate the depth and breadth of faith in a God who did not hold back anything for our well-being. A God who took on our human form and suffered beyond our imagination for us, just to provide a path for us to follow to heaven.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Turning the Other Cheek...
This week I found myself in a position where I felt I was being unfairly attacked by a high level executive in our company. The old fight-or-flight mechanism kicked in and sadly, my initial response was to fight. I spent a great deal of energy formulating plans to verbally retaliate. I felt I had enough evidence to now only show the attack was without basis, but, also humiliate my attacker. Essentially, I was willing to engage in the very behavior that had triggered the anger and frustration I was feeling. However, after formulating my battle plan throughout the day, that evening and into to the early hours of the next morning, something Jesus said a long time ago came to mind. He told us “…If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.” Like many, I have generally considered this in literal terms.

It was through this situation that a new, fuller meaning of this command started to materialize. If we limit the application of this only to the literal, physical scenario, we miss the greater and more prevalent opportunity to apply it. I think Jesus is telling us when we are faced with a situation like I was – a position where we feel that our character, reputation or capability is being called into question – we should not assume a defensive position to protect further damage. Instead, we are instructed to become more vulnerable. If you think about it, that is what turning the other cheek is when slapped. Rather than throwing up our guard to defend ourselves from another blow, we are told to expose the other cheek, making us vulnerable to a subsequent attack. When we translate this to a situation where the attack is verbal, where it is our pride or ego that is “slapped”, we shouldn’t respond to the attack in kind.

What would this look like? How do we become more vulnerable in a situation like this? For me, in this situation, I plan to have a discussion with this person to explain how their statements affected me and why they affected me the way they did. The “why” is really where the vulnerability comes into play. By doing so, it is possible that I will reveal a “chink in my armor” that this person can further exploit in the future. However, that isn’t something I can control. That is a decision that can only be made by that person. What I can control is my reaction and, by not retaliating, I am not perpetuating the conflict. While there will most likely be further conflicts with this person, I can choose to not fuel the continuation of this particular conflict.

Exposing our vulnerability may not (in fact, in many cases will not) stop the attack, but, neither will retaliation. Retaliation can be mentally, emotionally and spiritually draining. Doing what is right, assuming a position of vulnerability, leads to a sense of peace and confidence that strengthens even while going through the conflict.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Who is Jesus...really?

Colossians 1:15-20

Well, we are about to enter into yet another presidential election campaign – I can hardly wait. We will be hearing President Obama say that if he just has another four years, he will be able to come through on his promises of change. We will be hearing the Republican candidates point out how the last four years have produced change, but not the kind of change most of us hope for or need. In one of his songs, Loudon Wainwright III makes the statement, “Politicians, wrestlers, they’re all the same to me.” That seems to capture the sentiment of many in our country today. LSU funded a project to determine the level of confidence Americans have in the government. In the report that summarized the results of their efforts, they cited an independent study that indicated 75% of Americans surveyed in the late 50’s through the mid 60’s stated they trusted the government most of the time or nearly always. In 2000, that number was less than 50%.

Where we once placed our trust in the leaders of our government to look out for our needs, we now have distrust and cynicism. The confidence we once had in our government has been eroded by its failure to deliver the fundamentals – a strong economy, national security, social services to meet the needs of our citizens and assurance of justice for all. The failure to deliver is amplified by the public failures of individual leaders. Scandalous behavior, even criminal behavior, has been the subject of news reports far too often in the last few years.

Unfortunately, this declining level of trust is not confined to the government. In a study performed by the United Methodist Church, 400 church leaders were surveyed and the results indicated that a “general lack of trust within the Church was a pervasive and recurring theme in the majority of interviews.” A “lack of accountability was…cited as a root cause of distrust—when people are not accountable for their actions and behaviors, they cannot be trusted.” Specifically mentioned was the lack of trust between “the pew and the leadership.”

Even at the personal level, I am sure we can all relate a story or experience where a trust was violated and, as a result, our desire to trust others in the future is diminished.

It would seem that we are being forced into a mode of self-sufficiency, but, it doesn’t take long to realize that isn’t possible. We are dependent in a variety of ways – materially, emotionally and spiritually. So, if we can’t really be self-sufficient and if we can’t trust the government, the church or others, what are we to do? Where is a source of sufficiency that we can rely on?

The sermons over the next few weeks will attempt to provide an answer. Today, we will be laying the foundation for the upcoming weeks with the proposition that we can rely on the sufficiency of Jesus. What do I mean by “sufficiency”? The word sufficiency means “all that is needed in ample supply.” The word supply means, “what is needed to meet a particular need, solve a particular problem, or overcome a particular lack.” To have a sufficient supply, there must be a source that possesses or produces what is needed.

If you are like me, you want to know something about a person or organization before you place your confidence in them, before you trust them to take on some essential task or provide some essential item. When someone comes to my door, calls me on the phone or sends me an advertisement for a service or product, I won’t consider them unless and until I can learn something about them. It is important to know not only if they can come through on their promises, it is also important to know that they have a track record of doing what they promise.

When I was a kid, Bill Cosby was becoming very popular for his stand up comedy routines. One of those routines that stuck with me was his account of what went on between Noah and God when God told Noah to build the ark. Here is how Cosby imagined the initial contact between God and Noah.

You see Noah was in his rec. room sawing away, he was making a few things for the home there. He was a good carpenter:
Whoompa, whoompa, whoompa, whoompa
Somebody call?
Whoompa, whoompa, whoompa
Who is that?
It's the Lord, Noah
...Am I on Candid Camera?

Okay, I agree this isn’t quite the way the story went in Genesis. There is, however a story in the New Testament related to Jesus and the disciples that is similar. Jesus, after feeding 5000 people with a few fish and some loaves of bread, sends the disciples on ahead of him. They get in a boat and set sail. Late in the evening, the boat is far from land, the wind comes up and the waves are crashing against the boat. Here comes Jesus – “Hey guys, here I am.” Their response was “Right!” They thought he was a ghost. It wasn’t until he got to the boat and told them, “Don’t worry, it’s me,” that they calmed down.

Sometimes, even when the evidence is right in front of us, we fail to recognize the truth. Many of us have heard the stories about Jesus many times, but are we confident that he can deliver on his promises? The more we know about the source, the greater our confidence in the sufficiency of the supply. The more we understand about Jesus, the greater our confidence in him to be sufficient to meet the needs of life. To set the stage for the next few weeks, today we are going to try to understand who Jesus is…really!

Today, there are a wide range of theories and beliefs about who Jesus is. Even an atheist rarely denies the historical Jesus. There is adequate evidence for them to believe he lived and died. Sadly, these theories of a merely historical Jesus, once held only by non-believers, have crept into the church under the disguise of a more intellectual Christianity. These theories deny the divinity – the God nature – of Jesus and characterize him “as a political revolutionary, a messianic schemer, a Galilean charismatic holy man, a wandering peasant, or a countercultural crusader.” With this historical perspective of Jesus, his uniqueness is diminished or even eliminated. If he was only a human, historical figure, how can we have any confidence in his ability to be a sufficient source of supply to meet our needs today?

This argument that Jesus was just a good man or charismatic leader, but not God in human form is not a new one. The apostle Paul had to deal with this issue in his time too. There were teachers in the first century who were proposing that belief in Jesus was not required or even sufficient for salvation. These teachers were promoting philosophies associated with cults of the time. In response to this problem, Paul wrote a letter to the Colossian church and we will be looking at a part of that letter this morning to help us understand who Jesus is…really.

However, before we do, let’s look at one of the claims Jesus made about who he is. In the Gospel of John, Jesus made this statement to the apostle Thomas: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Here Jesus makes several claims. First, He says there is only one way to God – through Him. Second, He says that God is the author of all life and that meaning in life is found through coming to Him. Third, Jesus reveals himself as the Son of God. Finally, Jesus claims that we can personally know God and the nature of His truth. Was Jesus who He claimed to be?

Let’s look at a letter that the apostle Paul wrote nearly 2000 years ago to a small Christian community in the city of Colosse which was located in what is now modern day Turkey. This letter still speaks with relevance to us today. In the introduction to the analysis of this letter, the NIV Application Commentary says, “It gives witness ‘to the finality, adequacy and all-sufficiency of the cosmic Christ – by whom and for whom all things were made, in whom they cohere, and with whom in God the life of the Christian and of the Church is hidden.’ That truth will never go out of date.”

The Colossian church faced a situation similar to ours today. There were those in the community who loudly and repeatedly challenged and trivialized the sufficiency of Christ and the hope the Colossian Christians placed in Him. In our culture today, criticism from the intellectual, scientific and entertainment communities is a regular event. The result has been that it is increasingly difficult to attract non-believers and many Christians have become increasingly uncertain in their faith.

To combat this attitude in his day, Paul expressed his faith in who Jesus is in dramatic, poetic language. He begins in the 15th verse of the 1st chapter saying, “He is the image of the invisible God…” The word that is translated as image is the Greek word eikon. This word carries with it the idea of a representation. An image represents the subject and, if it is perfect enough, it can become an actual physical expression of that subject. In verse 19, we see that Jesus is the perfect image of God. There Paul tells us, “For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ…” F. F. Bruce says, “all attributes and activities of God – his spirit, work, wisdom and glory – are disclosed in him.” In his commentary on this letter, Calvin said that in Christ God shows us “his righteousness, goodness, wisdom, power, in short, his entire self.” In Christ, we see who God is – Creator and Redeemer; what God is like – a God of love, mercy and grace; and what God does – sends his Son to rescue people from the wilderness of sin and, through his death on a cross, restores the relationship between creation and the Creator.

Paul then adds to the description, “…the firstborn over all creation.” Firstborn in this case implies status, not chronology. This title distinguishes Jesus as being superior to all created things. He outranks all things in creation and, as such, all of creation is subordinate to Him. The concept of the superiority of Jesus is further developed by Paul, saying – “For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.” In the ancient world, heaven was not seen as some distant place that had no connection to human life here on earth. Instead, they believed that invisible, heavenly forces influenced earthly things – for both good and evil. Where their influence was good, they were the agents of God. Where their influence was evil, they were agents of Satan. The visible powers are the human authorities or systems of authority. Paul tells us that Jesus has power and authority over all of them, regardless of form they come in. This universal authority assures us, as believers, of the sufficiency of Christ.

Jesus is not only superior to all things, Paul also tells us that “…in him all things hold together.” If you grab a handful of dry sand and try to form it into a ball, you won’t be successful. You need something to bind the particles of sand together so it will hold the form you mold it into. Jesus is the binding agent that keeps all of creation in the form God molded it into. H. C. G. Moule said it this way, “He keeps the cosmos from becoming chaos.” However, Jesus is more than the means by which the shape of creation is maintained. The NIV Application Commentary says, “…he is its rationale, its rhyme and reason.” It then goes on to say, “The universe is not self-sufficient, nor are individuals, no matter how much they may deceive themselves into thinking they are. Even those who do not acknowledge Christ’s reign and those who actively oppose him are entirely dependent on him.”

Supremacy without action and purpose is of little value. In what Paul tells us next, we see how the supremacy of Christ is put into action in the ultimate purposes of God.

In verse 18, Paul tells us, “…he is the head of the body, the church…” This is a very powerful statement. First of all, it puts the church into perspective. The body cannot live without the head. You can sever any other limb and survive. You cannot sever the head from the body and survive. The church owes both its origin and life to Christ. In addition, the head provides direction to the body. The head does not exist to take direction from the body; the body exists to take direction from the head. The NIV Application commentary says, “The church does not exist to meet the needs of its members or to insure its institutional survival, but to fulfill the redemptive purposes of Christ, its head.”

Jesus is not just some historical figure that was born, lived and then died and that we merely read about. We are able to meet him today because, as Paul tells us, “…he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead…” Through his resurrection, he is alive today. By his resurrection, Jesus is serial number 1, the starting point, for the source of new life for others who will follow. John recorded Jesus saying, “Because I live, you also will live.”

Paul sums this section up by telling us even the resurrection points to the supremacy of Jesus. “...he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead so that in everything he might have the supremacy.” While it is true that Jesus has the right to be Lord of all, sin has created a disconnect between what should be and what is. However, by defeating sin and death through the resurrection, he becomes Lord in actuality. The resurrection demonstrates that there is no power that can oppose him. Neither life nor death can stand in the way of his purpose and goal.

So, who is Jesus…really? He is the visible, physical, perfect expression of God. He not only has the power to create, he has the power to restore all things to the way God had planned for them to be. He has demonstrated both his power and his love by his blood, death on the cross and resurrection. He has a place of supremacy over the entire universe and this provides us with the assurance that he is a sufficient source of supply for all our needs. If Jesus can sustain the entire universe, he can surely sustain individual believers. It is critical, however, that we understand that this doesn’t mean we won’t have any hardships, problems or unfulfilled material needs. More importantly, it doesn’t mean that when we hit the rough spots in life that it is an indication of alienation from God or some God-ordained punishment for something we have done. While Jesus has the power, authority and resources to fulfill every want and need in our lives, there may be times when this won’t happen. What Jesus did promise is to be with us, understand our pains and struggles and give us the peace of God during difficult times. Paul fully understood this. Paul had what he characterized as a “thorn in the flesh” that he asked the Lord to remove three times. The Lord’s response was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Sometimes, we can serve God better through our weakness and affliction than we can in our perfection. When we carry our “thorn in the flesh”, our message to someone else who is experiencing the same issue is more credible. When we attempt to reach the lost and hurting when we have perfection in our lives, it is not only difficult to relate it is difficult to be believed. He also promised that, when we accept him as Lord and Savior of our lives, we will spend eternity with Him in heaven where there will be no more suffering, pain or needs. This is who Jesus really is and this Jesus is sufficient to meet our ultimate, eternal needs.

In darkness and in light, in trouble and in joy, help us trust your love, to serve your purpose and to praise your name, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

  1. Scripture passages from the NIV
  2. Various quotes from The NIV Application Commentary

Saturday, August 14, 2010

As I contemplated God's words to Jeremiah - "The heart is more deceitful than all else…" - a phrase kept flashing in my brain. "The heart wants what it wants." I couldn't recall where I had heard it, so, I did some research and I found the source. It had its origins in a story that was all over the news in the early nineties. The story was covered on television and print. It was the topic of talk shows and comedians. The quote itself has been repeated in television shows ranging from Law & Order SVU to The Simpsons.

While the quote has been used as a source of entertainment, the history of the quote is far from being entertaining. The quote came from a Time Magazine interview with Woody Allen in 1992 where Woody was being asked about the love affair he was having with Mia Farrow's adopted daughter, Soon-Yi. When pressed for an answer to the question of whether his relationship with the daughter of his former lover was healthy, he responded with, "The heart wants what it wants. There's no logic to those things. You meet someone and you fall in love and that's that." The heart, not logic; the heart, not common sense; the heart, not compassion for the needs of others, pursues what it wants. This is one of the most significant problems we face in getting on the right path and staying there. That is why Andy Stanley devoted an entire chapter to this issue in his book, The Principle of the Path.

I am sure that it didn't take the sermons over the last three weeks to make you aware of the fact that all paths have a specific destination. All paths will lead somewhere. There may be many points along the way, but, if taken to its conclusion, a path will ultimately take you to a specific place. It doesn't matter if you start traveling along the path with absolutely no idea where it leads or if you have looked at the map or trail guide and fully understand where it leads. If you travel down any path long enough, you will ultimately reach the destination it leads to.

So, with us all being smart people, why do we sometimes end up on paths that lead us to regret? The fact that even the brightest and most gifted people in the world end up in places they wish they had avoided tells us that it isn't a matter of intellect, information or talent. Consider the residents of Judah at the time that God declared the heart as being more deceitful than anything else. The people of Judah were not fools. Among them were artists, architects, religious scholars and business people. By most any standard, they were a successful culture. Most importantly, they had a history filled with evidence of not just the existence of God, but, also His personal involvement in their lives. Yet, the people of Judah went down a path that led them far away from the one true God and to the place of multiple false gods. They turned from the creator of the universe to things created from trees, rocks and metals formed by the hands of men - idols of false gods.

The early chapters of Jeremiah are filled with God warning the residents of Judah that they were on a path to destruction. One example is in chapter 2 where God says:
"What did your ancestors find wrong with me that led them to stray so far from me? They worshiped worthless idols, only to become worthless themselves. They did not ask, 'Where is the Lord who brought us safely out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness- a land of deserts and pits, a land of drought and death, where no one lives or even travels?' "And when I brought you into a fruitful land to enjoy its bounty and goodness, you defiled my land and corrupted the possession I had promised you. The priests did not ask, 'Where is the Lord?' Those who taught my word ignored me, the rulers turned against me, and the prophets spoke in the name of Baal, wasting their time on worthless idols. Therefore, I will bring my case against you," says the Lord. "I will even bring charges against your children's children in the years to come. "
Over and over again, God calls the people to repent. Remember what that word "repent" means? It literally means to change one's mind. If we apply this to the concept of traveling on a path, it would imply changing our mind about the route we are following. God was telling them that the path they were on, the path of false gods, would lead them to destruction. He wanted them to change their mind, change their direction and pursue Him again.

In preparing for this morning, I learned several things - which is usually the case. One of the things I learned was that Baal was not necessarily a specific god. The word Baal was applied as a general term for a god or gods. In the Canaanite pantheon, Baal was a fertility god. However, Baal was also prayed to as the god of rain, the god that protected crops and livestock and a number of other functions. The people of Judah were so wrapped up in worshiping Baal, they incorporated the word into the names of their children and their towns.

If the people of Judah turned to Baal to hedge their bet, to make sure that some god - whether it be Jehovah or Baal - would provide children, food and water, they made a huge mistake. By turning to Baal, they actually risked all of these things their hearts desired. In chapter 5 God says:
"O Israel, I will bring a distant nation against you… Their weapons are deadly; their warriors are mighty. They will devour the food of your harvest; they will devour your sons and daughters. They will devour your flocks and herds; they will devour your grapes and figs. And they will destroy your fortified towns, which you think are so safe."
Here we see the principle of the path in action. Direction, not intention, determines destination. The intent of the people was to have security and prosperity in their lives, but, they chose a direction that would lead them far from the destination they desired. Are we really any different today? Are we putting our trust in our investments, our government, or other places rather than God? In our fear of what the future might bring, do we look to other of provision other than God?

Had the people of Judah used their knowledge of what God had done for them in the past and promises of what He would do for them in the future, they most likely would have made the right choice. Instead, they listened to their heart and then used their mind to rationalize their decision to include Baal in their spiritual lives. The fifth chapter of Andy Stanley's book, The Principle of the Path, is entitled The Heart of the Matter. In this chapter he looks at the question of why otherwise intelligent people make bad decisions that ultimately lead to regret. He has come to the following conclusion.

Our problem rarely stems from a lack of information or insight. It's something else. Something we don't outgrow. Something another academic degree won't resolve. Our problem stems from the fact that we are not on a truth quest. That is why we don't wake up every morning with a burning desire to know what's true, what's right, what's honorable. We are on a happiness quest. We want to be - as in feel - happy. And our quest for happiness often trumps our appreciation for and pursuit of what's true…When happiness points in one direction while wisdom, truth, integrity, and common sense point in another, that's when really smart people start doing really stupid things…The problem with the happiness quest is that happy today does not necessarily equal happy tomorrow.
When I read this, I realized that we typically confuse pleasure with happiness. This confusion might manifest itself in subtle ways or in very dramatic ways. Pleasure is essentially a physical sense while happiness is emotional at the basic level and spiritual at the ultimate level. I'll use a situation from my life as an example and leave it to you to assess how this might apply to your life. I have always found pleasure in food. I love to eat. I knew that certain foods - many of which were the ones I enjoyed the most - put me at risk of developing cardiac problems, but, I enjoyed eating them so much, I ignored the facts. My cholesterol levels bounced between the high end of the acceptable range to slightly above acceptable. I convinced myself that I was the exception because I didn't want to give up the foods that I found pleasure in. Until last December, pleasure and happiness seemed be in harmony and then reality set in. By continuing to seek pleasure, my happiness was ultimately impacted by a heart attack. Andy Stanley sums this up by saying, "…when we stand at the crossroads between prudent and happy, we lie to ourselves. We turn into dishonest salespeople. We begin selling ourselves on what we want to do rather than what we ought to do."

This is the point that God is making in our passage from Jeremiah - "The heart is more deceitful than all else…Who can understand it?" Being deceived is different than just being lied to. When someone lies to us, we might not be tricked into believing them. When someone is deceitful it means they are a successful liar. The word "deceive" means "made to believe that which is not true." When someone or something deceives us, it goes beyond presenting the lie; it includes a level of effort that is intended to convince us that the lie is actually true. I have met a few people in my life who were truly deceitful, but, none were as good at it as my heart.

After my heart attack, I went to cardiac rehab where they got me back on the path to a healthier heart. They gave me information about heart-healthy eating, they helped me reestablish an effective exercise routine and they encouraged me to stick with it. What I learned in cardiac rehab, coupled with some medications to reduce my cholesterol and prevent blood clots, provided a reasonable assurance I won't repeat the heart attack experience. As important as it is to take care of the physical heart, it is even more important to take care of the spiritual heart. Unfortunately, there isn't a rehab program or wonder drug that will cure the deceitfulness of our hearts. The good news is, we do have a way to avoid being a slave to it.

In the Gospel of John Jesus tells us:

"I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won't have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life."
Later, He says:

"You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
To fully understand the significance of what Jesus is claiming when He declares He is "the light of the world", we need to think about it in terms of the original audience - the Jews. For us, it is natural to think of the sun when we consider this verse. This image is not inconsistent with other teachings about the Messiah. For example, Malachi spoke of the Messiah as the "sun of righteousness." It isn't that thinking of Jesus in these terms is a bad thing to do, but, it's not the image that Jesus was trying to convey in this instance.

When Jesus spoke these words, it was during the Feast of Tabernacles. This feast was in remembrance of God's care and guidance as they journeyed through the wilderness to the Promised Land. He was speaking in the courtyard of the Temple where the ceremonies of this feast were carried out. One of these ceremonies took place nightly. The theme of the ceremony was light and it used 4 giant menorahs, each with huge oil lamps. Each menorah was so tall that the attendants had to use a ladder to refill the lamps. These menorahs were placed in the outer courtyards of the Temple. It is said that the light from these lamps was so powerful that it lit the entire city. The smoke and light from these lamps were symbolic of the pillar of smoke and fire that stood between the people and Pharaoh's army at the Red Sea, then led the people through the wilderness and later filled the Temple. The Shekinah Glory represented God's presence with His people and provided both protection and guidance.

In making this statement in the Temple courtyard at the time of this festival, Jesus was declaring two great truths. First, He was declaring He was the embodiment of a promise made through Isaiah. In Isaiah 9:2, God proclaimed, "The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine." Jesus is this great light that God promised to lead us out of darkness. Second, He was saying that He was God in the flesh, the glory of the Temple. The cloud of glory had departed from the Holy of Holies in the Temple many years before, but now it was once again present with His people. Jesus was crying out, "I am the Shekinah Glory. I am the light of guidance, the cloud of protection. I am God with you." Many of those that heard either failed to understand Him or refused to accept Him.

Have you found God in Jesus? There is no other place to find Him. Once we have Jesus with us, He promises we will know the truth. When we know the truth about anything, it is much more difficult to be deceived. When we know the truth of Jesus, we will be free of the tyranny of our deceitful heart. Rather than looking for ways to justify what our hearts want, we can use the truth to think through decisions.

While it is true that the heart wants what it wants, that doesn't mean we have to give into it when we know that its desire will take us down a path of regret. When we examine the heart's desires in the light of Jesus, we will see the truth and, if we follow the truth, we will be free.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

When I was a kid, our family spent a considerable amount of time around the water. Before I learned to swim, I had to wear one of those big, puffy, orange lifejackets anytime I was even close to the water. The lifejackets in those days weren’t the nice, foam, tailored lifejackets of today. These were like two pillows with straps. Even as a kid I was pretty conscious of my appearance and the fact that I looked like the great pumpkin when I had my lifejacket on didn’t thrill me. When I was in the water, it would ride up around my ears and it was impossible to do much more than bob like a cork. Even though I didn’t understand why, that ugly, uncomfortable and, did I mention smelly, lifejacket kept me afloat. I knew I had to wear it if I wanted to play in or around the water.

Many of the things in our daily lives we choose to use and we allow them to impact our lives in some way. Some of those things require a level of knowledge or understanding to use them successfully. For example, we may choose to drive a car so we don’t have to walk. To do this successfully, we have to understand how a car works to drive it. Similarly, we may choose to use a phone to communicate with friends and family. To do so, we have to have some level of understanding about operating a phone to use them. There are, however, some things that work and impact our lives regardless of our knowledge or understanding of them. My lifejacket made me float – I didn’t know why, it just did. Today I know that the lifejacket made me float because of buoyancy. Buoyancy is a principle that was discovered by Archimedes more than 200 years before the birth of Christ. Just as gravity exerts a downward force on objects, buoyancy exerts an upward force and, if that upward force is greater than the downward force, the object will float. Buoyancy is why lifejackets keep us afloat and boats float.

Principles such as buoyancy and gravity are more than laws or rules as we normally understand them. Principles are things that you don’t have to know about, understand, accept or even consciously apply to be impacted by them. People were affixed to the earth long before they knew about or understood the principle of gravity. Things floated in lakes, rivers and streams long before people knew about or understood the principle of buoyancy. We can ignore the rules and laws of our society. While there may be penalties for doing so, it is possible. If this weren’t true, the evening news would be a very short program. We cannot, however, ignore principles. They will impact our lives regardless of our opinion of them.

Over the next five weeks we will be looking at one of the principles that impact our lives – the principle of the path. Like other principles, it isn’t an idea, a plan or concept that you choose to apply to your life. The principle of the path is affecting you every moment of every day, with every choice you make, with every goal you set. The principle of the path affects your personal relationships, your financial situation, your happiness, your health and your spiritual condition. This principle explains why some people are successful in life and why others fall short of their expectations and potential. However, as Andy Stanley says in his book on this subject, “…the principle of the path is more than an explanation.” Once we discover it and embrace it, we can leverage its power to change our lives.

Before we dig into the principle of the path, let’s look at one more well known principle to help us understand one of the key characteristics of the principle of the path. If you have ever grown a garden or planted flowers in your yard, you are familiar with this principle; it is the principle of the harvest. Just like the principles of gravity and buoyancy, its impact on you isn’t dependent upon your familiarity or knowledge of it. The principle of the harvest simply says that what you sow will determine what you reap. If you plant tomato seeds, you won’t get jalapeno peppers, if you plant marigold seeds, you won’t get petunias. I know this isn’t news to any of you.

There is a good possibility that you have heard the principle of the harvest applied to more than gardening and farming. Chances are, anyone who has attended church for any length of time has heard the principle of the harvest mentioned in a sermon or offertory meditation in the past. It has also been applied to relationships, finances, marriage, work, sports and health. What you get out of any aspect of your life is proportional to what you put into it. Neglect a friendship and it will fail. Slack off in your job and you will most likely find yourself unemployed. Don’t practice a sport and you won’t win. Even in the world of computing this principle is understood. There is an old adage amongst software developers that is shortened to GIGO. It stands for garbage in garbage out. If you put bad data into a program, no matter how well it is written, it will fail to provide results that are of any higher quality.

This principle of the harvest demonstrates a cause and effect relationship that can’t be avoided no matter what our desire, intention or hope is when we plant the seeds. You don’t have to agree with it; it is a truth that is not subject to your feelings. Like the principle of the harvest, the principle of the path is based on a cause-and-effect relationship. It can be summed up as: “Direction – not intention – determines our destination.” In the realm of geography, it is easy to see this principle in action. If you are in Overland Park and want to go to Oklahoma City, you have to go south. If you pick another direction, no matter how much you desire or need to be in Oklahoma City, you won’t get there. The same principle can be applied to other aspects of our lives. If we want to be financially secure, we won’t get there by burying ourselves in debt. If we want a sound marriage, ignoring the relationship or, worse yet, violating wedding vows, won’t get us there. I think you get the idea.

When we are looking forward, it is sometimes hard to see the path we are on. It seems to be human nature to fool ourselves into thinking that the decisions we make on a daily basis are just a bunch of unrelated events. Some believe that working harder or being better will get them where they want to be. Others feel powerless and accept their plight, explaining it as fate or luck. However, it is the direction we have chosen that defines our path and that path determines where we will end up. This is true in every arena of our lives. It is essential that we stop, discover the path we are currently on, determine if it is taking us where we want to be and, if not, change direction.

When we look back on our lives, it is much easier to see the path we are on. One of the cable channels had a series where a survival expert would be dropped in the middle of some unfamiliar, remote location with no supplies and he attempted to find his way back to safety. On one of the shows he was dropped in the middle of a very dense forest in Russia. The trees and other vegetation were so dense, he couldn’t see the horizon and that made it very difficult to navigate. To make sure he wasn’t walking in circles, he would periodically stop and look back at his path. To get his bearings, he periodically climbed a tall tree so he could see over the vegetation. His intention was to get to safety without outside intervention, but, he also knew that he had to establish and maintain the correct course to be successful. He knew that there were paths that would take him where he wanted to be and paths that would not. In life, there are many paths, but, they don’t all lead to the same place. In fact, they each lead to very different places.

The scripture we are looking at this morning is from Psalm 16. In verses 7, 8 and 11 we read:
I will bless the Lord who guides me; even at night my heart instructs me. I know the Lord is always with me. I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me...You will show me the way [the path] of life, granting me the joy of your presence and the pleasures of living with you forever.
One of the commentaries I read while preparing this sermon caused me to look at Psalm 13 through 16 as a series of Psalms. In doing so, a path was evident – a path that David traveled from hopelessness and despair to confidence and joy. Psalm 13 starts off with the question, “O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever? How long will you look the other way?” I don’t know about you, but, there have been times in my life that I have asked these questions of God. In each of the subsequent Psalms, we see an increasing level of faith and, in the opening of Psalm 16, we hear David proclaim, “I said to the Lord, ‘You are my Master! Every good thing I have comes from you.'” The entire Psalm is a prayer of acknowledgment that God is his refuge and it is in God that he places all of his trust. In our passage, David acknowledges that it is God who provides the right direction. David places his full trust in God to instruct him, guide him and support him as he travels the path that God has laid out for him. He came to realize that the path that leads to God’s glory is the same as the path to experiencing personal joy. Unfortunately, it is all too common to feel that pursuing God’s glory follows a different path than pursuing personal joy.

If we are to pursue a path to God’s glory, what does that mean? Jonathon Edwards, an 18th century preacher, theologian, and missionary to Native Americans was convinced that being happy in God was the way in which we glorify him. It was his belief that we were created for this purpose and, as such, it was not a preference, but, an obligation that we do so. In his early twenties, he preached a sermon on 1 John 3:2 – “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” In this sermon, he explains how seeking happiness and glorifying God are one in the same. Here are some excerpts from that sermon.

This glory of God, therefore, [consists] in the creature’s admiring and rejoicing [and] exulting in the manifestation of his beauty and excellency...The essence of glorifying…God consists, therefore, in the creature’s rejoicing in God’s manifestations of his beauty, which is the joy and happiness we speak of. So we see it comes to this at last: that the end of creation is that God may communicate happiness to the creature; for if God created the world that he may be glorified in the creature, he created it that they might rejoice in his glory: for we have shown that they are the same.

Glorifying God and our happiness are one in the same. This great truth should be the compass we use in determining the direction in our lives. What is life all about? Why do I exist? Why am I here? Am I to be happy or glorify God? The answers to these questions no longer have to be in conflict with each other. As John Piper puts it:

God created me – and you – to live with a single, all-embracing, all-transforming passion – namely, a passion to glorify God by enjoying and displaying his supreme excellence in all the spheres of life. Enjoying and displaying are both crucial. If we try to display the excellence of God without joy in it, we will display a shell of hypocrisy and create scorn and legalism. But if we claim to enjoy the excellence of God and do not display it for others to see and admire, we deceive ourselves, because the mark of God-enthralled joy is to overflow and expand itself into the hearts of others..
The Bible makes it clear that we were created to glorify God, not just on Sunday morning, but, every day with every part of our life. One example is in Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth where he proclaims, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.

Have you ever had an experience in your life where you missed a once in a lifetime opportunity? Have you ever made choices that resulted in problems for you or others? When you look back at those times, if you are like me, you experience regret that is integral with those experiences. You wish you could go back and do it all over again. Unfortunately, we can’t. Ann Nalick says, “Life’s like an hourglass glued to the table.” We can’t turn it over and start again, there are no do-overs (or for you golfers, no mulligans). As Andy Stanley says, “Experience is often a brutal teacher. Experience eats up your most valuable commodity: time.” Even though we might learn from a regretful experience, erasing the regret is nearly impossible. Regret can wound us emotionally in ways that are very difficult to heal. Our best option is to avoid regret. That is the promise that the principle of the path offers.

If we can embrace the principle of the path, leverage its power to our benefit and use the truth that glorifying God and seeking happiness are one in the same thing as our guidance system, we can get from where we are to where God wants us to be. This requires action on your part and on mine. It isn’t enough to merely understand and accept this principle. It will take action. We must be in regular contact with God – through prayer, reading the Bible and being engaged with the body of believers. In addition, we must be willing to change our direction and this may not be easy and it may not be without suffering. But, remember, it is our direction, not our intention, which determines our destination. As my dad used to say to me all too often, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” When we are lost, driving faster or longer won’t make us “un-lost.” We have to stop, get our bearings and then change direction. Are you where you want to be? Do you know where you want to be? Don’t waste another day of your life traveling the wrong direction.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Thirty five years ago today, June 19 started off like any other day. It was a typical Thursday. It started off by going to work and, until early evening, it felt just like any other day. Our Thursday routine was to eat dinner then go to the grocery store to do the week’s shopping. This particular Thursday in 1975 took a dramatic change when we returned from the grocery store. We no sooner walked in the door and an old friend of the family called. After exchanging the normal greetings, he told me there had been an accident involving my father and that I needed to get to the Medical Center of Independence as quick as possible. All he would tell me is that dad had been injured and it was serious.

I loaded my pregnant wife and 2-1/2 year old son in the car and rushed to the hospital not knowing what to expect. My wildest imagination would not have been able to come up with the scenario I was met with at the hospital. When I got to the hospital, one of my uncles met me and took me to the waiting room where my mother, sister and some other family members were gathered. It was there that I was told that dad had shot himself in the head. Although still technically still alive, there was no hope; there was no possibility this was just going to be a close call that we could all work out once he recovered. I was taken to the intensive care unit where I was allowed to sit with dad in those final moments. I don’t know how long it was exactly – it seemed like a lifetime and it seemed like an instant that passed too quickly. All I know is that it those minutes changed me – some changes for the positive and some for the worse.

As I sat in the chair next to his bed and held his hand, I looked at the man that I had been the vision of strength for 22 years of my life. A man that wasn’t afraid of anything, a man who could do anything. This same man decided he was too weak to live through some unknown set of circumstances in his life. I was listening to a song by Creed this morning and it prompted to put these thoughts down because the chorus probably captures how he felt 35 years ago before he put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. The chorus goes like this:
Hold me now
I'm six feet from the edge and I'm thinking
That maybe six feet
Ain't so far down

I imagine that he looked at the situation in his life and decided that, for him, death wasn’t nearly as frightening and painful as whatever demon he was struggling with in his life. What he overlooked was the devastation he would leave in the wake of his decision.

Although my love for my father wasn’t diminished by his decision to end his life, it has made that love a source of pain and sorrow rather than a source of comfort and joy. Dad and I had a very good relationship. We managed to make it through my teenage years without any periods of rebellion on my part and, I think (or at least hope) that he wasn’t disappointed in me. Having transitioned out of those teenage years at home to an adult on my own with a family, our relationship was moving to a new level. All of that ended with one split second, with the flick of a finger.

While my faith has equipped me to stand at the edge and not fear being six feet down, it has also equipped me to endure the litany of hardships that have come to rest in my home over the last 35 years. I only wish that dad could have found that same level of faith. If you find yourself standing six feet from the edge, try reading Matthew 6:25-34.