Wednesday, August 26, 2015

#struggle - Week 5: "Rest"

Today we are going to conclude the sermon series that has taken us all the way through the month of August--a sermon series we've entitled #struggles: Following Jesus in A Selfie-Centered World.  We've been thinking together over the past several weeks about how technology and social media have shaped the way we think about what it means to be content, to have real relationships, to be fully authentic, show genuine compassion... 

And today we are going to take the final step in our journey as we explore how technology and social media have shaped the way we view what it means to rest. 

Turn in your Bibles to Hebrews chapter 4 verses 9-11.  

There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10 for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works,[a] just as God did from his. 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.

In Genesis chapter 2 the narrative tells us that God rested from all his work. After creating for six days, God rested on the seventh.  When the Hebrew people are freed from their 400 years of slavery in Egypt, God recalls this regenerative act and compels those who would be in covenant with him to do the same--to rest on the seventh day of the week.  

This observance of a day of rest, which became known as Shabbat, or Sabbath was to remind the people that they were no longer slaves.  They did not have to work without ceasing for the benefit of an empire.  They could push back against the cultures around them, and live differently.  

Over time, however, keeping the Sabbath became a bit of a chore for a lot of Jewish people, and there was a sincere desire on the part of many Hebrews to conform to the rest of society--to work and to earn, and to gain more wealth.  Taking a day off was seen as lazy in the first century.  

So the writer of Hebrews sets up this passage with a look back and also a look forward.  The look back is to the idea of Sabbath, and what it meant to the people of Israel, when they were finally freed from the slavery of working solely for the benefit of the empire.  There is "a Sabbath-rest for the people of God" the writer declares--a mindset, a way of being, a lifestyle that pushes back against the status quo, especially when the status quo is so draining and life-taking.  

And much like the Torah, the writer here frames the conversation about the Sabbath in life or death terms.  God unequivocally stated that if His people didn't keep the Sabbath they would die.  He didn't mean that he would destroy them, but that they would be destroyed by their actions.  In the same way the writer of Hebrews states that those who find new life in Christ, are given the opportunity to have a new sense of Sabbath that extends not to merely keeping rules and regulations for a particular day, but the kind of rest that affects all aspects of your life.  

We are going to come back to this in a moment.  
But first, I have to tell you about my love/hate relationship with technology. 

To begin with, I love my iPhone.  I love my iPad.  I love my Macbook Pro.  I am waiting until my birthday or Christmas so I can start loving my iWatch.  I have an Apple sticker on my car that lets everyone from my tribe know what's up.  I love being connected, I love being able to be informed about what is happening in the world, or around the corner.  I love knowing what my family and friends are up to on random Tuesdays in February.  I also love the fact that when I am traveling I can use my phone to find the best restaurants, best hotels and then use the same phone to help me get there quickly.  I love that I can be in touch with work and home wherever I happen to be, which makes my schedule more flexible, and makes me more productive.  

That's a lot to love, I know.  

But I also hate some things, too.  And I guess hate is too strong a word to use for this so I will defer to the words strongly dislike instead.  I strongly dislike the fact that I am so connected and so informed that I am never out of touch with people who sometimes I don't feel like talking to at the moment.  I also don't need to know everything that happened in the world last hour--some of it is depressing, heck all of it is depressing and it makes me feel like poop for most of my day.  I also strongly dislike the fact that to some degree my technology owns me.  I have this Pavlovian response every time my phone buzzes, vibrates, tweets, plays a tune, or otherwise indicates that someone is emailing me, texting me, calling me, facebooking me, or tweeting me.  The other day I was in a meeting with a bunch of pastors and someone's phone vibrated on the table and we all instinctively reached for our own just to check it.  

To coin a phrase--Technology is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.  

Here are the top 7 ways that you know you are addicted to social media:

You plan your #TBT’s a week in advance 
Your cat has it’s own Instagram page 
You look forward to going to the bathroom so you can own some candy crush while you are in there. 
You change your Facebook profile more than a 12 year old girl 
You sleep with your phone like a teddy bear 
You know what Kim Kardashian wore today. and yesterday. and the day before that. 
You came on to your spouse by texting them #areyouinthemood? 

There is actually a recognized phobia that is has now become widespread and totally associated with smart phone technology.  It's called Nomophobia--the fear of being away from your phone.  

Listen to these crazy statistics.  

58% of people don’t go one waking hour without checking phone
59% check email as it comes in and 89% check it daily on vacation
80% of teenagers sleep with their phones 

84% of people believe they couldn’t go one day without a phone

For many of us our phones are the last thing we check before we go to bed at night, just to see if we missed any texts, emails or Facebook status changes.  And they are the first things we reach for in the morning.  

I used to smoke cigarettes:  two packs a day.  I would often have a cigarette close to bedtime--out walking the dog and whatnot.  And my cigarette pack was the first thing I reached for in the morning after I had a cup of coffee on deck.  

So yes, our phones have become as addicting as cigarettes.  

The writer of Hebrews declares to us that God has a special rest in Christ for those who are willing to embrace it.  Like I said, this is more than just keeping rules and regulations.  It's a lifestyle, a way of life, a mindset.  The special Sabbath we find as followers of Christ frees us from the tyranny of the urgent, the slavery to our schedules and allows us to find newness of life, rest, regeneration.  

Almost all of the moments where Jesus has conflict with the religious elites of his day it comes over the Sabbath.  He healed on the Sabbath, which apparently was a no-no.  His disciples were walking along in a field on the Sabbath and picked some grain to chew on.  Not a lot of grain, just enough to chew on.  And this was apparently work, so some religious elites got their robes in a bunch over it and spouted off to that effect.  Jesus said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."  

The Sabbath is a gift.  Rest is a gift.  But what we do now instead of worrying about whether we are keeping some religious rules, we never stop to rest because if we do, we fall behind at work, or we feel guilty for taking time for ourselves, or we feel like we aren't being good parents because we aren't over scheduling our kids.  

St. Augustine once wrote, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our soul is restless until it finds rest in you."  

So how do we find rest in a world that is being shaped so sharply by our reliance on social media and technology.  

Well first, we need to be still.  Psalm 46:10 simply states:  "Be still and know that I am God."  

In our historic sanctuary we have this verse emblazoned on the wall in gold lettering.  This past week I conducted a funeral in there and a man I've never met greeted me at the door.  He'd been sitting on the side of the sanctuary where the verse was positioned.  "That verse," he told me, "that verse is what I needed to see today."  He was choked up for some reason, and I asked him why it was so meaningful to him.  He said, "I need to do that.  I need to be still and just know God, but it's so hard to do."  

How many of us feel like that, though.  We feel like there is a rest that is in Christ, that God could give us--but we can't even sit still long enough to know that God is God and we are not.  

Have you ever been around a small child that won't sit still.  If not, I can let you hang out with my soon-to-be five year old.  Seriously.  Take him home with you to try this experiment.  Just long enough for his mom and I to nap--is about how long it will take, if you were wondering. 

Try being still just now.  Let's see if we can go for a minute.  I'll time us.  

That seemed like forever, right?  So here's what I want you to do.  I want you to try being still and quiet for 5 minutes today.  No TV, phone, books, no conversations, no distractions at all.  Just total silence and solitude.  

I've been trying this while I drive in to work most days.  I have a 45 minute drive, so I turn the radio off, put my phone away so I won't be tempted to answer it or use the iPod... and I just sit and drive in silence.  It's magical.  

So if you feel like you can do 5 minutes okay, try 10 the next day.  And then keep adding time until you have some serious silence and solitude time worked out.  Maybe in that time you can journal, or pray.  But mostly just be still and know that God is God and you are not.  

Second, you need to make a plan.  Proverbs 13:6 says, "Righteousness guards the person of integrity, but wickedness overthrows the sinner."

I have recently started coaching football on my son's city team.  This doesn't come as a surprise to anyone here, but you need to have an offensive plan and a defensive plan if you want to be successful in football.  But when you are coaching, you start to realize this simple fact on a very real, very practical level.  If you don't have a plan for either,  or if you focus on one to the detriment to the other, you are probably going to lose.  

So when it comes to finding rest, you need to have an offensive plan and a defensive plan.  

Think about this right now.  You may want to even write something down on your notes as we talk through what this might look like.  

A defensive plan is all of the things you won't or don't.  In other words, you won't have your phone on you during a meal, in fact your entire family will put their phones away during a meal.  When you are on vacation, you will tell people, "don't call me unless it's a real emergency--the kind of emergency that I would think is an emergency."  Then don't answer your phone--get the message and decide if it is emergency worthy.  Don't answer email, either.  Just don't.  Form your own list, of course, but you get the picture. 

An offensive plan is all of the things that you will do, and will add to your life in order to replace the things that you are taking away.  This would include, adding in some daily Bible reading and devotional time each and every day.  Finding time for solitude and prayer.  Actually resting during the times you have designated as restful times.  Go on vacation and enjoy every moment of it.  Take time during the week to eat and laugh with friends, spend time with your grandkids, take your son to a ball game.  

God has a special rest in Christ for you and I.  A rest that is freed from the worry over what comes next, anxiety over death, fear from illness and decay.  We shouldn't care about any of those things because Jesus has overcome them. Death and sin and ickiness don't get to win.  Jesus does.  

As I think about that man I met this week, my heart goes out to him. The twisted pain on his face was undeniable.  He had reached a point in his life where he knew the things that mattered, he saw what was life-giving and regenerative, but still couldn't take the step to fully embrace that Sabbath lifestyle.  

What will we do going forward from this place today?  Will we immediately check our phones to see if someone texted us? Left a message on our last Facebook post?  Or will be simply take a few moments to be in the moment.  

Technology is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.  Don't let it have mastery over your life.  Turn that over to Jesus.  And rest.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

#struggles - Week 4: "Compassion"

Today we are continuing the sermon series that is taking us all the way through the month of August--a series entitled #struggles: Following Jesus In A Selfie-Centered World.  

Each of the last several weeks we have been exploring how technology and social media have been shaping our culture and our understanding of what it means to be content, to be in relationship with one another, to be fully authentic...  And the overriding question we've been asking is simply this: "As Christians, how do we navigate through this rapidly changing culture--a culture that is decidedly "selfie-centered."  

This week we are going to be talking about Compassion--and more specifically how the rise of social media and our increasing reliance on technology have shaped our ability to show it in some not very helpful ways. 

First, let's turn in our Bibles to Mark chapter 1 verses 40-41.  

40 A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
41 Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!”

So there's a lot going on in this short little passage of Scripture.  First, there is a man who has leprosy.  When leprosy is mentioned in the Bible, it's not always referring to leprosy as we know it today, which is a neurological disorder that often results in hideous disfigurement.  In the Bible this refers to pretty much any skin disorder--those that may have been harmless, as well as those that weren't.  

Ancient people believed that the skin was one of the openings in the body through which harmful bodily substances could flow out of, just as they would from other parts of the body.  Consequently, anyone who had a serious skin disorder with secretions was often subject to isolation.  

One ancient Roman physician recommended that if a stranger came into your village with these kinds of illnesses revealed through the skin, that they could be put to death.  A villager, or citizen should be banished to a great distance away, and only brought back when they were healed. 

In ancient Hebrew culture, these kinds of things were taken very seriously.  A person affected with leprosy would not be able to live near anyone from their village, and they would have to shout "Unclean!" every time they were near unaffected people, even people they knew.  They were excluded from all aspects of communal life--including religious life.  

So when this guy comes to kneel in front of Jesus everyone around him would have recoiled and probably tried to run away for fear of becoming unclean, or worse yet--infected. 

But Jesus doesn't run.  In fact it says in the text that Jesus became indignant.  That's a poor translation, honestly.  Which just goes to show you that there are a lot of moments in the Bible where translators decided to use a word that doesn't exactly explain to the fullest what is going on.  

We're going to talk a bit more about this, but let's just say for now that Jesus was ticked off that the man was so afflicted.  It affected him deeply in a gut-wrenching way.  And so he healed him.  

Which brings us to an important question:  Do these kinds of things tick us off, too?  Do we get angry when we see injustice, disease, poverty and evil in the world?  Do we feel for people in gut-wrenching ways when we see them lost, lonely, miserable, sick and afraid?  

Or are we too engrossed in our own lives, our own junk to notice the pain and suffering in the world around us?  Or to put it in the terms of our current culture: Are we so obsessive over what's happening in our Facebook feed that we can't even see the people who are posting on it?  

It's so easy to hold people at arm's length and to "like" their posts, their status updates on Facebook without really engaging with them.  It's so easy to allow social media to become an amorphous barrier between us and real people, with real issues.  It's so easy in our social media driven world to allow superficial interactions to take the place of genuine compassion. 

It's such a thing now on social media to "raise awareness" for issues that we think matter to us.  We love telling stories about crises in the world, injustices in our society, disasters and tragedies... And we love reading them, too.  Sometimes these stories can become international phenomenons on social media and the internet.  

A couple of years ago, a Christian activist group with missions in Uganda, decided to start a campaign to raise awareness of Joseph Kony, a warlord who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and most notoriously for forcibly recruiting young children into his army.  Within a matter of days millions of people around the world were posting a video the group created for that purpose--buying posters to hang up and bracelets to wear.  

Did it accomplish anything? Not really.  One communications expert from London described it like this: 
"What are they going to do with all this energy and interest? It's going to dissipate. ... I think this will crash and die, I don't think they will catch Kony. People will say they bought the bracelet and stuck posters on lamppost but that could have negative effects when it doesn't actually lead anywhere." 
Consider the social media campaign recently in response to the 200 Nigerian girls that were kidnapped by the Muslim extremist group Boko Haram.  Millions of people, including First Lady Michelle Obama, posted photos on social media accompanied by the hashtag #bringbackourgirls.  A website was created, a Facebook page, Twitter account... but it didn't take long for the story to wane, and the frenzy to subside.  We moved on.  

Meanwhile, the Nigerian military ended up freeing over 300 hostages over time, mostly by beating back Boko Haram and decimating it's forces.  Those stories didn't really make the news.  

Last year the big internet sensation was the ALS Icebucket Challenge to raise awareness and funds for fighting the dread disease ALS, commonly known as Lou Gherig's Disease.  Millions of people around the world participated by donating money, then shooting video of themselves having ice water poured on their head, before challenging friends and family to do the same.  

I read somewhere that because of the millions of dollars that were raised by this challenge, the same amount was essentially reduced from other charities, non profits and churches.  

In other words, people didn't find it in their hearts to be more generous--they simply took money they would have given to charity and gave it instead to ALS---because the ice bucket challenge was so novel, new and it was happening on social media. 

Listen, it's not wrong to raise awareness.  And if your nonprofit tells a better story or finds a novel way to compete for charitable giving, then go for it.  But what this speaks to is the way our culture has developed a very short attention span, and seems to be more in love with the idea of compassion than the reality. 

The University of Michigan conducted a comprehensive study on empathy from the years 1979-2009.  They noted a sharp decline in the early part of the 2000's in the way people felt empathy for others.  It was fairly dramatic, in fact. 

What the study uncovered is that we care 40% less about other people than people did in the 1980's.  And some of you don't really care about that last fact, if you are being honest.  

Some of the statements that were presented by the study for people to respond to went like this:  "I try to understand my friends better by looking at their perspective..." or "I often have tender, concerned feelings about the less fortunate..."  

This 40% drop in compassion coincides with something that was happening in our culture around the same time:  the rise of social media.  

What it revealed was pretty startling.  The culture within which we live is shaping the way we actually feel about other people, the problems in our world, tragedies, evil, poverty, you name it.  

As a result of the ever-presence of social media we are more obsessed with ourselves than any other time in human history.  In some ways this has been positive--because we now have more information and feedback than ever before to become better people, to show compassion in real and tangible ways.  

The problem is that we are ignoring all of this information and feedback, and typically choose the paths of least resistance, which keep us from being open, empathetic and caring.  

Add to this the fact that we now have overwhelming exposure to suffering that essentially has desensitized us to it.  Our attention spans are short, even for the most horrible things that happen in the world.  I remember the first time I saw the ASPCA video showing images of abused and abandoned pets with Sarah Mclachlan's song "In The Arms of An Angel" playing in the background.  I got choked up, man.  

But after the hundredth time of seeing that video and hearing that song--I basically yawn in the face of suffering.  I can't help it.  

Our social media-driven culture has also made it possible for us to avoid personal interaction with people in need.  If all we need to do is like their status on Facebook, we don't really need to get involved.  Social media has given us a resource for awareness like no other in history, but because of our increasing self-obsession, and desensitization to suffering, we tend to use it to hold suffering at arms length. 

We might say that we feel compassion, we might think that we are empathetic, but if we are just liking posts, sharing posts, giving people virtual pats on the back and promising to pray for them without getting our hands dirty... is it really compassion?  

Which brings me to this:  True Compassion Demands Action

Take the story from the Gospel of Mark that we just read.  I promised that we would explore why the translators used the word "indignant" rather than something that was better connected to the actual meaning of the Greek word it represents.  

It says in the text that when Jesus looked at the man with leprosy he felt splachnizomai for him.  This word basically means, he felt compassion "in the bowels," for the man.  It was gut-wrenching, in other words.  It made him sad, sorry, angry that the man was suffering so much.  So it moved him to act.  He healed the man in dramatic fashion, restoring him to the community and to life.

Here's what I've learned about myself regarding social media:  

The more I obsess over social media, the more I care about me and the less I care about others.  

On the other hand, here's what I've learned about myself regarding my relationship with Jesus:  

The closer I get to Jesus, the less I care about me, and the more I care about others.  And, as it turns out, the more I feel that gut-wrenching feeling inside that makes me want to do something about the things that are wrong in the world.  Actually do something about them, not retweet them.  

Because caring is not liking a post, but loving a person 

As followers of Jesus, we need to learn what it means to exhibit true compassion in this selfie-centered world.  So how do we make that happen?

We need to understand three basic things about compassion.  

First, compassion INTERRUPTS.  Jesus was always getting interrupted by people in need.  He'd be preaching and the next thing you know some dude's friends are lowering the guy through the ceiling to get healed.  Or he'd be walking on his way to go heal someone, and then someone else would grab hold of his robe to try to get healed.  EVERYWHERE he went, he got interrupted.  It was hardly convenient.  But it never stopped him from seeing people as they were, loving them, hating what was happening to them, and doing something about it. 

That's how it works for us, too. Compassion interrupts us.  I met a man recently who retired from his incredible job at a Fortune 500 company.  His wife had gone on a mission trip to Romania and came back with incredible stories of an orphanage she wanted to help.  Before he knew it, his plans for a calm retired life riding motorcycles, playing golf and fishing got interrupted.  He went to Romania and saw first hand the incredible need in the orphanages there, and decided that he and his wife would move there to do something about it. 

It's not convenient to truly show compassion, but it's incredibly rewarding.   

Second, compassion COSTS us if we do it right.  Clicking on someone's blog post, commenting on their Facebook status, favoriting their tweet or photo---all of that is just "drive by compassion."  It doesn't cost us anything to hold people and their needs at arms length.  

Being compassionate might cost you some time.  It might cost you a bit of your comfort.  It might cost you some actual money.  It might even cost you being present with someone who is in need and who desperately wants to know that someone cares beyond a Facebook "like."  Sometimes people disappoint you when you show them compassion.  I can't even tell you how many times I have been taken advantage of by people who have asked me for money, for a favor, for my counsel... and then I find out later that they were lying to me, working me to get something, or worse yet--used my kindness as a way to manipulate the people around me.  

So you can make blanket rules about that kind of thing--"I'm never helping anyone again!" Or you can do for one what you can't do for all.  It's true that you can't help every person in need that crosses your path.  But there are moments when you can help the one who is in front of you.  So what if it costs you from time to time?  

It costs something to truly show compassion, but the return on your investment far exceeds what you could ever imagine.  

Finally, compassion CHANGES LIVES and the life that is most often changed is your own.  I've led probably 10-12 different mission trips with youth and young adults.  I've seen some of the worst poverty that you can imagine--people living in conditions that you would not put an animal.  Our teams built houses, schools, outhouses, outdoor fireplaces made from 50 gallon drums... we repaired roofs, dug footers for foundations and so much more.  In addition we also held vacation bible school programs for the kids in the neighborhoods we served and a much more.  I've had my heart broken a hundred times while on those trips.  I thought I was making a difference--and I was.  I was responding to a desire to show compassion, and it was incredible. 

And it changed me.  It was one of the most indelible things that ever happened to me in my faith journey.  I'm not the same person that I was ten years ago because of what I've seen and experienced.  

It changes lives when we show compassion, not the least of which is our own. 

Some of you by now are feeling me.  You are starting to get fired up and you want to to know what to do to respond to that gut-wrenching feeling that you've been carrying around.  Some of you are starting to realize that there's more to life than just the affirmation on your Facebook feed.  Some of you want to do something to make the world a better place. 

To quote those great theologians from the blistering hard rock band Rage Against The Machine:  "...we have to start somewhere and we have to start somehow, what better place than here--what better time than now?"

We are making available to everyone here today who wants them, some "Random Acts of Kindness" cards.    You may not know exactly where God is leading you to show compassion, but having these cards is a way to take those steps.  When you are at the drive through at McDonald's offer to pay for the food of the person behind you and then have the cashier give them one of the cards.  

Or maybe you might be at Publix like one of our members was recently.  A man phoned our church and was flabbergasted because one of our members paid for his groceries and then gave him one of these cards.  

Pay for someone's toll at the toll booth, or their coffee at Starbucks.  Then give them the card.  It's a little thing, but it gets you addicted to showing compassion.  Because the secret to all of this is just that:  There is no feeling in the world like showing true compassion.  No greater high, my friend.  

So show true compassion this week.  And remember that Caring is not liking a post, but loving a person. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Christian Gerrymandering: Moving The Line On Faith Essentials

Recently, I received an email from a former attendee of my church who expressed a great deal of anxiety over the state of Christianity in America.  He was of the opinion that the current debates over various social and cultural issues were tearing the Church in America apart.  

He also believed that any deviation from what he identified as the "plain truth" of the Bible was a sign of the end times. 

I didn't have the time or the space to share with him all of my thoughts, but I did my best.  The more I thought about it, though, the more I wished I'd said. The thing is, there have always been issues that have torn at the heart of the Church.    

Consider the following quote from the 16th century reformer Martin Luther on the great controversy regarding the heliocentric theory of the solar system:  
“People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. This fool…wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.”  
Or this bit of awesome from Puritan leader Captain John Underhill in the 17th century, defending the killing of women and children in the Pequot Native American tribe: 
“Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…We have sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.”
These words were delivered in the 20th century in a treatise entitled Is Segregation Scriptural? by Bob Jones, Sr the founder of Bob Jones University
“Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble….These religious liberals are the worst infidels in many ways in the country; and some of them are filling pulpits down South.  They do not believe the Bible any longer; so it does not do any good to quote it to them.  They have gone over to modernism, and they are leading the white people astray at the same time; and they are leading colored Christians astray.  But every good, substantial, Bible-believing, intelligent orthodox Christian can read what the Word of God says and know that what is happening in the South now is not of God."
It feels like in every generation there are unofficial litmus tests created by certain camps within Christian culture to determine whether someone is a "real Christian" or not.  These litmus tests have nothing to do with the historic Christian creeds.  They have very little if nothing to do with the essential tenets of the Christian faith.  

Instead they are tied to political hot button issues, pietism, legalism and a host of other things that have little to do with the story of Salvation we see outlined in Scripture, and experience firsthand through personal transformation.  

But if you fail these litmus tests---God help you. 

My church is hosting an event next month to gather women from our community together for a day of worship and dynamic Bible study.  We were told that the leadership of a neighboring congregation discouraged their members who were selling tickets to the event from doing so.

The reason?  Because our congregation's theological stance on Christians and alcohol wasn't in line with theirs. We don't think there is anything in the Bible that expressly prohibits Christians from drinking alcohol in moderation. But our neighbors seem to think there is---or at the very least that Christians shouldn't drink alcohol just as a matter of practice.  

Here's the problem, and it's a fairly big one.  This event could very well reach people who are far from God, and help bring them to a relationship with Jesus. But what seems to be ruling the day on this matter is the mistaken and dangerous notion that our differences over this issue are greater than the Gospel.   
Woody Allen was right when he said, "If Jesus came back and saw what was being done in his name, he would never stop throwing up."  
In the Reformed tradition of the Christian faith (within which I happen to reside) there is a wonderful statement of Christian unity and forbearance that I strive to live into.  I don't always succeed, but I am trying.  Here it is: 
In essentials unity, in all other things charity.  
In a nutshell what this means is that there are essentials to the Christian faith--aspects of what it means to be Christian that all Christians share.  These are the basic intersections of our tradition.  

Some of these intersections include:   Salvation through Jesus, the doctrine of the Trinity, Baptism, the Lord's Supper, the Resurrection.  And in these essentials we can find common ground, despite the idiosyncrasies of our various traditions.   

The problem that we seem to be facing in our current cultural climate (which is an all too familiar problem) is that for many Christians the list of "essentials" has been expanded to include all kinds of things that aren't essential tenets of the Christian faith.  And worse, these new essentials seem to be connected not to thoughtful, critical biblical interpretation, but to particular social and political world views.  

What happens next is kind of like theological gerrymandering.  Gerrymandering in politics is when politicians change the borders of their districts to ensure that they will get elected.  If you know that there are pockets of resistance in your district, you change the lines so that you carve out the people you are sure won't vote for you. 

So basically this is what Christianity has become--one act of theological gerrymandering after another.  If we don't agree with someone on a particular issue, like whether it's okay for Christians to drink alcohol, for example, then we can simply make that an essential tenet of Christian faith--a sign or symbol for genuine Christianity, if you will.  

And, simply put, if you don't measure up to this new set of essential tenets--then you aren't really a Christian.  

I read an article online recently that contained an interview with megachurch pastor, author and renowned speaker T.D. Jakes.  In the interview, Jakes indicated that the views on homosexuality and gay marriage that he had previously held to be true were "evolving."  

This was a sizable shift from what Jakes had unequivocally stated just two years ago when he declared that both homosexuality and gay marriage were antithetical to Christian faith and practice, and not at all supported by the Bible. 

So what happened?  

It could be that he experienced firsthand the pain and grief of a friend or church member whose gay child committed suicide because they felt they were an abomination.  It could be that he began to interpret Scripture through different lenses.  I don't know, to be honest, what caused Jakes' shift, but I know that it wasn't done lightly. Jakes knew the score.  He knew that there would be hell to pay for his admission.  

And true to form as soon as the interview hit the news--the reaction from the Christian community came in fast and furious.  I read a lot of the comments to the news story.  They were brutal.  Jakes was called a "false prophet," "apostate," "deceived by the Devil," "in love with the world," and a host of other awesome things.  

You see, most of Jakes' audience is drawn from some of the the more theologically conservative wings of Christianity, and his admission was not received with forbearance by many of the occupants of those wings.  To put it another way--the reaction from his former supporters was generally devoid of any kind of grace, and in some cases downright hostile. 

A friend of mine shared with me that she'd had a similar experience.  Her admission to her conservative Christian friends about her doubts over similar issues resulted in a saddening conversation.  The friends ultimately told her that because of her views, they were concerned for her salvation. 

Her salvation.   

We do this with all kinds of issues where there is genuine disagreement regarding Biblical interpretation.  Some of these include: belief in a literal, six-day creation of the world, beliefs surrounding hell and who goes there, teachings of Jesus regarding the poor, what the Bible teaches about salvation and who receives it, beliefs about the end times... and so on.   

In Mark 12:30-31 Jesus responds to a similar challenge when he's asked to weigh in on an argument over which commandment was "the greatest."  The religious people of his day argued endlessly about what was essential to faith in God and what wasn't.  

Jesus told them that the greatest command was: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”  

How does this help us to understand our current problem?  Well, first of all Jesus acknowledges that there is definitely a baseline, a foundation for faith in God, if you will.  You might call the aspects of this foundation, the essentials

But implied in Jesus statement is not only a sense of openness regarding non-essentials, but also a warning against making them something they aren't.  In other words, he's basically saying "There are definitely things you need to do to obey God and to love others, but don't miss the forest for the trees."  

Or to put it another way, "You can get so hung up on trying to figure out what the essentials are that you forget about the essentials."  

Or you might also say: In essentials unity, in all other things charity.  

I think that our current Christian culture would do well to embrace this idea, especially since it comes directly from the mouth of the One we all claim to follow.  

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

#struggle - Week Two: "Relationships"

Today we are going to continue the sermon series that we started last week, a sermon series that is going to take us all the way through the month of August. The title of our sermon series is #struggle: Following Jesus in a Selfie-Centered world.  The basic overriding idea that will be moving us forward through this series is a simple one:  technology and social media are shaping our culture in ways that are often less than life-giving. Christians need to learn how to live faithfully and fully for Jesus within a culture that is--as we described it--"selfie-centered."  

So last week we talked about how technology and social media have influenced our culture's ideas about contentment.  Today we're going to be talking about relationships.  

One of the many things that I love about the technology that we use to communicate with is the immediacy that it offers us.  Back in high school when I wanted to talk to my wife when we were dating, I had to use the phone.  So we both had to negotiate with our parents for the use of the phone, and then we had to talk from a centrally located point in the house where everyone could hear.  

When I got older, I  was able to have my own phone in my room, which was amazing.  But even then, if my parents thought I had been on the phone too long, they would simply pick up the other extension and interrupt my conversation to tell me to hang up.  

Last Sunday morning while I was preparing to preach, my wife texted me in the wee hours while I was practicing in the Sanctuary and told me that she loved me, and that she was praying for me.  Periodically throughout the day we will text each other words of encouragement and loving thoughts.  

There have even been some moments when our texts have taken on a--shall we say--more saucy tone, if you know what I mean--and I think you do.  

Connecting through technology can really strengthen your relationship if it's done in warm, open and loving ways.  

Have you ever received a text message or an email from a friend that just brightened your day?  You may be having the worst day imaginable, but that one word of encouragement on your phone can turn it around.  

Or maybe you posted something vulnerable on Facebook.  You were worried about a doctor's appointment, or you lost your job.  Or maybe you just shared with everyone that you were going through some stuff and were feeling blue. When your friends responded to that post how did it make you feel?  Some of us have been on the receiving end of the positive comments and encouragement that we've received from our friends on Facebook or Twitter and it's unbelievably life-giving. 

But as we mentioned last week, for all of the positive aspects of social media and technology there are some negative aspects as well, and particularly as it relates to relationships. 

The term "friend" is evolving in our culture.  It's actually become a verb, believe it or not.  We will say that "I am going to friend that person on Facebook," or "They friend-ed me on Facebook."  Sometimes when someone acts like a jerk, we will "un-friend" them on Facebook.  

Facebook even allows you to categorize your friends.  You can have close friends, family members, college friends, work friends--just about every category that you can think of.  

Did you know that the average Facebook user has 328 friends?  I have 1141, which surprises me, to be honest.  I never dreamed that I would have this many connections on Facebook when I started using it almost ten years ago.  I've got over 400 followers on Twitter, too.  Some of you are scoffing at my numbers because you've doubled or tripled up on that.  Some of you are also surprised that I have that many friends.  When you realize, however, that Grumpy Cat has over 7 million friends on Facebook--it kind of brings you back down to earth, though. 

By contrast--the average American has only 2 close friends. And 25% of Americans have no close friends at all.  These surveys are recent, and they are far different than similar studies from decades gone by.  Things are changing.  

What we are starting to see is that increased online activity results in decreased personal intimacy.  

Technology is also changing our relationships because we are becoming addicted to immediate affirmation.  

When people post ideas, thoughts, photos, commentary, blogs and whatnot online, they almost immediately get responses.  And many of us do our best to post things that will garner positive feedback.  Studies have shown that when most of us receive affirmation, our brain actually releases dopamine in response.  Millions of people are constantly posting things on social media and then constantly looking at the responses to their posts.  Positive feedback releases dopamine, which becomes addictive.  So we go back to the well, over and over again to get buzzed on it. 

We obsess over what people are saying about us, or interactions we have with our friends online--and even people we may not even know that well.  "What did they mean by that comment?" we'll ask ourselves.  "Why didn't they respond? Do they not like me any more?"  

All of this results in a kind of deferred loneliness.  Just like you come crashing off of a high created by drugs or adrenaline--we crash off of the highs we get from constant, immediate affirmation.  And when we crash, we feel the loneliness that was there all along. 

Third, technology shapes our relationships because we now have the power to friendship on our own terms.  We can easily and quickly remove people from our lives online.  We can text rather than have a face to face conversation, and because we are texting we can speak when we want, control the flow of the conversation and maintain power if we feel like it.  We can delete comments on our Facebook feed or blog posts.  We can carve out anyone who pushes us. 

We also have the ability to sanitize our image, selecting just the right photo, posts, images of ourselves so that we always appear as though we are on point. This is selective presentation.  In other words, I have this idea of myself that I am holding on to, and I want to make sure that this image--free from all the warts and blemishes--is the one that I want the world to see. 

Here's the thing.  This endless cycle of seeking affirmation for the sake of affirmation isn't working.  And here's what we need to know as Christians: 

At the end of your life it won't be about the likes you got, but the love you showed.  

Hebrews 10:24-25 talks about this: 

24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, 25 not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

What the writer of Hebrews was doing was exhorting the early church to practice the power of presence.  Jesus himself had told his disciples, "Whenever two or more of you are gathered together in my name, I am there."  Jesus was called "Emmanuel" in the Scriptures, a name which means "God with us."  The term that Christians used to describe what God did through Jesus is "Incarnation."  Incarnation is a word that comes from the Latin word for "in the flesh."  So Jesus was the very presence of God in earthly, fleshly form.  God values presence so much that God took the steps to do whatever it took in order to show just how present God wanted to be. 

And in the early church people were starting to forget that.  They lost the power of presence.  They decided, "Hey, we don't really need to go to church in order to experience God--we can experience God right here on the golf course... or the lake fishing... or in the colosseum watching a friendly match between gladiators."  But presence is so important to God that the writer of Hebrews reminds the early church that they need to be practicing it with one another. 

So how does this shake out for you and I in practical terms?

Well first of all we need to learn to be present.  Romans chapter 12 verses 9-10 says this: 9 Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

Love must be sincere.  Love shows its sincerity through the lengths taken in order to show it.  In other words, if you are putting some effort into your acts of love toward others--it shows more fully where your heart truly is. 

So is it acceptable to text a friend a word of encouragement?  Absolutely.  Do those things.  Is it better to call them and talk to them on the phone.  You bet.  A phone call goes a long way.  

But what would be best is to drive to them, meet them somewhere to talk, invite them over for dinner, take them out for coffee and actually spend some time giving your presence, talking face to face, seeing their expressions, hugging their neck as we say in the South...  

I learned about the power of presence when I was studying as a chaplain at Florida Hospital.  There were many times when I was asked to go into a room where someone was unresponsive to pray with them, spend time with them and let them know in whatever way I could that God loved them.  Mostly I did this by sitting by their bed with my hand on theirs.  

I have also done this for people who have died suddenly in the night.  Their family was at home, and I had to call them to tell them their loved one died.  Then I sat alone in the room with the person who had died until their family came.  In Jewish tradition, the idea of sitting in silence with a person who is in grief is known as "sitting shiva."  Shiva comes from the word "seven" which stands for how long the mourning period will be. 

Second, we need to learn to be engaged.  1 Peter 4:8 says this:  8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

Peter is teaching the church that deep and engaging love can keep a relationship from running aground.  We are called to love each other deeply--be engaged with one another.  This isn't just physical engagement, the act of touching, hugging or even intimacy between couples.  This is deeper than that.  This is about emotional and spiritual engagement as well.    

So what does this look like?  Well it could mean taking your spouse on a date and both of you agreeing to leave your cell phones in the car.  It could mean having dinner with your family and turning off all of the televisions, ipads, iphones and what not.  Being in a place with someone doesn't mean that you are engaged with them.  You can be sitting at your kids soccer game, or at a family dinner, or gathering and be absolutely somewhere else if you are constantly on your phone or ipad.  

Some of you at this point are saying, "Aha!  See I don't even own any of those things. So this doesn't apply to me."  I was at a restaurant not too long ago, and there was an elderly couple sitting at a booth near me.  They both had sections of the newspaper and were engrossed in what they were reading while they ate.  They literally could not see each other because the paper blocked their view.  I would consider a newspaper "lo-fi" technology.  So it could be newspapers, a TV in the restaurant, other people, a book you are reading... anything that gets in the way of your being fully engaged with the people you care about needs to be put aside.  

I saw an ad recently from Duracell batteries that brought me to tears.  In the ad, a soldier, who is serving in the Middle East, records his voice in a stuffed bear with a recording device inside it.  He says to his daughter, "I love you baby girl."  At first she holds the bear all of the time, squeezing it every night.  Then she grows more and more sad.  She hears her father's voice saying, "I love you baby girl," and rushes into the room to see that he is on a computer screen via Skype.  She puts the bear in a basket, not wanting to touch it.  Late at night her mother hears the father's voice saying "I love you baby girl," as the little girl gives in and squeezes the bear just to hear it.  The last scene of the commercial is a tear-jerker.  She hears her father's voice saying "I love you baby girl," only this time it doesn't come from the bear.  She turns and rushes into her father's arms.  

You can watch it below... 

I love this commercial.  It brings home in just a few seconds everything I have been trying to say for the past twenty-five.  There is power in presence.  Technology is incredible.  It can connect us in ways that we never thought possible in previous generations.  But there is no substitute for real presence and engagement.  

God teaches us this through his Son Jesus, most clearly.  God is not distant, detached and removed from us--content to watch us scurry around, amused by our puny efforts. No, never!  God is near.  God is with us.  God took on human form in Jesus Christ to show us just how much we wanted to be present and fully engaged with the Creation he loves.  

So how will you live after today?  Will you go back to a detached, removed life where you have ultimate control over all of your relationships--holding people at arms length, never showing real love, or able to receive it?

Or will you put aside the things that are keeping you from being fully present, fully engaged, fully human?  Will you live in to the example of Jesus, who loved and gave of himself?  

The choice is yours.  

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

#struggle - Week One: "Contentment"

This week we are launching a brand new sermon series for the month of August--a sermon series entitled "#struggle: Following Jesus in a Selfie-Centered World."  

According to the dictionary, a "selfie" is a photograph that one takes of oneself with a smartphone or webcam that is then shared through social media.  The word "selfie" did not exist until ten years ago. But then again, neither did smart phones--at least the kind of smartphones that we have today that can take high resolution, professional quality selfies.  

Most selfies aren't an individual affair, though.  More often than not when most of us take a selfie, it's of the group we happen to be hanging with in the moment.  I saw a video where Johnny Depp was obliging some young fans who were taking a selfie with him.  "Why do they call it a selfie," he asked them in his Jack Sparrow character, "when there's more than one of you in it?"    

I have here today my trusty "selfie-stick."  The selfie stick is a relatively new invention that has emerged over the past several years out of necessity. Because selfies have become such a huge part of our culture, and because it's difficult to take a selfie and get everyone in the photo, you need a way to do so from a bit of distance.  A selfie stick is kind of like having someone with you all of the time who will take your photo.  

I'm going to take a selfie of all of us right now.  And then I am going to post it on Facebook.  

I could, if I wanted to also post this photo on Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Snapchat and LinkedIn.  I have accounts in all of those.  That's how I roll.  

Did you know that as of May 2015 Facebook reported that it had 1.4 billion users worldwide?  Twitter reports that as of this year it has 288 million.  But here's the kicker--neither one of these social media platforms has been around all that long.  

Facebook launched in 2002, but you had to be a college student with a university email address to access it.  It wasn't until several years later that Facebook became available to everyone.  Twitter launched in 2006, which is less than ten years ago.  

So essentially over the past ten years these two social media platforms weren't even part of our cultural landscape.  I started Tweeting in 2007.  I can remember when there was a little over a million people using it.  When you stop to think about how quickly social media has become such a huge a part of our lives, it blows your mind. 

 It used to be that you had to be on your home or office computer to access Twitter and Facebook.  Now people walk around all day posting their daily activities, thoughts, musings, photos of their food, and all sorts of stuff.  

Which brings met to hashtags. The title of this sermon series is "#struggle: Following Jesus in A Selfie-Centered World."  So what's up with all of the hashtags?  Some of you are probably thinking to yourselves at this point, "Hashtag?  That's a number sign, young feller."  Yes, the symbol still can mean "number" but to millions upon millions of people it means one thing:  hashtag. 

A hashtag is a way of marking a word in a social media post for the purpose of being able to track the way that word is trending online.  For example, we use a hashtag on our Facebook page from time to time: #fpceweek.  We did this so that people who like our page, church members and staff could post photos of our church activities and then mark them so we could access all of them later. 

If all of this makes your head hurt, don't worry.  I get that there are probably some of you sitting here today who don't have a smartphone, have no idea how to Facebook, tweet, hashtag, post or take a selfie.  It's all good.  You are at least aware that these things exist, and perhaps you have some concerns or opinions about the effect all of these technological and social media advances on society as a whole.  

You are not alone.  

Like most things there are positive effects of social media.  Because of social media people are much more connected to one another than they were before. If it wasn't for Facebook, for example, I would never know that my cousin had a birthday party for his little boy, or my friend from eighth grade had become a grandfather.  

Social media can help us develop a sense of community by allowing us to speak to far away friends and family in ways that we probably wouldn't if we were relying on things like phone calls, letters, etc.  

Social media also helps us develop an awareness of what is happening in the world--an awareness that has a name and a face, rather than a press release or news story.  When a friend posts something about a cause that matters to them, you are more likely to read about it.  Social media also enables us to get instant feedback on our ideas, thoughts, choices, photos, or any number of things that we share.  

But there are negative implications for the ever presence of social media in our lives.  Psychologists believe that young people who are coming of age in this social media dominated culture suffer from underdeveloped communication skills.  They seldom choose to speak to each other face to face or even talk o n the phone--preferring to text or message one another online. 

Additionally, constantly peering into the lives of other people online contributes to what psychologists call the Imposter Syndrome.  Imposter Syndrome is a disorder that prohibits people from internalizing their accomplishments.  They compare themselves to others, seeing their own success as diminished---a product of dumb luck, timing or worse: the result their ability to deceive other people into thinking they are something they aren't.  

Christians aren't immune to cultural influences either.  And sometimes it's hard to figure out just how we are supposed to act in a world that is constantly changing and moving forward so quickly.  We can choose to dig our heels in and try to cling to the past, which is what a lot of us do.  But there is no idealized past, and our God is not a God who remains stuck in the past.  

So what do we do?  How do we remain faithful to our calling as Jesus-followers when there are so many competing interests around us.  How do we follow Jesus in a "selfie-centered" world?  

This is going to be the center of our conversations over the next several weeks.  We're going to be talking about how as Jesus-followers we can find contentment, real relationships, authenticity, and space to rest in a culture that seems to value the opposite of all of those things.  

Today we're going to start those conversations by focusing on contentment.  

As I mentioned earlier, one of the unintended and negative results of a culture that encourages us to live our lives online is the widespread epidemic of people suffering from Imposter Syndrome in one degree or another.  The advent of social media provided us with all new ways to see what the Joneses are up to, and what we need to do to keep up with them.  

The more we compare ourselves---the less satisfied we are.  

Far too many Christians struggle with this.  We lack contentment with our material and financial status.  Every single day we are reminded just how much we don't have, what we aren't able to buy, what we can't afford.  Many of us seek to fill that lack of contentment by overextending our credit, getting into debt and living on plastic.  

We lack contentment with our relationships.  Many Christians feel like they have to put on a front so that their friends won't judge them.  They neglect real relationships in favor of something far less shallow and threatening.  

We lack contentment with our circumstances.  I counsel a lot of folks who find themselves spinning out of control, unable to find a handle on their lives.  They bounce from one crisis to another.  

I've heard it said that life is 10% circumstance and 90% response.  

This completely makes sense when we think about it.  Our lack of contentment in one area of our life can quickly bleed into others.  When we respond negatively to the things that happen to us, or the mistakes that we make, when we allow ourselves to fall victim to self-pity, when we wander into the trap of the Imposter Syndrome...  we will soon find ourselves in an endless cycle of negative thinking, speaking and living.  

We will say things like, "This always happens to me..."  "I deserved that..."  "I think God has cursed me..."  

What I am going to say next is one of the most important things you will ever hear--especially if you find yourself in that merry-go-round of misery.  

You will always battle with discontentment until you let Christ be all you need.  

Listen, I know that sounds like a bit of cliche.  In fact, it sounds like something you would hear from a cheery television preacher wearing a two thousand dollar suit who wants you to smile though your heart is breaking and then buy his book, donate to his ministry, sign up for his newsletter. 

I don't even really own a suit that fits me.  I wrote a book, but other than church members no one else except my mom bought it. I have no other ulterior motive here.  Just the simple truth.  You will always battle with discontentment until you let Christ be all you need. 

In Philippians 4:12-13 the Apostle Paul wrote about this kind of thing.  

12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength. 

What we need to know about this particular letter is that it was written when Paul was under arrest, awaiting trial in Rome.  He's basically chained to a guard. The only reason why he has writing materials, extra food, money to bribe the guard to allow him visitors--is because people gave them to him.  He has nothing.  He quite literally is at death's door.  It's believed that shortly after writing letters like the one we just read from, Paul was tried and executed by Caesar.  

Some scholars believe that Paul was born into wealth and affluence.  He was also a scholar, a student of one of the most famed rabbis in all of Jewish history.  Paul had been on his way to the top in his own culture.  But he gave it all up, walked away from it to follow Jesus.  He experienced hardship, hunger, shipwreck, beatings, imprisonment... once he was stoned nearly to death by an angry mob. So when he says "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation..."  we know that he speaks from experience.  

Paul figured out that if he had Christ in his life--he had everything he needed.  His contentment didn't come from the things of this world--they came from the Savior who had given everything to redeem him.  

So how do we find this kind of contentment in a selfie-centered world?  How do we truly embrace the kind of contentment that comes from a Jesus-centered life?  

I think we find it by doing two things:  Killing Comparisons and Cultivating Gratitude.  

First, we need to kill comparisons.  In 2 Corinthians 10:12, the Apostle Paul wrote:

 12 We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.

What does this say about people who measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves?  It says they are not wise.  And yet when we log on to Facebook or take a stroll through Twitter we will see more than our fair share of people comparing themselves to themselves.  They want to appear as though they have it all together, their life is always interesting, they are cool, good looking, in shape... you name it.  

I happen to love the people who use old photos as their Facebook profile photo. You ever see a friend do that?  Listen, everyone knows what you are doing.  You don't want to post a current photo because you feel too old, too fat, too wrinkled, too whatever compared to all of your other friends.  Who are probably using old photos, too.   

So how do we kill comparisons in a selfie-centered world?  Well, we can start by taking a social media sabbath.  Shut down your Facebook and all other forms of social media for a 24-hour period.  Take a month off if you're ready.  

Or you can simply hide the newsfeed of the people who push your buttons, who make you crazy, who you find comparing yourself to all of the time.  You don't need to "unfriend" them on Facebook to stop watching and comparing yourself to them.  

And then delete all of those shopping apps on your phone or tablet.  Because its a short step from staring at someone's profile on Facebook, looking at all of the things they have, clothes they wear, places they go... and then clicking to an online store where you can buy all of those things.  

Then do this... 

Celebrate with your friends.  Don't begrudge them.  When your friend goes out for a fancy dinner, on a great vacation, gets a new job, new house, new car, new relationship... don't grumble about your lot in life---rejoice with them!  Learn to experience real joy when the people you care about are celebrating.  

The second step to finding contentment in a selfie-centered world is by cultivating gratitude.  In Proverbs 15:15 we find this bit of wisdom: All the days of the oppressed are wretched, but the cheerful heart has a continual feast.

How many days of the oppressed are wretched?  All of them.  And this proverb doesn't mean people who are being oppressed by others--this means those who are oppressed by their thoughts, by their circumstances.  People, in other words, who walk around feeling sorry for themselves, miserable, ungrateful.  

But the person with a cheerful heart, it says, has a continual feast.  Everyday is a holiday for the person with a cheerful heart, the proverb is teaching us. 

Have you ever known people who simply live life for a living?  You know the type.  They never meet a stranger, they are constantly doing interesting things, they embrace the word "yes," they step into adventure, challenge and change.  They find joy in even the smallest things. No matte what is happening to them. 

My uncle has been living with leukemia for the past twenty-odd years.  He has had countless treatments, takes medication, has been dealing with side-effects of drugs... and now has to take chemotherapy--again.  In all of those years I have never heard my uncle complain.  In fact, he continues to work at a job he loves, finds joy in his family, has an incredible faith, never gives up, always has a smile and a kind word, never meets a stranger, is constantly learning new things... He lives life for a living.  

He's the kind of person who has found his true contentment in Jesus.  And nothing shakes it.  Because when you truly get this it doesn't matter what happens to you--illness, financial hardship, relationship disaster, grief and loss... you could care less because you have the One who endured far more for your sake in your life.  

You will be ready to stare down the devil armed with only a squirt gun shouting "Bring it on!"  That will be you, my friend. 

Another part of cultivating gratitude is learning to enjoy what you have rather than desiring what you don't have.  We get tired of the things we have because we've been programmed by our culture to do so.  We get tired of our car because it's not the newest model.  We decide we need a new house because the one we have isn't big enough.  We want a new job because ours is boring.  

Our friend Shawn Welcome told us this some months ago, and I repeated it in a recent sermon, but it's so good I'm going to say it again. What if you woke up today only with the things you thanked God for yesterday?  I for one would discover I didn't have a lot of things.  I take so much for granted.  We all do.  It's why I need Jesus.  

Because you and I will always battle with discontent until we let Christ be all we need.  

Imagine what it would be like to live into this.  Let's start small.  How will you live this out over the next week?  I want you to take your notes and write down at least two things you plan to do this week to kill comparisons and cultivate gratitude.  I'm going to sit here for a moment in silence while you think about it. I'm serious.  Let's just take a moment.  Write down two things that have occurred to you already--I know they have.  Then I am going to pray over you that you will have the strength to make them happen.  

And remember we will always battle with discontent until we let Christ be all we need.