Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Apocalypse of John: Video Teaching Series

So, for the past nearly two months I have been teaching a study on the book of Revelation entitled, "The Apocalypse of John."  We have been live streaming the teaching sessions for anyone who wants to watch at home, and the videos have also been available to re-watch for anyone who would like to see them again, or catch up on the series altogether.

I am also blogging on Tumblr (although I am pretty far behind the sessions at this point!) what will eventually become a companion guide for the videos themselves.

You can follow along at tumblr here:

Below are the sessions with links to the videos that you can view.

Session One - "How Do We Read Revelation?"

Session Two - "The Origin and Context of Revelation"

Session Three: "God, The Lamb, Seven Seals and Seven Trumpets"

Session Four  - "Cosmic Conflict (The Woman, Dragon and The Beasts)

Session Five - "The Harlot, The Battle, The Celebration"

Session Six - "The Kingdom, The Last Judgment, New Creation"

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Attitude of Gratitude: Week Two - "Come & Listen"

All throughout the month of November I'll be preaching a sermon series entitled, "Attitude of Gratitude," which is pretty timely considering by the time we finish the series, it will be time for Thanksgiving.  You're Welcome.  That's how I roll.

What we learned the last time that we gathered together (I was out for a week with a busted mouth) was that there is evidence of God's grace, blessings and favor all around us--if we are willing to see it.  In fact, we also learned that the every breath we take is a prayer of thanksgiving to God--as we say his name (Yahweh) each time we breathe in and out.  Which led us to say this...

When you finally realize all that God has done for you, the only true response is gratitude.  

I wanted to take things a step further this week.  We started pretty far out in the universe with the first sermon in this series--echoing the question that the Psalmist proclaimed: "When I consider the heavens... the moon and the stars... all that God has made... What is man that you are mindful of him?"  The answer to that question, as it turns out, is that God is not only mindful of us finite and frail humans--God loves us beyond all love.

Today, however, I would like to start in a place that is located a bit closer to terra firma--although you could make the argument that it, too, has a universal quality to it.  I'd like to start our conversation today by talking a bit about Facebook.  Particularly, I want to focus on something that I've noticed on Facebook more and more these past few months: The Gratitude or Thankfulness Challenge.

As near as I can tell people who are participating in the Thankfulness Challenge are taking a few moments each day to post a few things that they are thankful for, and they do this for a number of days--a week, a month, maybe.  Then they challenge their friends to do the same.  Honestly, it's kind of cool.  And it always seems to generate a great deal of discussion.

So why are people being drawn to this exercise?  What is it about reading what other people are thankful for that makes us so warm and fuzzy?  Do we see ourselves in their comments perhaps?  When they declare that they are thankful for having a house to live in, food to eat, good friends who tell the truth, a spouse who loves them---are we reminded to be thankful for those things in our own lives?

Or perhaps it's deeper than that altogether.  Maybe the reason why we find ourselves drawn to these kinds of exercises is because we desperately need a break from negativity, confusion, uncertainty and the bad news that seems to surround us on a daily basis.

It could be that gratitude is something that we all know we should express... but we don't seem to know how to do it.

Let's face it.  We have all had those moments when we've prayed a prayer of thanksgiving to God.  You found your lost keys after searching or them for an hour, and you exclaim without even thinking about it, "Thank you, God!"  You pass a test that you were sure you failed, and you find yourself saying, "thankyouthankyouthankyou..."  You sit down with your family for dinner after a long week and you look around at everyone and you want to freeze the moment.

These are what I would call Level One acts of Gratitude.  It's when you blurt out thanks for something that had meaning for you--like finding a parking space in a crowded mall parking lot, or when your football team wins in the last seconds of the game...  In the great big velvet painting of life, these things have no real import, but for you they are awesome.  

So you give thanks to God--sometimes without even planning to do so.

Then there are Defcon Two and Three levels of thanks.  You dodged a bullet.  You nearly ran off the road in your car and hit a telephone pole, but you didn't.  You find out that the tumor wasn't malignant.  Your child gets lost in a busy store and you find them hiding under a clothes rack.  These are the moments when you feel the gratitude in the deepest part of your soul.  And it doesn't matter what you believe about God in those moments---you feel grateful.

But for those of us who have eyes to see, and ears to hear--as Jesus would often say--we know something about those moments of gratitude.  They were  gifts from God, they were moments of unexpected grace.  Because you know deep inside that whatever could have happened sometimes does, but this time it wasn't your moment.  For whatever reason you were spared, and for this you give thanks.

There are hundreds of moments each day that we experience grace--some of them are small, personal and warm, and others are big, cosmic and just a little bit closer to the cold than we would have liked.  But for those of us who believe, truly believe, that the Creator of the Universe really does care about little old us... it's so much more.  They are signs of what God has done and is doing as part of his ongoing love relationship with us.

God isn't high in his holy temple, watching benignly as we stumble around here on earth.  Jesus proves that theory to be bogus.  Jesus shows that God wants to be down and dirty where we are.  To become intimately involved with us.  To show us just how much he truly cares.  And when you see this, you are changed forever.  Because when you finally realize all that God has done, the only true response is gratitude.  

And then typically when you feel that gratitude, you want to share it.  You want to tell someone about it.  You want to say, "You are not going to believe what happened to me..."  or "I can't wait to tell you about this incredible moment..."

Or you simply accept the Facebook Thankfulness Challenge and tell the whole world (or at least your 500 friends) why you feel so grateful.

Psalm 66 is going to be our guide today.  In the fourth century, St. Jerome called Psalm 66 a "Psalm of Resurrection" in his Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible.  I love that.  Let's read it and see if you agree...

1 Shout for joy to God, all the earth!
2     Sing the glory of his name;
    make his praise glorious.
3 Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!
    So great is your power
    that your enemies cringe before you.
4 All the earth bows down to you;
    they sing praise to you,
    they sing the praises of your name.”[a]
5 Come and see what God has done,
    his awesome deeds for mankind!
6 He turned the sea into dry land,
    they passed through the waters on foot—
    come, let us rejoice in him.
7 He rules forever by his power,
    his eyes watch the nations—
    let not the rebellious rise up against him.
8 Praise our God, all peoples,
    let the sound of his praise be heard;
9 he has preserved our lives
    and kept our feet from slipping.
10 For you, God, tested us;
    you refined us like silver.
11 You brought us into prison
    and laid burdens on our backs.
12 You let people ride over our heads;
    we went through fire and water,
    but you brought us to a place of abundance.
13 I will come to your temple with burnt offerings
    and fulfill my vows to you—
14 vows my lips promised and my mouth spoke
    when I was in trouble.
15 I will sacrifice fat animals to you
    and an offering of rams;
    I will offer bulls and goats.
16 Come and hear, all you who fear God;
    let me tell you what he has done for me.
17 I cried out to him with my mouth;
    his praise was on my tongue.
18 If I had cherished sin in my heart,
    the Lord would not have listened;
19 but God has surely listened
    and has heard my prayer.
20 Praise be to God,
    who has not rejected my prayer
    or withheld his love from me!
To begin, this hymn is a communal song of thanksgiving, which means that it was sung in worship by ancient Israelites as a way of expressing gratitude to God.  It's a song about "we"---but it has "I" implications.   It tells about what God has done for God's people and for all of humankind, but it speaks right into the hearts of individuals who have experienced their own moments of salvation.

As you may have realized, this psalm retells the story of the Exodus of the ancient Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt.  But what is between the lines of this song is something incredible.  The Psalmist is declaring that the Exodus was ultimately not just for Israel's benefit but for the enactment of God's will for all the earth.  In other words, God was doing something in, among and through the people of Israel that was a catalyst for greater redemption, greater witness to the glory of God and God's grace.

The psalmist cries out, "Come and see!" or "Come and listen!" which is a plural imperative--meaning "EVERYONE--YOU HAVE TO HEAR THIS!  YOU HAVE TO SEE THIS!"

Scholars believe that this psalm may have been written after a time of tragedy or tribulation.  Something bad has happened, but the words of the song reflect a confidence in God that is not shaken.  "God has seen us through worse things," the psalm infers, "and God will see us through this."  In fact, the focus of this psalm is on God's activity, which is described as AWESOME! The word is actually nora, but it means "awesome," which many of you by now know is one of my favorite words.  This is about what God has done---what God is doing--and what God will do.  And whatever God does----is AWESOME.

The psalmist says that God turned the "sea to dry land," and that the people of Israel passed over the river on foot.  The word he uses for sea is yam  and the word for river is nahar.  Both of these words were also words to describe elemental deities in the ancient Canaanite religion.  Yam and Nahar were defeated by the Canaanite god Baal and put under his sovereignty.

The psalmist is telling us this why exactly?

He's saying in a very subtle way that would have been evident to those who first sang this--"God is above all false gods.  God is sovereign over nature.  The Creator, the Almighty, the God-of-Angel-Armies has been and always will be on your side."

There is a cosmic dimension to this---just as we discovered last week.  God has done amazing things in Creation.  There is so much that is beyond our comprehension about this God.  And yet, this God has been present in our history, in our past... this God has shown up when we felt all was lost.  This God cares about our troubles, and woes.  This God will deliver.

What this does for those of us who are awake and listening is simply this... It makes us aware that there is something bigger going on around us.  We came here today to church as acknowledgement of that.  By gathering here we affirm that we are better together, with others, than we are alone.  And this affirmation should lead us to individual appreciation.  Because in the end, it is our individual choice, our personal decision to truly offer thanks, to truly be grateful. And we can sing along when we gather for worship, but the truth of our sentiment is tested when the rubber meets the road in our own lives.

So why is it so difficult for us to simply live in gratitude?  Why is it so hard for us to make gratitude our lifestyle, rather than just something we express once in a while when we're overwhelmed by it?

Psalm 66 reveals to us that human beings worship God because of who God is, which is revealed in what God does.  Our gratitude toward God is a direct result of our realization of God's character through the activity of God in our lives and all around us.  The trick is---we have to always be open and willing to see it even when things are not going that well.

So how do we make this work? What are some practical ways that we can have an attitude of gratitude each and every day?

First, I think we need to Remember the Ebenezers.

The Ebenzers aren't a New Wave 80's band that dressed like characters from a Charles Dickens story.  Although, that would be cool.  Ebenezers are literally "stones of hope."  They are stacks of stones, monuments that were erected by the ancient Hebrew people to help them remember momentous occasions when God did something incredible in their lives.

We all have Ebenezers.  They serve as memorials that we can look back on our life and see scattered throughout our time line.  I have some Ebenezers of my own.

I was born with glaucoma--and would have been blinded by the disease had my mom not insisted on going to an eye specialist even after the family doctor told her it was nothing.

When I was fourteen my family moved across the country from Colorado to Florida.  I was angry.  I didn't want to leave my friends.  When we arrived here it was 100 degrees in the shade.  I was miserable.  And then one summer night a few weeks later I met the love of my life on a football field.

I have had more than my fair share of car accidents.  More than once I actually thought, "This is it. This is when I cash it in."  But I'm still here despite my poor driving skills.

My wife and I were apart for five years before we got married.  I was recently divorced, which she didn't know.  She was about to be married, which I didn't know. Because of a chance meeting of an old school friend on a random night in the middle of an arena full of people we found each other again.

My youngest son fell into our pool when he was two years old.  When I realized it and rushed to pull him out he was under water, not breathing and sinking.  If I had been there just a minute later...

There are stones of hope throughout my life.  I think about every job I've ever had, every class I ever took, all of the ministries, churches I served... all of those things were leading me to this moment, to this place.

Stones of hope.  Remember the Ebenezers.

Second, Remind Yourself That It Isn't About Yourself.

Sometimes the things that you are going through, the stuff that has happened or his happening have nothing at all to do with you.  Maybe it's about the lives you touch, the roles that you play, the words that you speak into the world.  Like we said earlier there is something greater going on around you.  There is a cosmic aspect to all of this--a connectedness with those around you that is bigger than you by a long shot.

The story of the Exodus was a story about how God saved some people, but it pointed to a bigger truth about the nature of God.  No matter what you might be going through in the moment--there is a story you have to tell about how God has done great things.  You need to tell that story.  The world needs you to tell that story.  Stop feeling sorry for yourself and tell your story.

Finally, Realize that God is Still In The Resurrection Business

There is a timeless aspect to Psalm 66.  The people singing that psalm weren't even a glimmer in anyone's eye when God rescued the Hebrew people from slavery.  But it made them realize that God wasn't trapped in the past.  It reminded them that God was imminent, close and still working.  God wasn't there God was here.  

You need to know this.  God LOVES to bring what was dead back to life.  This is the very nature of God.  The Apostle Paul loved to talk about Jesus as the FIRST among those raised from the dead.  This means that God was just getting started.

One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, once wrote, "If you are patient and are paying attention, you will see that God will restore what the locusts have taken away."

Remember the Ebenezers.  Remind Yourself that its bigger than you.  Realize that God isn't done... that trials and tribulations don't get the last word.  Lift up your thanks. Proclaim your attitude of gratitude to the world.  Shout it out loud!  "Come and listen! Come and see!  Let me tell you what the Lord has done!"

Because when you finally realize all that God had done for you, the only true response is gratitude.

Attitude of Gratitude - Week One: "A Little Lower"

This week we are beginning a brand new sermon series entitled, "Attitude of Gratitude," which will take us all the way to the end of the November and the season of Advent, which is nearly upon us.

November just seems like the perfect month to talk about gratitude, don't you think?  We are becoming masters of the art it ti-ming around here, man.  Boom.

Each of the sermons in this series is coming right out of the Psalms, which is a bit unusual for me--I don't often preach on the Psalms.  Typically we read from the Psalms on Sunday mornings in worship, or we sing songs that are drawn from the Psalms when we aren't reading from them--and sometimes we get crazy and just do both.  But we don't often have sermons from them, so I thought we would change that a bit.

Let me read to you from Psalm 8, if you would indulge me...
1 O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens. 2 Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger. 3 When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; 4 What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? 5 For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.6 Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: 7 All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; 8 The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. 9 O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!
For a moment, I just want to focus on verses 3 & 4--we'll come back to some of the other ones in a moment...
3 When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; 4 What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? 
When I consider the heavens...

Did you know that the universe is expanding?  It's true.  Not that it needs to, mind you.  Scientists have been able to measure the edge of the universe as being roughly 90 billion trillion miles away.  I didn't just make up that number.  The universe is vast.  Our solar system fills less than a trillionth of the available space in the universe.  It may be small, but it's quick--our solar system moves at 558 thousand miles per hour and even at that speed it takes 200-250 million years for it to orbit the Milky Way Galaxy, which we are a part of.  The Milky Way is part of 54 other galaxies that are part of what is called the Local Group, which is part of a larger group called the Virgo Superduster.

Scientists using the first of the Hubble telescopes and Hubble-made instruments began to pick up some crazy stuff in the 1950's.  They noticed that there were galaxies far, far, away who were moving away from us--red tint meant moving away, blue tint meant moving toward.  With some quick calculations they determined that the universe appeared to be expanding... growing... into the future.

In 1964 scientists using improved Hubble stuff started picking up something else--radio waves from the past, echoes of a massive explosion that they believed happened about 13.7 billion years ago.  Echoes of the past, from the beginning of something that no one really can explain.

Then things started getting really weird scientists began discovering that gravity didn't really work the way it was supposed to in some cases--like the Neutron Star for example.  The Neutron Star is so dense and has such intense gravity that it kind of implodes into itself into concentrated matter.  It weighs 200 billion tons... and get this... it fits into a teaspoon.

Did you know that the Earth weighs 66 billion trillion tons and is moving through space at 66,000 mph?  It's also rotating at a speed of 1,000 mph at the equator, which means that Paris is moving at the speed of 600 mph which explains why you get vertigo when you go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  Unless you go at night with your best girl, and then you get vertigo from being in love, baby.

On top of all of this--the continents are constantly shifting, there are at least 2 earthquakes every day somewhere on planet Earth.  The current placement of the continents has only been in place for 1/10 of 1% of history.

And get this, when you look up into the night sky, you are gazing at light that began making its way to you millions of years ago.  The speed of light is funky, too.  If you were traveling in a train that was moving at the speed of that millions year old light you are seeing in the sky, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between where you were, where you've been or where you were going--everything would appear to be right... now.

So to recap... The universe is expanding, and is beyond our comprehension... The Earth is shifting, spinning, turning, rotating, slipping, sliding... There is no universal up, no universal down, no objective stationary place of rest, no absolute viewpoint only views from a point... And the sun, which is one of those stars that we gaze so longingly at in the evening, is made of matter, but is also energy... at the same... time.

And then there's you.  A combination of water, carbon and a few other things that stumbles around in the dark looking for a flashlight for about eighty years--if you're lucky--before you go back to being dust for other things.

"What is man, O God, that you are mindful of him..."

You are small.  You are dust.  You are only here for a breath of time.  And all it takes is a glance into the sky at night to be reminded of just how crazy-awesome-wonderful that all of Creation is, and how tiny, insignificant and not-that-awesome you seem to be.

Except you aren't... tiny and insignificant.  To God.

"For you have made human beings just a little lower than the angels, and crowned them with glory and honor..."

To God you are amazing.  To God, you are his best creation.  To God you are the very thing that God, the creator and sustainer of all of that awesomeness that I related to you a moment ago, has decided to imbed with his very DNA.  You are a co-creator, a shining composition of stardust and spirit that was put in charge of reflecting God's glory to the world.

What do you have to say... to that?

"Thank you," might be a place to start.

Throughout this sermon series we're going to be lifting up a very important truth that I know can change your life if you just embraced it as a way of living...


Let's return to Psalm 8 just for a moment.

There's some really awesome stuff about this Psalm that I would like to share with you.  To begin, this is the first hymn of praise in the Psalter--it interrupts a series of hymns that are prayers for salvation, and it does so for a reason.  Psalm 8 essentially establishes that when it comes to the story of how God is saving the world... humans are important. Additionally, it is the only hymn composed as a direct address to God, which sets it apart even more.

What the psalmist wants to convey is that it is God alone who has established dominion over the chaos--who brought order to the cosmos and has brought forth creation.  And this same God who created all things and continues to create even now with surprising energy and wonder has given human beings an incredible charge.  He created them, according to the hymn, a little lower than the angels, and put them in charge of being his under-shepherds, so to speak.  Humans have been given dominion over the creation on Earth to bring forth civilization to continue creating, to be fruitful and multiply, to care for the creatures and the Creation so that it will continue to care for them...

The psalmists says that God "remembers" and "visits" humans--speaking right into the divine response to human frailty and fallibility.  In other words, it's like we are nothing but a bunch of toddlers who can't really speak, and who toddle around the room breaking things, wetting our pants, spitting up food, screaming when we want something and falling asleep at really, really, inopportune moments---and God is hanging with us anyway... never leaving, teaching, showing patience, "remembering" us and "visiting" us in our frailty with love and kindness.

Listen, it's easy to feel small when we think of these really big things.  Looking up in the night sky in wonder shouldn't leave us lost in the cosmos, though.  This is about feeling real awe and wonder at the God who chose to make us royal agents---to make royal agents out of small specks of carbon and water.  We are created in God's image, imbued with God's creative energy, and covered in grace and salvation.

If that doesn't make you want stand up and say "Thank You!" I don't know what else will.

When I was a kid, I remember going to my father's hometown of Seibert Colorado.  We would go outside at night when we were there, and look at the stars.  The nearest neighbor was miles away.  There were no city lights, no glow from terra firma to blind us.  And the sky was choked with stars, so full it felt like it might burst.  And I remember standing there with tears in my eyes as a child feeling small, and incredible and so blessed to be able to see the handiwork of the Master Artist.

I remember sitting in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome frustrated because I had prayed for a sign, a moment of clarity from God.  I figured that if I couldn't find a sign of God in the very epicenter of the Christian religion for nearly two thousand years, I was hopeless.  And then I missed the sign.  I was in a gift shop when a pure white dove flew over the heads of everyone out in the courtyard, including my wife who hates to shop.  The dove circles everyone in beautiful fashion and then disappeared leaving them exclaiming with joy.  As I sat there on the pew moments later I was mentally punching myself in the face.  That had been the sign, and I had missed it.  I was hopeless.  Then I looked up on the altar and saw a beautiful stained glass window of a dove descending.  I heard almost as the sound of a voice next to me the words, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  Beloved.  You are Beloved."  I don't remember crying as I walked back from receiving communion, but I was because the tears where rolling down my face.

The other day, I half-jokingly said to my ten year-old son, "God's timing isn't very good sometimes.  I just don't get it."  He looked earnestly at me and then said.  "You have to trust him.  God's timing is perfect."  I felt like my heart would burst inside of me.

In the moment that Florida State beat Notre Dame last week I was with all of my boys--who stayed up late with me to watch the game.  We had been on pins and needles the entire time.  When when we won, all of us jumped up and down and found ourselves group hugging--even my four year old who was too little to know what had happened.  I wanted to freeze that moment forever, it was so perfect, so incredible, so full of God.

All of the beauty in this world, all of those moments that feel divine they have a name.  YHWH.  The unmentionable, unknowable name of God in Hebrew.  It is thought by some ancient rabbis that the name of God is described thus in the Hebrew alphabet because it sounds like a breath.  YHWH.  When you breath in, YHWH, when you breath out YHWH.

The psalmist says that the name of God is praised by infants.  This is puzzling on the surface, but not if you understand what he meant.  The psalmist is expressing that every human sound, every breath is a response to the universal reign of God. When you draw your first breath, you speak the name of God, and for all the days of your life from that moment.  And when you draw your last breath you speak the name of God until life has left you and you are finally with God.


When you finally realize it... when you finally realize just how deeply and truly that the Creator of the universe loves you...  when you finally begin to get just how interested God is in you... when you finally realize that the God whose name you speak each time you draw breath has exalted you, lifted you up and desires nothing more than your joy and fulfillment... when you finally see that this same God gave everything, suffered everything, took on everything to save you...

The only thing you can possibly say---or should I saw whisper...  is Thank You.

When you finally realize all that God has done for you the only true response is gratitude.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Book Review: The Zimzum of Love

For those of you who know me by now, I've been a big fan of the work of pastor, author and speaker Rob Bell for years.  I've attended four of his conferences, read all of his books, bought all of his videos and I even have a t-shirt I bought at some event he did somewhere.  Listen, Rob actually knows me by name and not because I'm some weird stalker, although those last few sentences might indicate otherwise.

But my affinity for all things Rob Bell has associated me with a particular strata of Jesus-follower--the kind that are summarily dismissed by most conservative, evangelical Christians.  Where you stand on liking or disliking Rob Bell is now up there with abortion and gay rights as a means of identifying where you land on the conservative/liberal theological continuum.

This is unfortunate.  Because Rob has written some amazing things that have spoken to so many people who were trying to figure out what it means to believe and follow God.  His work scares more traditional Christian-y people because they honestly misunderstand what he's trying to do.  Rob doesn't write Christian-y books for Christian-y people.  He's definitely a Christian, and has a very high view of the Bible--higher, I would say than many people who claim the Bible as their authority for faith and life.

Rob writes books for people who used to know God, who don't believe in God, who have decided that God isn't for them... and for those of us who want so desperately to have better words to talk about God to people who need to know God better.

And this leads me to Rob's latest book--which he wrote with his wife Kristen.

Rob & Kristen Bell's new book The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage is a book on marriage written by two Christians, who are writing to all kinds of people regardless of their beliefs.  It is a book about the energy that exists between two people when they come together in marriage--energy that is responsive, dynamic, exclusive and sacred.  It is a book that lifts up marriage not so much as an institution, but as a life-giving, transformative, energetic, generative miracle.  In their own words Rob and Karen want "more" marriages and "better" marriages.  Their purpose in writing this book was to help people understand marriage as a zimzum.

Zimzum, according to Rob and Kristen, "is a Hebrew word used in the rabbinic tradition to talk about the creation of the world..."  The idea is that before the creation of the world there was only God, only the divine.  And when God began to create, God needed to create space for what wasn't God.  The word they came up with for this was tzimtzum--what Rob & Kristen call the "divine contraction."  God "contracts" Godself so that "everything we know to be everything can exist and thrive."

To that end, the zimzum of marriage is when you create space for another to thrive while they are doing the same thing for you.  And this interaction creates something that did not exist before.  This is more than just simple "give" and "take." It's beautiful, mysterious and awesome.

This is a unique book in a lot of ways.  Rob and Kristen wrote it together--their words are presented as responses, a conversation of sorts between them.  There are Rob's words, then there are Kristen's words--then there are the words they wrote together.  You get their different perspectives, their own zimzum as you read.  I loved this about the book.

Additionally, Rob and Kristen skillfully "sneak" the Gospel in between the lines.  There are doors that are cracked open for people who might be looking for something more in their life, in their marriage.  They teach about the Trinity, about the ways that marriage helps us understand God more fully--hints at the ways that marriage reminds Christians of how Christ loved the Church and "gave himself for it."  

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is seeking to improve their marriage.  It can be read as part of a small group, of course, but I think it's best to read as a couple.  There is a discussion guide at the end of the book that I think is very helpful.  I truly believe this is the sort of book that could be read by Christians and non Christians alike to understand and better their marriage.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Haunted Week Three - "Haunted By Hurts"

This week we are moving forward in our sermon series for October--a series that we've entitled "Haunted."  I shared earlier how I began thinking about this series some time ago when I was reflecting on the various counseling sessions I've done over the years with people in crisis.  Almost all of those people had something in common: They were haunted by something in their past--regret, doubt, fear or hurts.

I started thinking about how so many of us are haunted by the our past, and how much that affects the way we feel about our present situations and how it can also ruin our vision of the future.  But it's difficult to let go of some of these powerful, negative emotions.  They can haunt us terribly and in some cases can keep us just a step or two away from falling apart.

And so we've been coming back to a very simple and profound truth throughout this series--a truth that is life-changing and transformative for those who are haunted by their past.  YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE HAUNTED BY YOUR PAST IF YOU TRUST THE ONE WHO HOLDS YOUR FUTURE.   In other words, if you are courageous enough to put your faith and trust in God and believe that God does actually have a plan for your life that is meant for your good--you can be set free from the things that are haunting you.

Today we're going to spend some time talking about hurts.

There is a fantastically melancholy song by the band R.E.M. called "Everybody Hurts."  The lyrics go something like this:  If you're on your own in this life/The days and nights are long/When you think you've had too much of this life to hang on/Well, everybody hurts sometimes/Everybody cries/Everybody hurts sometimes/And everybody hurts sometimes. 

It's actually a pretty uplifting song--just melancholy.  And it highlights something that is true for each and everyone of us.  Everybody hurts.  Every person in here today has experienced hurt in their life--we've been wounded, let down, disappointed, betrayed... or worse.

It's that moment with that person who did that thing that just wrecked us.

When I first started in ministry I served a large Presbyterian church in suburban Chicago as the Director of Youth Ministries.  I go the opportunity to preach a couple of times, which was no small feat for someone who hadn't even finished seminary yet.  I was the first person in the church's 150 year-old history to not stand behind the pulpit when I preached.  I didn't know any better.  I also encouraged the crowd to say "amen" a time or two, as you can imagine.  When I was done preaching on both occasions the congregation applauded--at two difference services with over 800 people in attendance.

But there was this one woman who wasn't happy.  She wrote a letter to the Session accusing me of trying to turn them into Baptists (as if) and trying to feed my ego by eliciting a response from them.  She also made note of the fact that the congregation applauded--which apparently was her thing, anytime anyone applauded anything she made a note and complained to the Worship committee.

When I read the letter she wrote accusing me all of the things she was accusing me of doing--I was deeply hurt.  It let the wind out of my sails.  It tarnished what had otherwise been a very affirming experience.

Years later when I was serving a small church not far from here as an Associate Pastor I was leading a growing and thriving youth and family ministry, but soon found myself subjected to a campaign of lies, gossip, false accusations and other assorted wonderful-ness by a church member who decided that I was the devil incarnate.

And then there was the couple who I thought were close to me who abruptly left the church, refused to tell me why and then began to actively try to recruit other people to leave the church with them.  I found out later that their reasons for leaving and what they believed about me were completely false, but they never bothered to share them--they preferred to just try to hurt me instead.

These are the kinds of things that you don't easily forget.  Even now I still feel the pain of them as I share them with you.

But these hurts are pretty tame compared to the hurts that many of us who are gathered here are carrying around with us.  Some of us are haunted by things that we can't or won't share--hurts that are so deep that we don't think we're ever going to be completely free of them.

Maybe there's someone here today who has been betrayed by a loved one.  It might have been a spouse, who cheated on you--broke your heart and left you wounded and breathless.  Perhaps it was a relative who stabbed you in the back so ruthlessly that you still can't believe it happened.  Or a close friend, who betrayed your trust and shared with others things you told them in secret.

Maybe there are some here today who have suffered severe disappointment.  You were passed over for a promotion that you knew you deserved, but it went to that guy who hadn't even been with the company that long.  Maybe life hasn't turned out the way you thought it would, and that realization has left you haunted.  Or maybe you were hurt by a church in the past--or a pastor.

There could be some here today who have suffered abuse--physical, emotional or even sexual.  Maybe the person who hurt you was a loved one that you trusted.  You've been carrying this hurt around for a very long time--it haunts you like nothing else ever could.  It feels like it will never go away.

We don't have to live this way.  We can be free of the things that are haunting us--our regrets, our doubts, our fears and our hurts.  Jesus told his followers that he didn't come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.  He also taught that his mission was to set people free from the things that were haunting them, enslaving them and keeping them from being the people that God had dreamed for them to be.

One of the many things we learn in the Bible is that the things of earth will pass away, but those things that are of God's kingdom will last forever.  The hurts that we've experienced, the pain, the haunting feelings that plague us are not eternal--they will not be present in the kingdom of God.  Because there will come a day when all things will be made right, when God will wipe away all tears, when there will be no more sorrow, pain or haunted feelings... period.  

But as those who follow Jesus, we are called to live like that day is already here.  Which means seeing things as they are.  Naming them for what they are.  The things of this world are temporary, not meant to last, not eternal.  Hurt has no place in God's kingdom.  Nothing on this earth lasts forever--even our pain.  

Psalm 30:5 gives us some incredible insight into why it's so hard for some of us to let go of the things that have hurt us--and what it looks like when we finally do.  It reads: For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime;
weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.

I've come to understand something during my years of ministry:  Our image of God typically informs the way we handle our hurts.  

A close reading of Psalm 30:5 presents two images of God--two ways of seeing how God is working in the world.  There is a way of seeing God that is grounded in the negative--a view that has dominated much of conservative, evangelical Christianity for far too long.  The God of this point of view is overwhelmingly angry, vengeful, judgmental, and who never, ever, ever forgets the smallest slight, sin or transgression.  This God is ticked off and can't wait to punish.  

There is another way to view God, however.  We can see God as overwhelmingly loving, forgiving, merciful, forgetful when it comes to slights, sins and transgressions and who is entirely gracious.  This God is grieved by our separation from Him and will do anything to change it. 

Psalm 30 chooses the latter view.  God isn't entirely sweetness and light.  After all, we wouldn't want a God who wasn't incensed by injustice, man's inhumanity to man, terror, war and the like...  We need God to weigh in on the side of good.  But the Psalmist in Psalm 30 indicates that God's "anger" is only for a moment. His favor, on the other hand, lasts a lifetime.  We may very well experience hurts in our life.  We will be wounded.  Things will happen that are not just, sinful, full of evil and sometimes those things will land on us by no fault of our own.  

But they don't last.  The God who is overwhelmingly love, who is overwhelmingly on our side wants desperately to show us favor.  We will weep over the our hurts--but only for the night.  Joy, resurrection, new life, freedom comes in the morning.  

Now all of this might sound good to everyone, and maybe some of you are starting to feel like this is good news.  But I know there's someone here who is asking, "But what can we do to be free from our hurts?"  "I need some practical guidance here."  

I kind of see two things that we need to do when we have been hurt.  

First, I think we need to Consider the Source.  This comes back to our view of God, and our understanding of how the world works.  It's easy in the midst of being wounded to want to find someone or something to blame.  We might very well blame the person who hurt us, and that's completely natural.  But many of us also directly or indirectly blame God.  Sometimes we blame God and then turn on Him or turn away from Him.  Sometimes we blame God and then immediately begin to blame ourselves--"I must have done something to make God angry... I sinned... I am not a good person..."  

In the Old Testament book of Job the main character Job loses everything in the first few paragraphs of the story.  In the story Satan unleashes an onslaught of terrible tragedies.  Job loses his wealth, his security and then eventually his children.  He sits down to mourn all that he's lost and says the following:  "Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.

Job directly connects all of his loss to God.  He does it subtly and in a very holy and righteous sounding way, but nonetheless he blames God for his calamity--even though he refuses to say anything bad about God.  We discover later that Job curses the day he was born, wishes that he were dead, and wallows in a fairly intense session of self-blame and self-pity.  Eventually God shows up in the story and basically tells Job, there are no answers sometimes---thing just happen.  You have no idea the intricacies of my plans--you... aren't... me.  

In the book of Jeremiah we have one of my favorite verses, "For I know the plans I have for you says the Lord, plans not to harm you but to give you hope and a future."  God is not overwhelmingly angry.  God is overwhelmingly loving.  

God is not the source of evil.  God is not the source of pain.  Consider the source. 

Second, you need to Envision A Hurt-Free Future.  Once you have considered the source of your pain, and you realize that God doesn't want you to spend your life haunted by it--it's time to do something different.  Ask yourself, "What would it look like if I wasn't haunted by this any longer?  What would it look like if I was free from my pain?  What would it look like if I moved on and let this go?"  

This is an inherently hopeful act.  I would daresay it's defiantly hopeful.  Because when you are in the middle of feeling hurt, it's hard to envision a future where you aren't feeling that way any more.  But if you are serious about trusting God, and believing that God really does have your best interests at heart, then you need to take the next step and trust that the future God has for you is filled with hope.  

At the end of the book of Job, everything is made right.  Job is set free from the hurts that he experienced when he learns to trust God implicitly.  Job's fortunes are restored, he has more children, there is restoration and resurrection all around him.  The story ends with this line, "The Lord blessed the latter part of Job's life more than the former part."  There is no way that Job could have imagined that such a thing was possible when he was sitting on the ground in ashes, dressed in a sack, feeling sorry for himself.  I mean even the guy's wife told him "Curse God and die!"  

What is it going to take to get you to change your eyesight?  What is it going to take for you to be able to see the truth about yourself?  About your future?  God is not the source of your pain.  God isn't angry at you.  God doesn't want you to continue living a less-than life that is defined by your past.  You can be free from even the most deeply wounding hurts that have happened to you.  

But it's going to take an act of trust, a leap of faith.  It's going to take a step toward a God who has your best interests at heart.  

You don't have to be haunted by your past hurts if you trust the One who holds your future.