Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Attitude of Gratitude Week Four - "Enduring Love"

U

All good things must come to an end.

Have you ever heard that before?  Maybe you've even repeated it on occasion. Probably when something good was coming to an end.

Recently, my wife and I had the opportunity to get a way for a couple of days--just the two of us.  We relaxed, sat by the beach, wandered around Key West, watched the sunset, ate unbelievable meals, slept in, read some books, laid in a hammock...

What? I should tell you everything?

At any rate, as we came to the end of our time away we both found ourselves saying over and over again---"just one more day... if we had just one more day..."

I remember the last football game of my oldest son's high school career.  He re-injured his surgically repaired shoulder throwing a forty yard touchdown pass, and then a few plays later got concussed on a running play.  We all knew that it was over.  His season had ended, and a promising football career with it.  I remember my wife and I sitting with him on the sidelines and all of us wishing that he had just one more chance to go out on to the field and make the crowd roar.

I actually grieve when my favorite TV series come to an end.  I was stunned and at a loss for words at the conclusion of the Sopranos--my favorite TV guilty pleasure for nearly a decade.  When I watched the finale of the Office, I actually cried.  Yeah, I know.  I am a wuss.

I remember once my wife and I ate dinner at this really fancy restaurant with some friends on New Year's Eve.  It was one of those meals where they kept bringing out course after course--every one of them looking as if they were prepared on Food Network for one of those cooking contests.  None of us wanted that dinner to end.  And we sort of grieved when it did.

Because all good things, however, must come to an end, don't they?

That's what we tell ourselves, isn't it?

Except sometimes this applies to things that are near and dear to us.  I have listened to couples who are at the end of their rope in their relationship tell me how things used  to be when they were in love.   I have visited people in nursing homes and hospitals who once wielded great influence and power, but now are relegated to watching daytime TV and sitting alone in a chair.  I have sat at the bedside of people who are dying, but who desperately want to hang on to life.

Because all good things must come to an end---or so we have been taught to believe.

But what if I told you that there was one thing that didn't come to an end?  And that this one thing assured that all of the really good things didn't have to come to an end either...  What would you say to that?

After all that I have just related, after all that you know about the way the world works... would you believe me?  Really?

Check out this verse from the book of Lamentations in the Bible...

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

Another way to translate that verse is "his mercies--his lovingkindnesses---never come to an end... they are renewed every morning."

The lovingkindness--the mercy--the faithfulness of God never... comes... to an end.   How good does that sound?  It sounds awesome, and yet far too many of us read something altogether different into the text.

What if Lamentations read something like this:  "The wrath of God never comes to an end... it is renewed every morning..."

That doesn't sound all that awesome does it?

So why do so many of us live like that's what the Bible says?  I mean if you listen to the sermons that are being preached across America today in countless churches all over the landscape you would think that God is angry... that God is vengeful... that God's wrath is renewed against us each and every morning.

Come on.  I know you've heard people say things like this.

But that's not even close to what the Bible says, is it?  The God that is really revealed in the Bible--when you actually read it instead of just quoting random verses from it--is a God whose mercy, whose lovingkindness, whose faithfulness... never ends, never runs out, never goes away.

There's this hymn in the Bible--a psalm, to be exact.  Psalm 136 to be even more exact.  For thousands of years this psalm has been sung, recited or prayed by the people of God in gratitude to all that God has done and continues to do for the people of God.

This psalm is called The Great Hallel or the Hallel al Gadol and it is recited communally in the Jewish tradition at the high holy days, but most importantly at Passover.

For those of us who are gathered here today, we are going to read this Psalm responsively--which means I am going to read one line, and then you'll read the next.  Your part is easy, though.  The only line you have to read is this one:  His love endures forever. 

1 Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His love endures forever.
2 Give thanks to the God of gods.
His love endures forever.
3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords:
His love endures forever.
4 to him who alone does great wonders,
His love endures forever.
5 who by his understanding made the heavens,
His love endures forever.
6 who spread out the earth upon the waters,
His love endures forever.
7 who made the great lights—
His love endures forever.
8 the sun to govern the day,
His love endures forever.
9 the moon and stars to govern the night;
His love endures forever.
10 to him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt
His love endures forever.
11 and brought Israel out from among them
His love endures forever.
12 with a mighty hand and outstretched arm;
His love endures forever.
13 to him who divided the Red Sea[a] asunder
His love endures forever.
14 and brought Israel through the midst of it,
His love endures forever.
15 but swept Pharaoh and his army into the Red Sea;
His love endures forever.
16 to him who led his people through the wilderness;
His love endures forever.
17 to him who struck down great kings,
His love endures forever.
18 and killed mighty kings—
His love endures forever.
19 Sihon king of the Amorites
His love endures forever.
20 and Og king of Bashan—
His love endures forever.
21 and gave their land as an inheritance,
His love endures forever.
22 an inheritance to his servant Israel.
His love endures forever.
23 He remembered us in our low estate
His love endures forever.
24 and freed us from our enemies.
His love endures forever.
25 He gives food to every creature.
His love endures forever.
26 Give thanks to the God of heaven.

His love endures forever.

The word for "love" in this translation is actually hesed which means lovingkindness, mercy, faithfulness... you get the picture.  One translation of the word used here goes something like this:  "tender mercy to the coming of the age."

Some rabbis believe this was first sung by Moses and the Hebrew people after they fled Egypt and were wandering in the wilderness.  Others attribute it to David, who was said to have ordered the priests to sing it every day.  Solomon had the Great Hallel sung at the dedication of the Temple when the ark of the covenant was being brought in by the Levites.  Smoke filled the Temple at that moment, signifying the presence of God.

The psalm has a simple structure:  A call to give thanks, causes for giving thanks and then a final call to give thanks.  The refrain, "his love endures forever" occurs 26 times.  It's an ancient ear worm that reminds the singer to give thanks for all things that God has done, is doing and will do--to give thanks for God's presence in History, Creation and the Future.

This psalm helps us understand how much we need God's mercy and lovingkindness... all of the time.  We all know this deep down inside.  Regardless of how much we try to do life on our own terms, we always seem to come back to that notion that plagues us--the one about how all good things must come to an end.  And we realize that doing life on our own terms doesn't leave us with all that much---especially when everything we hold dear has a shelf life.

Which is why it's also important to note that this psalm helps us understand that God's mercy never runs out.  Ever.

So no matter what good things have come to an end---we don't have to be afraid. God's mercy, his lovingkindness will never run out.  And because of this knowledge, we also have hope that even the good things that seem to always be ending--these things have a different kind of shelf life in the kingdom of God.

In the pentecostal and African-American strains of Christianity there is a refrain that is very similar to this.  It goes like this:  "God is good--all the time--all the time--God is good."  Let's say that together again.  "God is good--all the time--all the time--God is good.

Listen...  There is a difference between what lasts forever and what doesn't.  And figuring this out can make all the difference in your life.  "All good things come from God," the Apostle Paul wrote.  If all good things come from God, and God's lovingkindness, mercy and love never end---then doesn't it stand to reason that all of the really good things, the eternal things, the things that matter... will also never end?

What Psalm 136 reminds us is that we have a choice---we can dwell on things that are eternal, or we can focus on things that will pass away.  Jesus himself reiterated this kind of choice when he told his disciples, "Don't lay up your treasures here on earth were moth and rust will corrupt them and thieves will break in and steal, but lay up for yourself treasures in heaven..."

So what would it look like if you lived your life for the forever moments?  What would your life be like if you lived for those moments?

You can live believing that God's wrath is renewed every morning, and that all God really wants is to punish the wicked, pour out anger on those who are sinning and smite everyone with a mighty smiting.

Maybe that fits your world view.  Maybe you kind of want God to do all of that stuff.  But then after a while that vision of God begins to affect every part of your life, and you discover that all you're really focusing on are the things that you're losing, the things that are ending and passing away.

You have a choice.  You can live focusing on how all the good things in life come to an end.  Or you can live focusing on how all the best things in life last forever.

There's a wonderful passage from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice where the character Portia talks about the quality of mercy:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this scepterd sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice (Act IV, scene 1).

God's mercy did drop from heaven--so to speak---in the person of Jesus Christ.  The lovingkindness, the everlasting love of God was embodied in Jesus.  The Cross that Jesus died upon is a witness to that love and the lengths to which God will go in order to be in a life-giving, loving relationship with you.

It is God's desire for you that you live your life focused on the eternal.  It is God's desire for you that you embrace the truth of his Son Jesus Christ--that through him we have eternal, everlasting, never-ending life.

Some of you have been searching for this kind of hope for so long.  What if the forever-things you've been searching for all this time have been right in front of you?  You keep saying, "I'll start following Jesus when I get my life straightened out."  "I'll be all in with Christ when I figure out how to get through all of this negativity."  "I'll be a Jesus-follower when I get through this bad patch."

Did you ever think that maybe your way through all of that junk is Jesus himself?
Jesus is proof that God's love endures forever.  He went willingly to an agonizing death on a cross.  He was raised from the dead as a sign and symbol of God's victory over sin and death and all that will pass away.  Jesus is proof that you don't have to live in fear, dread or despair any longer.

Jesus is proof that God is good all the time---all the time---God is good.

This is the essence of the message of Psalm 136--the refrain that we read 26 times just a moment ago.

Say it with me:  "His love endures forever."  

When you feel like the good things around you are coming to an end:  "His love endures forever."

When you realize all of incredible blessings that God has given you: "His love endures forever."

When your world seems to be falling apart: "His love endures forever."

When you feel like your heart might burst with joy:  "His love endures forever."

When you finally realize all that God has done for you:  "His love endures forever."

This is your "canticle of praise" as the old hymn says.  Your song, your thanksgiving.  Because when you finally realize al that God has done for you--in all the ways God has been faithful, loved you, rescued you, cherished you, redeemed you and will never leave or forsake you--the only true response is gratitude.

God is good---all the time--all the time---God is good.






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:
https://www.tumblr.com/blog/leonbloder

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

Session One - "How Do We Read Revelation?"
https://new.livestream.com/accounts/1917279/events/3445563

Session Two - "The Origin and Context of Revelation"
https://new.livestream.com/accounts/1917279/events/3470132

Session Three: "God, The Lamb, Seven Seals and Seven Trumpets"
https//new.livestream.com/accounts/1917279/events/3493382

Session Four  - "Cosmic Conflict (The Woman, Dragon and The Beasts)
https://new.livestream.com/accounts/1917279/events/3516587

Session Five - "The Harlot, The Battle, The Celebration"
https://new.livestream.com/accounts/1917279/events/3538780

Session Six - "The Kingdom, The Last Judgment, New Creation"
https://new.livestream.com/accounts/1917279/events/3583134

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...

WHEN YOU FINALLY REALIZE ALL THAT GOD HAS DONE FOR YOU, THE ONLY TRUE RESPONSE IS GRATITUDE. 

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.

YHWH.

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.