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. 

Haunted - Week Four: "Haunted by Fear"

This week we are concluding the sermon series that we've been working on for the month of October--a series entitled, "Haunted."  The basic premise behind this sermon series has been centered on the fact that all have something in common:  Each of us have things in our past that we wish hadn't happened.

We've all experienced pain, doubt, regret or fear in our past.  But for some of us it still feels like it was yesterday.  Many of us are haunted by things in our past.  We're haunted by regret, doubt, hurt and fear, and sometimes it feels as though we will never be free of the things that are haunting us.

This is not the way God intends for us to live.  For God so loved the world that he sent His Son, Jesus, whose first sermon proclaimed that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him to set the captives free to bring good news to those who were haunted, wounded, bleeding, stumbling and lost.

And so we have been lifting up this simple, but life-changing idea throughout this entire series:  You don't have to be haunted by your past if you trust the one who holds your future.  In other words, if you put your trust in God, and believe that God really does have your best interests at heart, you will discover how to be free from the things that are haunting you.

Today we are going to spend some talking about how to be free from the fears that are haunting us.

When I was a kid, I was afraid of going to hell.  Some of it had to do with the near constant barrage of fire and brimstone preaching I'd heard most of my life, but mostly it had to do with a pretty awful movie called "The Burning Hell" that I saw when I was like eleven years old.

"The Burning Hell" was one of many terrible "evangelistic" movies that were created in the mid-to-late 1970's.  The filmmakers spared every expense to make these dogs.  The actors were "Z" list, and included many fundamentalist Baptist celebrity preachers like Jack Van Impe and Jack Hyles, to name a few, who appeared as themselves and who preached fire and brimstone sermons during the movie.  Predictably, one of the characters would scoff at the message and would end up either having a vision of hell, going to hell, almost going to hell, imagining hell, having a vision of someone who was in hell, who told them all about hell...

Despite the abominable acting, the laughable special effects, cringe-worthy dialogue and completely wrong-headed, misguided and dangerous theology... "The Burning Hell" scared the hell out of me.

After I saw it, I "got saved" again right there in the church. "Getting saved" is what really Christian-y people call it when you pray what is known as the "sinners prayer" and decide to start following Jesus.

 "PleaseGodIknowIamasinnerIknowIneedJesuspleaselethimcomeintomyhearttonightinJesusnameamen."   I rattled it off by heart.

When I got home and went to bed, I started having visions of my own about hell.  I got saved at least thirteen times before I fell into a fitful sleep.  I started sleeping with a light on, but it didn't really work all that much.  I got saved more and more each night.  Sometimes I would get saved before I went to bed so I would make sure that I was saved before I got saved again.  I got saved in youth group meetings, at church pretty much every Sunday morning.   I think I must have prayed that prayer about eleven hundred times.

Even now when I think about how scared I was back then of going to hell, I have to resist the urge to pray that prayer just one... more... time...

What are you afraid of?  Is there something that terrifies you enough that you want to get your heart right with God, rush down the aisle after church, confess all your sins and dunk your head in whatever glass of water is nearby to renew your baptism?  Spiders?  The Dark?

If you have some idea, but don't really know what to call it--let me help you. Here's a list of phobias that might cover some of what ails you:

Ablutophobia is the fear of taking a bath.  I think that a lot of pre-pubescent boys suffer from this fear.
Ergophobia is the fear of the workplace.  I think a lot of teenage boys suffer from this fear.
Philophobia is the fear of falling in love.  I think a lot of college age boys suffer from this fear.
Nomophobia is the fear of not having phone service on your smart phone.  This is not a joke.
Somnophobia is the fear of falling asleep.
Heliophobia is the fear of sunlight, which affects vampires, really, really, moody girls who study art, and moles.
Chaetophobia is the fear of one's own hair.  I mostly resent mine for leaving me.
Oikophobia is the fear of appliances.  As in appliances coming to life and taking you hostage, or something.
Coulrophobia is the fear of clowns.  Can't sleep clowns will eat me, can't sleep clowns will eat me...
Neophobia is the fear of new things.  Seriously, this fear is most widely felt by the elderly and by fans of Star Wars.
Phobophobia is the fear of developing fears... which is just...

There's actually a serious disorder that millions of Americans suffer from that has fear at it's very foundation.  This disorder is called Avoidant Personality Disorder, and it is a big umbrella that contains the fear of criticism, fear of disapproval or rejection, the fear of failure, intimacy, the fear of taking personal risk, new activities, ideas, etc.

It's safe to say that a very large percentage of those who are gathered here today suffer from this disorder to some extent--some more than others.

But here's the thing.  This is a learned behavior.  There are very few inherited traits that contribute to this kind of disorder.  It is learned through childhood rejection, peer pressure, disappointment that is amplified, and a host of other ways.  In fact, we are only born with two inherent fears:  the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises.  Some fears are instilled in us for our good, but mostly they are variations on the theme of those original two fears.

We don't have to live in fear, though.  God doesn't want this for us.

In Romans 8:15 we have the following bit of wisdom from the Apostle Paul:

15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.”

 I love the image that this verse brings up for us.  This is a verse about what it means to be part of a family--a family with a loving parent who cares for us and protects us from all harm.  Paul is encouraging us here by saying, "Listen, if you are a follower of Jesus, you have this incredible Spirit of God within you that brings you into the household of God as His child.  You don't have to live in fear, you don't have to be a slave to the fears that are haunting you.  You don't have to live that way any longer because in Abba's house, where you now live, there is no room for fear."

Listen to me... In Abba's house there are no slaves to fear.... If you are part of the family--you don't have to be afraid.  It's like being tucked in at night and knowing that your parents are in the very next room, and there is a warm light on somewhere that erases all of the shadow and you drift off to sleep with smile on your face because you know that you are safe.  In Abba's house there are no slaves to fear.

And this is the point where many of you are getting pumped up because these words are like music to your ears.  You have never heard someone tell you this before and it is firing you up.  It's okay to shout a little if you want.

But there are some of us in here who like the sound of all of this, but want just a little bit more.  You might be asking today, what can I do to be free from the fears that are haunting me?

Well, I think there are two basic steps that you can take to be free from your fears.  First, you have to UNLEARN WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT FEAR.

Half of spiritual maturity is learning what we don't know--spending time in Bible study, prayer, going to church, listening to sermons, reading books that inspire us... learning what we don't know.  But the other half of spiritual maturity is unlearning what we think we know.  Like I said earlier, so many of our fears are learned for one reason or another.  And these learned fears need to be unlearned if we are going to move forward in hope.

Faith, you could say, is unlearning the worries and fears that keep us captive.

I looked up what the therapy for Avoidant Personality Disorder entails.  If you are a counselor trying to treat someone for APD, you have to work overtime to earn their trust, because trust is the key.  If the person suffering from severe APD doesn't trust you as their counselor, they won't be able to move on.

Along those lines, let me ask you a question:  Do you trust God? Do you trust your Abba--your Heavenly Father?  Really?  Do you really and truly trust that God loves you beyond love and gave everything in order to restore your relationship with God?  That kind of love--the sacrificial love of God--is perfect.  and in 1 John 4:18 we read this incredibly encouraging word: "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out all fear..."

Unlearn what you think you know about fear.  Trust your Abba with all of it.

Second, if we are going to be free from the fears that haunt us, we need to LEARN TO FACE THE FEAR.  There is an old story that has been told and retold about the ways that lions hunt.  In a pride of lions, it's the female lions that do the hunting.  The male lion may hunt on occasion, but typically provides the fear instead.  The roar of the male lion is louder and more impressive than the female, and so it is he male lion that roars and makes a ruckus behind the prey, which causes the poor animal to rush away from the roar and into the waiting ambush of the female lions.

The moral of this story is simple:  run towards the roar if your facing lions.  You have a much greater chance of outmaneuvering one solitary, lazy male lion whose making a lot of noise than a whole bunch of lean and mean female lions.

In other words.  Run toward what scares you.  It's probably not that scary.  And the more you do this, the more you begin to realize that more often than not the things that are causing the most fear are much less frightening than we make them out to be.  And to run away from them might be more dangerous.

There is a powerful thing that happens in our brains when we begin to learn important lessons like this.  It's called synaptogenesis.  Scientists have discovered that when we learn a lesson over and over agin it actually stimulates growth in our brains and makes that area "larger."  They performed an experiment with people who tapped their fingers over and over again in patterns over a period of several days.  Their brains expanded in the area that controlled the tapping.

If you make a habit of trusting God, of running toward the roar...  you soon learn lifelong lessons that are hard to lose.

Besides, when our fears lose their power over us they can be kind of fun.  Why do you think we go to amusement parks and ride roller coasters? Why do we flock to scary movies, or haunted houses during Halloween?  Why do we drive really fast sometimes? Or eat the three pound steak at that restaurant where eating it means you get your photo on the wall, and possibly a heart attack?

Because, the alternative to fear is boredom.  Do you really want to live a less-than life?  Do you want to spend your spiritual life sitting on the couch?  Or do you want to run toward the roar?  Lion chasers choose fear.  Every time.

You don't have to be haunted by your regrets.  You don't have to be haunted by your doubts, your hurts... You don't have to be haunted by your fears.  This is not the way that God wants you to live.  You were meant for so much more than this beloved.

If you don't want to be haunted by your past, you need to trust the one who holds your future.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"That's That Hurt": Haunted by The Things That Wound Us

Years ago, when I was working at Walt Disney World, I was on the fast track to being promoted from hourly supervisor to salaried manager.

I was the youngest person to be admitted into Walt Disney World's prestigious management training program--a program that almost assured that you would be promoted, and be ushered into the hallowed halls of middle management.  Hey man, it ain't bragging if it's true.

Then something happened on my way to the almost-top.  WDW experienced a hiring and promotion freeze due to the massive economic downturn of the late 1980's.

When the dust settled and people started getting promoted, I saw all of my peers receive positions, but there were none for me.  I finally was informed that the area manager who had once favored me had soured on my prospects and thought I wasn't worthy to promote.  I was unceremoniously transferred to another department to start all over again.  It crushed me.

To this day, I still think about what I did wrong and grieve over the the stupid things I did to mess up that opportunity.  Forget that my life took a completely different turn, which ultimately led to a call into the ministry--there are moments when I still wish I could go back and prove that dude wrong.  It still hurts.

I realize that as hurts go---my failure to get promoted at Disney World is fairly weak.  Some people have deep and awful hurts that haunt them each and every day of their lives.

As I've  been teaching over the course of the sermon series I'm preaching at my church for the month of October--we don't have to live that way.  We don't have to be haunted by our past, by our regrets, our doubts or hurts or our fears.

This week we'll be exploring what it will take for us to be free from the hurts that haunt us.  If you or someone you know is carrying around the pain of a hurt that was inflicted on them by someone or something--don't miss this Sunday.

You can either come visit us live in person at the First Presbyterian Church of Eustis, or you can watch live online as we broadcast on Livestream HERE.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Haunted - Week Two: "Haunted By Doubt"

This week we are continuing the sermon series that will take us through the month of October--a series entitled, "Haunted."  The idea behind this series is something that we all share to some extent.

No matter who you are, or what your background might be you have something in common with every other person who is sitting in here today:  At some point in time you have had something happen in your past that caused you pain.  

Maybe you did something you regret.  Maybe you had doubts about your faith. Maybe you learned to be afraid.  Maybe you were hurt, wounded by someone.  

And for many of us those experiences feel like they happened yesterday.  We've been haunted by them, and because we've been haunted by these experiences in our past, they are affecting how we handle our present, and perhaps are ruining our vision of the future.  

Throughout this series we're going to be focusing on this simple, but life-changing truth: You don't have to be haunted by your past if you trust the One who holds your future.   You don't have to be haunted by your regrets, your doubts, your fears or your hurts.
Today we're going to be spending some talking about doubt.

I was present during the birth of each of my three boys.  It was epic every time.  I was not a great birthing coach, to be honest.  I would ask my wife really awkward questions while she was in active labor.  "Does it hurt?"  "Are you having discomfort?"  "How are those contractions?"  Perhaps the worst thing I said to her was when she was pushing Jackson into the world.  "You look like the Hulk!" I exclaimed in my excitement.  She doesn't remember any of the other encouraging things I said during Jackson's labor--but she definitely remembers me comparing her to the Hulk.

But despite my stupidity each of the boys came into the world just fine.  And afterward when my wife was holding them in her arms you could see in her eyes the fierce love and the fierce post-partum, Mama Grizzly gleam in her eye.  It was awesome.  If I had asked her in that moment if she would be willing to give her life for the bundle of joy that she was holding she would have scoffed at such a feeble notion.  The look in her eye--love mixed with mama bear protective glare--told me all I needed to know.  In that moment she would have killed for that baby.

And considering the words I had uttered about her and the Incredible Hulk were fresh in her mind, I kind of backed away a bit.

Seriously, the whole scene was just a miracle to me.  Seeing my sons being born... Seeing my wife gather them into her arms... Holding them and staring at their little bodies... Knowing that I would watch them grow up... All of the dreams and hopes and emotions were...  Divine.

In those moments I felt the presence of God so deeply that it felt like I was enveloped in glory.  Even now remembering those moments I ask myself, "How could I ever doubt the existence of God?"

Years later I found myself working at Florida Hospital as a chaplain on a night when a young child was brought into the ER after being pulled from the family pool which he had fallen into.  I was part of a team who were doing what they could to comfort the absolutely grief-stricken family.  The child was pronounced dead.  He looked like he'd just fallen asleep.  It was unimaginable.  The parents screamed out in agony, "Why?"  And there didn't seem to be any answer.

Even those of us who had dedicated our lives to answering that question had to pause for a moment when faced with that scene.

The Russian novelist Dostoyevsky, who was a Christian, once wrote, "The death of a single infant calls into question the existence of God."   Those agonizing, heart-wrenching moments lead us to the inevitable question, "How could a good God let this happen?"  How could a good God allow children to starve...?  To be butchered by radical fundamentalist Islamists...?  To contract deadly diseases because they have no way to fight them...?  To be sold into slavery...?

Once when Billy Graham was asked if he believes after he dies he will hear God say to him, "Well done, good and faithful servant," he paused and said, "I hope so."

Martin Luther, the great reformer, was approached by a woman who was plagued with doubt.  He asked her, "When you recite the creeds--do you believe them?"  She said, "Yes, most certainly."  "Then go in peace," Luther told her, "You believe more and better than I do."

Elie Wiesel, the great Jewish author and Holocaust survivor described his faith as "wounded."  He wrote, "My tradition teaches that no heart is as whole as a broken heart, and I would say that no faith is as solid as a wounded faith."

So, I believe and I doubt.  I find moments where I feel God all around me so heavily that it feels like I am clothed in Him.  And then there are moments where I wonder if God is there at all.

We've all had our doubts in the past and tried to reconcile them.   Maybe not very well.  Some of us have had tragedy strike us.  We've lost a spouse, a child, a loved one.  There is a hole in our heart they use to occupy, and we have tried in vain to find some reason, some purpose in it---but we're failing.  No trite words of comfort, no Hallmark poems are cutting it.

Some of us have begged God for answers, for some sign that God is there--and all we have received in turn is silence, and we are beginning to wonder if there is anyone out there who is even listening.  And when people tell us just to be patient and listen real hard---we want to hit them upside the head real hard.

Or maybe we look out into the world and see the poverty, the hunger, the disease, the terror, war, violence and hatred that seems to dominate the news cycles each and every day.  And even though we would love to find some way to make sense of it all, we are beginning to wonder if maybe humans are just destined to destroy themselves, and there really isn't any point to the universe.

We aren't the only ones in history to experience this kind of soul-wracking doubt.   The Bible is full of stories about people who struggled to believe and not doubt.  It's also full of encouragement for those who are in the midst of the struggle.

In the book of James we have some incredible encouragement from James, the brother of Jesus, who wrote the book--which is actually a letter to early Christians.  Here is the advice he gives in James 1:5-6:
5 If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. 6 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.
Here's a way to translate this passage in language that will help us understand it a bit better:
"If you are struggling with doubt and you can't seem to understand what God is up to, or if God is there, or if God loves you--then pray.  God doesn't look down on you if you are doubting--even if you don't completely believe in God.  But here's the thing:  When you pray, you can do it wholeheartedly with the expectation that God will be there, will answer and will come through in the end. Because the alternative is a life where every single bad thing that happens to you makes you feel like you are bobbing up and down on the ocean waves during a huge storm."  
Or to put it another much shorter way: Prayer can keep you afloat in waves of doubt.  This is counterintuitive to most of us when we are doubled over in doubt. We experience the storms of doubt, the waves are crashing in on us, God is silent and then... "You want me to do what? Pray?"

Prayer in the middle of doubt is a defiant act of hope, a defiant act of faith.

And what is prayer in the middle of doubt if it isn't singing when your heart is broken?  What is prayer in the middle of doubt if it isn't lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness?  What is prayer in the middle of doubt if it isn't--in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr--planting a tree in the moment you hear the world is about to end?

Some cynical and skeptical people would have us believe that everything is meaningless in the end--that the best you can do is try to be a good person in the here and now.  Bertrand Russell, one of the godfathers of modern atheism wrote, "In the visible world, the Milky Way is a tiny fragment.  Within this fragment the solar system is an infinitesimal speck, and within the speck our planet is a microscopic dot.  On this dot, tiny lumps of carbon and water crawl about for a few years until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded."

That. Is depressing.

Woody Allen sums up how absurd this notion is when he writes, "More than any time in human history, humankind faces a crossroads.  One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness.  The other leads to total extinction.  Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

Is this what we really want?

I will completely affirm the fact that Doubt and Faith are companions.  I believe this with all my heart.  There is nothing inherently wrong with doubting your faith, doubting what God is up to---faithful disciples have done just that for centuries.  Doubt and Faith might be companions, but one companion--Faith-- will get you out of the cul-de-sac.  The other will haunt you, and keep you riding around in circles.

So what can you do when you are haunted by doubt?  I think there are a couple of things that we can learn from a close reading of our passage of Scripture today.

To begin you need to "Let it Go."

This is point when we cue the music from Frozen.  I rather like that song, to be honest.  When I am in the car and it "happens" to be playing on the radio I try to sing it as loudly as I can.  You would probably not want to be in the car with me when this happens.

What I mean by "let it go" is not exactly what you might be thinking.  Let me explain.  When a musician prepares to play an instrument or sing a song they know that it is probably not going to be perfect.  There is little chance of them being in perfect rhythm or singing in perfect pitch.  So they have a choice--they can keep it inside because they know it won't be perfect--or they can just "let it go" and sing or perform it anyway.

John Ortberg once wrote, "If you don't want to go to the grace with all your music in you, you'll have to take a shot."  In other words, give faith a chance.  Put your words of faith out there.  Prayer your hope-filled prayers.  Ask God for faith.  Go all in.  And remember this more than you remember anything else--I'm not asking you to go all in with a system of belief, or a set of rules, or a denomination, or a religion.  I am asking you to go all in when it comes to belief in a person.  And that person is Jesus.

Once when Jesus was teaching a large group of his followers he said some difficult things about what it meant to follow him.  A number of the disciples turned away and left at that point.  Their doubt led them to embrace the certainty of unbelief over the uncertainty of following Jesus.  Jesus then turned to his twelve disciples and asked, "Will you not also go with them?"  Peter spoke up for the group.  "Lord, where would we go?  You have the words of life."

They were all in at that point--because they weren't following an idea, a systematic theology---they were following Jesus.

The second thing you can when you are haunted by doubt is to keep praying and keep walking.

Let me tell you about the strange case of Agnes.  Agnes was called to become a missionary at a young age, and so she went to the mission field--full of hope and promise.  But when the realities of her life's work fell upon her in force, she began to doubt.  She confessed that even though she was going through the motions of piety, "I no longer pray."  She wore her smiles, she related, as a "mask" or a "cloak," to hide the intense doubts that she felt about the presence and existence of God.

But she kept walking.  And eventually she began to pray again.  She kept praying and walking and one day Agnes discovered that God had been there all along.  We would know Agnes by another name--Mother Theresa.

Let me ask you a question in closing...

If you don't feel close to God any more... who moved?  I mean even if you don't really buy into God as Christians might describe and espouse God---you have at least a concept of God as this immutable, changeless, completely "other" being.

Is it possible that your doubts about God might have more to do with you--than with God?

I know people love to use this quote: "Even if you don't believe in God, He believes in you."  It's become so overused that I think we've lost the beauty of what it really stands for.

God is for you.  God is with you.  God will never leave or forsake you.

And we know this because of the witness of Jesus, who showed us what God is really like.  Jesus also demands something of us--He demands that we believe and not doubt.  That we choose one companion over another.  That we pray for faith seeking understanding and that our understanding will dispel our doubts.

Mother Theresa struggled for years with her doubts, but was finally able to speak with confidence about the joy of faith.  The evidence of God had been there all along.  "Never doubt in the darkness," she wrote, "what God has shown you in the light."

Open your eyes.  Open your ears.  Open your heart.

You don't have to be haunted by your doubts any longer.  The evidence of your faith--even if all you have is just a tiny speck of it--is all around you.  You are not defined by your past--you don't have to be haunted by it if you put your trust in the One who holds your future.

Blind Doubt, Wide-Eyed Faith

When I "grew up" and left home at the ripe old age of eighteen, I was so full of doubts regarding my faith I didn't really know what I believed any longer.  I remember once saying out loud, "God, I don't believe you exist." and I was actually disappointed when I wasn't struck with a bolt of lightning.

Little did I know that my speaking uncertainty about God into the world, was a perfectly normal and honest act of Christian discipleship.  I thought I had violated the worst rule you could violate as a Christian.  I'd been taught my whole life that the one thing you never, ever, ever doubt was God.  So when I started doing just that--I decided the whole system of belief that I'd once held dear was in question.  So I left it.

As it turns out, I may have left my faith, but it didn't entirely leave me.  I found my way back--although it wasn't to the same place I once was, thanks be to God.  But many people experience doubts about God, faith, Jesus, the whole Christian experience and then turn away from it forever.  When faced with the uncertainty of doubts in their belief, they prefer the "certainty" of disbelief over what they might call "blind faith."

Faith--honest faith--isn't blind.  It is wide-eyed--frightened, freaked out, adrenalized, uncertain, jumping into thin air, but wide-eyed.  Doubt isn't unnatural, it isn't shameful and it isn't something that you should avoid.  But it's not always the best companion.

Doubt keeps you from leaping.  Doubt keeps you circling the cul-de-sac.  Doubt can haunt you and keep you from fully becoming the person you long to be.  But you don't have to be haunted by your doubts. You can be free.

This week I'll  be continuing the sermon series entitled, "Haunted."  If you or someone you love have struggled with doubts, or are haunted by them even now--you will definitely want to be here Sunday!   You can also tune in and watch the sermon live by clicking HERE