Wednesday, September 23, 2015

New Week 3 - "A New Life Has Begun"

Today we're going to conclude the sermon series that we've been working on for the past few weeks--a sermon series on Grace entitled "New."  For the past couple of weeks we have been focused on one passage of Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:16-17.  I know, it seems weird to just preach on one passage of Scripture for three weeks.  Just think of it as one long sermon in three parts.  

So what exactly does 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 say?  Well, let's read it again.  

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:[a] The old has gone, the new is here!

In Week 1 of the series we learned that: Who you were is in the past, who you aren't isn't interesting and who you become is a choice. 

In Week 2 of the series we learned that: When Jesus loves away your past, he transforms your present.  

Today we are going to be focusing on this very important, vital truth:  A new life in Christ is worth living.  

Let me ask you a couple of questions.  When we say that faith is a "heart" rather than a "head" thing, what does that mean to you?  Which one sounds better than the other, just right off the top of your head.  What's the difference between the two?  

Here's the thing, what you tell yourself about yourself matters far less than how you act.  You can walk around telling yourself (and others) that you are a "good person," but you might actually be the kind of person who lies, cheats, has no ethics in business, lusts, is addicted to drugs, booze, gambling, shopping, porn, you name it.  

So in your head you are saying one thing, but your actions indicate who you really are.  

In the same way lots of us call ourselves Christians, and we claim to have experienced transformation--the kind of transformation that we talked about last week.  But our lives, our actions, the way we conduct ourselves shows very little evidence that anything about us has changed.  

Our inspiration for this sermon series has actually been drawn from tattoos.  That was a pun.  Okay.  It wasn't a very good one, admittedly.  But why tattoos in a sermon series?  Well, I definitely see tattoos as a symbol of grace--how we can be marked by our past, but not defined by it... how we can be claimed by God, defined by his love, marked by his grace...  there's a host of reasons.  

I know that lots of people have opinions about whether Christians should have tattoos or not.  Honestly, the huge debates in the Church during the late 90's and early "Oughts" have subsided, and the tattooed folks kind of won.  

Did you know that over 40% of young adults between the ages of 18-28 have tattoos? That's over four times as many as the Baby Boomer generation--the generation that kind of defined civil disobedience and such.  So when I see something like that happening in our culture, I get curious.  It makes me wonder what's at the root of it all, and what things we all sort of share that make those kinds of trends possible.  

In their book Modern Primitives V. Vale and Andrea Juno wrote the following: 
A tattoo is more than a painting on skin; its meaning and reverberations cannot be comprehended without a knowledge of the history and mythology of the bearer.  Thus it is a true poetic creation, and is always more than meets the eye.  As a tattoo is grounded on living skin, so it's essence emotes a poignancy unique to the mortal human condition. 
But for every person like yours truly who waxes curious and philosophical about the cultural implications of tattoos and tattooing, there are a thousand morons who put permanent marks of idiocy on their bodies.  

Consider the following people who thought they were being so cool and trendy by having Chinese symbols and Hebrew writing tattooed on themselves--without actually researching what the words they were tattooing on themselves actually meant.

This guy's soup experience was so incredible he wanted to commemorate it for all time.  
I think this probably sums up this dude completely. 

This bright bulb must have used a mirror to transcribe this phrase which is supposed to be "Child of God." She didn't realize that Hebrew reads right to left, though.  So it spells "dog fo dlihc" 

This guy tried to spell the name of God coming out of a burning bush, but what he wrote instead was
"He Shall Be Pregnant" 

So where am I going with this?  

These tattoo fails remind us how important it is to have our inside match our outside and vice versa.  Just like these poor people were convinced their tattoos said one thing, the evidence didn't back it up.  It doesn't matter so much what we think about ourselves if our actions don't jive with it.  We need congruence with our head and our heart.  

When there isn't congruence with your head and your heart, you might say that you and God are simpatico, and that everything in your Christian walk is hunky-dory, but if you don't show your faith by moving and being in the world in ways that honor God--it's like saying that you have an "upward" faith but there's no "outward" to show it. 

On the other hand, there is a difference between just doing good deeds in the world, and doing good because you are following Jesus' example.  This doesn't mean that only Christians can do good things, and be good people.  It just has to do with the reasons why they do them, and who gets the credit. 

This is the opposite of having an upward faith with no outward to show it.  This is saying that you have an "outward" faith with no "upward" to glow it.  
Ha.  You like how that went, didn't you?  

I know what some folks are saying right about now--"Clever, preacher man.  But honestly, I know lots of non-Christians who are nicer than most of the Christians in my life.  What difference does Jesus really make in this?"  

A lot as it turns out.  

In his groundbreaking study on religion in America, sociologist Robert Putnam discovered the warm and fuzzy osmosis of true believers on people who really didn't "get" God all that much.  His research revealed that when Christians who live generously and practice their faith with sincerity befriend non-Christians, the non-Christians actually become more loving, kind, generous, and more open to matters of faith.  

So what kinds of feelings do you think you engender in people who aren't Christians?  Does your inside match your outside?  Are you practicing an upward faith with an outward focus.  

Or are you sporting a tattoo that you could swear declares you are a child of God--but to the world it just looks backwards and convoluted?

When your head and your heart are congruent... when your inside matches our outside, when you have an upward faith with an outward focus... when people around you become better just by being around you...  Then you know:  This new life that you have embraced--a new life in Christ--is worth living.  

How do we know that we have things balanced?  How do we know when our inside and outside are the same?  

First, you will have that Upward/Outward kind of faith--when your relationship with Jesus causes you to look out into the world with his eyes.  

It's when you take seriously Gods's commands to care for Creation... to seek to end poverty and give hope to the poor... to feed the hungry... to engage in peacemaking and healing actions that reflect the true Kingdom of God.  

In Matthew 25 Jesus tells a parable that taught his disciples about what it meant to be a true follower.  The righteous are welcomed into God's kingdom because they took care of the thirsty and hungry, clothed the naked, gave hope to the captives and welcomed the stranger.  They wonder aloud: 

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’40 

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Or we find this from the book of James 2:18: 

But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.

Second, you will have an Outward/Upward kind of faith--when your visions of the world cause you to "look up" to Jesus as the only true answer to the problems that you see.  And this kind of spiritual shift can only happen when you finally put your trust in Jesus as the beginning and the end of not only our faith, but also our belief in a better world.  How dos this happen?  Not by accident.  Keeping a solid relationship with Jesus requires prayer and ethical living. It requires right worship and the sacrifice of your will.  

It means that whatever you do--you do in the name of Jesus and to his glory. 

Matthew 28:19 reads, 

19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,

When Jesus commanded his followers to "make" disciples what he meant was bring people along, teach them in the faith, show them a more excellent way.  And the only way to do that is when our insides match our outsides.  And in the end, we do all that we do in Jesus' name.  

When a crippled man asked Peter for some alms in the book of Acts, Peter could have easily just handed some money and kept on walking.  But instead he said this, 

6 Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”

Peter didn't just meet the man's immediate needs, he provided healing that would last him a lifetime--and then some... all in the name of Jesus.  

What would it look like if Christians really got this?  I think it would change the world, don't you?  What if people really knew us for our love as the old hymn declares, rather than for what we are against?  

One of my seminary classmates was part of a conference on poverty that took place in a wintry urban setting.  The participants gathered in a warm downtown church, sharing catered lunches, talking ad nauseum about poverty issues and what the church should or shouldn't be doing to solve the problem.  They felt pretty good about themselves.  

Meanwhile, a homeless man who was ill, crawled on to a set of stairs outside the church where he could feel a bit of heat coming out of the door.  At some point during the day, he died from exposure and infection.  The participants in the conference had the misfortune of discovering his body.  

Needless to say, that really changed the conversation they'd been having about what outward faith looks like in action.  

Do we really show Jesus as a church?  As individuals?  Does our inside match our outside?  Do we have an upward/outward; outward/upward approach to our faith that resonates with the people who don't know the first thing about following Jesus? 

Or are we like the participants in that conference--so consumed with feeling good about ourselves and looking good to the people around us that we neglect the dying on our doorstep?  

Brothers and sisters, a congruent faith, a faith balanced between head and heart---this is a faith worth having.  And the new life in Christ that it leads us to when we embrace is a life worth living.  

Friday, September 18, 2015

Aylan & Prayers for a More Just & Welcoming World

The humanitarian crisis caused by the civil war in Syria would have been easier for Americans to ignore ten or fifteen years ago.  But now, with a twenty-four hour news cycle, social media, and the internet literally at our fingertips--this human tragedy is in front of us almost constantly.  

I have been haunted for weeks by the images of the 3 year-old boy, Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed ashore on the Turkish coast after the overloaded boat carrying his family along with other Syrian refugees capsized, killing Aylan, his mother, brother and nine other people.  Aylan's family was trying to get to Greece, and from there they hoped to eventually join his father's sister in Canada.  

I have read all of the conflicting accounts of what happened, and the convoluted statements from Aylan's father as well.  Honestly, none of that matters to me.  What matters is the image of that 3 year-old little boy lying face down on a Turkish beach.  

Several years ago, my youngest son almost drowned in our pool.  He was almost two, and we were just starting to teach him to swim, but he hadn't mastered it yet.  My wife and I were standing in the kitchen making dinner and talking while he was playing with his toys in the living room.  For some reason, I suddenly missed him, and realized that the sliding glass door was open in the same moment.  

Filled with dread, I rushed out to the pool and was greeted with the sight of my son's shirt near the top of the pool. When I got to him, he was on his back, under water with a look of sheer terror on his face.  I pulled him out in a flash and turned him over quickly as he coughed, threw up water and started crying. If I had arrived in another sixty seconds we may have lost him.  I will never forget that day.  I held on to him by the side of the pool, crying and praying to God--thanking him for giving my son back to me.  

So these thoughts go through my head as I think about this Syrian family who just wanted a better life.  I think about how my son is alive, and well and watching cartoons in the next room.  I think about the life I lead in a land of plenty and peace.  

I think about how God gave my son back to me from the water.  

And I think of little Aylan, a little boy, who I see laughing and playing in some photos, and lying on a beach, washed ashore like garbage in others.  And I pray that God was with him in the water when no one was there to lift him out of it, and I pray that he wasn't too frightened in the end.  

And I then think of the grief that his father must feel, and the sorrow, and the bitterness toward a world that doesn't seem to hear, or see or even care that for over eleven million refugees from Syria--life as they once knew it is over, forever.  

I also think about the countless social media and blog posts that I have seen from people claiming to be Christians who are so filled with fear of potential terror plots, and senseless hysteria that they would gladly turn needy people away in order to avoid even the slightest chance that there might be an extremist among them.  

I would have taken Aylan.  I would have welcomed him.  He could have played with my boys, built Legos with them, ran in the grass, climbed the trees in my yard.  He could have fallen asleep at night under a good roof, a soft bed. He could have watched cartoons on the couch with my sons.  

And he could have lived here with us in a land of peace and opportunity where he could have grown up to be whatever he wanted to be, gone as far as his dreams could have taken him.  

I think about Aylan, and all of the little ones like him who are lost and afraid.  

And I pray.  

And I long for Jesus to change this world.  

And I know that it has to begin with you, and with me.  

If you want to learn more about the Syrian crisis click here. 

Read about what Syrians are packing with them as they flee. 

Experience one of these desperate crossings through the eyes of refugees. 

Join my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA) in their efforts to help.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

New - Week Two: "Anyone Who Belongs To Christ"

Today we're going to be continuing the sermon series that we started last week, a sermon series on grace entitled, New.  We are focusing on one passage of Scripture throughout this series, which might seem kind of odd at first, but when you think of the three sermons in this series as one long sermon in three parts, it kind of makes more sense.  I hope. 

The passage of Scripture that we're talking about is 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 which reads like this: 

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:[a] The old has gone, the new is here!

Last week we talked about what it meant to not have our past held against us. The truth that we learned was simple:  Who you were is in the past, who you aren't isn't interesting and who you become is a choice.  

Listen, I am all about the grace of God.  I will never forget the first time I set foot in the first church my wife and I attended as a couple--a Presbyterian church in Ocoee, FL.  The pastor preached on the grace and love of God.  It felt to me like the first time I had ever heard that kind of message, and I cried like a baby.  Merideth actually reminded me that for the first several weeks that we attended worship there, I cried every time.  

So you are going to hear a lot about the grace of God every time I stand up to preach.  Christianity is laced with way too much judgment, lately.  We need a serious grace infusion. 

But don't mistake my emphasis on grace as what some Christians have referred to as "easy-believism."  God's grace isn't cheap--it's costly.  To extend his grace to all of Creation, God took on human form in the man Jesus Christ, and went to the greatest lengths to show his love, and forgiveness.  

And because of the love of God through Jesus' passion and resurrection, you and I don't have to dwell on our past sins, mistakes, scars and bad decisions. 

But we do have an obligation to not cheapen God's grace by continuing to live like we did in our past, by blindly and willingly making mistakes and bad decisions. 

Today we are going to focus on this one very simple, and very powerful truth:  When Jesus loves away your past, it transforms your present. 

Our theme, our inspiration for this series is centered around tattoos--what they mean, why we get them, what they represent and how they are metaphors for you and I regarding the grace and mercy of God.  

I was doing a little research for this sermon series and I stumbled across some interesting stuff.  When you start using "worst tattoos ever" as a search term, you can bet your life it's going to be awesome.  So here's a few of the very worst tattoo photos on the internet: 

This girl took a horrible selfie in the mirror and then her boyfriend had it tattooed on to his shoulder. 
This guy obviously went to Yoda for some life advice. 
Christopher Walken tattoo? Great. Christopher Walken as Frankenstein? Not so good. 
When you love Bob Marley but have no idea that he looks nothing like Jimi Hendrix
I bet he regrets that. 
This dude must have loved what he ate at McDonald's because he tattooed the receipt on to his arm. 
This is never a good idea.

I'm not sure if you have noticed, but tattoos have started really becoming a phenomenon.  There are more people getting tattoos now than any other time in history.  Some of that has to do with the availability of artists and studios, along with the removal of the social taboo of tattoos.  But there's something else at work here.  There is a psychology of tattooing that I think speaks directly into the conversation that we are having today about grace and following Jesus. 

Bear with me a bit. 

Did you know that several years ago archaeologists uncovered the body of a 5000 year old man that had been frozen in ice?  That's pretty incredible in and of itself, but what was extremely curious about his body is that it was covered in tattoos.  Historians, sociologists, paleontologists, archaeologists all don't know exactly why the man is covered in tattoos--5000 year old tattoos.  

One theory, and I think it's a good one, is that his tattoos were part of a quest to be better than ordinary.  This same quest goes on today.  Tattoos lift up the idea of an eternal present.  The person who tattoos themselves preserves something in time, a moment, a rite of passage, a sign of belonging.  Who cares what happens next, right?  Who cares about wrinkles, and saggy skin?  The tattoo preserves the moment, regardless of how it twists and fades.  

It's also a painful rite of passage that many societies include as part of the journey to adulthood.  Most people today engage in it for the same reasons. Young adults do it to celebrate their emancipation from their parents--even though they probably still live with them.  Older adults do it to prove they "still got it."  

Tattoos are also a symbol of belonging, of inclusion.  That 5000 year old man with tattoos was probably identified by other tribes as belonging to a particular group because of them.  They also set him apart as a result.  People are still doing this--seeking to be set apart, even while being part of a tribe.  

And finally, tattoos are a symbol that "The Man" doesn't own you.  I've talked to people who have covered their bodies in tattoos that can't be hidden about how it has affected their careers.  More than one of them told me, "It has definitely kept me from getting some jobs, but honestly, they aren't the kind of jobs that I would want anyway."  

And you thought they were just tattoos...  

So how does this fit into our conversation about grace, and transformation and 2 Corinthians 5:16-17?  More neatly than you would think, actually.  Let's read the passage again: 

16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:[a] The old has gone, the new is here!

I want to key in on the phrase, "in Christ," which also is translated, "belonging to Christ."  What does the Apostle Paul mean by this?  

Did you know that the Greek word Christianos, which means "follower of Christ" comes from the word Christos which means "anointed one."  But the ending to the Greek word Christianos is borrowed from the Latin to denote belonging to, as in property, as in slave ownership?  

So to say that you are a Christian is so much more than saying that you are a follower of Jesus Christ it is to say that you "belong to Jesus" or as Paul puts it here, you are "in Christ."  When we say that we follow or belong to Jesus, we are identifying ourselves as part of something that is far greater than we are--we are declaring that we are set apart from the ordinary.  We have no fear of the future because we are filled with unbelievable, childlike hope.  We have been emancipated from our past, and from the things that used to define us.  

And we declare unequivocally that we are no longer owned by the things of this world--our allegiance is with Jesus, and Jesus alone.  

And you thought that Christian was just a description...  

It's true that God doesn't hold our past against us.  Jesus took care of all of that for you and for me.  But it doesn't end there.  It can't end there.  When Jesus loves away your past, it transforms your present.  When you choose to follow Jesus, to call yourself a Christian, you belong to him, you are defined by him, and you absolutely can't live the way you used to live.  

You aren't defined by your past, but you need to learn from it. 

St. Augustine is famous for saying this:  "Love God, and do what you want."  I know that many of us who are gathered here really enjoy hearing that.  "Love God and do what I want? Whoo hoo!  It's a party baby!"  

But what Augustine meant by this simple statement is that when you truly love God, with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength--then the things that you want are the things after God's own heart.  What you want is what God wants, and what God wants is what you want.  

This is why Jesus said that the two greatest commandments were to "love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself."  When you love God, when you belong to Jesus, you see the world and everyone around you differently, you simply cannot live the way you used to live.  

At our church we like to say that when you know Jesus, you show Jesus.  This is exactly what we mean.  When you belong to Christ, you want to show it.  You can't help but show it.  It comes out of you in every thing you do, every thing you say, every thought, word, deed.... Belonging to Jesus transforms you.  It's a clear sign and a symbol for you that you've truly begun to follow Jesus, when you realize that following him has transformed your life.  

When Jesus loves away your past, it transforms your present. 

My friend Mike was a Southern Baptist deacon, a Sunday school teacher and a lifelong student of the Bible.  When I met him he also was an atheist.  He had stopped believing in God, and was just going through the motions at his church because he didn't want to hurt his family, or his friends that he'd grown to love so deeply over the years.  

Mike new the Bible well. Very well.  He knew the Bible inside and out, but he didn't know Jesus.  Fortunately for Mike he attended a conference that I happened to be attending, too.  At this conference Mike confessed for the first time publicly in front of a whole bunch of pastors and church leaders that he had lost his faith, that he was living a lie.  

The leader of the conference spoke grace into Mike's life, intuitively recognizing that there was still a small spark of faith in there somewhere.  He told him to take all of his questions about life, the universe and everything and put them into a mental bucket, and then to label that bucket God, if he wanted to.  Because in the end, living as if there is no God, no mystery, no wonder is no way to live at all.  

That night Mike stood on the beach and prayed out loud for the first time in years.  A wave rushed up a bit too far on to the shore and covered his feet.  When he looked down he remembered his baptism, and all of the joy that he'd once felt at following Jesus and he knew that he belonged.  

His transformation cost him.  It cost him friendships when he admitted what he'd felt and believed for so long.  It cost him his church when we realized that he could no longer walk with people who more interested politics and elections than in changing the world.  

Every day Mike has to re-commit to the new life that he embraced when he decided to finally follow Jesus for real.  It wasn't cheap, but it was worth it. 

My friend Dave was a music minister's son, a lifelong Presbyterian and a musician.  He was also a crack addict.  One day he found himself in a real life Prodigal Son situation.  He called his mother on Mother's Day when he was high. As he was saying goodbye to her and telling her that he loved her, he looked down and saw the crack pipe in his hand and he knew that he had to change. 

It was a long road back.  He had to surrender himself to rehab, and surrender his heart and soul to God.  Dave began following Jesus more fully, using his musical gifts to play in praise bands, and to lead worship.  His transformation cost him years of his life, it cost him his old habits, his friendships and it took him years to build back the trust that he had lost with his family.  But God has honored his commitment.  He has three awesome kids, leads worship every Sunday in his church, and is a vice president in a successful company.  

And every day, he has to re-commit to the new life that he embraced when he decided to finally follow Jesus for real.  It wasn't cheap, but it was worth it. 

That's a pretty hard and honest truth.  God's grace is amazing, but it isn't cheap.  It costs you to follow Jesus.  It might cost you old friendships that dragged you down.  It might cost you relationships that were killing your soul.  It might cost you habits that numbed your pain, but stole your heart.  

But if you know Jesus, you will want to show Jesus, and the cost won't matter. 

I've said this before, but it bears repeating:  God loves you just as you are, and he loves you far too much to let you stay that way.  

When Jesus loves away your past, it transforms your present. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

New - Week One: "At One Time"

I was watching a reality TV show the other day that really fascinated me.  It's called Bad Ink.  The show is set in Las Vegas and is essentially about two friends--one of whom is a tattoo artist--who comb the Vegas strip looking for people with really bad tattoos.  Since it's Vegas, they don't have to look that hard, to be honest.  Lots of people in Vegas have bad tattoos.  

But what these guys do that is so fascinating is they offer these people with really bad tattoos the chance to fix them.  It's kind of their specialty, you see: redeeming the bad choices people made.  According to the artist on Bad Ink, most bad tattoos happen when people are either young and impulsive or drunk, or all three.  

Here's a quick sample of some  "bad ink" that artists have been able to fix: 

This woman took a very bad infinity/love tattoo and
had it turned into a rose firefly with infinity wings. 

Okay, this one is just brilliant.  Take some weird star tattoo that is
instantly regrettable and turn it into Hendix?  Winning. 

Yes, the Party Dog tattoo was probably done one night after a party
by some random guy at the party named Raul.  The fix is better
and it keeps the spirit of Party Dog alive. 

This one is just awesome. I. Am. Batman. 

The fact this one went from a really bad rose with someone's name
on it to Darth Vader is just brilliant. Always avoid putting
your girlfriend/boyfriend's name on your body. Rule of thumb. 
So why are we talking about tattoos, exactly?  Well, it's probably the best kind of metaphor for the sermon series that we are beginning today.  A lot of people walk around feeling like they've got "bad ink," when it comes to the way their life is going.  I know how this feels.  Maybe you do, too. 

But we read in the Bible that when you decide to follow Jesus, to embrace a life that is lived as closely to Jesus' example as possible--you can be made new. 

For the next few weeks we are going to be focusing on one passage of Scripture:  2 Corinthians 5:16-17, which reads: 

…At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! 17 This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

Maybe you made bad choices at some point and it feels like you are always paying for them.  Or maybe something happened to you that you couldn't help, and you can't shake the feeling that you are damaged goods. Perhaps you feel like there is no way that God could ever really love you--because of the things you've done, mistakes you've made--sins you've committed.  

And for a lot you who are gathered here today, when a pastor gets up  in front of you and says something to you like, "It doesn't matter what you've done, who you've been, what's been done to you--you can be a new person if you follow Jesus," you feel like nothing could be further from the truth.  

I get it.  I've been there.  I'm a master in the Art of Not Having It All Together.  

Almost every day of my life, I do things that make me dissatisfied in myself.  I yell at my kids sometimes.  I get impatient when I am driving around slow people, when I'm waiting in line at Chipotle, when I can't do all of the things I need to in a day, with other people...  the list is pretty long.  I can be overly critical at times, focusing on the negative rather than the positive aspects of life, the universe and everything.  I'm completely hard on myself when I make mistakes or stumble.  So yeah, I understand how it can be hard to hear the words, "You can be made new." 

We've all been there, if we are being honest. 

And what we tend to hear most of the time from other Christians is that we can get it all together, we can overcome our feelings of inadequacy by just being a better person, or reading that next Christian self-help book about 13 ways to be a better parent/wife/husband/child/church member/American... or going to church more often, being more religious, trying harder, keeping more rules...  

But here's the thing.  Religious behavior can make you nice, but it won't make you new.  

As Christians we say we believe that following Jesus makes you new.  You can be a new creation.  Like the Apostle Paul said, "the old has gone, the new has come."  

But what does that even mean?  Do we really stop to think about it? And do we really believe it--I mean deep down inside? 

Let's go back to 2 Corinthians 5:16-17 for a bit.  

…At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! 17 This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

The Apostle Paul is speaking to a group of people here who are struggling with their identity.  They are trying to understand more fully what it means to be a Christ-follower.  They've had all kinds of people telling them different things, plus on top of that they have serious cultural pressures from their pagan neighbors who don't understand this new faith they've embraced.  

So Paul connects them to the Story of God's redemption of Creation through the Resurrection of Jesus.  "At one time," he tells them, we didn't fully understand who Jesus was.  

The time that Paul is referring to is a place in the past before the resurrection.  Nothing about that time matters--except to contrast with now.  Now, Paul says, we see Jesus risen and glorified.  The resurrection changed everything.  "At one time" was a place of unknowing a place of shadow.  

"How differently we know him now," Paul writes.  Now is a time of light and clarity. Eternal life--the life Jesus came to bring to us all--is happening now.  Everything that was in the past, is in the past.  Now everything is being made new.  And anyone who embraces this--is made new along with it.    

So what does this mean for you and me?  

It means that God doesn't hold our past against us, and neither should we. 

It also means that because of Jesus, we have the choice to live differently. Because we aren't defined by our past, we can look to future with incredible hope.  

I kind of summed it up like this:  Who you were is in the past, who you aren't isn't interesting and who you become is a choice.  

First, who you were is in the past. 

What mistakes are haunting you today?  Did you make some poor choices?  Bad decisions?  Maybe you've been letting those poor choices dictate the way you live the rest of your life. 

I remember years ago meeting a woman who came to a group counseling session I was helping to facilitate.  She came into the room looking like she was carrying a huge weight on her shoulders.  Her demeanor was defeated.  She did everything she could to sink into the background and not participate in the session.  

When we finally learned what was troubling her, it all made sense.  The woman confessed that she had been seeing a married man for over a year.  She hated herself for it.  She would try to break it off, and then would find herself going right back to him.   She told us that she felt like a slut.  She couldn't stand the way she looked.  She hated her job.  Every part of her life had been affected by the mistakes that she had made.  

Just like the Apostle Paul wrote, those feelings about your mistakes and bad decisions belong in the place of the shadow.  They have no place in the new life you have when you decide to follow in Jesus' footsteps.  Those are so yesterday. 

Listen to me---stop being a victim.  You are not your mistakes.  You are not your bad decisions.  You are not your sins and weaknesses.  When you embrace a life lived following Jesus, you are defined by the love he has for you--love that sacrificed everything in order to rescue you from what is in your past. 

Second, who you aren't isn't interesting. 

Far too many Christians spend their time and energy defining their faith by what it isn't or by declaring repeatedly what they are against.  I believe that this has created a culture of negativity among most Christians.  When your faith and life are defined in negative terms--by constantly comparing yourself to what you aren't, it bleeds over into your life.  Before you know it, you can only define yourself in the same way.  You never seem to measure up.  Highlighting what you don't do, won't do or can't do isn't at all inspiring.  Who you aren't isn't interesting.   

Your story is bigger than that.  Stop defining yourself by what you aren't.  Live into who you are becoming in Christ.  Jesus came to give you abundant life--to give you the kind of life that is big, expansive, beautiful, meaningful and fulfilling.  Live into that story.  It's time to leave the negative definitions behind. 

Finally, who you become is a choice. 

Just like a bad tattoo, you may have made some choices in the past that have left a mark.  But that mark doesn't have to define you.  It's time to re-design it. 

I have a friend who made a mistake several years ago--a mistake that almost cost him his marriage and family, and did cost him his job.  There have been lots of Christians who treated my friend like garbage after they found out what happened.  They didn't want to give him another chance.  And for a long time he kind of stayed in the same faith community that had roundly condemned him when he erred--almost like he was paying penance.  Because these awesome grace-filled folk never let him forget that he had stumbled.  

It took a while but he finally woke up and realized that the only way he was going to ever live into hope was by leaving that faith community behind, and starting over somewhere else.  True, he made a bad choice, and it left a mark.  But when he decided to finally re-design it, it's transformed his life and given him a new joy for Jesus.  

I don't care what you've done or what's been done to you in the past--you can take that mark that it's left on you and make it into a badge of honor.  You can re-design it into something beautiful that reminds you not of your mistake, but the grace that redeemed it. 

Brothers and sisters, following Jesus means that you choose to live into the hope of a new world, a new life, a new day--every day.  The old is gone.  The new has come.  Who you were is in the past, who you aren't isn't interesting and who you become is a choice.  If you haven't made that choice to embrace a life lived following Jesus, I would encourage you without hesitation to make it now.  I have never regretted that choice.  I know you won't either.    

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

#struggle - Week 5: "Rest"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That's a lot to love, I know.  

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to these crazy statistics.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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