Sunday, March 29, 2009

Embracing Grief and Loss

5th message in our series: Putting the Pieces Together: a Journey toward mature discipleship*.

Where were you when President Kennedy was shot?

When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded?

When the September 11 terrorist attack happened?

We are in our 5th message in our series: Putting the Pieces Together: a Journey toward mature discipleship. Today we are exploring the topic of embracing grief and loss. The events I mentioned as I opened are certainly giant focal points of national grief and loss; not only did most of us experience them, but we remember them vividly. Besides national events, many of us have experienced devastating losses, such as the death of a child, premature death of spouse, disability, divorce, rape, emotional or sexual abuse, irreversible cancer, infertility, shattering of a life-long dream, suicide, betrayal, let down. But those aren’t the only things that affect us. We all experience so called “insignificant losses” such as graduating high school/college & lose financial/emotional security; move away and lose former friendships; relationships change; children gain independence (empty nest); leadership changes in the church; church constructs a new building; grandparent dies; fire destroys cherished photos; death of a faithful pet, etc. What might be insignificant loss for one might be catastrophic for someone else.

In his book A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss, Gerald Sittser says this: Catastrophic loss by definition precludes recovery. It will transform us or destroy us but it will never leave us the same.

Grief and loss are universal: We all experience sorrows and are invited to grieve and grow through them. Unless we grieve our sorrows and losses, we will never become emotionally healthy; we will never achieve wholeness. Simply covering or ignoring the pain leads to disaster (glass jar analogy).

Some people view grief as an interruption, an obstacle in the path of serving God. In essence, it’s a waste of our time. That’s why you get a lot of “get over it and get on with your life” sentiment from good, godly people who, deep down, really just want to help.

But the Bible doesn’t tell us not to grieve; quite the contrary; it shows a Jesus who wept over the death of his friend Lazarus and over the city of Jerusalem. Jesus, being fully human, experienced the full range of human emotions, including grief and loss. Can you imagine Jesus in the following situations:
  • At Lazarus’ tomb, what if Jesus hadn’t wept but said, Get a grip; I’ll take care of this.
  • What if his prayer over Jerusalem had gone like this: I wanted to gather you as a hen, but you made your bed and now you get to sleep in it. I’m moving on without you.
  • When He was on the cross, what if instead of crying “My God, why have you forsaken me?” He shouted out “God is great! God is victorious! Praise him!”
This is why we don’t find a command not to grieve; we find a command that we aren’t to grieve like those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

You may be wondering what “normal” grieving even is. Let me take a few moments to talk about that. In his book “Good Grief” Granger Westberg details ten stages of grief. They are:

1. State of shock (temporary anesthesia): be with the person, but resist the urge to do everything for them. Doing the work will help them move from this stage.

2. We express emotion: sometimes it’s without warning that the emotion explodes from us; this is what we ought to do: allow ourselves the freedom to express the emotions that we actually feel. No “don’t cry” – crying isn’t a sign of weakness and doesn’t lead to nervous breakdown.

3. We feel depressed and very lonely: we are sure nobody else has ever grieved like we are doing. This is a healthy and normal part of grief! It’s like on a cloudy day where we think “the sun isn’t shining” when the sun is really shining, but the clouds just cover it. It’s a normal thing to ask “Why so downcast, O my soul?” Jesus even asked, “Why have you forsaken me?”

4. We may experience physical symptoms of distress: headaches, backaches, still sick after treatment.

5. We may become panicky: we can’t think of anything other than the loss; we can’t concentrate. This isn’t abnormal! It’s normal! Even if we don’t want to get out, we have to try to. We must not wallow in our grief; that will only prolong our grief work.

6. We feel a sense of guilt about the loss: guilty about what we did or didn’t say/do before the loss, or unhealthy neurotic guilt about “not being there” – we must face both guilts.

7. We are filled with anger and resentment: resentment is not a healthy emotion, and if, allowed to take over, can be extremely harmful. But it is a normal part of the grieving process and can, by the grace of God, be overcome.

8. We resist returning: everyone else has forgotten our tragedy; someone must keep its memory alive. We must not let things get back to normal! (pace of life has a lot to do with this: we’re off to something new immediately, and we don’t take the time to help work through someone else’s losses). No wearing black armbands/veils. People afraid to talk about the deceased.

9. Gradually hope comes through: a little glimpse of hope in one experience or another.

10. We struggle to affirm reality: not “become our old selves again” one way or the other; healthier or sicker. Develop a better, deeper faith in God as a result of grief experience. Everything hasn’t been taken from you. Life will never be the same again, but there is much in life that can be affirmed. This is not a work that should be done alone.

Please don’t just superficially move forward from a loss without adequately grieving it. Until we allow ourselves to feel the pain of what was lost, we cannot move forward.

Lewis Smedes: We will not take healing action against unfair pain until we own the pain we want to heal. It is not enough to feel pain. We need to appropriate the pain we feel: be conscious of it, take it on, and take it as our own. The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How.

Jesus truly feels our rebellion, waywardness, unwillingness to receive him as he hangs alone on the cross and cries, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

A key to embracing grief and loss is to pay attention to Scripture as a part of the grieving process. This means you have to slow down. Pay attention to the book of Psalms: it is full of laments that remember that life can be hard, difficult, even brutal. They take notice of the apparent absence of God. They cry out for comfort and care. Laments wrestle with God’s faithful, loyal love (hesed)
  • Psalm 43:2: Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?
  • Psalm 77:8-9: Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful?
  • Psalm 88:6-7 You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths. Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves.
Pay attention to Pain. We use work, drugs, TV, alcohol, comfort food, shopping, busyness, unhealthy relational attachments, even serving others to medicate the pain of life. We have fostered a national inability to deal with pain of any kind. Our culture trivializes tragedy and loss; every night on the news we are given pictures of crime, wars, famines, murders, and natural disasters. They are analyzed and reported, but there is no lamenting. We are too busy trying to keep everything as it is and getting our own way; when a loss invades our life, we become angry at God and treat it as an alien invasion. Is there any wonder that there is so much depression (and explosion of drugs prescribed for anxiety & depression) in our culture?

This is unbiblical and a denial of our common humanity. Ancient Hebrews physically expressed their laments by tearing their clothes, wearing sackcloth and ashes. Jesus himself offered up prayers and petitions w/ loud cries and tears (Hebrews 5:7). After the fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah wrote the book of Lamentations. In scripture, the God-like response is neither spin nor a cover-up. Jesus dealt honest and prayerfully with his losses and disappointments and all of their accompanying emotions.

Here are four concrete steps to become more mature disciples of Jesus Christ with regard to loss:

1. Stop and pay attention to your losses, large and small, in the past and in the present. If you’re new to this, take a day to go away on a retreat with God to pray and journal about significant events in your past that you maybe haven’t grieved. Slow down the pace of your life. Losses aren’t something to “get over” but are of great value to God and your spiritual health.

2. Equip others to do #1 as well.

3. Learn the Psalms to give you a biblical basis and framework for grieving. Write your own psalm out of your experience with God through life.

4. Write a simple timeline from birth to the present. Identify and describe difficult or sad events in your life.

Remember the compost pile where decaying substances, covered with dirt, become wonderful, a rich, natural fertilizer tremendous for growing fruit and veggies, but you have to be patient and wait… sometimes for years. We can’t understand the worst events of human history, but out of the greatest evil, Jesus’ death, came the greatest good. God transforms evils into good without diminishing the awfulness of the evil.

Then and only then can we Allow the old to birth the new. In his powerful book Lament for a Son, Nicholas Wolterstorff describes horrible loss this way:

Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God. It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one can see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor.
In Matthew 5:4, Jesus told the crowds: Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted

New, inner change that results from grieving include:
  • We are becoming compassionate as our Father is compassionate.
  • We have greater concern for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the marginalized, the wounded (those who God’s heart beats for).
  • We are less covetous, less idolatrous.
  • We are liberated from having to impress others.
  • We are able to live more comfortably with mystery.
  • We are characterized by humility and vulnerability.
  • We place God at the center of our lives and reject superficial, trivial pursuits.
  • We experience an enhanced sense of living in the present rather than postponing life; we rearrange our life's priorities.
  • We enjoy a vivid appreciation of the basic facts of life: seasons, etc.
  • We have fewer fears and more willingness to take risks.
  • We are kinder.
  • We understand what binds us as followers of Jesus living in community is our brokenness.
  • We sense that we are aliens and strangers here on earth – we’re built for heaven.
  • We are finally at home with ourselves and with God.
And isn’t that what we want and what God wants for us?
*Note: this message, along with others in this series, has been adapted from Peter Scazzero's book The Emotionally Healthy Church.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Discovering the Gift of Limits

4th message in our series: Putting the Pieces Together: a Journey toward mature discipleship*.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman tells the story of a man on a journey. As he hurried along toward his destination, he came to a bridge that crossed high over a dangerous river. After starting across the bridge, he noticed someone coming from the opposite direction. As the stranger came to greet him, the man realized that he had a rope wrapped many times around his waist. The stranger began to unwrap the rope as he walked. Just as the two were about to meet, the stranger said, "Pardon me, would you be so kind as to hold the end of the rope for me?"
The man agreed, and, without a thought, reached out and took it. "Thank you," said the stranger. Then he added, "Two hands now, and remember, hold on tight." At that, the stranger jumped off the bridge.

"What are you trying to do?" he shouted to the stranger. "Just hold tight," came the reply. "If you let go, I’ll be lost!" they bantered back and forth for a time. "What do you want?" "Just your help! Just keep hanging on." If I let go, all my life I’ll know that I let this man die. If I stay, I risk losing my goal. Either way, this will haunt me forever. "I don’t think I can hang on much longer," warned the man on the bridge. "You must try," appealed the stranger. "If you fail, I die."
"Listen," the man on the bridge said, "I have an idea of how to save you." He mapped out the idea wherein the stranger would climb up by wrapping the rope around himself. Loop by loop, the rope would become shorter. But the dangling man had no interest in the idea.

Suddenly a new idea struck the man on the bridge. It was different and even alien to his normal way of thinking. "I will not accept the position of choice for your life, only for my own. I hereby give back the position of choice for your own life to you." "What do you mean?" he asked. "I simply mean that it’s up to you; you decide how this ends. I’ll become the counterweight; you do the pulling and bring yourself up. I will even tug some." He unwound the rope from his waist and braced himself; he was ready to help as soon as the dangling man began to act.

"You would not be so selfish!" the other man shrieked. "I am your responsibility!" After a long pause, the man on the bridge at last uttered slowly, "I accept your choice." Upon saying that, he freed his hands and continued his journey over the bridge.

Many of us get involved in ministry because we want to help people who have fallen off the bridge. You might know the struggle; you’ve always been pulling people up, often at great personal expense emotionally and spiritually, only to find that they purposely would fall off (or jump off) another bridge the next month. For years you’ve reluctantly taken the rope, and once you had it and they were dangling, you felt guilty if you let go. How could I? I was being a Christian. Wouldn’t Jesus pull them up? If I didn’t pull them up, was I being selfish? For how long would I need to place my visions, dreams, desires, hopes, and plans on hold? Did they matter anyway since I was a servant of Christ? And where was everyone else?

Understanding and respecting our boundaries and limits is one of the most important character qualities and skills we need in order to be long-term lovers of God and others. We need to learn how to say "no" to some good things in order to say "yes" to the best thing. This is an important step along the journey to mature discipleship.

Face it; we’re busy people. I know that most of you are daily bombarded with opportunities to spend our time, energy, and resources. Some of those options are clearly bad options; I was once watching the Biggest Loser, and a competitor said, "I thought I didn’t have time to exercise, but I had time to watch 3-4 hours of TV a night." The problem is that many of the options are good things: jobs, volunteering, coaching your kids’ teams, and then we’re trying to squeeze in some daily time with God and our families! We are busy people!

Unfortunately, we tend to spiritualize busyness. If we say "no" to church things, we must be spiritually immature or selfish. We end up like one of those circus side-shows where the guy keeps spinning all those plates.

So how do we, as Christians, make decisions on how to spend our time, energy, and resources? We have a fantastic example to emulate: Jesus Christ Himself. In Mark 1:35-39, we find Jesus, who has been teaching in the synagogue, healing the sick, and driving out demons. After a late night of ministry, we see what Jesus did the next morning.

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.

Simon and his companions went to look for him and when they found him, they exclaimed: "Everyone is looking for you."

Jesus replied, "Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come."

So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.

Even Jesus had to say "no" to good things in order to say "yes" to the best thing! Think about it; none of us is Jesus, and if even He had to say "no", how much more do we have to? As Jesus’ followers, we need to follow His example: we can do so by first Receiving the Gift of Limitations. I started out this series by talking about Bob Pierce, whose tireless ministry, starting World Vision, was at the utter expense of his family. Have you ever heard someone described as having a "Messiah complex"? The implication is that they think they have to do it all or save someone, kind of like the guy on the bridge. But when we look at Jesus, who was the Messiah, even He didn’t have a complex like that! He was aware of His limitations: He didn’t heal everyone, and he didn’t stay in the same city until everyone followed him. He pulled away from the crowds who only wanted to see his miraculous signs. He took time alone with God in prayer. He spent time teaching his 12 disciples (especially Peter, James, and John) when he could be preaching to multitudes and healing the sick. Jesus, the Messiah, didn’t try to do it all, and we would all be healthier people and better followers of Jesus if our "Messiah complexes" looked more like Him.

You see, Jesus fully embraced human limitations. I remember seeing some people get competitive over spiritual gift inventories; one was bragging on how many spiritual gifts he "had." Someone else was ashamed because she only had a couple. The burden on the one with many is too great; I came to believe that most of them weren’t really his gifts; it was just his justification to be in power. When you’ve only got a few talents and gifts, it is a blessing, because then you can more easily discern how to use them wisely.

Many of our parents reinforced that we could be anything we wanted to be. I found out that no matter how much hoops I shoot, my dreams of the NBA are silly. Realistically, it is a myth that I can be anything I want. And if we want to be more like Jesus, our limitations are gifts; they can help us understand our unique callings and can help us say "no" to good things in order to say "yes" to the best thing.

In his book The Emotionally Healthy Church, Peter Scazzero gives us a list of some limitations to consider when deciding what to say "yes" to: personality, season of life, life situation, emotional, physical, intellectual capacities, negative emotions, and scars and wounds from your past.

In my current season of life, I have a wife and two small children; my family creates some God-given limitations. I can resent that I need to spend time with them, or I can celebrate it. Some of you are in the sandwich generation, caring for your children and your parents. For me, public speaking isn’t a problem, but for others of you, that would be the last thing you’d volunteer to do. Maybe you’re going through a season of transition at work or are searching for a job. There is no need to be ashamed or frustrated by your unique situation! These life circumstances aren’t good or bad, they just are. Don’t apologize for your unique limitations. In fact, they can help you be more aware that, as my friend Blaine Keene says, "there is a God, and we are not him!" And we can be assured that God is at work through other people who are not us.

If we’re aware of our limitations, it can be easier to follow Jesus’ example in this next principle: Do what God asks YOU to do. In Mark 1:37, the disciples came to Jesus to tell him, "Everyone is looking for you!" Meaning, "it’s time to get back to town to heal, teach, and preach! Now get back to work!" Everyone had their own expectations of what Jesus was supposed to do, but He wasn’t swayed by the pressure. He was living in full obedience to God the Father.

We are only responsible to do what God asks us to do. Everyone else has expectations of how we should spend our time, energy, and resources. This is true for all of us, but I’ve found that it’s especially true for me as a pastor. Each and every one of you has expectations of what I should do as your pastor. It’s not wrong for you to have those expectations; it’s just a natural outgrowth of your experience in and out of the church. The problem is that if we compiled all of those expectations and added in the Book of Discipline’s requirements of an Elder, we’d have a job description that even Jesus Himself couldn’t live up to.

I started out in full-time ministry as an associate pastor, which meant that not only did I have to live with my expectations and the expectations of the entire congregation, but also those of the senior pastor, who usually expected 60+ hours a week of work, plus doing whatever they didn’t particularly want to do themselves. I felt like my job description should have been handled by three people. Incidentally, it is now. I felt like I was an A student getting Cs because I was stretched too thin. And speaking of thin, I gained weight because I was stressed out. I was burned out, depressed, and miserable. And the mandate I got? Keep on doing it. It was killing me. We were doing that to Rudy, especially before he came on full-time, when our requirements and expectations, coupled with his other job, which was necessary for him to make ends meet, would not allow him to take a Sabbath. And we’re doing it to Chad, expecting him to do what amounts to a full-time job, all the while being paid part-time.

My priority is to put God first, then my family, and then the church. So if I don’t meet all of your expectations, it isn’t because I don’t care (I struggle with being a people-pleaser); it’s because I can’t meet them. And I shouldn’t. At the end of the day, God won’t ask me if I lived up to others’ expectations. God will ask me if I did everything He asked me to do. And I’m working hard to be able to say "yes" to that question.

Shortly before He was arrested, Jesus prayed this prayer (John 17:4): I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. Did you get that: he brought God glory by completing the work God gave him to do. Not by healing everyone. Not by preaching to everyone. Not by meeting everyone’s expectations. But by completing the work God gave Him. Likewise for us; our job isn’t to do everything. It is simply to do what God called each of us to do, to be who God made us to be.

For some of us, this means setting boundaries and making limits; saying "no" to good things in order to say "yes" to the best thing. Having clear boundaries is a good thing. It may feel hard when you’re approached to serve in yet one more ministry area, but maybe recognition that it’ll take precious time from your family will help you. One way we can become more emotionally healthy as a church is by giving the gift of limits and by respecting that in others. I have had this kind of conversation with a couple of you, the kind where I’ve told you that I would rather you not take on another area of service. It’s generally not because you would not do well in that area; it’s because it would stretch you too thin. When you’re stretched that thin, you can’t do well in any area; everything suffers.

Let me tell you something: self care is never a selfish act. It is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves, but for the many others whose lives we touch. (Parker Palmer Let Your Life Speak).

Now, before you say, "Pastor Brian has given me permission to say no to everything, so I’m going to quit all my activities and sit back and watch TV" remember that emotionally and spiritually healthy people are those who serve others sacrificially… while caring for themselves. Truly there is no way to follow Jesus without personal sacrifice, but we can only love and serve others out of the overflow that is within us.

If all we ever do is give, never taking time to refuel ourselves, the outcome will be disastrous for us and those around us. An example I encountered was a volunteer who had been working with junior high youth. For nine years, she led junior high youth meetings and taught a confirmation class, and in that time, she had no time for her own spiritual growth. What happened? Besides getting burned out, she didn’t have anything left in her own spiritual tank to give the kids. All they got was spiritual leftovers.

Walking in obedience to God is the way to discern the right balance. Spend time in God’s word. Allow God to shape and mold our values and priorities. Listen to God’s voice in prayer and worship. Consider our spiritual gifts, passions, skills, and life experiences. Allow our cell groups to help us discern. Verbalize the struggle between good things and the best things that God has for us. And then we simply do only those things that we sense God is asking us to do.

The truth is, rejoicing in limits requires faith in God’s goodness. It requires faith that God can actually work through someone else – someone that is not you! And if we believe God is God and we’re not, then receive the gift of limits – and let God do His job.

As we close, here is how we can each apply this: Find some blank space on one of your bulletin inserts and write the answers to the following three questions:
  1. What are my personal limitations?
  2. What is God asking ME to do? (the say "Yes" list)
  3. What do I need to give up? (the say "No" list)
When you’re done, make sure to put this list somewhere will you will interact with it. It can serve as a reminder that sometimes we have to say "No" to good things in order to say "yes" to the best things God has for us.

*Note: this message, along with others in this series, has been adapted from Peter Scazzero's book The Emotionally Healthy Church.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Living in Brokenness and Vulnerability

4th in the Series: Putting the Pieces Together: a Journey toward mature discipleship*

Why is it that we are such emotional wrecks? When it comes to the beneath the surface stuff, that 90% is killing us! We are in our 4th message in the series: Putting the Pieces Together; a Journey Toward Mature Discipleship, and we’ve already established that God made us emotional beings on purpose, and that exploring beneath the surface and breaking the power of the past is hard, necessary work. We don’t break the power of the past just to let it fester on the surface, but to let God transform and redeem it.

One of the ways God does this is by working through our brokenness and vulnerability. When we sing Jesus Loves Me, we sing about this: "we are weak, but He is strong." Through our weakness, we can see His strength. God does this all the time; He acts miraculously but does it in such a way as to demonstrate that it is He who is acting, not us.

Gideon, whose story I shared a couple of months ago, is a good example. God called Gideon, who was the runt of the litter of the weakest clan of the smallest tribe, to lead His people, and then told Gideon he had too many fighting men to win the battle.

Unfortunately, we want control. We want to feel like we have control over what’s going to happen and so we want things to happen in our timing and by our rules. Contrary to that attitude is the Apostle Paul who writes (2 Corinthians 12:5b, 7-10) I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses…To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.

Three times I pleaded with the LORD to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

I often think of God’s sense of humor in calling me to ministry. I’m sure he laughs every Sunday to see me in the pulpit. But maybe it’s because of my weakness that I sometimes can’t believe it. You see, when I’m talking about someone who wonders how everyone would perceive them if only they knew what was deep beneath the surface, I am talking about myself. One of the common traps I fall into is thinking, "If they knew the real me, they wouldn’t like it."

Paul wrote about a thorn in the flesh; for years, commentators have been debating what that was, but that’s not important. What is important is that it was something that made him feel so weak that it forced him to be dependent on God. He reflected on how weak, fractured, and broken he was and came to the result: If God can use me, he can use anyone. It’s not about you and me; it’s about Jesus in us. It’s about what God did and God choosing you and me, not about our abilities and talents. The Kingdom of God is about His strength, not ours!

Our world treats weakness and failure as terminal. Therefore we (rightly) pray for healing and deliverance from them. What would happen if God’s answer was "No, I don’t want to heal you. I want to use your brokenness and vulnerability."?

One of the most difficult circumstances I ever went through was a break-up with a fiancée. I’m not going to go into the details, but it was extremely painful, and I did some serious soul searching, usually coming up empty. The loop that was playing in my head was Led Zeppelin’s song "Nobody’s Fault But Mine." Literally. I was a senior in college, living in the fraternity, and for a time, I couldn’t deal with anyone and any little situation would cause me to break down.

Now, by this time the whole fraternity knew that I was a Christian and that I led a Bible study in the house. I think there were some younger guys for whom I wasn’t approachable; I was the senior who had it all together. But when they saw me broken and vulnerable, they saw a Brian who was approachable with their problems. In fact, Charlie, most unlikely person, came to me when his girlfriend broke things off with him. Why? Because he knew I would be real with him. And it gave me a chance to share God’s grace with Charlie. Paul’s words are a good reminder here: when I am weak, I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:10).

An old story illustrates this truth:

There once lived a water carrier in India. Every day he took two large pots
and attached them to a pole suspended across his neck. One of the pots had a
large crack in it while the other was perfect. The perfect pot always delivered
a full portion of water, while the cracked pot was only half full by the time it
arrived. For two years they made this same journey, and the perfect pot became
proud of its accomplishments. The cracked pot became ashamed for only bringing
half its water. It lamented about the crack; b/c of my flaws, the master is only
getting ½ of his water. The water carrier instructed the pot to observe the
flowers along the path – he noticed that there were flowers only on his side of
the path but not on the perfect pot’s side. They are because of your crack. Two
years ago I planted seeds on your side and every day while we passed these
spots, you watered them. B/c you are cracked, I have been able to pick those
flowers to decorate the master’s table. Without you being just the way you are,
I would not have this beauty to grace his house.

This is just the way God works: using cracked pots to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

If you think about it, there are a thousand stories about a thousand messed-up people in the Bible, and God used them anyway. Noah had a drinking problem. Moses stuttered and had a short fuse. Abraham lied. Jacob was a compulsive liar. David lusted, abused power, and murdered. Solomon collected wives like Dr. Jim collects baseball cards. Jeremiah was depressed. Jonah was suicidal. Peter denied Jesus. James and John were quick to anger and were most worried about power and position. Gideon and Thomas doubted. John Mark deserted Paul. Timothy had ulcers.

The good news is that God used each one of them, cracked pots as they might be, for His glory and His purpose. And He still does.

Today we are bringing up an inward generation. They have lost faith in anything "up there" and have been failed by everyone "out there" and are thus seeking: is there something meaningful and solid "in here"? Thus they give ultimate priority to the personal and tend to withdraw into the self.

Thus we live in an age where loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds. The worst sort of loneliness is the kind where you’re all alone in a crowd, where there are all kinds of people around, but they never notice you.

Maybe this song will remind you what loneliness is like: (Eleanor Rigby) Maybe some of you know this kind of loneliness. I do. It’s lonely being a United Methodist Pastor. We are moved frequently, we’re generally isolated from friends and colleagues, and there has traditionally been a distance between pastor and parishioner, so it’s hard to make friends. There is even a term for us; we’re "acceptable outsiders" – we’re allowed to come into the town and have a place here, but we’re always reminded that we are outsiders.

This is one reason why I insist on coming out here to talk to you – it takes away a little of the distance between me and you. In my last church, I expressed this desire and was told, "You’re not an outsider. You don’t have any reason to be lonely." If that was true, why were my only real friends the pastor and youth pastor in the other church in town?

But I was lonely well before I became a pastor; in high school I felt alienated from my peers and though I always had friends, I never felt like I was part of any of the groups.

Why do I tell you this? So you will feel sorry for me? Not remotely. It’s a reminder. It’s a reminder that everybody hurts, even your pastor.

The question is: what do we do about it? What do we do with the pain? Henri Nouwen, one of my heroes of the faith, who lived a profoundly lonely life, wrote this: the wound of loneliness is like the Grand Canyon – a deep incision in the surface of our existence which has become an inexhaustible source of beauty and self-understanding.

Our loneliness can stand as a reminder that we really don’t belong here. That we were created for something more – for a pure relationship with God, that we were built for heaven and that we were meant to be together in Community with God. When the Bible tells us we were made in God’s image, God’s image is always a trinity – always Father, Son, and Spirit, three Persons always in Community with one another. We weren’t built for superficial relationships!

Listen to what Nouwen says in his book The Wounded Healer:

When we want to give up our loneliness and try to overcome the separation and
incompleteness we feel, too soon, we easily relate to our human world with
devastating expectations. We ignore what we already know with a deep-seated,
intuitive knowledge – that no love or friendship, no intimate embrace or tender
kiss, no community, commune or collective, no man or woman, will ever be able to
satisfy our desire to be released from our lonely condition.

The truth is so disconcerting and painful that we are more prone to play games with our fantasies than to face the truth of our existence. Thus we keep hoping that one
day we will find the man who really understands our experiences, the woman who
will bring peace to our restless life, the job where we can fulfill our potentials, the book which will explain everything, the place where we will feel at home. Such false hope leads us to make exhausting demands and prepares us for bitterness and dangerous hostility when we start discovering that nobody, and nothing, can live up to our absolutistic expectations.

Many marriages are ruined because neither partner was able to fulfill the often hidden hope that the other would take his or her loneliness away. And many celibates live with the naïve dream that in the intimacy of marriage their loneliness will be taken away.

If you want to pay attention to someone without intention, you have to be at home in your own house; discover the center of your life in your own heart.


If we can be at home in our own houses and allow God to be the center of our lives, we can articulate the inner moments of our lives, which frees us to remove the obstacles that prevent the Spirit from entering. Did you know that one of the biggest indicators of emotional immaturity is blaming? When we blame others and claim a victim mentality, we will never move beyond it, because it’s always somebody else’s fault.

But when we accept our own brokenness and lead from a place of vulnerability, we put our own faith at the disposal of others. Why is this important? Because we are a generation without fathers, and authority from the top down is immediately suspect. If you work with young people, you know that your first task is to earn their trust. Why? Because we do not automatically trust authority. And that trait is being manifest at a younger and younger age. (as an aside, I think it’s funny that I’m considered "young clergy" by the denomination, but any teenager will tell you that 37 is old).

Leading from vulnerability, however, is a way to build trust. In fact, it’s the only way to lead. No pastor can save anyone. I never died on a cross for anyone’s sins. I can offer myself to Jesus to use as a guide for you. I can help you articulate your inner events, all the while never knowing "just how you’re feeling." Only the Holy Spirit can truly do that.

Compassion is at the core of authority, and we cannot get to a place of compassion without realizing and accepting our own brokenness. When we realize how far we are from perfect, we can be free to love, accept, and forgive others. When Peter asked Jesus how many times he was supposed to forgive, Jesus told a story about a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. He went to a servant who owed him millions of dollars. The servant couldn’t pay, so the master ordered everything he had (including his family) to be sold to repay the debt. He begged the master to be patient with him. The master took pity on him, cancelled the debt, and let him go.

But when that servant went out, he found a fellow servant who owed him a few dollars. He choked him and had him thrown into prison over that debt. The other servants heard what happened and told the master, who brought in that servant. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’

This gives us the negative picture – a picture of not leading out of brokenness and vulnerability. In the end, the master turned that servant over to the jailers to be tortured until he should pay back all he owed, and Jesus finishes by saying, "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart." Pretty harsh, yes, but it’s an obvious call for us to live out of brokenness and vulnerability rather than our own strength.

God calls us and enables us to looks for signs of hope and promise in our situation, not only for us, but also for others. Because when we lead from a position of vulnerability, we do exactly as Jesus, Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

God will be faithful to use us to reach others if we will take Jesus’ attitude and lead out of brokenness and vulnerability.

*Note: this message, along with others in this series, has been adapted from Peter Scazzero's book The Emotionally Healthy Church.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Breaking the Power of the Past

3rd in the Series: Putting the Pieces Together: a Journey Toward Mature Discipleship*

We are in our third week of putting the pieces together – our journey toward mature discipleship. We have established that we are emotional beings, and that it’s our duty to look beneath the surface of our lives, to see the 90% of us that usually never surfaces. As we look under the surface, however, the Gospel provides our safety net, reminding us that we’re God’s beloved sons and daughters.

As we look beneath the surface, especially as we reflect on our past, I wonder if there might be any emotional baggage or unfinished business from my past affecting us today. What makes us ask, "What would everyone think? We’ve got to keep up appearances. Nobody must ever know."
Many of us have those skeletons in our closets, those things about our past that we’re ashamed to admit. For some, it’s abuse. For others, it’s extreme poverty. For some, it’s addictions. For the rest, it’s something else. The truth is this: Every family has been damaged. Every one of us descended from Adam and Eve’s family tree. We’ve been dysfunctional since Cain killed his brother Abel.

Many of us (rightly) see ourselves as new creations in Christ, but I wonder: are we blind to how much our family of origin dominates our daily lives? Are we resistant to go back over our stories and reflect on how our past might be negatively affecting us?

One way to look at our families of origin somewhat objectively is by drawing a genogram. This is a way of drawing a family tree that looks at information about family members and their relationships over two or three generations.

You see, sin is passed from generation to generation. In the Ten Commandments, we read a provocative statement from God: For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20:5-6). The great part of this is that God shows love forever. But the sobering truth is that our choices and our sins don’t just affect us; they affect our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren…

We pass sin from generation to generation. We need look no further than the Patriarchs to see this: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For years, the Israelites referred to God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham was the one with whom God made His covenant.
But if you look at their family genogram, you will see some sinful patterns emerge.

First, there is a common pattern of deception: Abraham lying about Sarah (wife or sister), Isaac & Rebecca’s marriage dominated by lies and trickery (Genesis 27), and Jacob lies to anyone he can. Ten of Jacob’s sons fake the death of their brother.

Another common pattern is how parents deal with children; Abraham takes matters into his own hands wrt the promise, and Ishmael is the result. Sibling rivalry causes horrible problems (Ishmael/Isaac still has results today), Jacob is Rebecca’s favorite, while Esau is Isaac’s favorite; Rebecca helps Jacob trick his father into giving him the blessing that was supposed to go to his brother, Esau, the firstborn. Because of this, Esau hated Jacob and hunted him down to kill him. When Jacob had children, he played favorites: Joseph was his favorite, and this, along with his attitude toward his older brothers, was what drove them to fake his death and sell him into slavery. But they didn’t get there in a day; it was generational sin.

Last week in Rudy’s class we talked about King David and his genogram; though David was known as a man after God’s own heart and wrote psalms and lead God’s people victoriously in battle. As a shepherd, he defeated a lion and a bear and even slew Goliath. He became Israel’s second king and extended the country’s borders. When he was around 40-50, however, he started slipping spiritually. In 2 Samuel 11:1 We read this: In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab off with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army…but David remained in Jerusalem. David began what will turn into a generational pattern. Instead of taking care of his business and doing his job, David was messing around the palace spying on Bathsheba. The story moves to adultery, lies, attempted cover-ups, and finally murder.
The theme of sexual sin is handed down from generation to generation. Like the pagan kings of the ANE, David collects wives (in direct contradiction of God’s law). Like I said, he also commits adultery with Bathsheba. His oldest son, Amnon, rapes his half sister and disgraces her. Solomon collects 700 wives and 300 concubines. Solomon’s son Rehoboam has 18 wives and 60 concubines.

Family division and sibling rivalry are integral parts of David’s family. David has tensions with his brothers: not quite like Jacob and Esau, but tensions nonetheless. When Samuel comes to the house of Jesse to anoint one of his sons as king, David is not even brought forth; he is left to tend to the sheep. Later, when Jesse’s sons go to war against the Philistines, David is sent to bring them food. When he comes, his oldest brother accuses him of having a wicked heart and of only coming to watch the battle (1 Samuel 17:28).

David’s sons escalate brotherly tensions; his son Absalom, murders his brother Amnon and later proclaims himself king.

As David slips from his devotion to God, so too do his sons. Solomon does build a fantastic temple for God, but he mixes in worship of the gods of the nations around him (which were supposed to have been driven out in Abraham’s time!)

Sin is passed on from generation to generation, and the implication in our lives is clear: it is impossible to help people break free from their past apart from understanding the families in which we grew up. Unless we grasp the power of the past on who we are in the present, we will inevitably replicate those patterns in relationship inside and outside the church.

Some examples of this are as follows:
  • Understanding that a turning point in her life was a certain rejection in junior high school was important for Joan’s discipleship. It had led her into a life of drug addiction. Narcotics Anonymous played a large role in her recovery.
  • Ron’s fight to make it as a professional musician contributed to his relentless perfectionism with himself and others. He battles to receive God’s unconditional love and grace in Christ.
  • Kathy’s autistic son has made her sensitive to families with a disabled member.

All of the people I mentioned are in different places in their journey with Christ, but a critical part of growing into maturity in Christ needs to include addressing these issues and how they impact who they are in the present, both positively and negatively.

We can be shaped by our families, but we are also shaped by significant events such as a divorce, sexual or emotional abuse, an addiction, a lengthy period of unemployment, a particular betrayal, or a friendship. The question to ask is, "What are a few events or people that have impacted who I am today, that will help me understand ‘what makes me tick’?"

Now, we might have a disposition toward a certain behavior, but that doesn’t mean we’re stuck. That’s what society tells us; if we’re predisposed to do something, then we don’t have any choice but to follow through on it. But there is another possibility. In John 3:1-5, Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, comes to Jesus at night and says, "Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him." IN reply, Jesus declared, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again."

"How can a man be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked. "Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born." Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit."

What Jesus is pointing at his this: we have the possibility of having a new birth into a spiritual family. Think of it this way: If you are an apple tree and want to bear peaches, you can be pruned, or someone can attach peaches with wire to your branches, But apples keep coming. If you want peaches, you have to dig up the apple tree and plant a peach tree. New roots are needed for new fruit. All we do is modify the same tree when we make resolutions or commitments to pray more, go to church more consistently, or resolve to stop bad behavior. The root needs to be pulled up.

Only by God’s direct intervention can we be changed. This requires a complete change at the root, or the base of who we are. The good news: God is willing to do this change. In fact, when Jesus’ family came looking for him in Mark 3:35, he said this: whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.

We are baptized, not in the blood of our biological family, but in the blood of Jesus, and we’re given new name (Christian), new inheritance (freedom, glory, hope), and new power (Holy Spirit) to live the new life.

Remember that becoming a Christian doesn’t erase the past. We get a new start, but we still come in as babies, drinking spiritual milk, expected to die daily to the parts of our lives that do not honor God and follow Jesus.

Discipleship includes honest reflection on positive and negative impact of family of origin/major influences in life: hard work. The extent to which we can go back and understand how it has shaped us will determine, to a large degree, our level of awareness and our ability to break destructive patterns, pass on constructive legacies, and grow in love toward God and people.

Read these words of a Hasidic Rabbi on his deathbed:
When I was young, I set out to change the world. When I grew older, I perceived that this was too ambitious so I set out to change my state. This, too, I realized as I grew older was too ambitious, so I set out to change my town. When I realized that I could not even do this, I tried to change my family. Now as an old man, I know that I should have started by changing myself. If I had started with myself, maybe then I would have succeeded in changing my family, the town, or even the state – and who knows, maybe even the world.

So when you read the Bible, start asking yourself, how does this scripture differ from the way I was shaped, either in my family growing up, or by other influences (culture)? Now that I am in God’s family, what needs to change in the way I treat people?

Read this testimony from Stan Cullen

So, I’ve been working as a nurses aide for the last year, or so. If you don’t
know what an aide does, well, it’s mostly stuff that people would rather do for
themselves if they could. If you have never wiped a fellow human being’s
backside, let me tell you, it’s a lot harder on the person getting wiped.

Especially that generation… They embarrass a lot more easily than we…Anyway, a
large number of the people I’ve helped care for have had a least a little
dementia (what used to be called senility), and a few have had suffered from
pretty advanced Alzheimer’s disease. One thing that is common with these folks
is that a little loop of thoughts will play, over-and –over, in their head.

Sometimes they’ll repeat the same two or three stories again, and again, and
again. I’ve had times, working in the hospital, where I’ve been assigned to sit
with an elderly person for eight hours, just to assure they don’t hurt
themselves, and they will repeat the same couple of stories for the entire eight
hours. They have no idea that they are doing it. (Or they don’t care)

So, here is what I’ve noticed…. The stories these folks tell are either very sad, or very happy. There really doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. Almost without
exception, their minds have fixated on very comforting, or very troubling
thoughts. They spend all of their time either comforting, or torturing
themselves. I can’t imagine anything worse than having your mind locked on a
handful of events that shattered your heart. Conversely, I fully embrace the
idea of replaying the 8th grade talent show, over-and-over, during my final
days.

I’ll get back on point.My grandfather was a perfect example of this. He
had suffered a really awful trauma as a kid: When he was just a kid, he woke in
the middle of the night to the sound of his parents fighting. The fighting, in
itself, wasn’t particularly unusual but, the length and the volume of it scared
him so badly that he got out of bed and crawled across the floor to listen.

Listening though a vent in the floor, he soon realized that his parents were
deciding to divorce. Worse, as he lay on there on the floor, only 11 years old,
he heard that the issue that was really making them furious was that the
decision as to which parent he, my grandfather, would be living with after the
split. Neither parent wanted him. Not only did neither parent want him, they
were violently arguing as to who was going to be forced to take him.So, this
little boy, in 1921, pulled on his shoes and began walking. He walked all of
that night and way into the next day.

Eventually, he came upon a farmer working a team of horses in a field. He sat on the fence and watched the old man work. Finally, when the farmer’s route got him close enough to speak with him, he asked my grandfather what he wanted. My grandfather asked "Do you have any work around here a boy could do for some food?" The old man called him over, put him on the seat next to him on the plow, and took him home. He lived with that man and his wife for the next five years. During all of the ensuing years, no one ever came looking for my grandfather. Years later, after he had been reunited with his parents, they actually told him they were relieved he had left. Can you imagine?That night in 1921 scarred my grandfather for the rest of his entire life. It informed how he interacted with each and every person who was ever to be in his life. And, at the end of his life, it became his loop.

For the last several years of his life, my grandfather told me this story. At the very end, he would tell it to me several times, every day. Each time he told it, he would
weep. It haunted and traumatized him to the very end.The thing that I find so
heartbreaking about this is that my grandfather also had some profoundly good
luck in his life. My grandmother adored and doted on him for their entire
marriage, we grandkids most certainly worshipped him like good grandchildren
should, he was able to (due to some shenanigans that I probably shouldn’t
divulge/lol) retire in his early 40’s! Still, he was never able to let go of the
pain of that one night and, in the end, it consumed him.

So, here’s what I’ve done. I’ve made two lists….Both of these lists are made up of the people and events that I feel have had the most profound effect on my life.One list is made up of things that were painful…The other list is full of things that have been
joyful….The second list is significantly larger than the first….I’ve never shown
these lists to anyone….I read the joyful list often.... It’s my hope that the
joyful list will be the loop that serves as my mental soundtrack of my last
days…..

For most of us, one day our brains will have no regard to what we want
our thoughts to be. It will be steering the ship whether we like it or not. I
just hope my brain will pick to be joyfully confused, not fixated on the handful
of hurts that I’ve (like all of you) experienced.

We all have the choice now what we will concentrate on. Will we suffer the power of the past, or will we, with God’s help, fix our minds on whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is excellent or praiseworthy.

*Note: this message, along with others in this series, has been adapted from Peter Scazzero's book The Emotionally Healthy Church.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Looking Beneath the Surface

2nd in the series:
Putting the Pieces Together: a Journey Towa
rd Mature Discipleship*

Last week, we began our search for the missing piece of the puzzle: emotional health. We established that God made us emotional beings and He did it on purpose. Jesus, being fully human, experienced the full range of emotions. Thus it isn’t possible to be spiritually mature while remaining emotionally unhealthy. We were reminded that we need to address emotional issues in order to love God and others, and that evangelism flows naturally from emotionally healthy people.

Today we’re going to start digging beneath the surface, because in emotionally healthy churches, people take a deep, hard look inside their hearts, asking, "What is going on that Jesus Christ is trying to change?"

The image I want to use today is an iceberg. When the Titanic ran into one, their big issue (besides thinking their ship was unsinkable) was neglecting the fact that when you see an iceberg, you only see the 10% that is above the surface. That corresponds to the 10% of our lives of which we are consciously aware. The other 90%, like the part that sank the Titanic, is the stuff under the surface of our lives, much of which we never even think about.

As Christians, it is our responsibility to invite God to bring to our awareness those beneath-the-surface layers that hinder us from becoming more like Jesus Christ. Why? So that He can transform them. This is the real horror: that for many, it seems much easier to remain in a comfortable, distorted illusion about our lives. Something may not be true and may be flat-out wrong, but we become so used to it that it feels right.
When I was young, I remember my friends telling me about doing things with their grandfathers, but my grandfather had died just after my first birthday, and I had no memories of him. So I made up some. And I told those stories enough that I started to believe them. I became so used to telling those stories that they felt like part of my life.

In an uglier scenario, I’ve heard too often about someone who grew up, abused by their parents. Then they ended up married to an abusive spouse. They knew it wasn’t right, that life wasn’t supposed to be like that, but they’d lived with it so long that it was all they knew and it didn’t feel "right" when they weren’t being abused.

Proverbs 4:23 tells us: Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. How are we supposed to guard our hearts when our hearts have already been damaged?

It requires unmasked, painful honesty. In John 8:31-22, Jesus told those who were following Him, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." I use the word "unmasked" because sometimes we would rather hide from the truth and protect ourselves rather than deal with it. We’re like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, hiding from God, covering ourselves with little fig leaves so God doesn’t see our nakedness.

In C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there is a wonderful picture of what it’s like to follow God and take a deep, hard look inside. A young boy named Eustace becomes a big, ugly dragon as a consequence for his stubborn, selfish, unbelief. Now he wants to change back to being a little boy, but he can’t do it himself. Eventually the great lion Aslan, representing Jesus, appears to Eustace and leads him to a beautiful well to bathe. But since he’s a dragon, he can’t enter the well.

Aslan tells him to undress. Eustace remembers that he can cast off his skin like a snake. He takes off a layer by himself, dropping it to the ground, feeling better. Then as he moves to the pool, he realized there is yet another hard, rough, scaly layer still on him. Frustrated, in pain, and longing to get into that beautiful bath, he asks himself, "How many skins do I have to take off?"
After three layers, he gives up, realizing that he cannot do it. Aslan then says, "You will have to let me undress you." To which Eustace replies:
I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate
now. So I just lay flat down on my back and let him do it. The first tear he
made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he
began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’d ever felt… Well, he
peeled the beastly stuff right off – just as I thought I’d done it myself the
other three times, only they hadn’t hurt – and there it was lying on the grass:
only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly looking than the others
had been. And there was I as smooth and soft… Then he caught hold of me… and
threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After
that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and
splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why.
I’d turned into a boy again… After a bit, the lion took me out and dressed me…
with his paws… in these new clothes I’m wearing.
C. S. Lewis puts it well: to go in this new direction, it feels as if God’s claws are going so deeply into us that they are cutting into our very hearts.
But the truth is this: God often uses pain to get us to change. It has been said that "We change our behavior when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing" (Henry Cloud and John Townsend Boundaries With Kids).

When I was a college freshman, I had a terrible accident on the soccer field, and I ended up with a ruptured spleen. I have never felt anything so painful in my life; my body didn’t even know how to deal with all of the pain. I spent a week in the hospital with no painkillers. Why didn’t I get painkillers? Because the doctors needed to use pain as an indicator. Without that indicator, they couldn’t know how I was progressing.

Another way to think about it is through the experience of Dr. Paul Brand, who ministered to people with leprosy (as told by Philip Yancey in "Where is God When it Hurts?"). Leprosy has been caricatured as a disease that rots off toes and fingers, but really what happens is that the person loses feeling and doesn’t experience any of the pain that the rest of us feel. When they do something that should hurt, it doesn’t. So when pain would tell most of us to stop doing something, they never get that message, and the result is horrible injury. For example, if I sprain my ankle, it hurts enough that I can’t walk. But for someone with leprosy, they don’t know that it hurts, so they continue to walk on it until they do permanent damage to it. Pain is a gift. It shows us that something isn’t right, and thus shows us when we need to change.

Many of us have to hit rock bottom before we’re really willing to change. The pain of the status quo has to become unbearable. So what does it look like to go beneath the surface?

We first have to develop an awareness of what we are feeling and doing. We remember that Jesus had deep emotions;
  • he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved (John 11:33);
  • he wept at Lazarus’ graveside and over the city of Jerusalem (John 11:33-36; Luke 19:41);
  • he was angry with his disciples (Mark 10:14);
  • he was furious at the moneychangers in the temple (John 2:13-17);
  • he showed astonishment (Matt 8:10);
  • he had an emotional longing to be with the 12 apostles (Luke 22:15);
  • he had compassion for widows, lepers, and blind men (Matt 20:34; Mark 1:41; Luke 7:13).

And in John 13, we find Jesus preparing for Passover with his disciples. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet: even Judas, even though Judas had already planned to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God (John 13:3). He was deeply aware of who he was and what he was doing. He served his disciples, even the one he knew would betray him. He broke from the expectations of his family, friends, disciples, and the religious leaders and to follow God’s plan for his life.

In the same way, a deep awareness of what we are feeling and doing gives us courage to begin doing life differently (and hopefully more in line with God’s will) and develop new, healthier relational patterns.

Jesus not only lived that way himself, but he lived that way with others, too. In John 2:23-24, he would not entrust himself to those believing in him for his miracles because he knew what was in the icebergs of their hearts.

A simple way to begin the process of paying attention to our emotions is to listen to our body’s reaction in situations: a knot in the stomach, a tension headache, teeth grinding, hands or arms clenched, palms becoming sweaty, neck tightening, foot tapping, insomnia. Ask yourself, "What might my body be telling me right now?"

Ask the "why" or "What’s going on" questions. In John 4, Jesus met a Samaritan woman at the well. He confronted her with the "why" question. Why are you here at midday? Because you are ashamed? Why are you running from husband to husband? What void are you trying to fill? Jesus has a great knack for getting to the heart of the matter. And He can do it with you. Try this: invite the Holy Spirit to look beneath the surface of your life and answer the "why" and "what’s going on" question. Like

  • Why am I always late for appointments?
  • Why do I avoid certain people?
  • Why do I dread certain meetings?
  • Why do I want to succeed so badly?
  • Why do I procrastinate?
  • Why do I avoid confrontation?
  • Why do I want to please people?

In his book "Celebration of Discipline", Richard Foster makes this point: when we go without food, it brings to the surface those things that have been hidden. He says:

We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting
these things surface… Anger, bitterness, jealously, strife, fear – if they are
within us, they will surface during fasting. At first we will rationalize that
our anger is due to our hunger; then we will realize that we are angry because
the spirit of anger is within us.

This seems devastating. When we start to look beneath the surface, the 90% of the iceberg that we find down there is downright nasty.

There is good news, however. The good news is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is our safety net. The Gospel says that each one of us is more sinful and flawed than we would ever dare believe… but because Jesus lived and died in our place, we are more accepted and loved than we ever dared hope. A great exchange takes place when we place our trust and faith in Jesus Christ. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).

$100 bill illustration: Which is worth more? A brand new, crisp $100 bill, or a crumpled, wadded-up $100 bill? Why are they both worth $100? Because the U.S. Treasury says they are. And we receive our worth from someone more trustworthy than the government; we receive our worth from God, who declares us "fearfully and wonderfully made." We receive our worth from Jesus Christ, who loved us enough to go to the cross for each one of us.

God’s free grace says that you don’t have to prove that you’re lovable or valuable. "You can be yourself, because there is nothing left to prove." Determining factor in our relationship with God is not our past or present record or performance. It is Jesus’ past record that has been credited to my account as a gift. Thus we can face painful truth about ourselves. As we step out onto the tightrope of discovering the unpleasant things about ourselves, we have a safety net below: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

A critical process in becoming emotionally healthy involves looking at the story of our lives with some objectivity and how it has contributed to the person we are today. What about you is it that if anyone really knew about it, they wouldn’t accept you? What masks are you wearing? What constitutes that 90% beneath the surface? It can be extremely hard to look at ourselves with objectivity; thus we benefit from having a trusted friend do it with us.

This is one of the benefits of being in a cell group; your cell group becomes a community of trust in which we are enabled to go beneath the surface. We have to ensure for one another a few non-negotiables, however.

  1. We are Christ-centered and Bible-based. We base our decisions and judgments based on scripture. We receive our morality and direction from God. Therefore we lovingly root out sin when we see it.
  2. We are confidential. When someone comes to us, any of us, and shares the depth of their dysfunction, we do not share it with others, not even as a prayer request, unless we are given direct permission to do so. If we do not adhere to this, we are simply gossips.
  3. Not every one of us struggles with the same things. Don’t be shocked or disgusted if someone shares with you a sin that you don’t struggle with. Chances are they don’t struggle with something you do! Instead, walk with them toward healing.
  4. Recognize when something is beyond your capacity to help. Sometimes looking beneath the surface requires professional counseling help. There is no shame to going to a counselor for help.
  5. Do the search Psalm 139-style. One of the famous lines from Psalm 139 is this (v. 23-24): Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. But we don’t get there until we’ve already gone through this: O LORD, you have searched me and you know me (v. 1). God already knows what’s beneath the surface. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? (v. 7) We do not have to do it alone. God is always with us.
Let that prayer from Psalm 139 guide us in our endeavor to look beneath the surface: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

*Note: this message, along with others in this series, has been adapted from Peter Scazzero's book The Emotionally Healthy Church.