Sunday, November 29, 2009

Living a Life that Matters: What are We Here For?

I don’t like shopping.  When it comes to clothes, I’m generally hard to fit, which, coupled with the fact that I usually balk at paying full price on anything, means it takes a long time.  The kids don’t enjoy it either, even when they get to go to the toy section, because they don’t like waiting while we try to find the exact right thing.  And babysitters cost enough that we don’t like to “waste” our date nights on shopping. Sometimes we still shop, but mostly we shop online.  Anyone else caught this bug?  My mom loves Christmas shopping online – she said it’s like she gets two Christmases. One is when the packages come in the mail, and the other is when she gets to give them out.

Unfortunately, sometimes when you receive your package, you open it up, just to find that the product doesn’t fit, or worse, is broken.  Once I received a CD that was shattered into about 1000 pieces.  When that happened, I immediately e-mailed and asked for a replacement.  Why?  Because a broken CD wouldn’t play.  It was made for one purpose: to play the content on it.  It wasn’t made to be a drink coaster or a sun-catcher.  It was made to play its content. 

Ephesians 2:10 tells us “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” We were also made for a purpose.  God made us for the purpose of carrying out his good works.  If we don’t do what we were made for, why are we even around? All of the other things we do, all of the things that bring us money, fame, power, these are not what we were made for!

We were meant to live lives that matter!  But to do so, we have to know what we’re here for.  The Bible is really helpful in figuring this out.  If you’ve read through Genesis, you know that the Israelites, the people of God, ended up enslaved in Egypt.  You’ll also know about Moses, who became the deliverer.  He spent time with God one-on-one, especially on Mount Sinai, where God told him this (Exodus 19:4-6) You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.  Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

A kingdom of priests, a holy, set-aside nation.  The job of a priest is to mediate between humans and the Divine. Isaiah 55:5 says, “Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations that do not know you will hasten to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.” In other words, as an entire kingdom of priests, Israel existed to share God with the nations.  That was the very reason for God having a “chosen people.”  Not to exclude other people, but, in fact, to include other people!  Have you ever visited another religion’s place of worship? If you do that, just by watching the ritual that a priest performs, you can tell what that religion’s god is like. Isaiah is saying that by watching Israel, the other nations should see what Yahweh is like.

And the Apostle Peter applied this to the church, (1 Peter 2:9) saying, “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

We are those priests. According to 1 Peter 1, Peter was writing to Christians scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. Did you notice that Peter didn’t say “You Pastors are a chosen people, a royal priesthood…” He never limited this to clergy. All Christians.  You are this royal priesthood.  And people out in the world who don’t know Yahweh, who don’t yet know the saving grace of Jesus Christ, who don’t have the Holy Spirit living within them, their knowledge of the God of the universe is limited to how they see God’s priests behaving. How do we portray God? 

We are supposed to offer other people a window into God’s character; so it’s vitally important for us to know what is important to God.  In Matthew 22, Jesus tells us what’s most important.  (Matthew 22:35-40) One of the Pharisees, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:   "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied:  “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

Love is most important.  1 John 4 tells us multiple times: God is love. In 1 John 4:7-12, John writes this: Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God.  Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

His love is made complete in us when we love one another.  Just giving and receiving love is good enough for it to be the entire goal.  But we don’t love just for the multiple benefits we get from loving and from being loved; our love for one another should show the world God’s love.  And how God’s love is available for them, too.

After Jesus’ resurrection, he appeared to his disciples by the Sea of Galilee.  They went fishing and caught an amazing catch.  They ate, and then Jesus had an important conversation with Peter, who, as Jesus was being arrested, had notably denied even knowing Jesus.

 In John 21 we read this: When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?" 

"Yes, Lord," he said, "you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Feed my lambs." 

Again Jesus said, "Simon son of John, do you truly love me?" He answered, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Jesus said, "Take care of my sheep." 

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?" Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you." Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”

The importance of this interchange can’t be overstated.  When Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, he’s asking, “Are you carrying out the greatest commandment?” Because Peter was there when Jesus was asked the question as to what was most important.  He knows that what is most important is loving God and loving neighbor.  So Jesus asked him, “Do you love me?” Of course Peter was hurt and offended.  Of course he loved Jesus. Now I’ve always seen this as Jesus reinstating Peter, giving him the chance to make publically declare his love for Jesus three times, making amends for denying Jesus three times.  But I think it’s more than just that.  Jesus is telling Peter: if you love me, prove it.  Prove your love by feeding my sheep. Prove your love by being a priest for me.  Remember, this is the same Peter who wrote these words: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

To prove our love to God by feeding his sheep requires orienting our lives completely differently than the world does.  James 1:27 tells us that Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. Look after orphans and widows.  Take care of the least and the lost. One of the reasons we’re focusing on human trafficking this Christmas is because I believe if we keep a sharp focus, we will be able to make a huge difference. There are among us orphans who are being exploited and enslaved, children who are being bought and sold right here in central Ohio.  You might already be tired of hearing this from me, but you can celebrate your birthday on your birthday, but on Christmas, we’re going to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. If we do our part, we can make a difference!

James tells us that pure and faultless religion also includes keeping ourselves from being polluted by the world.  How do we do that?  In the world of H1N1 scares, one thing I see a lot is masks.  Have you been to the hospital lately?  Lots of hospital employees are wearing masks so they won’t breathe the contaminated air.  I read a pamphlet about how to avoid getting the flu; the first thing on their list was Always practice good health habits to maintain your body’s resistance to infection. To do this, they suggested: Eat a balanced diet. Drink plenty of fluids. Exercise daily. Manage stress. Get enough rest and sleep. Then they reminded us to Take these common sense steps to stop the spread of germs: Wash hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Avoid or minimize contact with sick people (3 feet).  Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Cover your mouth and nose with tissues when you cough and sneeze. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow.  Stay away from others as much as possible when you are sick. 

I think we as Christians can take the same sort of precautions when it comes to the world.  We can’t just hole up and ignore a lost world around us; how are we supposed to be the priests of the world if we’re inaccessible?  When we as Christians resort to “holy huddle” mentality, we also communicate to the world that God is exclusive, that God only accepts certain people, and that God himself is inaccessible. Is that what we want? This flies in the face of what it means to be a royal priesthood, a holy nation.

To keep ourselves from being polluted by the world, we must always practice good spiritual health habits.  Stay grounded in the Word of God.  Pray continually.  Meet together with other Christians to celebrate what God is doing and to encourage and to be encouraged.

While the CDC tells us to take common sense steps to avoid the spread of germs, I would counsel you to take uncommon sense steps.  You see, until Jesus came, the steps to avoid becoming unclean, polluted, if you will, were clear.  Anyone who was unclean (and you could be rendered unclean by all sorts of means) had to stay away from everyone else, shouting “unclean” if someone came into close proximity.  They were outcasts and pariahs. Before Jesus came to earth, the old plan was “come and see” – outsiders were invited to come and see the people of God at worship.  This was how they were supposed to see God’s character; when they came into contact with God’s followers, they would see God. 

But God’s new plan is this: God came to us.  In the person of Jesus Christ, God came to seek and save what was lost (Luke 19:10).  Instead of avoiding the “unclean”, Jesus went to them.  He was criticized for eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:16).  Jesus response? It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Mark 2:17).

Jesus did what was unheard of.  In Luke 5:12-14, we see Jesus touching a man with leprosy healing him. In Luke 7:11-15, Jesus encountered a funeral procession, the only son of a widowed mother, and he went and touched the coffin (unclean) and restored the son to life. In Luke 8:40-56, Jesus was touched by a bleeding woman (unclean) and he spoke to her, telling her that her faith made her well.  He went into the house of the synagogue leader and touched his dead daughter, bringing her back to life. In Luke 17:11-19, Jesus touched and healed ten lepers, including a hated Samaritan.

Do you get it?  Jesus was characterized by being among, even touching the unclean.  Yet it did not pollute him!  He didn’t end up unclean.  Quite the opposite: when Jesus touched, he took away the uncleanness.  He took away the barrier between the unclean person and God. 

As a royal priesthood, we are called to a similar ministry.  We are called to minister to an unclean world.  We United Methodists have as a mission statement: Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Our mission isn’t just to make disciples.  Our mission is to transform the world.
That said, keeping ourselves from being polluted by the world means that we evaluate everything.  Everything.  Does everything that we do fall into line with what God wants from us?  Do we present the world with an accurate picture of God through our words and deeds? Are we living out our purpose in life? 
What are we here for? We are here to be priests.  To continue Jesus Christ’s mission on earth. Jesus didn’t just come for us; he also sends us.  In John 20:21, we find a resurrected Jesus meeting with his disciples.  After greeting them with a customary Peace be with you, he commissioned them. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you. We are sent into the world, not to be polluted by the world, but to bring them healing.  To bring them Jesus Christ.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Living a Life that Matters: Thanksgiving

Do you want to live a life that matters?  Of course you do.  That is one of our greatest needs.  To live a life that matters.  Over the next several weeks leading into Christmas, we are going to look at some things we can do that will matter, not just for today, but for eternity.

We live in an anxious, uneasy world.  We wonder how long our good health will hold out. H1N1 is still out there, there seems to be more and more cases of cancer, and of course, none of us is getting any younger.  And what about health care? Insurance prices?  Government run? We worry about our money – will we have enough to retire?  And will our jobs survive? Is our country going to hell in a hand basket? And that doesn’t even take into account the things that keep each of us awake at night, those so personal details that we don’t dare share out loud.

In the midst of all of this turmoil, we’re asking, “Do you want to live a life that matters?” 

Of course we want to live a life that matters.  When you come to the end of your life, do you want to realize that you missed out on life because you were too worried about what might happen?  Paul tells the church in Philippi “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).

I love this: in the midst of worrisome situations, Paul tells us to pray about it.  By prayer and petition, present your requests to God.  We get that part.  There are no atheists in foxholes.  When we’re in trouble, we pray.  But Paul didn’t just say that.  He said, “with thanksgiving.”  This is a whole ‘nother story. 

The Greek word that we translate as thanksgiving might sound familiar to some of you: it is eucharistos, which comes from the prefix eu: good, well + charizomai [from charis: grace] to freely give, to grant as a favor, deliver, forgive.

God freely gives us his grace and delivers us from bondage, from the bondage of sin and guilt and from the punishment in Hell that comes from sin.  Is it any wonder that Paul tells us to present our prayers with thanksgiving?  We have everything to be thankful for – and I mean everything.

I wonder if sometimes we just go through the motions when it comes to prayer.  We pray over something for a few days, weeks even, and when we don’t see any results, we come to the conclusion that God isn’t listening. But the kind of prayer that Paul tells us to pray includes thanksgiving.  Even in the worst situations, there is something to be thankful for. Like: your parents keep hounding you and they are driving you nuts: be thankful that you have parents – and even more, be thankful that they care.  You drive an ugly car: be thankful that you have transportation. You’re struggling in school: be thankful that you have the opportunity to go to school.  You don’t like your job: be thankful that you have a job. In every situation, you can find something to be thankful for. 

I want to bring this a little closer to home. Unless you’re visiting with us this week, you know that Tara and I are foster parents.  We have shared personally with many of you about Baby J, but some of you don’t know, so here’s the situation: the county department of job and family services’ goal for Jason is reconciliation with his birth parents.  They have been very attentive to come to their weekly visitation with Baby J and are taking some parenting classes and have an evaluation set in December to hopefully reunite them. 

Our entire family loves Baby Jason very much, and we would love to keep him.  Initially we were given the indication that this would be a foster-to-adopt placement, that we would most likely get to keep him.  But that doesn’t look very likely. Many of you have expressed to us that you could never do that: you would end up loving that baby so much that you could never give him back to his birth parents.  I can relate to that feeling, and when that day comes, our entire family is going to need your support, encouragement, and love.

But to say that “I could never do that” is short sighted at best.  As a foster parent, I am thankful for every moment with Baby J.  And in all reality, it’s not a whole lot different from Jonathan and Andrew.  We are not guaranteed tomorrow with either of them.  Even if we were, it goes awfully fast.  Anyone with grown children: how long ago does it seem that your kids were my kids’ ages? It went pretty fast, didn’t it?  They were little, in your arms.  Then they were “big boys” and “big girls” and then all of a sudden they were driving, then graduating, then getting married…

We all know it’s going to be like that.  But did that stop us from having children?  Did we ever say, “We’re only going to have these children for 18 years and then, poof, empty nest… that will be too hard.  We shouldn’t have kids at all.” Or did any of you, in your teens or twenties,  in the midst of young love, say to your beloved, “I would love to marry you, but one day you might die, and I couldn’t stand the loss.  So I’m not going to put myself out there.”

That would be ridiculous.  Absolutely pointless.  No, instead you spend your time thankful for the moments you have together.  You thank God for each and every smile, each and every fond memory.  That’s what being a parent is all about.  It’s what being married is all about.  And it’s what being a foster parent is all about.

There are people who just don’t seem to be grateful.  I remember once having a homeless gentleman come to my church to ask for money.  It’s just not a good policy for a church to keep or to give out cash, but we did have food available, so I brought him to choose some food.  Someone had donated a coat, and I gave it to him.  He was the most ungrateful person I’d ever met.  He acted as if he was doing me a favor by taking the coat off my hands.  He wouldn’t even let me pray with him before he left.  I’ve also given gifts to people who just didn’t care about them.  Gift-giving occasions were tough when we were dirt poor, because there were some people on our lists who had expensive tastes, and we didn’t have much money at all.

On the other hand, there are people like Ival Hunsucker.  In 2004, I went to Appalachia with a group to serve.  We were assigned to Ival, a 72 year old woman who lived alone in a completely run down house.  Our team did a lot of work for her, and through the eight weeks, her house went through a transformation.  We worked really hard, but we felt like we were the real beneficiaries. She had so little – her house was rotting around her, but she was grateful for everything.  She took us in and loved us as if we were her own children or grandchildren.  And this wasn’t the exception to the rule: we found that even when a family had absolutely nothing, they were grateful for life itself.

And once we start to gain, especially materially, we often begin to lose our gratitude, we take our eyes off God, and we lose our way.  This is one of the problems that we see repeated in the Old Testament.  King Amaziah, for example, started out doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord (2 Chronicles 25:2), but he wasn’t wholehearted.  He went to war against his enemies and brought back the spoils of victory, including Edomite idols, which he set up to worship.  His successor, Uzziah, “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, just as his father Amaziah had done.  He sought God during the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God, and as long as he sought the Lord, God gave him success” (2 Chronicles 26:4-5).  But when he became powerful, his pride led to his downfall (v. 16) and he became unfaithful to God.  This is frequently what happens when we get too much.  Is it any wonder that Jesus proclaimed “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:23-24).

 Our riches, our power, and our situation tend to blind us to everything else.  It’s like walking into a dark room and stumbling around.  After a while, we get used to the darkness.  Then what happens when someone finally turns a light on?  It’s overwhelming, and our eyes can’t handle it. 

This is kind of how I felt when I began hearing information about human trafficking right here in Ohio.  Did you know that every year, between 500-750 children here in Ohio are victims of human trafficking.  Ohio.  I was shocked and overwhelmed when I began hearing the data.  But my eyes are getting accustomed to the light that God is shining into the darkness, and I am determined that we are going to be a church that makes a difference in the lives of these young victims of human trafficking.  The statistics are horrible, but we can do something about it.  This is as good a time as any to remind you that Christmas is not your birthday. You can celebrate your birthday on your birthday, but on Christmas we’re going to celebrate Jesus’ birthday. During this Christmas season, I challenge you to give Jesus a birthday gift by supporting Gracehaven House.  Gracehaven seeks through Christian love to provide shelter and rehabilitation to girls under the age of 18 who have been victims of commercial sexual exploitation, and to raise awareness among young women about the issue of domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) in order to educate and equip them so that they can avoid becoming victims themselves.  I challenge you to match whatever you spend on yourself, your family, and your friends, and give that to Jesus.  Remember that this is above and beyond your regular tithing and giving; if your boss gave you a “Christmas bonus” instead of your monthly paycheck, you’d be plenty mad.  And doesn’t Jesus deserve more?

Remember how I defined thanksgiving earlier?  Part of the definition was “to deliver” – we can offer deliverance to young girls who have been bought and sold.

You can think of it as a thanksgiving offering – in Old Testament times, there were all sorts of offerings and sacrifices that the people were to make, including a thanksgiving offering. This was part of being the people of God; when His people received from God, they gave thanks.  And we don’t serve a grumpy old god who just can’t wait to see us beg and grovel at his feet.  We serve a God who tells us to “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).  God gives us good gifts – the best gift.  Do you want to have the things that matter?  Ask God for them.  Seek them.  Because God gives, and when God gives, He gives freely. God gives us Himself.  Jesus Christ came in the flesh and gave himself for us.  The Holy Spirit comes and lives within us. 

Living a life that matters begins with thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tending the Garden for a Good Harvest: Self-Control

Galatians 5:22-23

A few years ago I was visiting my parents for Thanksgiving.  Their church was going through a sermon series on the seven deadly sins, and one of the associate pastors was given the task of preaching, on Thanksgiving weekend, on the topic of gluttony.  That was no easy task, talking to a crowd, many of whom were still wearing elastic waistbands three days after their gluttonous meal on Thanksgiving. 

That was a really awkward 45 minutes.  Why?  Because most of the crowd was guilty of the infraction.  Most of us had overeaten on Thanksgiving.  As well as other days.  Think about it: can you imagine someone in Darfur saying, “I ate way too much today” or “I’d better just sit here for a while; I am too stuffed to move”?  

One of the issues is that we as a culture have no self-control.  Today we are on the final aspect of the Fruit of the Spirit: Self-control.  This is a concept absolutely foreign to most of our culture.  I have generally begun by defining the aspect of the Fruit, but today let’s look quickly at what self-control is not.  The opposite of self-control is self-indulgence, a sin which Jesus accused the Pharisee leaders of in Matthew 23:25, calling them hypocrites.  He said,You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.Though they looked good on the outside, inside, they were completely living for themselves.

The opposite of this attitude is so important that Matthew, Mark, and Luke all reported it verbatim.  If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.(Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23)

Self-control, defined, is: the mastery of the self and the fashioning of one’s life in the way which God desires.  Not like each of us desires, but what God desires.  In everything.  Here’s an irony: we spend often wonder what God’s will is for us, and we question that and pray over it, especially when it comes to uncomfortable areas like sharing our faith or praying for someone, but when it comes to our own personal items, like what to eat or watch on TV, we don’t spend much time in prayer.  Who prayed yesterday, “Lord, please tell me, give me a sign: should I watch the Buckeye game?” There are plenty of times when God’s Word is flat out obvious in what God’s will is, so don’t sit around praying about it: just do it!

For many of us, self-control only comes when things are out of control.  Maybe your finances are a train wreck, so you’ve been listening to Dave Ramsey, who has helped you start getting out of a financial mess, and you’ve created a budget and are sticking with it, so you aren’t making “impulse buys” on your credit card anymore – if you don’t have the cash to buy something or if it isn’t in your budget, you just don’t buy it.  

Or you’ve been drinking for years – no problem, but you just realized that you need that drink to get you started, or you got that DUI, or whatever the case, and now you’re trying to stop drinking. 

Or the doctor told you that your diet has to change today.

And it’s incredibly hard.  You’ve habituated yourself to a certain set of standards, good or bad.  And changing habits is hard.  It’s even hard for professional athletes.  In an Associated Press article from this week sportswriter Joseph White blames poor tackling in the NFL on a lack of practice.  Tackling is an essential element to football, but it’s also painful, and if defenders tackle all-out in practice, they risk hurting their offensive players.  So instead of tackling the guy with the ball, they “thud him up.”  Then on Sunday, they’re expected to really tackle; this is why we see so many missed tackles.

The point is this: whatever you want to do, you’ll have to practice doing it.  Not doing something else.  The Apostle Paul also uses athletic imagery to get his point across.  In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 he poses the scenario: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.   Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. [Otherwise said: Athletes exercise self-control in all things] They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

I beat my body and make it my slave.  This is what self-control looks like.  I love the running metaphor Paul uses – it just goes to prove that running is God’s sport. ;-)  When I ran a marathon, I didn’t just get up one day and say, “I don’t run, but think I’ll run 26.2 miles today.” No, I trained!  I ran 5 days a week (and played soccer on the 6th). I was averaging around 40 miles per week.  That took a lot of discipline. It took a lot of time every day.  I didn’t always feel like running, but I did it anyway. Why?  Because I wanted to succeed on race day.  I followed Hal Higdon’s training plan pretty religiously. Can you imagine me, a novice marathon runner reading the training plan and saying, “I know the training plan says that I’m supposed to run 8 miles today, but I’d rather eat 8 donuts instead.”? 

Most of us should know what we’re supposed to do.  Most of us should know what self-control looks like.  But we’ve not practiced it for so long because we’ve felt we haven’t needed to. Finances were good, so you spent freely.  Your drinking wasn’t a problem, so you had one more.  Your diet hadn’t killed you yet, so you continued to eat and drink whatever you wanted to.  Maybe you were even like a college roommate of mine, who, after a doctor diagnosed him with bronchitis, angrily snapped, “That quack told me to quit smoking.”

Jesus’ brother James has this to say about that situation:  (James 1:22-25) Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does.

Paul says that an athlete exercises self-control in all things. All things.  Not just on competition day. This is true for us as well.  This is not limited to outward activity: no, instead we’re challenged to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:5.

Is this what our culture looks like?  I think it looks a lot more like the culture of 2 Timothy 3.  Paul describes this scene to Timothy: People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. 

Or, as the Proverb puts it: (Proverbs 25:28) Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control.  Who wants to be like a broken down wall?

How do we get self-control?  We’re not good at self-control, and if you’ve ever just set out to have self-control, you know that it’s insanely difficult.  In fact, most of us have had those times when we’ve really been motivated, but then comes that one day… maybe you’ve been exercising regularly, but then you got the flu, and that was two months ago, and you haven’t exercised since (or maybe you fell off a treadmill and won’t get back on).   You quit smoking, this time for the last time, but life has been so stressful and you thought, “one cigarette won’t hurt anything.” Or you just needed that one drink. Or you set out to read your Bible every day, and you did so well, but the time change wrecked your schedule and it’s been a week…

In Paul’s letter to Titus, he says this: For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:11-14 ) God’s grace teaches us to live self-controlled lives, reminding us that we will be rewarded.  You see, we’re set aside for God – by the act of Jesus Christ, who gave himself to save us – we were actually slaves to our sinful selves, but Jesus set us free.  Because of this freedom, we don’t have to sin anymore!  We can say “No” to sin, ungodliness, and worldly passions.

We’re often challenged to just work harder and dig in deeper, and that sometimes works.  For a while, anyway.  But godly self-control doesn’t just come as an act of self-will or determination, but from the Holy Spirit.  When writing to Timothy, Paul tells him that God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. (2 Timothy 1:7) God is the one who gave us this spirit: His powerful spirit, full of love, full of self-discipline. 

We are born selfish.  When a baby cries, it’s not because someone else is hungry.  We’re not born self-controlled.  But this is the nature of the Holy Spirit.  Here is the thing: we often decide we’re going to accept Jesus accept the gift of the Holy Spirit, but then we decide we’ll set the terms.  We ask him to bless us as we’ve made up our minds to do what we want. We have no self-control because we decide that we want to be in control.  There ‘s nothing about unconditional obedience in our DNA. 

Here’s what Peter wrote about this:  Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy.” 1 Peter 1:13-16 

Prepare your mind for action.  Listen to the Word of God and recognize the difference between your own selfish desires and God’s will.  Put it into practice.

How do we put self-control into practice?  We practice the spiritual disciplines.  Much like if you want to be a good football player, you need to practice tackling, and if you want to be a good runner, you practice running, if you want to live a self-controlled life, you make the spiritual disciplines part of your routine.  I’ve found Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline extremely helpful in helping me understand the spiritual disciplines.  He organizes the disciplines in three areas: Inward Disciplines, Outward Disciplines, and Corporate Disciplines.

·         Inward Disciplines: Meditation, prayer, study, fasting,

Meditation: meditate on the scripture; don’t just read it, but allow it to inform who you are and what you do.  Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal to you what it is that He wants to reveal.  Then bask in it.

Pray: set a regular prayer time aside to pray.  For many, this is best achieved first thing in the morning.  But don’t let that be your only prayer time.  Pray all day long.  Pray with people.  Pray, listening for the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking to you.  Try meditating on the Lord’s Prayer for guidance in how to pray. 

Study: don’t just read the Bible, but find out more about it.  Find about the geography, the people, the history. Find out about the Jewish culture of the time; what does the Talmud say? Do research!

Fast: did you know that this wasn’t an optional spiritual discipline?  Jesus simply assumed his followers would fast: “When you fast…” (Matthew 6:16).  Go without something – you’ll find out quickly if you are in control or if it’s in control of you.  I challenge you to fast from TV.  Or from Facebook.  Or from some treat you regularly eat or drink.  Don’t do it just to go without, but allow God to show you where His desires and your desires come into conflict.

·         Outward Disciplines: simplicity, solitude, submission, service
Simplicity: Try to live a simple life.  Are there things you could do without?  How about trying to live in the moment; if you’re with your family, turn off your cell phone.  I tend to like to read while I’m eating; close the book or newspaper and concentrate on enjoying the food and company.  You can do this radically, like evaluate all of your “stuff” and sell anything you don’t need and give the money to God. 

Solitude: spend time alone.  Without e-mail or a cell phone.  No to-do list. Just listen to God.  I do this best out in nature; this is one of the reasons I love to run.  I am an extreme extrovert, but even I need solitude. 

Submission: this is a curse word for our culture.  I won’t bow to anyone.  I came from a congregational church tradition where each church made its own decision, including calling a pastor.  We didn’t have bishops or any hierarchy.  So when I came to the United Methodist Church, things were radically different.  This became most evident when the Bishop (and the cabinet) decided to move me.  But it was also evident when I had to go through “hoops” to confirm my ordination.  I had to willingly decide to submit myself to the rules of the United Methodist Church and to a bishop. 

Service: get out and do something for someone.  Remember what Paul said, to Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4).  This means serving others regularly.  Make it a part of how you regularly spend your time.  When I had just graduated from college, I found a couple of opportunities for service: in the local junior high ministry at our church, and cross-culturally at the Asian Youth Services in Uptown, Chicago.  I learned a lot about myself and about God through serving those who needed him.  Plus I met some great people and made a difference in people’s lives. It was great to have regular ways to serve, and we’re encouraging our cell groups to make this a meaningful part of your existence.  But how about this: begin each day by praying, “Lord, as it would please you, bring me someone today whom I can serve.” (Richard Foster: Celebration of Discipline).

·         Corporate Disciplines: confession, worship, guidance, celebration
Confession: Most people look around in a church and see a bunch of saints.  Really, that word means the people of God, the set-apart ones, so that’s accurate, but it doesn’t paint the whole picture.  If we could also look around and realize that we’re all surrounded by sinners, saved only by God’s grace, then it would do a lot for us.  Can you imagine what would happen if we’d all take off the “I’m so good” masks? And confess our sins to one another?  James tells us that The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.  If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Do you want our prayers to be powerful and effective?  Then we have to confess our sins to one another. 

Worship: sometimes we fall into the trap of considering the time we spend here our “worship” time.  Thus we “worship” for an hour or so, sometimes a little more.  Sometimes we are really “moved” in worship and we really feel the Holy Spirit’s presence.  Other times we don’t like the music that much and other aspects bother us.  Let’s get something clear: The point of worship is not us and our preferences.  The object of worship is God.  Worship requires our entire being.  You can’t adequately worship God with your arms crossed across your chest.  The Hebrew word we translate “worship” means “to prostrate yourself.” The word “bless” literally means “to kneel.” Thanksgiving refers to “an extension of the hand.” Worship is physical as well as spiritual. Worship is a cornerstone for  self-control.  When we are worshiping Him, we acknowledge that He alone is worthy of praise.

Guidance: This is one reason why I believe our cell groups are so important. We can offer Godly guidance to one another through the cell group.  This is a fantastic place where we can ask for prayer and encouragement and guidance.  The “what do I do next” question is best answered in community.

Celebration: Too often we as Christians are seen as super-serious people who aren’t allowed to have any fun.  As a teenager I remember seeing the same people at a football game or basketball game on Friday night and a church service on Sunday.  They would be cheering and celebrating on Friday and somber and sour on Sunday.  We have something to celebrate!  Our Savior lives!  We are no longer slaves to sin, but are forgiven!  Can I get a witness? J God himself celebrates when one who was lost is found: can we do likewise?

Let’s close with a passage from 2 Peter 1. His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.
Let us go, with all aspects of the Fruit of the Spirit, that we can be effective and productive, that we will make a difference for Jesus in all of the world!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Tending the Garden for a Good Harvest: Gentleness

I was in 7th grade, and I made our town’s all-star soccer team. This year we’d be playing against a team from Detroit - they played good soccer in Detroit. So we practiced hard in anticipation for our big game. On game day, we were disappointed to find out that instead of a high-powered Detroit soccer team, our opponent was a rag-tag group of inner city kids. We were to follow the older age group’s game, and that game wasn’t pretty. Our coaches offered us a choice; we could split up and play: ½ of them with ½ of us, or play as a team. If we chose option 2, we had to keep the game close. We chose to play as a team; after all, we’d trained together for this game, the only chance we would have to play together. We could have scored as many goals as we wanted to that day and blown them out, but instead we kept the score close.
When Paul was talking about gentleness as an aspect of the Fruit of the Spirit, this is what he was talking about. He wasn’t talking about the visitors from Detroit who were outsized, underprepared, and overmatched. They couldn’t do anything else but lose.

When we use the word “gentleness” we often think of something little and helpless. This isn’t what Paul is talking about. Gentleness, from the Greek prautes, doesn’t denote a lack of spirit, courage, vigor, or energy. Instead, this is someone in whom strength and humility go hand-in-hand. This attribute is best equated with the meekness of the beatitude: great strength held under control.

We often run around all scared about the world, about $, about diseases. That’s ridiculous. We as Christians have great power. We have at our disposal the power of the Holy Spirit, God Himself living within us. We read in 2 Timothy 1:7 For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline. The Christian should be full of power! Not cowering like a bunch of wimps.
This is background; this shouldn’t be new news to us as Christians. We have the Almighty living in us. The creator of heavens and earth. We are people of great power. So how do we use our power? Because true gentleness is all about how we use our great power. Want an example? Isaiah 40:10-11 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. He is powerful beyond compare, but he treats his people with gentleness.

In the Greek Old Testament, gentleness always signified a humble disposition which submits to the divine will. It is never used for its own gain or for personal goals and ambitions. In the New Testament, gentleness is always associated with love, patience, humility, and avoiding quarrels The question is asked, “Would you rather be right or happy?”

There are sometimes when I am embarrassed to be a Christian. When Tara was at Ohio State, I would often go along with her to class and hang out in the oval, there was always this preacher out there shouting condemnation on the whole campus. The sad thing: they were often speaking biblical truth, but it was hidden by his anger. I admire his commitment to get out there and speak, but there is a better way. And gentleness is one aspect of the Fruit of the Spirit that itself is designed to bear fruit. The Apostle Paul told his protégé Timothy how to deal with people who don’t agree with him: 2 Timothy 2:23-26 Don't have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.

I know I’ve gotten suckered into foolish and stupid arguments, and sometimes there are really passionate people talking about their view. Sometimes there are foolish and stupid arguments about which kind of church music is “right” or what kind of clothes are “right” or this or that minor Christian celebrity is a heretic, or which translation of the Bible is “right” – these foolish arguments only serve one purpose: to distract from God’s purpose, and to “win” an argument. Paul tells Timothy that you’re not going to win with a quarrel, and that quarrelling simply does not work toward God’s purpose. Instead, gently instruct.

I once got suckered into going to a time-share presentation, and this very nice person gave a very nice presentation – rather compelling, actually, but then they brought in their “hard-sell” guy to try to “close the deal.” He gave a bunch of statistics and so forth that were stilted in such a way that I had to answer the way he wanted me to. Then he would press the point to get me to tell him he was right, that his deal was the best deal and I’d be stupid not to take it. I wanted to punch him. I told the very nice person who I had been talking to that because of that guy’s presentation, I would never buy their product. I’m embarrassed as well when I see certain street-preachers who force people to admit they’ve broken the 10 Commandments. Sure, it may be true, but it’s not being done in love, and it likely produces the opposite results as hoped for; people turning away from Christ.

But you know what? This isn’t the big issue in our congregation. I don’t know any of you who are so in-your-face about your faith with others that you’re turning people off. Honestly, most of us could stand to be a lot bolder in how we share Jesus.

But here is somewhere we could use gentleness. Galatians 6:1-5 Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load.

How have you responded to a brother or sister who is caught in sin? Or one who has sinned against you? Or doesn’t agree with you? Listen to what the Apostle Paul told the church in Philippi (Philippians 2:1-11): If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. 

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ 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.

What happened here is important. Paul stresses that if anyone has decided to follow Jesus, we’re supposed to be unified in spirit and purpose. In other words, he’s telling us to discard our own agenda and live completely for Jesus. How do we do this? Consider others before yourself. You aren’t any better than anyone out there. It’s easy to assume the worst about someone: you get cut off in traffic and you just assume that this jerk yakking on his cell phone is just careless. Would you be a little more forgiving if you found out that he was on the phone with his wife, who was telling him, “The baby is coming now!” Most of us don’t realize how selfish we are until it smacks us in the face. I remember being on a retreat and I’d had a horrible night’s sleep. I’d only gotten about an hour or two of sleep, and I’d spent much of the night sitting in a stairwell, reading my Bible. At first light, I went out for a run and had some good prayer time. I asked the Holy Spirit to reveal to my heart those sins I wasn’t even aware of (that’s a dangerous prayer, but one of the best prayers you’ll ever pray).

When I got back, I hurried to get my stuff to get cleaned up. I wanted to make sure that there was still warm water when I got my shower. Then the Holy Spirit answered the prayer I had just prayed, “Why do you deserve the warm shower any more than these other guys?” The fact was, I was the most in need of the cold water after my run.

Now, with Jesus, there wasn’t any sin to be convicted of, but there was the temptation. He was tempted to hold on to His divinity, to His God nature. But instead he humbled himself and served us, even to the point of going to the cross! We as Christians talk about the cross so much that it sometimes loses its impact – but think of this: Jesus put others first to the extent that he died on a cross for who? Not for himself. For us.
This is God, who had the power and the historical background to destroy all of us for our sins. I know he promised no more worldwide floods, but what about fire? In fact, this is what Jesus’ disciples wanted. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and he sent messengers on ahead to a Samaritan village to get things ready for him. When the villagers didn’t welcome Jesus, James and John asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” (Luke 9:54). (Can you see why they were known as the Sons of Thunder?) Jesus simply rebuked them and they went to another village.

You may say, “People have done a lot worse to me than just not inviting me over.” You need to understand that their act of not welcoming Jesus was more than just a “hey, don’t come over” attitude; to withhold hospitality was serious. Yet Jesus wasn’t willing to punish them for this personal offense. You might say, “Well, he’s Jesus; I’m more like James and John. I’m a person of passion and temper. That’s just who I am.”
Maybe. But even a person of passion can be transformed. King David was obviously a man of passion if you checked out the account of his affair with Bathsheba and his following attempted cover-up. Yet later, David and his most trusted men were on the run from David’s son Absalom. While they were on the road, a man from (former) King Saul’s family came out, cursing David and pelting him with stones (2 Samuel 16:7-14). “Get out, get out, you man of blood, you scoundrel. The Lord has repaid you for all the blood you shed in the household of Saul, in whose place you have reigned. The Lord has handed the kingdom over to your son Absalom. You have come to ruin because you are a man of blood.” 

Then Abishai son of Zeruiah said to the king, "Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and cut off his head." But the king said, "What do you and I have in common, you sons of Zeruiah? If he is cursing because the LORD said to him, 'Curse David,' who can ask, 'Why do you do this?' " David then said to Abishai and all his officials, "My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the LORD has told him to. It may be that the LORD will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today." 

So David and his men continued along the road while Shimei was going along the hillside opposite him, cursing as he went and throwing stones at him and showering him with dirt. The king and all the people with him arrived at their destination exhausted. And there he refreshed himself.

Did you notice how David dealt with this guy who is cursing him and throwing stones at him? He said, “Maybe God told him to curse me. Leave him alone.” He took this nut job who was throwing rocks at him and said, “Maybe God is trying to speak to me through him.”

At the Catalyst Conference, Malcolm Gladwell told us that an overconfident leader is one who doesn’t listen to anyone, while a humble leader listens to others. I would add to this that a gentle leader listens to the Holy Spirit speaking through others. Even unpleasant people, even annoying people, even people whose theological stance we don’t agree with. In New Knoxville, I participated in a Monday Morning Bible study. One of the guys was a retired pastor who was a universalist: he believed that God would let everyone into heaven. I obviously do not share his belief. But I learned a lot from him and we became good friends. That wouldn’t have happened if I’d simply plugged my ears when he talked because I didn’t agree with him on who will get to heaven.

Many of us are determined to be right when it comes to doctrine – this isn’t a bad pursuit, by the way, but sometimes we are so rigid, condescending, and hard-hearted that we end up treating people who we don’t agree with horribly. Or we become bitter and angry.

James 3:13-18 If you are wise and understand God’s ways, prove it by living an honorable life, doing good works with the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you are bitterly jealous and there is selfish ambition in your heart, don’t cover up the truth with boasting and lying. For jealousy and selfishness are not God’s kind of wisdom. Such things are earthly, unspiritual, and demonic. For wherever there is jealousy and selfish ambition, there you will find disorder and evil of every kind. The wisdom from above is first of all pure. It is also peace loving, gentle at all times, and willing to yield to others. It is full of mercy and good deeds. It shows no favoritism and is always sincere. And those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness.

If the Holy Spirit lives within you, prove it by the way you live. And do your good works with humility. What does humility look like? It looks like this: I pride myself in being athletic. I’m pretty great, if I say so myself, which I just did. Once last winter it was nasty out so instead of running outside, I went over to the Kennedy’s garage down the street to run on their treadmill. It was toward the end of the run, and I was running as fast as I could to get it over with (I don’t like running on the dreadmill much). Now you have to know John Mark for this to make sense, but the guy is a monster. I can’t even carry his water bottle. Anyway, he came in to work out just when I was finishing up. I hit the stop button on the treadmill and jumped to the sides… and missed. Did you know that a treadmill will throw a 185# man against the wall? Remember, I’m athletic. Pretty great. Yeah, I looked pretty great in a heap against the garage wall. That’s a sure path to humility. Any time you think you’ve arrived, that you’re at the top of the ladder, start looking up. You’ll find there’s someone above you. And as you learn about the Bible, God, the Trinity, you’ll find the more you learn, the more there is you’d like to know.

And did you notice where God’s kind of wisdom comes from? It doesn’t come from us; it comes from God. When you come to a humility that comes from following God, it leads to gentleness when dealing with others.
The benefit of gentleness is clear; when we deal gently with someone, they see God through us. And this is exactly what we’re called to. To receive a blessing to be a blessing to the world.