Thursday, October 11, 2018

Making Life an Adventure

Several years ago, my wife, Lynda, and I began to refer to various things we found to do as “adventures”.  The adventures were generally things that were out of the ordinary for us that might stretch us a bit, but in which we learned something new or experienced something we might otherwise not have experienced.  There was that time that I won a trip to the Texas Motorspeedway.  We are not generally NASCAR Fans, but the trip also included some other things that we thought would be fun.  It was on this trip that I discovered Robert Earl Keen, Jr.’s music and I have been a fan since.  That was our one and only trip to the famous Billy Bob’s in Ft. Worth.  However, we also enjoyed the experience of being at our one and only NASCAR race.  It was truly an adventure.

Recently on our anniversary we decided to go to a candle-making class – something we had not done before.  Afterwards we went looking for a place for dinner because we didn’t really want to wind up at one of usual favorites.  We happened upon a new restaurant that featured a menu of Indian-Italian fusion.  It would not have been our usual choice, but we gave it a try.  The dinner was great, and the wait staff was friendly. We had a great evening on a little adventure.

We have realized over the years (and probably with some life experience) that even the things that we would have preferred to not have to deal with have become a kind of adventure on their own.  The days of being unemployed and not knowing for sure if we would have enough money for groceries.  Having to figure out how to make dinner from what ever was in the freezer and the pantry and coming up with some unexpected combinations that weren’t half-bad.  We have lived through the loss of a house, loss of jobs, loss of family members and loss of friends.  We have had cars breakdown and lived through some car accidents.  Many of these things came with insight and lessons that could not otherwise be learned.  Not every event turned out as you might script it, but we have realized that we are always ok.  So, there are many things that we don’t want to have to live through, but in the midst of difficulty we try to remember that it will somehow be ok and the difficulty becomes a kind of adventure.

I don’t mean to imply a “Pollyanna” syrupy false sense of optimism, but a stance that can acknowledge the frustrations, disappointments, and griefs of the moment and still approach life with a curiosity about what will happen next.  There are few attitudes and outlooks that I believe can help make life more of an adventure:

1. Limit your expectations.  

It has been said that expectations are the thief of joy and I believe that is true.  If we expect that our life, an event, an encounter, a person should be a certain way, then we are easily disappointed or angry when those things are not like we expected.  Whereas if we try to limit our expectations, we can be grateful for whatever unfolds.  This not to say that we never make plans or have dreams, but it does mean that we might relax and breathe when our plans don’t go exactly how we thought. 

2. Approach others and life with curiosity rather than judgement. 

Similar to expectations, when others do not conform to our idea of what people should be, do, wear, etc. we have a tendency to judge them.  This judgement is the root of bullying, racism, and a number of other such things.  We start from a position of knowing how others should act or how things should be and then criticize, mock, or discount others when they do not fit our ideas.  By contrast, when we encounter an event or a person that does not fit with our experience, our expectations, or beliefs, if we approach those people or events with curiosity, we may find something that is interesting or inviting about the other person.  We may also find commonality with others.  If you find yourself saying, “I would NEVER do such and such” in response to another, why not try, “That is not something I usually do, tell me about that or let me try that.” 

3. Don’t be Afraid to be a novice.

When I look back on my life, I realize how much I missed out on because I was too afraid to not be an expert or to not be good at something.  However, no one ever got good at something without first being new to it.  This is why in my 40s I took up Taekwondo and learned to ride a motorcycle.  There was always somebody that was better than me at both, but I learned a lot about myself and others by challenging myself to be a novice at something and letting someone else teach me. 

4. Say, “Yes”

If you have never seen the movie, “Yes Man” with Jim Carey, I would recommend it.  Jim Carey’s character lives a very limited and unhappy life that is characterized by fear and doubt.  He is challenged to be more open to life and to say, “Yes” to more.  He winds up taking it a bit to far and learns to moderate, but the key issue is being open to new things and saying yes to things that feel unfamiliar or new.

5. Feel your feelings.  

In my therapy practice I have seen so many people thorough the years that were limited in life or in relationships because the were trying so hard to avoid feelings they did not want to feel.  I have been paralyzed in my own life by fears, insecurity, and attempts to avoid guilt, grief, or disappointment.  Though I still struggle some, what I have learned is that it is ok to be afraid, to be worried, to be hurt and disappointed.  Feel those feelings.  Talk about them with a trusted person or therapist, but in the end, feel your feelings, but don’t be controlled by them.

6. Trust God (Don't Assume You Know What I Mean Here)

Many people approach life believing that “everything happens for a reason” or that God causes all things.  The reality is that sometimes the reason things happen is that we (or someone close to us) have a lapse in judgement or act impulsively and there are consequences.  Romans 8:28 does not say that God controls everything but says that in everything God is at work to accomplish all the good that can be accomplished.  However, this is only true for those that “Love God” and are “Called according to God’s purposes”.  I believe that God is always at work to accomplish all the good that can come from any situation, but unless we are attuned in our hearts to see it, we will miss it.  Or as I sometimes say it, “God causes all things to work together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose…and for everyone else it is just shit that happens to you.”.  To have the attunement to see the Good that can be gleaned from a situation does not require a correct belief in God, but merely an openness to see God at work.  With such an outlook, we can trust that there will be good to come from any situation.  So, we can do our best to ride out the journey to see how the story ends.  In the midst of any struggle, we can say, “I hate that I (we) are going through this, but I can’t wait to see how this chapter of the story will end.”  Again, the experience in the moment is rarely that fun, but I think of it is a goal to shoot for. 

May you find the adventures in life, but more so, may you find your life to be an adventure.  Amen. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Outrageous Nonsense: A Sermon on James 2:1-17

Preached at Eno & Oak Grove United Methodist Churches
Dickson, Tennessee
September 9, 2018

James 2:1-17 (NRSV)

My brothers and sisters,[a] do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?[b] 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,”[c] 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.[d] Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters,[e] if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he said that a person should love God with their whole being but said that the second commandment was like it in that a person should love their neighbor as they love themselves. So, just to make sure his bases were covered, a person there in the crowd asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told him the story of the kind Samaritan that demonstrated that anyone who is in need is our neighbor (Luke 10:25). In another place, Jesus says that loving God and loving others as ourselves is the basis of all of the laws and other teachings of the Bible (Matthew 22:40). That seems to be a fairly strong statement and seems pretty clear that keeping a good relationship with God and others is of fundamental importance. However, just a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, James, Jesus’ brother is having to write to Christians outside of Israel to remind them that this teaching was still fundamentally important.

These two commandments that Jesus calls the most important are intimately related. Loving God with our whole being requires us to be completely open with God. We cannot love God with only part of ourselves while holding back another part. We cannot love God with our spirit, but not our body. We cannot love God with our Sundays, but not our Mondays through Saturdays as well and we cannot love God with our heart and not our time or our wallet. We must let the love of God into every part of our lives. God must be able to love and forgive the parts of us that we do not like and that we feel ashamed of and God must be able to love and use our gifts and abilities. We are to love God with our whole being. When we have loved God with our full being, then the love of God fills us to overflowing and we love those around us.

It is important to note that Jesus did not command us to love our neighbor instead of ourselves and he did not command us to love our neighbor more than ourselves, but as much and in the same way that we love ourselves, we should love our neighbor. When we think about what we want or what we need, we must also think about our brother and sister and what they need. We cannot think about taking care of ourselves without also thinking about how our lives connect with others and how our lives impact others. The command that James calls the “Royal Law” does not say that we can never do anything for ourselves, but it does help us keep from being selfish. If we only think about what we want, then we are not thinking about our neighbor. However, it is not just enough to think about our neighbor. If we are caring for ourselves, we must care for our neighbor, but we know that this way of living is not really our nature.

As a general rule, we tend to think too much of ourselves. We don’t like to wait behind other people in line. We get angry when someone cuts us off in traffic because they “obviously think they are more important than us”. We want to be sure we have enough of…well, everything and way too often we are led to believe that having more stuff or having certain things will make our lives better. This car will make you feel powerful or full of life. This kind of beverage will make you feel energized. We are told every day through our media that more is better, and we see that the more money a person has, the more power they have, and we also want to feel important.

When we look at those running for office right now and all of those painful commercials on T.V., we see that all of those candidates are millionaires. The large majority of those who are in political office right now are from the wealthiest class in our society. Since the 1970s the number of extremely wealthy people in the U.S. has gotten smaller, but their share of the wealth in our country has gotten larger. So fewer people own more and more of our nation’s wealth. In the same period of time, those that have been called the middle class has gotten smaller and those who live in poverty has increased. It literally has been true that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Based on the research for his recent book, Dr. Bruce Vaughn at Vanderbilt notes that this trend has been true since the 1970s regardless of which political party has been in power. He also notes that in same period of time, we have had an increase in the number of people dealing with depression and anxiety. If we find ourselves in that lower 99% of people, we can often look at that 1% and wish we could be more like them.

I remember the first time that I got to attend a concert at the arena downtown and got to sit in one of those private boxes. I sat with people I knew and liked. I ate the food right there in the box. I didn’t even have to go out of the box to use the restroom. We had a private one right there. I though, “Man, this is the way to go to a concert.” It was nice. If you have the money there are a lot of perks in this world. The very wealthy get the best interest rates, the best mortgage rates, and the lowest fees. If you have the money, you can pay to skip the line at the amusement parks you can get your pizza delivered before anyone else’s. If you have money, you don’t have to worry about things breaking down or healthcare emergencies, you can afford a vacation, you can eat at nice restaurants and people love to have you around because they feel powerful when they are around you and they benefit from your money. Who wouldn’t like that?

The problem is that as Christians, we are called to a different way of thinking and different priorities. The reality is that we do not know exactly who these words in the book of James were written to and we do not know exactly why they had to be written, but apparently, they had to be written… because human nature continues to challenge the nature of God.

James says that if a wealthy person comes into your church and you are tempted to show them favoritism like is shown in other places in our lives – don’t! James reminds us that the economy of the Kingdom of God is not the same as the world’s economy. The world looks at the wealthy and thinks, “What can they do for me?” and the minute we make a distinction between people for whatever reason, we have put ourselves in the place of judgement. When we decide who gets favored treatment, when we decide who is in and who is out, and we make distinctions between ourselves, we often do it for selfish reasons. We may show favoritism to one person because of what we hope to get, or we may reject another person out of fear. James reminds us, however, that in God’s economy, it is the “least of these” that are important. In God’s economy, those that are humbled and lowly will be lifted up.

James is not saying that the wealthy are not welcome in the assembly, but that the distinctions that exist outside the church body should not exist inside the church body. James does seem to suggest that at least some of those who are wealthy have used their power and influence to hurt those who do not have power. James seems to suggest that some who have great wealth have achieved it by taking advantage of those that are poor and who have less power. This seems to have been true not just in time of James’ writing, but throughout history. The fight for the poor and the powerless has been slow and change has been hard-won, if it has come at all. If the world’s economy was like God’s economy, there would have been no need for Moses to help free the Israelites from the Egyptians. There would have been no need for the protestant reformation. If the world’s economy was like God’s economy, we would not have needed the American revolution or the French revolution. We would not have needed the 13th Amendment to the constitution that abolished slavery, the 15th amendment that gave African-American men the right to vote, or the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote. If some of the rich and powerful did not take advantage of the poor and powerless we would not need the laws that abolished child labor, the laws that established a fair wage for workers, or the fight to end segregation. James is clear on this point, if a person is made wealthy and powerful in the world’s economy by taking advantage of others and by satisfying their own selfish desires that only cares about their own wealth and their bottom line – then in God’s economy, they will be humbled. James says that God favors those who are poor and downtrodden. In God’s economy, those that are used, oppressed, and poor will be made great in faith. If the powerful are humbled and the powerless are lifted up, then in the middle there is equality. In God’s economy, all are equal, and all are welcome in the assembly and at the table of God.

James does not stop there, and it is what he writes next that has created the most controversy over this book of the Bible through history. In talking about how the Christians should not make distinctions among themselves, James certainly talks about how doing so puts us in a place of judgement. And while we might argue, that making such distinctions is not as bad as committing adultery or murdering someone. What James writes is essentially this, “if you think you are not in the wrong because you have not committed one of the ‘big sins’, you better think again.” In the law of God, if you are guilty of judging others and withholding mercy, then you are just as guilty as the adulterer or the murderer. James goes on to say:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters,[e] if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Through the ages, there have been great debates over the meaning of this passage and others in the book of James. I am aware that these questions apparently resolved in the theology of John Wesley and the tradition of the Methodists but indulge me for a moment. The controversy of this passage has been in the question of what saves a person. Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9). I do not believe that Paul and James’ perspectives are contradictory and if I know my church history, neither did John Wesley.

It is our faith in Christ that saves us. Our belief about God, the person of Jesus, His saving work on the cross, and his resurrection is what saves us. However, if that faith in Christ is genuine, then it should result in a change in our outlook, attitudes, priorities, and actions. If we truly grasp God’s love for us, then we are humbled by the gift and will desire to share it with others. We will seek out ways to live the gift of God’s love in every part of our life – that is, love God with our whole being. We are not saved by keeping the rules, but a change in how we live results from inner change that occurs through faith. Our personal economy begins to look like God’s economy.

However, there is an additional layer of truth here as well. If in our faith, we do not yet understand what it is to live out our faith. If our transforming faith has not yet transformed our whole being, James gives us some very practical instruction here. I was in a training yesterday that reminded the participants that when it comes to our clients in psychotherapy or to anyone who wants or needs to make a change, it is not enough to simply want to change. If we want to make a change in our life, we have to practice a new way of being. One way people talk about this is like this is to say that if you want to develop new habits or ways of being, you can begin to act “as if” you already have those qualities and you begin to practice those new habits until you have practiced them so much that they become part of who you are. Or as some say, “fake it till you make it”. I do not remember a lot of the Spanish that I used to know, but I did study Spanish in Spain in the summer of 1987. I lived with a family in Spain that spoke no English. I walked every day to a small language school where my teacher spoke no English. Every day was a struggle as I tried to navigate maps, buy food, communicate with my hosts. I had to think about every single word I said and formulate every sentence carefully. I would long to just have the ease of speaking my native English and at night when my roommate and I were in our room, I would love to just talk a while in English. As we would talk, our host “mama” would come by our room and say to us in Spanish, “No Ingles, Espanol solamente” (or No English, Spanish only). It was exhausting, but to learn the language we had to practice. Over the weeks I was in Spain, I began to write in my journal in a combination of English and Spanish. I began to have dreams in Spanish. I got more comfortable in carrying on basic conversations in Spanish.

James is suggesting a similar thing here in verses 16 and 17. Living with another person in mind and loving our neighbor as ourselves can feel as awkward as trying to learn a new language. Thinking of ourselves seems to be our default “language”. However, it was not enough for me in Spain to wish I could speak a new language and it is not enough to wish good for those who are poor and downtrodden. We have to practice. If we are to do what James suggests in actually providing directly to the less fortunate rather than just praying for them or wishing them well, we would have to get to know those who struggle. We would have to meet these people and get to know their names. We would have to learn their story and understand their needs. To do this, we will have to practice generosity and humility. We will have to sacrifice the comfort we have in doing what is familiar and practice what is more difficult and less natural for us. In our faith and through practice, we may find that over time the awkward actions are perfected in a transformation of our heart. And, whether our life is transformed by some faith experience or our life is transformed by our efforts to live out our faith, the bottom line is that having faith is not just an intellectual pursuit; it is something that gets down in the cells of our bodies and changes the way we think, the way we perceive others, the way think about what is important, and how we spend our time and energy.

I loved Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this passage in The Message. I will read just a portion of this. It reads this way:

2 1-4 My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, “Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!” and either ignore the street person or say, “Better sit here in the back row,” haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted?

Listen, dear friends. Isn’t it clear by now that God operates quite differently? He chose the world’s down-and-out as the kingdom’s first citizens, with full rights and privileges. This kingdom is promised to anyone who loves God. And here you are abusing these same citizens!

You do well when you complete the Royal Rule of the Scriptures: “Love others as you love yourself.” But if you play up to these so-called important people, you go against the Rule and stand convicted by it. Talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the Rule that sets us free. For if you refuse to act kindly, you can hardly expect to be treated kindly. Kind mercy wins over harsh judgment every time.

Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you?

Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?

“Outrageous nonsense”, indeed.

Let us Pray

God, we know that our human nature is to think about ourselves only. Our human nature is to think of ourselves as more important than others. We are tempted so often to desire and seek the things of this world that we believe will set us apart and make us powerful. Thank you for the reminder in the words of James and the life of Jesus that remind us that your ways are not our ways and your economy is not the worlds economy. In your eyes, each of us is already important. To you, every person we will encounter this week is important regardless of what they look like on the outside. God, continue to work in our lives to perfect us that we may see others as you see them, that we may prioritize what you prioritize, and that all that we do will reflect your love that is in us. Amen.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Hide & Seek: A Reflection on Genesis 3

June 2018
Chris O’Rear, M.Div., M.M.F.T.

“Guilt” has been described as the feeling that we have made a mistake.  We feel it when we do something that we believed that we should not do, or we did not do something that we believed we should do.  It is an error in judgement, a misstep, or an accident.  In comparison, “Shame” is not the feeling that I made a mistake; it is the feeling that I am a mistake.  It is not the feeling that I did something wrong, but the feeling that I am somehow flawed.  It is the feeling that there is something wrong with me and if people knew this about me, they would not like me.  We sometimes talk about the shame we feel about our physical bodies.  There are things about most of our bodies that we do not like.  I will not name all of those, but almost everyone has them.  So, we try to wear flattering clothing or clothing that boosts or hides or covers what we don’t want others to notice.  We may dye our hair (or for some, try to grow some hair), we may get injections, have surgery, all designed to cover the things about our bodies that we feel ashamed of.  

Genesis 2:25 says that before eating the forbidden fruit, Adam & Eve were naked, and they were not ashamed.  They were completely open and vulnerable, and they were not afraid to be seen.  They did not fear the reaction of the other.  They did not have to hide.  I believe we can see this as a relational state for Adam & Eve as well.  Many of us can also understand the emotional and relational type of shame.  Somewhere in our life, maybe going all the back to childhood, we learned that it was not ok for us to be who we were or feel what we feel.  As a young person, a girl may have expressed interest in certain hobbies or sports or she may have behaved in ways that were seen as too rough and she would have been told to “act more like a lady”.  It might not have been acceptable for her to like certain things or to behave in certain ways.  For a young boy, he may have expressed interest in certain activities that he was told were too “girly” or he may have been scolded for crying being told that “Boys don’t cry”.  Whatever the case, we learn from an early age in subtle and not so subtle ways that certain things we like, certain ways we feel, and certain things we do are not acceptable to others.  So, if we feel those things or think those things, we feel we have to hide those things.  

Others grow up in families where there are certain struggles or difficulties.  Some families have someone who struggles with drugs or alcohol use or others grow up where there is abuse of some kind.  Others just grow up in deep poverty or with someone who has a severe physical or mental illness.  People in these families can start to feel different or unusual.  They can start feel like the things that make them different somehow make them flawed and they feel that they cannot let others know everything about them because they fear the judgement or rejection of others and they try to hide.  Adam and Eve in their ideal state were naked – completely open – and they were not ashamed or afraid.    

Adam & Eve had been told that they could eat from any tree in the garden, except one.  One day they each ate from that forbidden tree and immediately, they realized that they were naked.  Once they ate from that tree that they were not supposed to eat from, they realized that they were vulnerable.  They immediately felt the needed to cover themselves.  Not only did they feel the need to hide from each other, they also felt that they had to try to hide from God.  When it came time for Adam and Eve to spend time with God, God was there, but Adam & Eve tried to hide.  Adam & Eve not only felt guilty for what they had done, but they felt ashamed.  They realized that they were vulnerable – vulnerable to injury, vulnerable to rejection, vulnerable to judgement – and so, they tried to hide.  

Most of the time when we hear this story referenced, people just mention Adam & Eve’s “rebellion” against God and their blatant disregard for God’s rules and we are to gather that this is why they are now in trouble.  Many times we only talk about sin as a desire to do things our own way and that way is seen as being contrary to “God’s way” and so we find ourselves somehow in trouble and in fear of God’s punishment.  It does seem that in the grand scheme of things, Adam & Eve were in the same boat as one another because they had each eaten the fruit from the tree that they were not to eat from, but there are some interesting differences in how they got there.  Adam & Eve are in the garden and are apparently near the tree that they are not to eat from.  Out of nowhere comes the very clever serpent to talk with Eve.  The serpent causes Eve to reflect on the rules that were put in place in the garden and immediately pique’s Eve’s interest as to why the fruit of this one tree is forbidden.  Why could they not eat of this one tree when they could eat of all the others?  Eve just simply notes, that it is forbidden and says, “God said we would die if we ate it.”  But the serpent says, “You will not die, but God knows if you eat of this fruit, you will be like God; having wisdom of good and evil.”  Eve will later call this a trick (or a deception) depending on your translation, but in Genesis 3:22 God confirms that Adam & Eve, having eaten the fruit are now, indeed, like God, knowing good and evil.  As it turns out the serpent did not lie to Eve about that but twists the truth.  So, the Bible says that Eve evaluated the statements of the serpent and noted that the fruit of the tree was beautiful, it was good for food, and it was good to make one wise and so, she decided to eat it.  In eating this fruit, Eve has decided that she knows better about what is good for her but note that she also strongly desires the wisdom. What she does violates God’s rule for her, but she is seeking a wisdom beyond what she has.  Adam, on the other hand, is standing next to Eve, she offers the fruit to Adam and without question, without a hesitation, Adam takes the fruit and eats it.  

We do not know why Eve offered Adam the fruit and we could speculate about that, but the two of them seem to represent at least two ways that we find ourselves outside of God’s desire for us.  Eve is seeking wisdom, but she engages in an activity that will have dire consequences.  She is seeking wisdom but makes her own plan and her own way to find it.  She risks what she believes could be death in order to get wisdom.  We are reading from the Hebrew bible this morning, but I will note that both the Hebrew & the Greek word for “sin” literally mean to “miss the mark”.  The Greek word more can be compared with things like javelin throwing or archery when a person is aiming for one thing but misses the mark.  Eve is aiming for wisdom and she believes the fruit of the tree will provide her that wisdom, but she acts without regard to God’s desire and she will have consequences.  

Adam, on the other hand, simply takes the fruit from Eve and eats it.  He doesn’t ask questions.  He doesn’t examine the fruit or reflect on the potential consequences.  He just takes it and eats it.  In this regard, Adam’s sin is not like Eve’s.  He does not “miss the mark”, he does not even seem to be paying attention to the fact that there was a mark.  Adam seems to represent a kind of self-absorbed, non-reflective, selfishness that thinks only for itself and acts only with short-term thoughts of what it wants now.  He shows no regard for how his actions will affect him or the future.  He doesn’t consider how others will be affected, he just takes the fruit and eats it. And he too will have consequences.   

Whether it was out of a misguided attempt to achieve something or whether it was a selfish, short-sighted act, Adam & Eve have both done what God told them not to and now they are trying to hide.  Adam & Eve rely on a fairly common way of trying to hide the truth; they blame someone else.  Adam says, “This is not my fault, that woman you gave me made me do this!”.  Eve says, “It is not my fault, the serpent tricked me”.    In our shame, we often try to hide by switching and blaming.  Have you ever been in an argument and you say, “Why did you do such and such?” and the response is, “Well, you did thus and so…”  It is a quick way to shift the attention off me and get it on to something else.  One of the ways we try to hide ourselves is to believe that whatever has happened is someone else’s fault.   We love to blame others for our struggles, but it really just keeps us from looking at the things that we are responsible for.  Yes, for Adam & Eve, the serpent played a role.  Yes, for Adam, Eve played a role, but in the end, they will all have consequences.  

Interestingly, however, the consequence is not death.  While God had said that if Adam & Eve ate this fruit they would die, when they actually ate the fruit, they did not die. God seems to have demonstrated mercy in that moment. However, I have long reflected on the fact that God could not undo what Adam & Eve had done.  God could not take back the knowledge they had gained.  God could not restore them to the state of being vulnerable and naked without shame, but instead God just makes for them better clothes.  This seems to me to be the nature of our sin.  Many times, when we have done things we wished we had not done, there can be forgiveness.  There can be healing, but lives are forever changed – both ours and often the lives of others.  God demonstrates great mercy towards Adam & Eve in that he protects them from death, but he cannot protect them from the challenges of life that they will now face.  They will live with the consequences of their actions their entire lives.  

Several years ago, one of my daughters had been caught skipping school.  You may say, well that’s not so bad.  Lots of kids have skipped school at one time or another.  Well, we caught her skipping school because while skipping, she crashed her car into a brick mailbox and totaled the car.  She had to call to tell us all that had happened.  There was no hiding that.  That led us to discover other things going on in her life and we sought out appropriate help for her and our family.  One day I was driving her to a counseling appointment and she said, “I am sorry, dad.  I guess I am just going to have to learn some things the hard way.” I said, “I am sorry.  That is going to be tough for you, but there is nothing you can do that will change the fact that you are my daughter and I love you.  We will figure out how to get through this.” I added, “I am sure that God feels this way about me pretty much every day of my life because I, too, have had to learn some things the hard way.” 

Some of us can look at mistakes made by others and learn lessons from those.  We may have avoided the difficulties that others have had to face, but most of us, at one time or another, have had to learn some lesson the hard way.  We have made a decision to do something we should not have done or said something we wish we had not said.  Sometimes like a blind person trying to find their way through an unfamiliar room, we can stumble around trying to find our way and wind up hurting ourselves or others.  Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in our own desires that we lose sight of bigger issues.  There are times when we are all tempted to act out of selfish desire that only thinks about what we want or what we think we need. In those moments we can also hurt ourselves and hurt other people.  When we realize what we have done, we often want to hide.  We try to minimize what we have done by saying, “oh, it’s not so bad” or “Look, I am not like those other people.”.  We may try to blame others for difficulty.  “If they had not done this, then I would not have done that.”  All those things are really just attempts to hide what we feel is broken in us.  We do not want to be found out.  

When playing hide and seek as a child, part of the fun is finding a great hiding place.  We loved to find a place that no one would think to look, but as minutes tick by and we sit crouched alone in our hiding place, we begin to realize that we may not be found.  That does not make the game fun because deep down inside, we really want to be found.  All of us have found ways to try to hide ourselves from others at one time or another and trying to keep things hidden or hiding part of our selves for a long time can feel like a huge burden or weight, but the longer we keep things hidden, the more we feel that we cannot be found out.  We can begin to feel lonely and isolated because we know that we don’t have a genuine connection with anyone.  We have an innate desire for that genuine connection where we do not have to hide.  When most people are finally found or found out, one of the first things they say is, “I am so glad I don’t have to carry that burden any longer.”  It is not God’s desire for us to hide from one another.  The ideal was that we could be completely open with one another and not fear judgement and not fear rejection. This the basis of genuine connection and authentic relating.  However, for many other reasons, we have not done a good job of loving each other when we are vulnerable. In fact, we have often been hurtful to those who are hurting. So, I feel obligated today to say that not everyone needs to know everything about you.  We still have to be careful about who we can share with, but …there ought to be some people in your life who truly know you.  We ought to have someone in our lives that we don’t have to hide from.  And, of course, we have to know that we cannot hide from God.  For some that is a frightening thought; that God will surely find us out.  We have painted God into a place of being rejecting just like others we have known in our lives, but in the story of Adam & Eve, God comes looking for them.  While we are trying to hide from God, God is looking for us and like a child playing hide and seek, in our heart of hearts, we want to be found.  We do not want to be found by the punitive and punishing God, but by the God who offers us grace to survive the consequences of our sins.  We want to be found by the God who can protect us from the worst we could do to ourselves and provides us another way.  Yes, we will probably still have to deal with the consequences of the things we have done, but we have a God that says, “There is nothing you can do that will cause me to stop loving you.  You are my child and I will always love you.”  

There is love and peace, community and connection with ourselves, God and others when we don’t have to hide any part of ourselves any longer.  There is authentic relating when we can be vulnerable with one another without shame.  This is God’s desire for us.  

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Good Samaritan: A Gestalt Reflection

Luke 10:30-37
Chris O’Rear, M.Div., M.M.F.T.
Service of Healing
Belle Meade United Methodist Church
Nashville, Tennessee
Wednesday, November 29, 2017

My counseling work is informed by two primary psychological theories.  However, there are other theories that I can draw on when I feel it is appropriate for a particular client.  One of those theories is GestaltTheory.  Gestalt theory has a unique approach to interpreting dreams that involves looking at every element of a dream as if it represents some aspect of the dreamer.  For example, a client of mine recently told me of a dream in which he was explaining God’s grace to another man.  In a Gestalt-kind of reflection on that dream, we noted that the ideas of grace that he believes in his head and can offer others do not always translate into giving himself grace for things he has done.  So, we wondered if in the dream, one part of him needed to teach another part of him about grace. 

In preparing for this service, I realized that the same way of thinking might be applied to Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan.  There is always a bit of risk in pressing any analogy or story too far, but I decided to try it. 

As you recall, In Luke 10, Jesus is having a conversation with a man who asks Jesus what he should do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus asked him what was in the law and what he saw there.  The man answered that we should love God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves.  Jesus said that this was true and if the man would do this, he would live.  Just to be sure he was on the right path, the man asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”    

30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii,[a] gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

If we are to examine this passage with a Gestalt-like lens, then it seems we must first look at the man who was robbed and beaten.  Perhaps you have known the horrible feeling of literally being robbed of your belongings, but it is more likely that that many of us can identify with being robbed of trust we had in another person or having certain dreams taken from us.  We might feel beaten up by difficulties at work, financial struggles, physical issues, or perhaps we have suffered the woundedness of literally being assaulted or taken advantage of.  Life can be very difficult and there are times when we can feel “half dead” and wonder if we can go on.  Depression, anxiety, grief, betrayal, and losses of a many kinds can all rob us of hope and joy.  We may, at times, feel as if we have been left by the side of the road and wonder who will come to help us? 

In our examination of this passage, we might suggest then, that the Priest would represent our religious tradition or our faith. Surely, if we just have enough faith or if we pray the right way or pray long enough, things will get better.  At least people say these things to hurting people way too often and it is like the person just passes us by.  They don’t understand what it is like to hurt the way we do.  Religious platitudes and clich├ęs are rarely what hurting people need. 

The next character we encounter is the “Levite”.  Though the descendants of Levi were set apart as a priestly tribe, not all were priests.  Others of the Levites were set apart to assist in worship in various ways.  They would have also been scholars of the Jewish law and would have sought to keep themselves ceremonially clean.  It is in this vein, that I imagine the part of us that views our emotional hurts and woundedness with contempt.  When we think about hurts, we might think of ourselves as weak or we might hate that we can be so vulnerable as to be hurt by another.  We can too often judge our hurts.  We might try to make sense of them by thinking that we deserved what happened to us or that they were part of God’s punishment for us.  In the same way that we might not offer help to a person in need if we think their situation is their own fault, we can also be judgmental of our own situations and feel like we don’t have the merit to warrant attending to our needs.  Like the Levite may also have felt, we might be concerned about how much time it will take if we try to address the need.  People sometimes think that if they really allow themselves to look at their hurt and feel their feelings of sadness and anger that those feelings will take over.  There is a fear of opening a wound that we are afraid will never heal.  We are sometimes afraid that if we seek help for our brokenness that it will take too much time or be too expensive (emotionally or financially), but the Samaritan is our true example here. 

The Jews and the Samaritans were not friends.  There was great tension between them.  In the same way that we might feel dislike or hatred for our hurts.  We sometimes want to reject the parts of us that can be hurt and the parts that cause us pain, but our hurts are not our enemies.  They should not be strangers to us.  The Samaritan of the story is moved by compassion, puts aside his prejudice and decides to treat the wounded man as a person instead of a problem.  The Samaritan goes over the hurt man and investigates his wounds.  He takes the time to tend to each one.  The man on the road was not going to get better by being ignored. He was not going to heal by treating him like a problem.  He could only heal when someone took the time to compassionately examine and evaluate the wounds and to provide treatment as he was able. 

There is one last lesson we take from the Samaritan man.  He did as much as he could by himself, but when the hurt man required more than the Samaritan could do, he asked for help.  He did use some of his own resources to pay the innkeeper, but he could not stay in the town and just care for the wounded man.  So, he enlisted help.  Too often we feel that we should know how to take care of all our problems.  We think we should be able to heal ourselves or fix everything ourselves.  We may even see asking for help as sign of weakness, but this story of Jesus demonstrates that we can only do what we can do and then it is ok to ask someone else to help who can do more than we can by ourselves. 

So, our Gestalt reflection kind of works, I think.  We are all subject to hurt, disappointment, injury, illness, loss, betrayal, and more.  Ignoring the hurts and feelings we have, doesn’t make them go away.  True healing comes when take the time to live out of love, even for the parts of ourselves that we don’t like.  Healing comes when we take the time to examine our hurts, identify them and allow ourselves to experience whatever feelings they bring.  We have to remember that healing is not something that just happens with time and it is not something we can always do all by ourselves.  It is not a weakness, but a sign of courage and wisdom to ask for help when you need it.  Jesus said if we offer compassion to the one in need, as the Samaritan did, we will live.  Of course, we are to offer that compassion to all we come in contact with as well, but we must also learn to love ourselves and have compassion for ourselves.  Because Jesus also said, “Love your neighbor in the same way that you love yourself.” 

How can you offer yourself some compassion? 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Streets of Bethlehem or the Shed Outback?

This  was originally posted on the "Pastor's Blog" at Belle Meade United Methodist Church, Nashville, TN
(10 Ways to De-stress Your Holidays)
Because the familiar story of Jesus’ birth reports that He was laid in a feeding trough because there was no room for them in the inn, I often imagine Bethlehem as being over-crowded and hectic. The inns were full of all the descendants of David returning to their hometown to be registered for the census. It had to be difficult to wind a way through the packed streets.
Though there was no room in the inn, I imagine that the serenity of the stable on that night provided the perfect contrast to the city outside. For many of us, the holidays are more like the bustling streets of Bethlehem with our overscheduled calendars, exhausted credit cards, and unrealistic expectations of happiness and perfection. So, how do we have a holiday season that is more like the peacefulness of the secluded barn than the insanity of the Bethlehem streets?
1.     Plan ahead, but stay flexible – During the holidays you can avoid being overwhelmed at the last minute by planning out when to accomplish certain tasks. However, things will come up that you do not expect. Expect that and try to adjust as needed. It is okay to grieve for what you hoped things would be, but keep yourself open for what you didn’t expect.
2.     Be realistic – Maybe this should be said before the previous, but the holidays don’t have to be a certain way or “just like” anything. Know what is realistic for your time and situation. Be open to changing traditions or adjusting schedules when it will rob you of your joy in the moment to insist that things be a certain way.  
3.     Stick to a budget – Related to realistic expectations, it can be easy to think that Christmas cannot be happy unless we have a certain number of gifts or that someone special gets just the right gift, but before shopping for gifts and food, assess what is realistic for you in your situation.  
4.     Learn to say no -  The holidays will provide ample opportunities to attend events and parties and you will have your own baking, shopping, and other activities that you want to participate in. Prioritize these things and learn to say no (or, “I am sorry, we won’t be able to do that on that evening.”)
5.     Don’t ignore yourself – Holidays often stir deep emotions as we remember lost loved ones or have to deal with unpleasant family experiences. Allow yourself to feel your feelings. Allow yourself time to express those feelings by yourself or with a trusted person in your life. Don’t ignore or abandon things that you normally do to care for yourself like exercise, prayer, or adequate sleep. People often indulge in too much food or drink at this time of year, but perhaps set expectations and have a plan for that as well.  
6.     Pick your battles – The holidays are a time of a lot of family gatherings and kids are out of school and at home all day. With fatigue and stress, it can be easy to react to situations with quick biting words or irritable responses. Decide which things are truly worth your time in setting boundaries, enforcing consequences, or talking through. The holidays don’t last forever (it just can feel that way sometimes).
7.     Take 5 (or like 15-20) - Just 15-20 minutes alone can be sufficient to refresh you. Sitting in quiet, meditating or praying, getting a massage, taking a walk, listening to music or reading a book are a few things you can do during this time. Make time for this during the Holidays.
8.     Stay in the moment - The pressure we put on ourselves to get things just right, the hectic schedules we try to keep, our rush and worry can cause us to just do things just to cross them off a list and then move on the next thing. If we are thinking about where we have been or worried about where we are going, we are not able to be right where we are. Schedule yourself so that where you are, you can just be in that moment. There is such beauty in the holidays. The holidays offer opportunities for true joy and hope, but if we are checking boxes on our way to the next event, we probably won’t see it.  
9.     Don’t be afraid to ask for help – Despite your best planning and effort, you may still find yourself persistently overwhelmed, sleepless, hopeless, sad, anxious, or irritable. You may experience conflict with family or disconnect from God. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you need it. Have a trusted friend, a staff member, or therapist (I know one of those) that you can talk to. It is ok to ask for help when you need it…really.  
10.     Read the list again – Go back and read this list again substituting “Life” for “The Holidays/Holidays”. The lessons pretty much still hold true.  

Chris O'Rear

Sunday, October 29, 2017

What Other Commandment Would We Need?

This sermon, based on Matthew 22: 34-46 was first presented at First Baptist Church, 
Nashville, Tennessee at the "Word & Table Service"
October 29, 2017

Last week we looked at the story of the Pharisees seeking to trap or trick Jesus by forcing him to pick a side on the controversial issue of paying the Roman tax.  After that, in a story we did not read, the Sadducees sought to trick Jesus on the issue of marriage after the resurrection. Today, we once again see the Pharisees back to trick Jesus.  Tim Wildsmith did a great job reflecting on this passage in the sanctuary service last week – as he always does.  I will do my best to keep up this week. 

In our reading from Matthew this morning, we see the Pharisees trying to discredit Jesus by revealing what they assume will be his lack of knowledge of the law.  The name, “Pharisee”, literally means “Separatist” and it alluded to the fact that the Pharisees had as their purpose to separate themselves from ritually “unclean” people and things.  Beyond that, the Pharisees were serious students of the Jewish law.  They had studied the entirety of the Hebrew scriptures (our Old Testament) and could tell you that they found 613 laws – 365 prohibitions and 248 positive commandments.  The Pharisees had studied each and every one.  They had created sub-rules and ancillary laws that were designed to make the existing laws clearer.  For example, the Sabbath was to be remembered as a day of rest and kept holy because that was one of the ten commandments that God gave Moses.  The Pharisees would have discussed and collected rules about what it meant to keep the sabbath holy; what could be done and what could not be done in order to honor that day as intended. 

Part of the discussion that Pharisees, and those like them, would have had, would be to take those 613 laws and rank them according to weight.  The would have considered all the laws to be important and would have sought to keep them all, but they would rank them as which would be the most important or first among the laws.  The Pharisees had already agreed that Deuteronomy 6:5 (that you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might) was the most important of the laws.  So, their question to Jesus was to test and see if he would also say the same thing or find out if he had studied sufficiently to know what the “right” answer should be. 

Jesus answers the Pharisees well and he adds the bonus question of what is the second most important, which is to love your neighbor as yourself.  This was not radical for Jesus to say this, but Jesus would have had a very different understanding of what this meant than those who were questioning him.  Jesus says that the entirety of the law and prophets hangs on these two commandments.  Which is to say that every rule given by God in the old testament could be summed up in Love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself.  While the Pharisees would have still been seeking to obey all of the 613 laws and their additional counterparts, Jesus is saying all you really need to know is love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself. 

As Tim Wildsmith pointed out last week, these commands sound pretty straightforward as presented.  Do I love God?  Yes.  Do I love other people?  Well, not ALL the people and not necessarily ALL the time, but I try.  So, I am doing pretty good.  So, end of sermon.  I love God.  I try to love other people.  I’m doing pretty good.  And that is probably what the Pharisees thought.  They certainly were trying to prove their love for God by obeying all the commandments.  They would have also said they were seeking to love their neighbor.  However…

I told you a minute ago that the name, “Pharisee” means “separatist”.  However, that name is not what the Pharisees called themselves.  “Pharisee” was a nickname used by people who were not Pharisees to describe this group.  The Pharisees actually referred to themselves as “Haberim” which means…Neighbor.  For the Pharisees to love their “neighbor” as themselves was pretty easy if they considered their “neighbor” to be the people that thought like them and lived like them, but Jesus demonstrates again and again that this is not what he means. 

Earlier in Matthew (Chapter 5) Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? …And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Jesus’ story of the compassionate Samaritan man in Luke 10 is in response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus flips the question and does not say who is the neighbor but asks “who was a good neighbor to the man in need?” indicating that the importance is not on who to love, but how we love.

These greatest commandments would indicate that love originates with God, for the bible says that God is love. We must love God with our whole being. Jesus says to love God with your heart, soul, and mind. Deuteronomy says, “heart, soul, & might”. Other gospels include “Strength”. We could analyze each of these words and it would be interesting and enlightening (Tim did a bit of this last week and did a great job), but the point of including all these qualities (heart, soul, mind, might, strength) is they are inclusive of the whole of our being. They represent our intellect, our spirit, our feelings, our relationships and should encompass everything about us. The point of the commandment is to love God with your whole being and everything you have and everything that you are.

The reality is that though we say that we love God, we do not always show it with every part of our life. We have the parts that we hold on for ourselves out of fear, insecurity, materialism, lust, anger, among other reasons. Demonstrating our love for God with everything we are and everything we have is hard. We may desire it, but we rarely accomplish it. It is a good thing that our loving God perfectly is not a pre-requisite for God loving us perfectly. Our grasp of God’s love for us is the beginning of our ability to love God, love ourselves and love others. When we have aligned our whole being with the God who is love, then we, in turn, can love well.

The command is to love your neighbor as yourself. It is clear that this love of neighbor also grows from our love of self. It seems perhaps the implication would be that we already love ourselves. We already seek what is best for ourselves. We already try to get what we want or what we think we deserve. We are concerned about our rights and our freedom. We want to be sure we and those we love are taken care of. If this is the interpretation, then the encouragement is not just look out for your own interests, but look out for the interests of others as much as you look out for yourselves. It would be impossible for us to be completely selfish if we are considering others as important as we consider ourselves.

But many of us have been taught that we should not love ourselves at all. We have associated love of self with self-indulgence or selfishness. We don’t want to be selfish or self-focused and so instead, we focus on how we should be loving and serving others. However, this verse does not say Love your neighbor instead of yourself. It doesn’t even say love your neighbor more than yourself, but as much as you love yourself, love your neighbor that much. There is some love of self that is involved. I have thought a great deal about this passage through the years because my experience has been that in trying to live out different understandings of this and other passages in the bible, so many people have felt that they have been called to be doormats in the world to be walked on by others. In trying to live this out, some have tried to avoid arrogance and potential conflict and have limited their own abilities, diminished their own gifts, and denied their own wishes and will. In trying to always put others first and in the name of trying to keep the peace, many become “burned out” and exhausted because they are always giving and giving to others and never taking care of themselves. For many of us, to always deny ourselves and put others first without any conflict means we seek a kind of watered down conformity that does not allow for a genuine expression of our personality. For some it means limiting ourselves, not expressing our opinions or developing our own interests in order to make others happy. But I do not believe that this way of thinking about this passage captures healthy love of self either. If we are not practicing a healthy self-love, then we can assume that we are not practicing healthy love of others either.

There are two truths that form the foundation of healthy self-love. You have gifts and abilities and you are imperfect. You have gifts from God. These gifts are a combination of your genetics, your life experience, your influences, and more. Our personal calling and our source of fulfillment is often found, as Frederick Buechner said, “…[in] the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” We should follow our passions and gifts and seek to cultivate those things within us.

As we seek to cultivate our giftedness, we strive for excellence, but we must also acknowledge that we are also flawed and broken. Again, our genetics, our life experience, our psychology and other influences are always at work in us as well. Too many times when the evidence of our “failure” is exposed, we feel flawed. We are embarrassed, and we try to hide from others. We can beat ourselves up and we are hard on ourselves. However, if we are seeking to love God with our whole being, we might seek to accept that God loves us every day, all the time. The things we see as our failures are not game-changing incidents. They are merely setbacks in our effort to be all that God has created us to be. So, we accept that God loves us. We acknowledge that God is with us. We seek to learn from our setbacks and we get up each day and try again.

Loving ourselves is seeking to be all that God has created us to be in cultivating our gifts and passions and seeking to learn and grow from our setbacks knowing that God’s love is steadfast. Caring for ourselves, also includes caring for our physical and emotional selves. We seek to eat healthy, we exercise our body, and we seek to get adequate rest. It may mean that we do not waste our time trying to do things that others are more gifted at doing because our job is to what we do, as best we can.

Our healthy love of ourselves says that we do not think too little of ourselves because we are all loved by God and we are all gifted, but we cannot think too highly of ourselves because we are all flawed and broken. So, we are honest about our struggles and we encourage others when they struggle. We cultivate our gifts and we encourage others to cultivate theirs. As we seek to be all that God has called us to be, we help others become all that they are called to be. In our relationships we sometimes have difficulty because we are afraid that another’s success means that we might not get enough. We sometimes feel jealous of other’s gifts. However, the greatest commandment we have is to love God with all of what is in us, let the love of God inform how we love ourselves and, in turn, love others in the same way. What other commandment would we need? Is not everything we need to know wrapped up in these two great commandments – to love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as much as you love yourself?

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Rejoice? Don't Worry? That's Easy for You to Say

This sermon, based on Philippian 4:1-9 was first presented at First Baptist Church, 
Nashville, Tennessee at the "Word & Table Service"
October 15, 2017

I have a newsflash this morning; Life is hard.  As I get older, I keep learning new ways that this statement is true.  In the movie, “The Princess Bride”, the character “Buttercup” says to “The [masked] Man in Black”, “You mock my pain” and the man in black responds, “Life is pain, highness.  Anyone who tells you different is selling something.” 

Indeed, life is filled with pain – both physical and emotional.  Through life we each have to deal with losses, both big and not so big.  We deal with traumatic events, personal struggles, disappointments and strained relationships.  We are hurt by illness, injury, betrayal, anger, abuse, addiction, depression, and on and on.  I don’t really have to name all the things that hurt us because you know them…well. 

When we experience difficulty and hurt, we each respond in a variety of ways.  We want to avoid feeling the pain of loss, so we try not to get too close to people.  We want to avoid disappointment, so we avoid letting people get too close to us.  We have difficulty trusting, so we are always looking for ways that others are trying to take advantage of us.  When we are hurt by someone, we may try to hurt them back.  When we have suffered great loss or other great pain, we may try to just numb the pain through frantic activities or drugs and alcohol.  In short, we focus on what has happened, we worry about what might happen and we try to control the outcome or consequences.  The result is a disconnect from ourselves, a distance in our relationships, and a loss of who God is.  We construct a God who will help us maintain our defenses and give us the means to be safe rather than connecting with God who calls us to abundant life and the adventure of deep connection. 

Paul’s words to the church at Philipi that we read this morning are a challenge to us in our lives of hurt, difficulty, loneliness, and disappointment.  Beginning in vs. 4, Paul says to “rejoice” and then he says it again.  Rejoice.  We might hear this and ask, “What do I have to rejoice about?  It is easy for Paul to say, ‘Rejoice’ because he doesn’t know what I’ve been through!”  If you said this, you would be partially right.  However, Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians from prison.  He had been beaten and arrested and was being held under a form of house arrest.  So, he did know something about suffering, but I will admit knowing that one person suffers in one way does not mean that your suffering feels any better.  People often say, “I shouldn’t complain about what I am going through, because someone else has it worse.”  Someone else having it worse does not mean that your pain or suffering is diminished.  It might give us a different perspective to realize others are suffering, but it doesn’t alleviate our pain. 

Notice, however, that Paul does NOT say, “Be happy no matter what and again, I say be happy about everything that is going on.” No, Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord”, which seems to be something altogether different?  Too many times we as Christians reduce these words to some kind of syrupy superficial expression of happiness no matter what is going on in our life.  We go through a terrible experience, but somehow show up to church on a Sunday morning, slap a smile on our face, pretend like we are doing fine and think we are living up to Paul’s encouragement to rejoice all the time.  This cannot be what Paul is encouraging us to do because what follows seems to be direction on how to live more authentically and fully and to pretend things are ok when they are not does just the opposite. 

One of the first things that Paul says is, “The Lord is near.” While there may be more than one understanding of what this means, it most definitely includes the idea that God is near to us and God cares for us.  Paul then says, “Do not worry about anything.”  Again, I think this is an idea that we have abused as Christians.  It is normal to worry.  When faced with uncertainty when we don’t know what is going to happen or how things are going to turn out, we have concern.  I have known people who are going through difficulty who cannot say that they are concerned about an outcome because they fear it is a sin to worry.  This passage does not say it is a sin to worry.  Paul is encouraging the people of Philippi  and us, not to worry, but he gives us a different strategy.  Rather than worrying about what will happen in any given situation, Paul suggests that we let our requests be known to God with prayer and supplication with thanksgiving.  Note that there are several components to Paul’s suggestion.  Prayer is simply the act of addressing God.  Our prayers need not have particular words or be in a particular place.  Anything we do or say in our lives that we intend to be a communication with God can be a prayer.  When we are worried, our prayers should contain supplication, which literally is just asking for something.  We should offer these prayers in a spirit of thanksgiving. 

There are many thoughts on this and I am not offering mine as a counter to any of the other, but as one way of thinking about these things.  When we worry, we are generally afraid of a particular outcome.  We are worried about being adequate.  We are worried about what we cannot yet see.  We are focused on what has not yet happened.  For us to step outside of our worry and to make an honest of assessment of what we really need, takes perspective.  It involves setting aside our need to be in control or try to manipulate the outcome we think is best.  Being able to report to God our needs is an opening of ourselves to the reality that we, in and of ourselves, are not sufficient to control anything.  For us to try to control something is to suggest that God cannot handle what is going to happen or that God cannot bring about something that will bless us.  Admitting to God that we have needs is to admit that we are not complete in ourselves and we are in need of God.  To admit we have needs is a stance of humility.  But Paul says we should also have a perspective of Thanksgiving. 

An attitude of Thanksgiving turns our focus from the struggle currently before us and the fear of what might be to a focus on the good that is present and the blessings that we have received.  Several years ago, I was suffering from a short-sighted way of living life in which I wanted things in my life to be a certain way.  I got frustrated when things were not the way I thought they should be.  I suffered from the idea that I somehow deserved to have the outcome I wanted in things.  I was often frustrated that life was not what I thought it was supposed to be and what I thought I deserved.  I had an epiphany one day that I did not “deserve” anything.  I realized that my expectations were killing my ability to enjoy and appreciate what I had.  I made a conscious decision to seek to be more grateful.  I began to thank my wife, Lynda, for doing things that she was already doing around the house because I realized that she didn’t “have to” do those things for me.  I tried to expect less from others which on the surface, sounds bad, but I realized that if I expected nothing, then when others offered to do anything with me or for me, I felt genuinely grateful rather than being angry or disappointed that what I got was not what I expected or thought I should get. 

To go to God in times of hurt and uncertainty with that kind of attitude of thanksgiving and to acknowledge that I, by myself, cannot control everything in my life, and I have needs, opens us up to see God’s presence and blessings in ways we had not imagined.  We truly have peace because we trust that God is near and God will be with us no matter what happens in the worrisome scenarios of our life. 

I wish we had time to continue to unpack versus 8 and 9, but I want to note that these verses also require a shift for us.  Too many times Christians are known for what we are against.  We seem to look for the negative and look for the bad and we love to point it out, but Paul suggests that if we shift our perspective and seek to see things as God sees them, we find the beauty, the good, and the honor in others.  I recently heard a story of a young man that visited this congregation that came dressed in shorts.  As he walked down the hall, he heard an older adult make a condescending comment about his clothes.  The young man did not return to our church because he did not feel welcome or loved.  He did not experience the joy of the Lord in that moment.  That adult in our church failed to embody this way of thinking that seeks to see what is good and build up rather than focusing what they thought was the bad and tearing down. 

If you are a person who struggles with worry, you are not living in sin.  In fact, there may actually be some biological reasons why that is true and there are medications and talk therapy that can help (I have utilized these things myself), but each of us worries in some way.  We are, however, called to make an honest assessment of ourselves.  We are encouraged to share our need with God, not because God needs to hear it or God needs us to beg, but because sharing our needs with God opens us up to looking for God at work in our lives.  Sharing our need with God reminds us that we do not and cannot control every outcome, but that when we look for God at work and let go of trying to make things happen the way we want, we open ourselves to the peace of God that does not make sense to anyone else.