Monday, December 24, 2012

Les Miserables on Christmas

My tickets to the new Les Miserables (Les Miz) movie have been purchased for a couple of weeks.  I am taking the family on Christmas day.  I have seen the musical numerous times and cannot wait to see the cinematic adaptation.  While not traditional “holly jolly” fare for Christmas, Les Miserables may be a suitable Christmas Day story.

While not a “religious” play, Les Miz has numerous spiritual themes.  Most of the characters are dealing with their ideas of God, sin, punishment, grace, or providence.  Jean Valjean has broken the law and paid with consequences and makes a spiritual journey from bitterness to gratitude and love.  His path involves a spiritual encounter of grace mediated by the priest that takes him in and passes through his own struggles with personal responsibility and self-sacrifice.  The grace of the priest who gives Valjean his silver is contrasted by the police detective, Javert.  Javert’s life is built on a religious certitude in which he works to ensure that every crime is punished and every law is followed.  He is driven by his desire to live a morally upright life and he, therefore, has little patience or grace for those that do not follow those rules (even when for a supposed “greater good”).  

The women of the play seem to have less a sense of control of their own destinies.  Fantine and Eponine both deal with harsh realities of life and struggle with disappointments and tragedy.  Fantine’s moving song, “I Dreamed a Dream” is a gut-wrenching examination of how life can be so different from the dreams and expectations that we have when we are young.  Eponine’s “On My Own” is more melodramatic, but includes her feelings of hopelessness, loneliness, and despair.

Each of the above characters spends some time in reflection on life’s meaning and purpose, while the Thenardiers, in their comedic relief, provide an example of the unexamined life.  Thenardier does provide a bit of reflection on the dark side of humanity, but he seems to accept his own evaluation and he bases his life on lack of trust and his own selfish ambitions.   Both Thenardier and Madame Thenardier readily use others for their own gain and represent the more base aspects of human nature. 

All of these reflections on the nature of God and humanity are beautiful representations of our own struggles as we deal with the realities of our own world.  We are confronted with the evil of school shootings, a growing sense of financial insecurity, a government in stalemate, wars around the world, and struggles in our daily lives.  It can be easy for us to long for a time when things will be set right and it can be tempting for us to fall into despair and feel alone and forsaken.  This is the world and reality into which God inserted himself and took on our frail form; not the form of a soldier or a king, but the form of an infant.  In the Baptist tradition, we often want to move too quickly from this Advent story to the story of “Good Friday” and Easter, but each of those holidays has its own reality.  The time of Advent is the time to reflect on the reality that God has come to us in our form.  God knows our struggles and knows our fears.  God has come that we may know that we are not alone and that we may know God’s love that casts out our fears.

The last sung line of the musical, “Les Miserables”, is “To love another person is to see the face of God”.  Throughout the musical, as throughout our lives, the terrible is moderated by the loving and caring presence of another.  While we continue to hope for the day when God will come to us again and set everything as it should be, for now, the presence of God is not experienced as the absence of strife, but as “God with us” (Immanuel) as mediated through the love of another.  As we seek to live out the kingdom of God in our own lives, to embody the love of God, we mediate God’s presence for others and find peace within our own existence.  God broke into our world in a miraculous way and took our form and those of us who follow His way should seek to embody God’s form for those in our lives. The hope of God in the midst of uncertainty, fear, and tragedy is the story of Christmas and the baby Jesus lying in a manger.  Let us rejoice with the angels in singing “Gloryto God in the highest and on earth peace to all.  

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Story of "Dan"

This is the client story shared at the Pastoral Counseling Centers of Tennessee’s Fundraising Concert Last Night.  It includes a few more details that time allowed last night.  Dan’s story reflects some of what is so meaningful about the work of Pastoral Counseling.

Dan was one of the first clients I ever saw when I came to the Pastoral Counseling Centers of Tennessee (PCCT)  as a trainee.  I saw him regularly for several years.  At one time, Dan had been a fairly successful musician, but that was before he was diagnosed with a pretty serious mental illness.  When I first met him, Dan was receiving medication and case management from another agency, but he had come to the Pastoral Counseling Center because he had a strong sense of faith and he wanted counseling that would reflect his love of God.  He had had seen at least two counselors before me at PCCT.   Early in my work with Dan, he was very focused on his own needs and had a very limited way of looking at the world.   He had a very simplistic and concrete way of seeing the world; almost childlike in many ways.   He sometimes still had delusions of being attacked by Satan and being burned by the fires of hell.  He would call me in between our sessions   sometimes when he was feeling anxious about something and tell me that he was being burned from the inside out by the fires of hell.  I had no way to make sense of this, but I would listen to him and talk with him about the various anxieties in his life, and I would pray with him.  As we talked through the years, he would sometimes tell me of a dark time in his life when he was not medicated for his mental illness and when he often used illegal drugs and alcohol.  He told me of other things that he had done that he was ashamed of and we would talk about those things.   Dan had a guitar, but he had not played in a long time because he associated the guitar with those dark times in his life.  He said he missed playing and so I began to help him think of ways that God could redeem his guitar and take it back from those dark places.  We talked about how his guitar could be a way of mediating God in his life and the creativity of playing could connect him to God’s creativity.  He began playing his guitar regularly and reported that it was a soothing activity.  He would play when anxious and found some relief in that.  Though he had very little money and resources, he began to save money and periodically he would purchase other guitars until he own at least four different types of guitars.   He grew to enjoy finding the various sounds and tunes he could get from each of these guitars.

 Over time, Dan had moved from being focused more on himself to telling me that he really wanted to figure out how to show love to others.  He really wanted to find a way to share the gift of his music with others.  He developed an amazing sense of gratitude.  In the past few years he had been getting “meals on wheels” and he expressed gratitude for those meals every day.  He would describe to me the content of the meals in detail to me and then would say, “I can’t believe how lucky I am that I get this great food every day.”  At Christmas he would sometimes receive boxes from a local church and he would become tearful as he would describe to me the contents of those boxes and he would say, “I can’t believe people are so good to me.” 

     When Dan would feel overwhelmed by the things of his life, he would come and talk things through with me and he would always come back to an affirmation that he knew that God loved him and things would be okay.  I tried to work with him so that his experience that God would provide him could help him avoid feeling anxious, but he seemed to always have something that he was concerned about.  Dan took the bus to our offices and he would sometimes arrive an hour or more before his appointment.  I would apologize to him that he had to wait to see me and he would say, “It’s okay Chris, the people here are so nice and it is so peaceful here, I can just feel the love of God when I am here.”

  Throughout the time I knew him, Dan would sometime wind up in the hospital with various medical issues.  A year or so ago, he was in the hospital and had a pretty serious condition that he feared would take his life.  Because he was so afraid of dying, he called the office and asked if I would come to visit him.  I know it is not in the counseling rule book, but I went to visit him in the hospital.  He was panicked as he told me that he was afraid to die because he was afraid of going to hell.  I told him, “Dan, I don’t know anyone who has loved God more than you.  I cannot imagine why you would  wind up in hell.”    Dan told me that there were three things that he wanted to tell me that he had never told me before.  There in his hospital room, Dan confessed to me the secrets that he had never told me in the years that we had been visiting.  I have to confess that there was nothing in that confession that shocked me and nothing that  I thought was that bad.  However, for him, these were the dark things that made him feel ashamed – things he had feared confessing to anyone and things that he felt would keep him from God’s grace.    We talked that day about scriptures of forgiveness that he knew and I prayed with him that God would forgive him and comfort him.  Dan was released from the hospital a couple of weeks later and moved to a skilled nursing facility.  I got a call a few weeks later that Dan had died.  I felt sure that Dan had died with a bit more peace than he had lived with in his life.  Dan was one of the more challenging clients I ever had and I know we gave him help and comfort in his life, but I learned so much from my time with him.  In the later years of our relationship as he would find joy in the simple things in life and as he would be grateful for the smallest of gifts he challenged me to deal with my own materialism and to appreciate all that I had.  Dan was grateful to God though he did not have much of what we generally might think brings happiness.  He did a great deal with very few resources.  Dan did amazing things with his limited resources.  He carefully budgeted his money and he would pay me $15 cash each time at each session he had with me.  I am grateful for the donors who support the work of PCCT with their time and money because they make it possible for people like Dan to be seen by our counselors.  It is truly a blessing to be a part of this work.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Nothing Else Matters (Sermon)

(To hear audio of this sermon, click HERE.)

Nothing Else Matters
Philippians 3:4-14
Trinity Christian Church
Smyrna, Tennessee
September 9, 2012
Chris O’Rear, M.Div., M.M.F.T.

            I know Marshall has been preaching from the book of Philippians and today we are continuing the lessons from Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi found in Philippians 3.  I will focus today on verses 4 through 16.

Paul opens this section of the text by telling the people in the church that what he is writing to them are things that he has written to them before.  He says that he does not mind writing these things again and he is certain that it won’t hurt the people hear it again.  There DO seem to be some things that we all need to hear again…from time to time.  The church in Philippi was made up primarily of gentile (or non-Jewish) converts to Christianity.   However, the church seemed to struggle with some groups Jewish believers within the church who wanted to say that you could not be a “Real Christian” unless you did certain things or believed certain things that the Jews believed and THEN followed Christ.   Apparently, there were arguments within the church there about what constituted true faith and whether these Jewish elements were absolutely necessary to be a Christian.  Paul says he is writing again to try to clarify this issue for them.  Paul refers to those that are causing the trouble as “Dogs” and “Evil Workers”.  These people wanted to hold on to their own ideas of what it was to be good and right and add on to the simple truth of grace and faith in Christ.   

            If there were such people today, they might tell new Christians, “You are still ‘a Christian’, but you can be a real Christian unless your parents and grandparents were Christians.  They might tell new Christians, “You cannot be ‘real Christians’ unless you were baptized as an adult and dunked under the water.”  They may tell others, “You are not really Christian unless you vote for the political party that we vote for”.  They might say, “You cannot be a “True Christian” unless you support the same view on controversial issues that we have”.   These people that Paul is speaking against put a great deal of value in their birth and their family heritage.  They insisted on their particular religious practices and their own religious rules.  Paul says if you want to rate yourself that way, I can certainly rate myself that way…

            4b-6 If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

            Paul is pointing out that under the categories that trouble-makers wanted to use to judge others, he was without fault.  He was not a convert to Judaism, but had been born a Jew.  He had not just been a Jew, but had studied as a scholar of the law and by his own understanding, he had kept the law.  He not only kept the law, but he sought to persecute others who he felt were distorting the law.  In short, no one could boast about being a better Jew than Paul.  He wasn’t just saying, “Hey, I’m one of you”.  He is saying, “I’m better than ALL y’all”.  However, Paul does not stop there. He goes on in verses 7-9…

            7-9Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.  More than that, I regard everything as a loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness  from God based on faith. 

            Paul says that all those things that he used to use to make himself feel better than others – all those things that made him feel important and righteous – are really garbage compared to a relationship with Christ.   The actual Greek word that Paul uses to describe what he thinks of his previous accomplishments is not one that we could use politely in this congregation today.  Needless to say, Paul has had a change of heart about what constitutes true faith and what is truly important. 

            When Paul talks about how everything he has been compares to “knowing Christ”, he is not talking about knowing about “Christ”.  He is not talking about knowing what the Bible has to say about “Jesus”.  He is talking about knowing in a deep and personal way.  If you were to ask me if I know your pastor, Marshall, I would say, “Yes, I know him.”  More than that, I would say that we are friends.  I would say that I respect him and admire him.  I love spending time with him and I look forward to the opportunities we have to spend time together.  However, when I wake up every day, I have to admit, that I don’t think about Marshall.  As I am planning most of my days, I don’t wonder what Marshall is doing or if he has anything he might need from me that day.  To be honest, what he is doing really doesn’t affect how I plan my day.  However, if you were to ask me if I know my wife, Lynda, I would say yes and it would mean something completely different.  I know my wife about as well as one person can know another person (or at least I think I do.)  I know her likes and dislikes.  I know her favorite color is black.  I know THAT she has a huge affinity for turtles…although I really don’t know WHY she has an affinity for turtles.  I know that if I were not there to say, “No”, she would be one of those crazy animal hoarder people on T.V. with dozens of cats and dogs.  I know her fears and frustrations. I know she hates spiders, but she thinks snakes are kind of cool.  She enjoys her work, but her family is her life.  I think I can often know what will make her happy (Although I’m sure I have messed that up a time or two).  When I wake up in the morning, Lynda is there. When I go through my day, I wonder what she is doing and I miss seeing her.  I often rearrange my schedule to make time for her or to accommodate her schedule or needs.  How my wife feels affects how I feel.  We are connected.  We are bonded.  I KNOW her and in my life, there is very little that means as much to me as my relationship with my wife.  THAT is what Paul means when he talks about his relationship with Christ and “Knowing” Christ.

            His life has been so changed by his encounter with the living God that nothing else matters to him as much and nothing defines him more.  Paul’s comment here about his own experience should leave us questioning what gives us a sense of purpose and meaning.  There are those of us that think that their own efforts make us who we are.  We may see ourselves as better than others because of what we do… or more likely by what we don’t do.  We still make divisions among ourselves based on a number of different things – how much money we make, what kind of car we drive, the color of our skin, our political party, our criminal record (whether we have one or not), our occupation, and our religion.  Paul is reminding us that if we are seeking to know Christ – to REALLY know Christ – then there is nothing else that matters.  In fact, all that other stuff that we think makes us so great is really worthless.

Paul writes:

            10-12I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  Not that I have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Chris Jesus has made me his own. 

Again Paul is saying that our belonging to Christ is not about what we do, but what Christ has already done.  However, if we truly understand the love of God for us in Christ, then we seek every day to know him better – to know what it is to die to our own desires and our pride in our own accomplishments and know the power of the resurrection that is a new life based on something more.  Paul reminds us that when we are seeking to know Christ in this intimate way and to be more like him, we are very much aware of our own in ability to do this and the need to wake up each day with a renewed desire.

            13-14Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 

When different kinds of Christians sometimes “respectfully discuss” their different beliefs, there are some who point out this passage and say that Paul has not yet attained his salvation and is doing works to accomplish it, but I don’t think this is what Paul is saying.  Paul affirms that he knows Christ and is a Christ follower.  What Paul is signifying is that when we truly grasp who Jesus is and the magnitude of what it is to live a life as Jesus did, we are very much aware of our own imperfections. However, Paul affirms that his imperfections are not what define him.

I know personally what it is to worry about my imperfections.  Maybe you do to.  We are all pretty good at knowing our own mistakes and failures.  There are not too many people in here who don’t have something in their past that they are not proud of.  Maybe you have things that you have only shared with a few very close friends or church members or maybe there are things in your past that you have never told anyone.  It requires a great deal of mental effort to try to protect ourselves from these things we have done.  Some people are overwhelmed with guilt and my try to overcompensate by doing a lot of good things.  Others try to cover up their feelings with lots of activities or the use of alcohol and other drugs.  We may feel like we can never get too close to others, especially at church, because we fear that if people really knew all about us, they wouldn’t really like us. 

I had a counseling client that I saw for several years that I will call Dan.  Dan had at one time been a fairly successful musician, but then had been diagnosed with a mental illness.  When I first met him he had delusions of being attacked by Satan and the fires of hell.  He would call me sometimes and tell me that he was being burned from the inside out by the fires of hell.  I had no way to make sense of this, but I would listen and pray with him.  As we talked through the years, he would sometimes tell me of a dark time in his life when he was not medicated for his mental illness and when he often used illegal drugs and alcohol.  He told me of other things that he had done that he was ashamed of and we would talk about those things.  He would always come back to an affirmation that he knew that God loved him.  A couple of years ago, Dan was in the hospital and had a condition that he feared would take his life.  I went to visit him and he was panicked as he told me that he was afraid to die.  He was afraid to die because he was afraid of hell.  He told me that there were 3 things that he wanted to tell me that he had never told me before.  There in his hospital room, Dan confessed to me the secrets that he had never told me in the years that we had been visiting.  There was nothing in that confession that shocked me and nothing that “I” thought was that bad.  However, for him, they were the dark things that made him feel ashamed – things he had feared confessing to anyone.  We talked about scriptures of forgiveness and I prayed with Dan that day. Dan died several weeks later and I believe he died at peace. 

In our passage this morning, Paul is reminding us that we are all imperfect and we all have things in our past that are not great, but we are not defined by what we used to be.  We are defined by who we are.  Paul suggests that we need to forget all that lies behind.  Not to forget it ever happened or try pretend that it never happened, but realize that whatever is in our past is not what defines who we are.  Our ongoing relationship with Jesus is what makes us who we are.  Just as what we think are our great accomplishments are garbage compared to a relationship with Christ, so what we think of as our failures is not the final word on who we are.  Indeed this is the good news of the Gospel. 

The reality is that whatever you think makes you so great is really nothing compared to what Christ has done for you and having a relationship with him, but on the other side, whatever you think makes you so bad is not the final word.  God looks at us and sees the person we were created to be and sees the fullness of our potential.  God desires to empower us to live into that potential.  If Christ has made us His own, then nothing else matters.  I hope that as you go from here today that you will leave with a renewed desire to put aside the things that make you feel flawed and bad.  Realize that Jesus has died for you and God loves you and in that is all the value you need.  The person sitting next to you, also has things in their life that they are not proud of, but Church should be a place where we can trust each other, share with each other and encourage each other.  Church should be a place where people are not defined by what they have done, but whose they are.  Likewise, in the body of Christ, we should not make distinctions between ourselves the way the world does.  We are rich and poor.  We are republicans and democrats.  We come from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities.  When we gather together, the only thing that should define us, is the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus.”  Paul says, “Let those of us who are mature be of [this] same mind.” Don’t forget whose you are what you have attained.  Go and make KNOWING Christ the center of your being and seek to love one another as Christ has loved you. Amen.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Mystery of Marriage

In places in the Bible, like Ephesians 5, we hear of the “Mystery of Marriage”.  There is some way that the relationship between two people in marriage is reflective of Christ’s relationship to the Church (as understood as the body of all believers and not just one particular faith group.)  I have a couple of ways of understanding how marriage and Christ’s relationship with the church are related and today, on the occasion of my 25th wedding anniversary, it seemed appropriate to share.

In a recent study of Philippians 3, I came across the passage where Paul outlines all of his earthly credentials and accomplishments, but then says he counts them all as garbage (or dung) when compared to the joy of knowing Christ Jesus.  I have struggled with the meaning of this passage and could give “Sunday School” answers as to what this might mean, but it was in recent reflections that I had a true “a-ha” moment.  The way I made sense of this was not in my relationship to Jesus, but in my relationship to my wife.  I have multiple degrees, I have a rich history of meaningful work, I have raised two beautiful daughters, I have held offices in a number of organizations.  My credentials are numerous.  However, during the past several years as my wife, Lynda, and I have dealt with the loss of our house to the 2010 flood in Nashville and financial difficulties, I have come to realize that what I have and what I do is not that important when compared to the fact that I come every night to my wife.  She is my best friend. I spend part of every day looking forward to when I will see her again.  We share multiple interests (but not all).  We have great conversations about current events, our kids, our futures, and our dreams.  I have a list of things she has said she would like to have that I can consult on special occasions.  I would do almost anything to ensure her happiness.  When I compare having all I have and doing all that I do with the possibility of not having her, I would give up everything else before I would give up Lynda.  I think this is the kind of relationship that Paul is indicating he has with Christ.  It is an all-consuming focus that matters more than anything else.  I don’t know that I can say that my relationship with Christ is as all-consuming as my relationship with my wife, but that desire for her should reflect how Christ feels for us.  This is part of the mystery of marriage.

When I think about Christ’s love for the Church and the mystery of marriage, I also think about vulnerability and unconditional love.  The ideal relationship between partners is reflected in the story of Adam & Eve when they are in the garden.  The Bible says that they were naked and they were not ashamed.  They were completely exposed to one another, but were not ashamed.  They were not afraid of what the other thought.  Once they had they had their experience of eating the forbidden fruit, they immediately felt the need to try to hide their bodies from each other and hide themselves from God.  Marriage should be a place where we are not just physically naked with one another, but also emotionally naked.  We should be able to express our hurts, our fears, our desires, our fantasies, and dreams to another and not fear their response.  We should not feel ashamed for who we are.  That does not mean that we cannot strive to always perfect ourselves and that our spouses can help, but that we need to be able to be completely “naked” with our closest partner and not fear being rejected or hurt.  Not only do we need this, but we need to offer this to our partner.  In this way, the marital relationship can reflect the love of Christ for all people.  To be so open on this side of Eden requires a great deal of courage and trust.  These are both things that can be cultivated within a relationship.

One of the more controversial of passages on the mystery of marriage is in Ephesians 5.  This is the “submit” passage.  I am not big on the submission passages, but I am particularly displeased with how many people have used these passages.  Too often people ignore the command to submit to one another and focus on what the women are then commanded to do.  Too often in my office I hear men talking about how their wives don’t submit to them the way that the Bible says.  The commands in this passage are not for us to measure one another, but to measure ourselves.  I do not monitor what you are to do; I am responsible for what I do.  If we are going to take the passage seriously, then we have to look at the command for husbands.  They are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave his life for her and they are commanded to love their wives as themselves.  So, if I am to love my wife with the unconditional love that Christ has for me, then my wife can share anything she wants with me and I will not ridicule and chastise.  I will listen.  I will support.  I will work to help her be all that God created for her to be and I will sacrifice myself to insure that she is not limited by anything to what she needs to do.  It definitely means that I will not be ruled by own fears, but will focus on managing my own fears so that I can encourage my wife to be all she can be.  If I am to love my wife as I love myself, then I care for her as I do my own body.  I desire for her pleasure as I desire it for myself.  I make sure her needs are cared for as I would care for my own needs.  It means that I encourage her dreams and desires as much as I would want for myself.  Again, it means that if I let myself get fearful or insecure, then I do not truly love fully.  I must manage my own fears and insecurities without demanding that my wife try to do that by doing things for me.  I would say that if someone loved me in this way, I would not have difficulty submitting to them because I would be able to fully trust in the other to have my best interest at heart and to give to me unconditionally.  However, as a husband, I do not demand submission from my wife; I work to love her as Christ loves and to love her as I love myself.  What she does is between her and God.  We are commanded, however, to submit to one another.  This mutual submission is significant because it indicates the mutuality of giving in the relationship.  We give to each other as we give to God and we give what we give because God has first given to us - The mystery of marriage. 

Because marriage is to reflect the love of Christ for the church and for the world, it is sad to see the rise in divorces.  The number of people that divorce creates the expectation of divorce.  If I fear that marriage may end, I may hold back a bit of myself to avoid being hurt.  If I hold back a bit of myself, then I do not allow for the depth of connection that comes from the mutual emotional nakedness.  The marriage, then, is limited in the depth that is possible.  There is no greater threat to modern marriage than the lack of vulnerability and love that comes from the fear of being hurt and rejected.  That fear drives so much of the problematic behaviors in relationships.  We are called to love and as I pointed out in a recent post, perfect love casts out fear.  The mystery of marriage is that the relationship reflects the love of Christ for the church and for the world, but it requires a great deal of courage, trust, vulnerability, resilience, and commitment.