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Sunday, March 27, 2011

We’ve started in together on this idea that as huge as spiritual rebirth is, it is just a step in the journey.  I point that out because too many times we can treat that "born again" experience as the only event in our spiritual lives that matters.  Of course it’s huge, huge.  But isn't it still only a piece of the practical journey?  I mean, right now my wife Karen is very pregnant -- her due date is actually tomorrow even though it doesn’t look like it’s gonna happen.  And God bless her for what’s to come, some of you have given me stories of 28-hour labor and all of that.  But however rough, and real, and even looong her labor is, it's still probably only a tiny fraction of the rest of our baby's life.  Hopefully.

I think maybe it's the same with spiritual rebirth.  It's a singular, unique, awesome and only-by-God's-grace experience.  But never forget it is a beginning.

A great illustration comes with the earthquake in Chile this past fall.  33 miners were stuck underground, a half-mile below the surface, if we can imagine the darkness down there.   Reports tell us that right away after the cave-in, the foreman told the guys, essentially, “We may never see day again, but we’re gonna be about the business of staying alive.”  So they split up tasks and tried to stay busy.  They worked together and voted on group decisions.  Experts say that's how they managed to survive for the 17 days that they had no contact from outside.

To paint the picture deeper, one survivor said of their supplies that they had some canned salmon and tuna, enough that one man’s ration was not quite a soda bottle cap-full.  And all they had to drink was mine-water; plentiful but flavored like motor oil for all the mining gunk that got into it.  The story goes, after day 17 they had contact, and then came rescuers drilling supply shafts and the start of a constant flow of water, food, and medicine that would sustain them for 69 days.  Imagine it.  And many of us saw the joy at their escape from the mine, it made worldwide news as an international effort, with a constant countdown as each man surfaced.  Remember the extreme joy each time a guy walked out?  The president of Chile said it well:  “It’s like they’ve been born anew.”  After all, they went through that dark labor time in the belly of the earth; they finally had their umbilical cord of supplies flowing to them from the outside.  And the celebration of their arrival wasn't too distant from how we treat our newborns.  Surely we can see our spiritual selves there, in our rebirth being delivered up from the pit out into the rejoicing of all heaven.

But I'm more interested right now in what was to follow.  Remember, for the miners it was a beginning.  Most importantly, it was the beginning of making transitions, adjustments, and really taking baby steps back into life.  One transition made headlines:  the Oakley sunglasses company jumped at the chance to furnish every survivor with custom-made shades.  After months in the dark their eyes would have to gradually adjust to the light of day.  A small transition.  Another transition story, one survivor Johnny Barrios was greeted by a woman in his life, and that woman was his mistress.  His time underground led she and his wife to find out about one another, and so his wife boycotted the moment of his emerging to safety.  Needless to say Johnny's rescue was the start of adjusting to a new life.  And most of all, as several agencies reported, what would it be like for these men when the day came for them to finally be released from the hospital after their emergency treatment?  I mean, for months their lives had been nurtured by the resources of multiple, international governments; they had literally been kept alive by a constant flow of help.  What would it be like to be finally discharged from the hospital and get back to everyday living?  To fending for oneself?  Adjustments.  Baby steps.

I wonder if the same isn't true for us who consider ourselves born again in Christ.  I wonder what follows.  After all, at the moment of your first believing, of your spiritual rebirth, did you find yourself with severe amnesia?  No.  We remember our life before.  At spiritual rebirth are we transported to a different planet?  No.  We go right back to everyday living.  To a home, friends, family, work, fun, habits and patterns.

As powerful as rebirth is in our story, we'll have adjustments to make, baby steps to take, from there.

Just check out John 4:5-42, the story of "the woman at the well."  It's the story of a Samaritan woman encountering Jesus and coming to believe.  We probably witness her new birth in this story.  But it also smacks of the adjustments that Jesus provokes in people who are following him.

For one, Jesus challenges the woman's way of life by talking to her, as a Jew to a Samaritan (let alone a Samaritan woman); he doesn't respect the man-made boundary that she and many others would've put up between them.  And he goes right on to push the issue of her deep, dark romantic past, inviting her to open up about it.  He challenges her basic understanding of worship by describing it as a spiritual act rather than just cultural/geographical/customary.

And maybe the biggest deal is that when she seems to realize who Jesus is, and to believe he is the Messiah, it provokes her to want to tell the whole town.  What’s an adjustment about that?  Well, we don’t know for sure but can we assume given her past that she might not have the most credibility with the townspeople?  Particularly with moral/religious matters.  It’s a pretty good growing process, I think, for her to be willing to head back and proclaim she may have found the Messiah.  Baby steps, in a single afternoon with Jesus, from drawing water on a hot day, to believing in Christ, to the saving of an entire community.

And there are some other baby steps going on.  With the disciples.  From the beginning they seemed to write Samaria off as no part of the Messiah's mission.  When they do stop by this town, are they focused on what God might do there, what wonders they might perform, how they might teach/preach?  I don't think so -- all we hear about is their desire to find something to eat.  It was just a rest stop.  While in their hearts they secretly wonder what this Samaritan woman wants, and why on earth Jesus talks to her, all they manage to say is, "Hey, Jesus, eat something." 

He invites them to grow by not letting the issue slide, by going on to preach to them to wake up to why they were there – to reap a harvest.

Taking a look at all of that, let’s make no mistake – spiritual rebirth and the moment of first believing is huge.  The moment of realizing Jesus is the Messiah is HUGE.  But after that, if we’re anything like these here, it’s time to follow him further, and much further.  It’ll be time to reckon with our habits, with our assumptions, with our fears.  With our deepest darkest past.  It’ll be time to start to stretch and grow and mature.  Because there’s a full-fledged spiritual person that we’re intended to be.  

 John Wesley basically said, sure we have everything we need right now to live solid spiritual lives.  By our spiritual rebirth, we’re whole people.  Like infants, we have all the vital parts, eyes, hands, legs, etc.  But it’s only in time and practice that we grow into using their full potential, to actually being able to see, and work and move and speak.  Because birth starts the story.  So let's have a reckoning.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Matthew 4:1-11 involves the story of Jesus heading into the wilderness after he's baptized, for 40 days of temptation and throw-down with the devil.  We're getting into the season of Lent now, the 40 days that lead up to Easter when the Church wrestles with our own lives in preparation, so the season usually kicks off with this story from Jesus' life as a tone-setter.

The other reading for today, for the same reason, is from Genesis when we here about the first temptation, and fall, and our struggle with sinfulness starting with Adam and Eve.  These are the roots of our understanding of why things aren't perfect, why many of us feel so inclined to wrongdoing, why the world is full of such junk sometimes, and also, what God is up to to redeem it all.

Bill Cosby cracks me up, so I wanted to share his version of Adam and Eve's story.  Cosby says that in the midst of the task of creating Heaven and Earth, we know that God created Adam and Eve.  And as God’s first two children, he found himself as the universe’s first parent.  And the first thing he said to them was:  “Don’t.”

So now Adam couldn’t help asking, “Don’t what?”

God:  “Don’t eat the forbidden fruit.”

Adam:  “…forbidden fruit, eh?  …really?  Where is it?”

“It’s over there,” said God, and he rather wondered why he hadn’t stopped after making the elephants.  And wouldn’t you know, only minutes later, God saw the kids having a snack break of those forbidden apple slices, and God was angry.

“Didn’t I tell you not to eat that fruit?!”  God asked.

Talking with his mouth full, Adam replied, “Uh huh.”

So God wondered, “Then why did you??”

And, shrugging, Adam simply answered, “I dunno.”

So, in the end, Bill Cosby says, God’s punishment was that Adam and Eve should have the experience of children of their own.

What we hear there is the way a lot of us treat Lent.  A big “Don’t.”  It’s that church season when people have traditionally given things up.  And I want us to get at the heart of whether or not that’s enough, if that does Lent justice.  The same old 40 days of:  “Don’t eat chocolate, don’t gossip, don’t lose your temper,” etc. etc.  Maybe there are other ways to do it.  How about another way to start with the garden of Eden, and its events, and look at things differently?

How about this -- in the midst of God's creating, when it came time to form humans, we have this image that Adam was formed up out of the dust.  Dirt.  That earthy, physical side to us.  So imagine us as a glass or clay vessel, this earthenware thing being fashioned out of the ground.  And now we're told that God gave life to the dirt by breathing into it.  So we have that spiritual side to us.  So imagine that same glass or vessel filled up to the brim with crystal clear water, like God's spirit.

By nature, then, from our beginning point, humanity looks like it's designed to be filled.  The pattern shows up in what God does with humans.  God endows them with God's own likeness; God gives them purpose and direction (be good stewards of creation, be fruitful/multiply); God is deeply connected to them in relationship.  They walk and talk together, they're blessed.  Do you see our original human hearts as filled, if not overflowing?

But it all came under assault with temptation, and at the heart of the temptation were questions like, "Isn't there something better out there that you're missing out on?  Can't you have even more?  Who is God, anyway?  "Isn't God just trying to keep you from living your fullest?"  So humans tried to add just a little something.  And giving into temptation was like a little drop of something no-good into our hearts, like this:

So it spread through our whole being, polluting every part.  And for me, with Lent, if all we do is try to tackle some of the little junk that permeates us, it's like pouring outta that glass a little bit at a time.  We feel our hearts filled with wrongdoing and we're trying to remove it.

We try to stop smoking and pour a little out.  We stop cursing, and pour.  We bottle up our anger or disappointment or jealousy or greed, trying to pour it out.  And in the end, if all goes right and we reach the goal, we think we’ve poured out all the green oozey bad stuff.  Mission accomplished!

But what are we left with then?  Even if somehow we're able to remove all the junk (good luck with that, by the way).  Then all that's there is an empty glass.  And I wonder, is that gonna cut it for us with temptation?  Truly?  Is that the ultimate goal for us?

I think Jesus deals with those questions in Matthew 4, out in the wilds of the world.  His experience starts by giving us insight into the inner-workings of being tempted.  To get a feel for it, let's see if we can take a moment to sit intp his shoes a little bit, to try to imagine even a tiny bit how Satan was weaselling with his heart.  There are three major temptations, so one at a time we can reflect --

1.  How would it feel for Jesus to be challenged:  "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread?"

What does that appeal to or strike against?  Maybe...the idea that there's no reason for Jesus to suffer needlessly, over something so trivial as hunger?  I mean, he's the Messiah, with important work to do, can he be troubled to worry about food all the time, and let that get in the way of his work?  Surely God didn't send him to earth to starve in the desert, so it's time to take care of himself.

And don't forget the big "If" in there.  Ultimately, Satan is questioning Jesus' true identity, and daring him to demonstrate his power to prove it.

2. How would it feel to Jesus to be challenged a second time:  "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down and God will save you."

The "If" is still there.  Only this time he questions Jesus' identity as if to say, "God will take care of his Son, so why not just prove to everybody, including yourself, that he actually loves you."  The question is:  will God come through for you?  Challenging God's character, too.  And we hear this kind of thing preached a lot, that if we devote ourselves to God there's no reason he shouldn't keep us from any and all harm -- our paychecks and property will increase and we'll see all sorts of evidence like that, if God really loves us.  It's dirty.

3.  Last, how would it feel to be taken to look on all the world and and be told, "If you bow down and worship me, I'll give you all of it."

Ultimate power and ownership.  Authority.  The ability to rule and make things however Jesus would like.  Lots of folks point to this and say it's no real temptation at all because these things all belonged to Jesus already.  He was already King of kings and Lord of lords, so why bow to Satan?

It's true, but for how much of Jesus' life did he walk around virtually homeless, not wealthy, and pretty well unknown to his people?  I doubt Jesus wanted to hit the lottery, but I bet he wished people would listen to him.  Knowing that he held the way for them to eternal life, and to be with him forever; knowing that he came to redeem all things; knowing how much it took for God to come to earth in the flesh, how frustrating might it be for Jesus to still be mistreated by the Jewish rulers, disliked (or even hated) by his own people, and unable to convince so many to listen let alone believe??? 

Not only that, but God's method for Jesus to save things was for him to suffer and die.  Here, it's like Satan offers him what is already rightly his, only an easier way.  He can just grab the throne of the world without all that bloodshed.  That's heavy stuff.

Think about the questions it might raise in him, and the ones that rise in us in deepest temptation:  "Do you matter?  Does God love you?  Have you any power over anything?  Why suffer or be uncomfortable?  What are you worth?"

Letting those questions sink in, let's go back to our original picture:  our hearts as the glass that we've tried to clean all the bad stuff out of.  Do we think that an empty glass will stand up to assaults like these we see with Jesus?

Won't work for me.  Not if we're made to be filled by something, something that gives us a sense of purpose, direction, relationship and value.  That empty glass looks vulnerable.  And I think we'll search for something to go in it.  And i think most often it is always easier to just refill the glass with some of that same old green water.  The very stuff we just poured out.  It's just easy to dip right back into it...we're used to these things, they feel good or are familiar, we're even addicted.  When life is tough or scary, and the itch starts to rise within us, or we have unanswered questions, that polluted green water is better than nothing.  Fill'er up.

But clearly Jesus shows us an alternative.  He was certainly filled differently.  I guess by the most clear, fresh, satisfying water we could pour into a glass.  The Spirit of God.  Jesus' connection with the Spirit (I mean, geez, they're one in the same) is the ground he stood on to beat temptation.

Because he knew God's heart, Jesus was familiar enough with God's word to defy Satan (quoting the Old Testament in all three temptations).  Because he knew God's heart, Jesus could correct the way Satan tried to trap him even using Scripture (quoting Psalm 91 to dare Jesus to throw himself down).  Because he knew God's heart, because he is Christ Jesus and God's embodied Word, Jesus not only quoted Scripture, but he spoke a command:  "Away from me, Satan!"  And what did Satan do?  He left.  Because he had to.  Because he has no power over Jesus' authority.

For all the malice and schemes of evil, Jesus is victorious because he is filled up, he is intimately connected to God's heart.  The question for us for Lent might not be, “What do we give up?” or even “What good deed do we do?”  I think the question is just, “Do we want to know God more?”  Do we want to?  Do we believe we can no God more?  Is God the kind to reveal God’s self?  Absolutely.  Then what holds us back except our own desire?

These 40 days can be time to pursue God and be filled freshly with something new, and clean, and fulfilling, the way we were made to be. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sorry, that's not for the faint of heart I guess.  Don't get whoozy.  I don't have a clue what this guy's hand went through, and no, it's not mine.  But it's the closest thing I could find to what happened to the pointer finger on my right hand a couple of years ago now.  It all started one Friday afternoon, I try to consistently take Fridays off and it's become tradition to get up a game of touch football at Winthrop.  So I was defending my man one play, and the quarterback drilled it in to him, so I stuck a hand in real quick to break up the pass.

Next thing I know my hand is numb and I can't move my finger, so I look down and things look not too different from that picture above -- my right pointer finger was jacked up at the knuckle, sticking almost straight up, yarrrgh.  The guys run over, and we've always been taught to try to "pull out" a dislocated finger, so one dude grabbed my arm and another the finger and yanked on it some.  No good.  I'm feeling pretty funky by then, so another guy drove me to the doctor's office.

You can imagine the different feelings at that point.  I'm getting the whole red-face, hot flashes, "every time I look at my finger I feel like puking" deal.  The pain comes in waves.  Weird.  So the doctor proceeds to stick several needles into the knuckle (real weird to watch), and to try to jerk the finger back into place.  No good.  So we head to the orthopedic surgeon.  And this guy knows that if he can't pull the finger back right, he'll be the one to do the surgery, so he's pretty motivated to yank it straight.  And he wasn't a small guy.  And my dad was there by then and said it looked like somebody trying to snap a chicken bone.  When he gets done wailing on the finger, it's still no good, and about 45 minutes later the surgery has been done and all is well.

Good happy ending.  But that's one of my better personal physical trauma stories.  And some of you have been through physical trauma that blows that away, car crashes and military combat and injury and disease, and more.  Still deeper, yes, many of us know other mental, emotional, spiritual trauma that blows some of that away.  But I tell the story, and invite you to carefully consider your own, because I wonder if there's not a common message through all those experiences.  There was a clear message from my body to me during the finger thing:  whatever you do, if you can, you must try to avoid ever experiencing this again.

The nausea and all the rest made that clear.  And it's just the way our bodies work, eh?  I'm talking about that instinct that we all have towards self-preservation, keeping ourselves alive and well.  Even in more minor ways, you see that force at work, when our bodies communicate to us to take care.

One huge example is just pain.  Pain isn't something we generally enjoy.  We don't want to repeat it.  And it's a tool for our bodies to tell us things.  Our workout/athletic people know that muscle soreness indicates progress, and it also signals time to rest; or deeper pain signals injury so that we have to let things heal up.  Stomach aches, cramps, headaches often let us know something is up in our bodies that needs to be addressed.  Sunburn screams, "Get me some aloe and 60 SPF!"  Kids learn not to touch the live stove-top because it freakin' hurts.

Pain has its purpose.  If we ignore it over and over, then some of those issues blow up into life-and-death situations.  Pain is key to self-preservation.  And it's a good instinct.

But can we agree that at some point the instinct can do us harm?  At some point, I bet our desire to avoid trauma and preserve ourselves can limit our fullness of life.  And by all means it can become a hindrance to our connection to God.

I think Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 6:24-34 this time.  We have a passage that focuses on one big aspect of self-preservation -- worry.  For those of us who, whether we say it out loud or not, hope that we can avoid all sorts of bad things and protect ourselves if we just cover all our bases, and make enough plans, and crank our brains every hour of the day.  Worrying.

We can hear a challenge in Jesus' words.  He challenges one of the biggest traumas we all spend time fretting over, death, pretty much saying that for all our worry over our basic life needs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.), do we add any time to our lives?  Negative.  And he challenges the next big "trauma" for most of us.  Not just if we're going to stay alive, but how we are.  Not just will I have enough to eat, but what am I going to eat.  He talks like many of us treat discomfort like a great trauma.  Like life just isn't living if we don't experience it just right.  Those ideas aren't new for us, Americans spend a great deal of time confessing our love for comfort and all the ways we ought to do something about it.  It's a common topic for Jesus, who goes as far as to say we can be like the wealthy who have so much in abundance they build huge barns, while their neighbors starve to death.  That's strong language.

And it's strong here, too.  Remember how Jesus started out?  He said:

"No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money."

To frame things up, even with something as everyday as worrying, Jesus talks in terms of being mastered.  And he compares it to the choice between masters.  God and Money.  What does that choice look like?  Well, it's easier to see for me when we consider why the NIV capitalizes the word "Money" and why other translations use the word from the Greek, mammon.  Because Mammon, translated as wealth or money, was often treated more like a person unto himself in those days.  People could actually worship little idols and gods called "Mammon" in hopes their fortunes would change.  And those who ran after wealth/security and held it above all else were said to bow to the altar of Mammon.  To get a feel for this character, I did a Google image search, and here's some of how artists make it out (not for the faint of heart):

There's a theme in the pictures with Mammon.  Yes, there's dollars and gold and Euros.  There's excess, he's a swollen, disgusting thing.  And there's also the sense that he is worshipped or exalted.  Either he's lounging on a throne, or we even have images of people fawning all over him.  Bowing at his feet, coming to him asking for security, safety, success, and above all the avoiding of trauma, even just the trauma of discomfort.  Now these are just some artists' ideas, but Jesus talks in similar language.  Strong language.  As if this is the reality of the choice in front of us.  That something as simple as worrying, something that we all deal with, that can seem a little harmless, is connected to choosing a master.  Because Mammon will promise to ease our fears, satisfy our comforts, and help us avoid trauma, if we just let him rule our hearts.

We don't usually think of our choices that way, a choosing of masters.  Most of us don't like thinking that way, many don't want to be mastered at all and insist we are the masters of our domain.  Jesus paints the picture as a choice between something like that above, and the one, true, living God.  Because we are going to set up systems in our lives to deal with discomfort, and fear, and the unknown.  Which will it be?

And for those of us who already want to turn our backs on worry, the question might be, how?  How do we turn it off?  Seriously?  Is it as simple as a choice?  How do we override the underlying instinct that drives our worry?  How do we become less obsessed with avoiding trauma and making sure we stay safe and comfortable?

I'd say every one of us already knows how.  We do it all the time, we're good at it.  Because when our bodies start to tell us to slow down, or take a break, or heal, do we all listen and stop immediately?  At the first sign of pain or soreness or, heck, even sunburn, do we all do a very good job taking care of ourselves right away?  NO.  When we want something bad enough, we work on in spite of discomfort.  When our bodies are saying, "Stop, you fool,"  we sometimes march right on and make them submit.  We hear more drastic stories of mothers lifting cars off of babies, and people charging into burning buildings.  Human beings are notorious for disregarding themselves when something more important is at stake.

So I hear Jesus putting that kind of choice to us.  And not only putting it to us, but we see him take it up himself.

After all, this is God in the flesh.  And is there any good reason that God should have ever had to know the trauma of pain?  Any good reason God, the God of All Things, should have ever had to experience the trauma of death?  No!  Except that God saw our lives at stake, and his love moved him.  Because some of us might believe that there are things worth enduring some trauma for.  And all of us get a chance to choose, even to choose our master.