Tuesday, October 14, 2008

God Will Be the Judge

(Read Romans 3: 9-18, 21-26 and John 3: 14-21)

Apart from Jesus Christ, not one of us is righteous. We do the best we can, and sometimes, we succeed in abiding by God’s commands; other times, we fail. More than anything, God wants us to receive his love and spread that love to our brothers and sisters in the world. When we live and act in love, the world becomes a more beautiful place, resembling the kingdom of heaven. When we live and act in fear and judgment, we contribute to the suffering of the world.

From a human perspective, we consider some people to be more righteous than others. If we were the judge, most of us would agree that Mother Teresa is more righteous than Charles Manson. Nelson Mandela is more righteous than Saddam Hussein. And Paul Newman is more righteous than OJ Simpson.

In Romans 3, we hear what the unrighteous are like: They are not wise, and they do not worship God whole-heartedly. The unrighteous have turned away from God, serving self and mammon, slaves to pride and power. The unrighteous speak words of deceit against the children of God. They lie; they threaten, and they curse and accuse anyone who is in the way of their distorted, self-serving agendas. “They are quick to hurt and kill, [leaving] ruin and destruction wherever they go” (Romans 3: 15-16). They do not know the path of peace or have reverence for our loving God.

Perhaps you have been the victim of an unrighteous person, someone who did you wrong or violated you because of their own sickness and selfishness. Have you been able to forgive? Do you want justice? What would justice look like to you?

In one of the more bazaar and interesting stories of our time, a woman took justice into her own hands. I’m speaking of the sensational news story of Lorena Bobbit.

“On the night of June 23, 1993, John Bobbitt arrived at [his and his wife, Lorena’s] apartment intoxicated after a night of partying and, according to testimony by Lorena in a 1994 court hearing, raped his wife. Afterwards, Lorena got out of bed and went to the kitchen for a drink of water. According to an article in the National Women's Studies Association Journal, in the kitchen she noticed a carving knife on the counter and "memories of past domestic abuses raced through her head." Grabbing the knife, Lorena entered the bedroom where John was asleep; and she proceeded to cut off more than half of his penis.

After assaulting her husband, Lorena left the apartment, with the severed penis. After driving a short while, she rolled down the car window and threw the penis into a field. Realizing the severity of the incident, she stopped and called 911. After an exhaustive search, the penis was located, packed in ice, and brought to the hospital where John was located. The penis was re-attached…and Lorena was taken into custody.

During the trial, the couple revealed details of their volatile relationship and the events leading up to the assault. Lorena stated that John sexually, physically, and emotionally abused her during their marriage. She also stated that John flaunted his infidelities, and forced her to have an abortion. Several witnesses provided testimony supporting Lorena's claims.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lorena_Bobbit).

Many people who heard of Lorena’s story empathized with her. After hearing about John’s abuse and rape of his wife, they understood why she did what she did. In fact, after only 7 hours of deliberation, the jury in the case found Lorena “not guilty” due to temporary insanity. She spent just 45 days in a mental health facility, and then was released.

In this world, we want the unrighteous (John Bobbit) to be held accountable for their actions, for their sins. And why shouldn’t they be? Justice must be served. Murders, rapists, child molesters deserve some sort of punished for the crimes they have committed.

Not all of the unrighteous are so blatantly violent. Many simply poison God’s kingdom with their prejudice and hate, their lies and their betrayal. Many unrighteous don’t break the laws of our society so much as they break the laws of love.

Everyday, in houses that look just like ours, in places of employment just like ours, in schools just like the ones we have attended, even in churches just like this one, God’s command for us to live in righteousness is being broken.

What’s really infuriating is when the perpetrator is not held accountable, receives no punishment, or is set free.

In the bestselling book titled, The Shack, Mack, who is the main character, cannot get over his daughter’s tragic death, nor his fixation with the man who killed her. He exists in what he calls The Great Sadness. He is consumed with both guilt and anger at what happened.

The story goes that Mack had taken his youngest 3 children camping for the weekend. Josh and Kate were adolescents, but Missy was still a child. They had a great weekend of fun until the last morning.

Josh and Kate went out onto the lake to canoe before leaving, while Mack and Missy stayed back at the campsite. Once out on the water, Kate joyously reached up her paddle to wave to Mack, but this simple, innocent action caused the canoe to roll over. Mack ran to the shore to see if his kids were okay. Kate popped up, but Josh didn’t. And then, only his legs did. Mack knew something was wrong, so he did what any father would do, he plunged into the cold water.

Mack quickly found Josh, whose life vest strap had gotten caught in the canoe’s webbing. Josh was panicking and it was impossible for Mack to get near him enough to release him, so he did the only other thing he could think of, he flipped the canoe back over, an accomplishment propelled by pure adrenaline. When he did that, Josh came to the surface, upheld by his life vest. And his life was saved.

Mack breathed a sigh of relief. Disaster had been averted, that is until he and Josh and Kate got back to the campsite to find little Missy missing.

Details ensue (and it’s a good book so I would recommend that you read it), but the result is this: Missy had been abducted. An all out search lead only to a shack in some remote woods, and the only thing of notice in that shack was a stain of blood on the floor. Three years later, Mack is sitting in his living room cloaked in The Great Sadness, thinking of his little girl who was never found.

And thinking of the monster who killed his little girl and altered his family’s life forever.

As you might imagine, Mack is tormented by guilt for not taking proper watch over his youngest daughter, and he is seething with anger at the man who did this to his family. Mack wants Missy’s murderer to be caught, tried and imprisoned. And when his earthly life is over, Mack wants him to receive divine punishment for what he’s done and rot in hell.

The story unfolds in a mystical way as the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, come to meet Mack and heal him. There are many very interesting conversations that take place, but what I want to tell you about is a conversation that Mack has with the Holy Spirit, who in this book, takes the form of a woman named Sarayu

Understandingly, Mack blames God for what happened to his daughter. He is angry at God for letting the murderer get away. He questions God’s love and goodness and power. So Sarayu offers Mack the opportunity to be the judge.

She says, “If you are able to judge God so easily, then you certainly can judge the world.”

Now if Sarayu had offered Mack his daughter’s abductor to judge, the choice would have been easy. Mack would have sentenced him to a life of misery and damnation.

But Sarayu puts Mack to the test. She says, “You must choose two of your children to spend eternity in God’s new heavens and new earth, but only two.”

Mack has 5 children so he stares at Sarayu in disbelief.

She says to him, “You must choose three of your children to spend eternity in hell.”

Mack can’t believe what he is hearing, so Sarayu explains, “I am only asking you to do something you believe God does. [God] knows every person ever conceived, and he knows them so much deeper and clearer than you will ever know your own children. [God] loves each one according to his knowledge of the being of that son or daughter. You believe [God] will condemn most to an eternity of torment, away from His presence and apart from His love. Is that not true?”

Mack responds, “I suppose I do. I’ve just never thought about it like this. I just assumed that somehow God could do that. Talking about hell was always sort of an abstract conversation, not about anyone that I truly cared about.”

“So you suppose, then, that God does this easily, but you cannot? Come now, Mackenzie. Which three of your five children will you sentence to hell? You are the judge, Mackenzie, and you must choose.”

“I don’t want to be the judge.” There was no way that Mack could sentence any of his children to an eternity in hell for any reason, no matter what they had done. They were his kids; he would always love them no matter what.

“I can’t do this,” Mack said softly.

“You must,” Sarayu replied.

“I can’t do this,” he said louder and more vehemently.

“You must,” Sarayu said again.

“I…will…not…do…this!” Mack yelled, his blood boiled hot inside him.

“You must,” she whispered.

“I can’t. I can’t. I won’t!” he screamed. Pleading, he said, “Could I go instead? If you need someone to torture for eternity, I’ll go in their place. Would that work? Could I do that?” Mack fell at Sarayu’s feet, crying and begging. “Please, let me go for my children, please, I would be happy to…Please, I am begging you. Please…Please…”

“Mackenzie. Mackenzie,” she whispered, and her words came like a splash of cold water on a brutally hot day. Her hands gently touched his cheeks as she lifted him to his feet. Looking at her though blurring tears, he could see that her smile was radiant. “Now you sound like Jesus. You have judged well.”

“But I haven’t judged anything,” Mack offered in confusion.

“Oh, but you have. You have judged them worthy of love, even if it cost you everything. That is how Jesus loves…And now you know [God’s] heart, who loves all his children perfectly.”

(Above is recorded dialogue from William Paul Young. The Shack. Los Angeles, CA: Windblown Media, 2007. Pg. 161-163).

Mack had never thought of Missy’s murderer as being a child of God, but his experience with Sarayu helped him and us to see what God’ perspective is like. God loves us all so much that he would do anything for us. In fact, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life… God did not send [Jesus] into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17).

God doesn’t need or want to torture anyone for eternity, even those who have committed the most heinous of crimes. It is difficult for us to understand this because we don’t see the unrighteous of this world as our very own children. But God does.

We want the unrighteous, those awful people who destroy others lives and our lives, to be held accountable and for justice to be served. We expect them to pay for their sins.

But God wants salvation for all people. Salvation begins in this life and comes to completion in the next. As we sang in the hymn, “To God Be the Glory” this morning, “the vilest offender who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.”

The Gospel truth is that when a murderer or rapist or child molester stands before God and asks for forgiveness in Christ’s name, God will offer that person perfect justice. And perfect justice to God is mercy. God will forgive. God does the same for any believer who has sinned, violated, or betrayed us in any number of ways.

You see, when God judges us, he sees Jesus. As I said in the beginning, apart from Jesus Christ, not one of us is righteous. But in Jesus Christ, we all are.

One day, all of us will go before the judgment seat. With Christ in our hearts, God will look at us and proclaim his judgment with a kiss. And as the gavel falls, God will announce his sentence for us: we will be granted eternal life.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Triune God is a God of action.

The three persons of the Trinity are named the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and are also often referred to as the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. As persons, they are not inanimate objects, but they are beings of action. Their names identify the actions in which they are involved. The Father/Creator creates. The Son/Redeemer redeems. The Holy Spirit/Sustainer sustains, but that’s not all they do.

What I’m trying to say is that our God does not sit around on a throne in a place called heaven, although when we think of God, this is what many of us imagine. Or perhaps we imagine the physical person of Jesus like we’ve seen him in various paintings and pictures. But when we conceive of God, our first thoughts need not be what God looks like. Our first thoughts should be about what God is doing. For our God is a God of action.

God is very busy loving, healing, comforting, listening, speaking, orchestrating, providing, responding, growing, restoring, and coming to the rescue of us, God’s children. God is not static, but is tirelessly working to transform our lives and redeem the world.

It is strange then that Christians have such a hard time with change since God is in the changing business. God is into movement, forward motion. God wants humanity to grow and evolve, which means that when we resist change, we resist God.

We are all most comfortable when we are around that which is familiar. God knows that and since God loves us, God will never change too much too fast for us to handle. But God will change our lives, and God will do it by taking away and giving anew. Embrace it. The in, the out. The ebb, the flow. The new, the old. That’s how God works. That’s how God perfects our hearts in love and renews the creation.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Darkness Will Not Overcome Us

(Read Psalm 88:1-9a, 13-18 and John 1:1-5)

In an article found on the Mental Health Ministries website, I found the question raised: How many families in your church have a loved one who struggles with mental health problems?

If our congregation is representative of the U.S. population (and it probably is), one in four households will struggle with someone’s mental health problems over their lifetime. That includes schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and various anxiety disorders. (By Carlene Hill Byron. “1 in 4 households in your church is afraid to tell you this secret.” http://www.mentalhealthministries.net/links_resources/articles/carkene.pdf).

No one is immune to the dark cloud that is mental illness. The individual suffers; family and friends suffer; work suffers. Life itself becomes suffering. For the people who actually have mental health problems, darkness is the perfect word to describe the place where their minds exist. You feel lost, alone, confused, blind. You feel unlike yourself, like you don’t even know who you are anymore, like no one understands you. You feel anxious, hopeless, impatient. You dwell in a place that is cut off from the light of God, and all the good things that God has given to you are unappreciated by your mind.

Psalm 88 sounds like a man or woman who is suffering from mental illness: “God, you’re my last chance. I spend the night on my knees before you. I’m written off as a lost cause, a hopeless case. Abandoned. I’m a black hole in oblivion. I’m caught in a maze and can’t find my way out, blinded by tears of pain and frustration. Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear? For as long as I remember I’ve been hurting. You have made lover and neighbor alike dump me; the only friend I have left is Darkness.”

That’s what it feels like. Terrible, hopeless. Consumed by darkness.

Some other facts for you about mental health disorders:

One in seventeen Americans lives with a serious mental illness, and about one in ten children have a serious mental or emotional disorder.

About 2.4 million Americans, or 1.1 percent of the adult population, live with schizophrenia.

Bipolar disorder affects 5.7 million American adults, approximately 2.6 percent of the adult population per year.

Major depressive disorder affects 6.7 percent of adults, or about 14.8 million American adults. And According to the 2004 World Health Report, this is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada in ages between 15 to 44.

Anxiety disorders, which include panic disorder, obsessive‐compulsive disorder (OCD), post‐traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized anxiety disorder, and phobias, affect about 18.1 percent of adults, an estimated 40 million individuals. Anxiety disorders frequently co‐occur with depression or addiction disorders.

An estimated 5.2 million adults have co‐occurring mental health and addiction disorders.

Of adults using homeless services, thirty‐one percent reported having a combination of mental health and addiction conditions.

These statistics come to you from the National Alliance on Mental Health. http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=About_Mental_Illness&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=53155

Mental illness is a gospel concern because social ills like homelessness, unemployment, addiction and imprisonment, often result from mental illness. Christians are called to care for the poor and visit the imprisoned. We are called to help our brothers and sisters who are unemployed or suffering from addiction. Rather than just treat their symptoms, we can work to alleviate the cause of many of their problems when we treat mental illness.

If you look at the faces of your friends and brothers and sisters in the Lord seated around you this Sunday, it is certain that some of them are hurting from problems that arise because of mental health disorders or mental illness.

It’s sad to think about their struggles or your struggles, but what compounds the problem is that no one is talking. We are afraid to tell each other about our mental health problems, and we are afraid to get help. It’s not only the person with mental illness who suffers; it’s everyone they are close to.

A study where people ranked disabilities by their “acceptability” returned these results, in order—most acceptable was: obvious physical disabilities, then blindness, deafness, a jail record, learning disabilities, and alcoholism. The least acceptable of all disabilities: mental illness. (By Carlene Hill Byron. “1 in 4 households in your church is afraid to tell you this secret.” http://www.mentalhealthministries.net/links_resources/articles/carkene.pdf).

Why? I’m not sure. I grew up in a household where mental health and illness was talked about without any stigmas attached. As many of you know, my father is a psychiatrist. He often talked to us about the nature of his work, and also, patients called our home day and night. I would talk to them sometimes. They had problems that my dad, the doctor, was trying to treat. I knew sickness happened to the body. I also knew it happened to the mind. The brain is a sensitive organ, and when its normal function is disrupted, the effects can be life-altering for the people involved.

But most people do not grow up so accustomed to the pervasive problem of mental illness, and most people do not understand its causes.

That’s why I am talking about this today. I believe that everyone here is affected by problems that occur in the brain. Everyone. There is nothing shameful about it. It’s not to be hidden. It’s a fact of life like high cholesterol and high blood pressure, like heart attacks and strokes, like diabetes and cancer.

The problem is that the negative stigma around mental illness remains. Many people still believe that mental illness is their fault. Many people still believe that mental health problems only happen to people who are weak or unfaithful, to people of poor character or low intelligence.

Such ideas are completely false. Mental illness is a bio-chemical brain disorder that can happen to anyone, any race, class, gender, age, nationality, etc. Whether wealthy or poor, intelligent or dumb, motivated or lazy, faithful or not, no one is immune. Mental illness can also be exacerbated by unfortunate or stressful life circumstances.

If you don't suffer from mental illness and are not close with anyone who does, you should fall on your knees in gratitude and thank God.

The truth is, all of our minds are on a continuum of healthy to unhealthy. Sometimes, we can live normally with the way our brains work; othertimes, we can’t. Mental health and illness exists on a continuum of severity. There’s not that great of a distance between feeling really nervous and having your first panic attack. There's not that great of a distance between feeling down and unmotivated to being diagnosed with clinical depression. There's not that great of a distance between being neat, orderly, controlling and being obsessive.

But there is good news! Great news in fact! As Michael Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness states, “Simply put, treatment works, if you can get it.” (Michael J. Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of NAMI National,Grading the States, 2006 12 Nami Fact Sheet

With proper treatment, including therapy and taking the right medications, most people who live with mental illness can significantly reduce the impact of their illness and lead a healthy, happy, and productive life, surrounded by loved ones who are also healthy, happy and satisfied.

I recently read two quotes of a similar nature. One is: “We are as sick as our secrets.” The other is: “We are as lonely as our secrets.” Both are true. Secrets dwell in the darkness, and the darkness gives them their power over us. The darkness makes us sick, and the darkness makes us lonely.

All secrets, especially those concerning our mental wellness or lack thereof, need to be exposed to the light. The light brings healing to our sickness and love to our loneliness.

It’s a scary thing to do. It feels incredibly vulnerable, but when you suffer with mental illness, and you make the choice to confide in family, friends, your pastor, and mental health professionals, the light begins to break through the darkness, and change begins to happen. As the Gospel of John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

On several occassions, Jesus responded to the mentally ill. Lacking medical knowledge, he explained it as casting out demons, but their healing was no different than making the blind to see or the criple walk.

Darkness is no match for Christ’s light.

So now , let us offer to Christ our darkness so that he might bring his light into our midst and heal us.

But prayer is not the end of all this; it is only the beginning.

Today, I invite you to give up any negative stigmas or judgments you have held about mental illness. I invite you to talk to family, friends, professionals, and pastors. Let the secrets out of the darkness because the darkness only gives them more power. It is the light that saves us all.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Our God is Faithful No Matter What We Think or Feel

(Read Exodus 17:1-7 and Psalm 139:1-18)

Human emotion is not an adequate indicator of truth.

Or said in another way: Just because you feel something does not mean that something is true.

For example, one day you might feel fat. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you are fat. The next day you might feel like you look good, thin even. On both days, your weight might be exactly the same. How you feel does not always match up with reality.

Another example. One day, you might feel like you don’t have enough money. There’s the house payment, the car insurance, the oil prices are up, groceries, Christmas is coming... And its getting to you, and you’re feeling like you don’t have enough money to pay for it all.

But a day or two later, without anything changing, you might feel like: I can handle this. First, I’ll pay the mortgage, then the car insurance, then fill the oil tank….We’re going to have enough! You might say to yourself. These are two totally different ways of perceiving life, even though the circumstance remains the same. It's important to know that the head and the heart can be deceiving.

Too often, we react to everything we think and feel like they are definitive statements from God. We often draw conclusions from our thoughts and feelings that are not true!

We might not say these things aloud, but this is what goes on in our inner dialogue:

I feel unlovable; therefore, no one must love me.
I feel hurt; therefore, someone must have done something wrong to hurt me.
I feel alone, therefore, I must not have any friends.

While the feelings may be real in the above statements and need to be acknowledged, the conclusions are not always true. You can feel fat and be thin. You can feel poor and be rich. You can feel unlovable and be loved. You can feel hurt and no one is trying to hurt you. You can feel alone and there might be many people who are there for you.

Our emotions and thoughts are not always adequate indicators of the truth.

Look at the Israelites. Here they are again, in the desert doubting the existence of God. No, not the existence of God, but whether God existed with and for them. The Israelites are hungry; they are thirsty, and because of this suffering, they feel abandoned; they feel like God is not with them. Because of how they feel about being in the desert, they question God’s faithfulness. “Is God among us or not?" They ask.

But just because they feel abandoned does not mean they are. In fact, God is there for them, providing. In today’s text, the Israelite’s are thirsty, and God gives them water to drink (and in a miraculous way!!). Not long ago, they were hungry, and God rained down manna from heaven. And before that, they were slaves in Egypt, and God found them a leader to take them out of that horrible situation and opened up the Red Sea so they could escape. God has proved God’s faithfulness time and time again to Israel.

And so I’ll say it again, emotion and thought can be deceptive. Not always, but can be. The Israelites are doubting God’s faithfulness because of how they feel, when really it is their faithfulness that is in question.

True faithfulness does not waver. Not in good times or in bad. All relationships go through ups and downs, feeling closer-feeling distant, good phases and not so good phases and downright bad phases. Feeling like God is answering your prayers or not answering your prayers. Feelings waver, but faithfulness does not have to.

God is truly faithful, so God never wavers in being among us. There is never a time that God says, “Forget these people.” In the Hebrew Scriptures, God made a covenant through Abraham, and has never wavered from that covenant. In the New Testament, God made a new covenant to the Gentiles through water and the Spirit, through Jesus Christ, and has never wavered from that covenant.

When we read the Bible, we see that God has repeatedly come to the rescue of God's people. Today, the Israelites received water in the desert, yesterday they received manna, and before that God helped them to escape from slavery.

Even moreso, we know that God is faithful by coming to be with us in the person of Jesus Christ. To show us just how invested God was, Jesus came to earth as merely a man, emptying himself of his glory, to be with us in our suffering and to suffer for our salvation.

After Jesus was crucified, raised from the dead and ascended into heaven, he knew that we would miss him and feel alone again, so he promised us he would not abandon us. He said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you…The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14). Jesus said he would be with us each moment and forever as the Holy Spirit, and his parting words in the gospel of Matthew are: “And be assured I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.”

God is always among us. God is faithful and steadfast, even if we feel or think otherwise.

Just because something has gone bad or wrong in our lives, does not mean God has left us. God is with us when times are bad, and God is with us when times are good. I guess it’s easier to feel God’s presence and believe God is with us when life is easy and enjoyable, but the point is: God never leaves us, even when we try to say that he has.

Actually, we can’t make God go away no matter how hard we try.

There is a Psalm titled the inescapable God (Psalm 139). It says:

If we ascend to heaven, God is there.
If we plumit to the pit, God is there.
If we fly off to the farthest reaches of the sea, God is there.
The truth of the matter is, no matter where you are, God is with you there.

No matter what you are going through in life, whether you feel God or not, the truth is this: Our God is faithful, steadfast and true, always has been and always will be.