Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Stepping Out of the Darkness and Into the Light!

(Read John 3:14-21 and Ephesians 5: 3-14)

We all have secrets: fears, regrets, hopes, beliefs, fantasies, betrayals, humiliations. We may not always recognize them but they are part of us – like the dreams we can’t always recall in the morning light” (3). These are the introductory words of Frank Warren in his book, PostSecret, published in 2005. Let me tell you how this book came to be.

Warren began collecting postcards as part of a community art project, and each postcard was an original drawn and lettered by an anonymous individual who revealed a secret, and then sent that secret to him. Warren left blank postcards in galleries and libraries and all over town. He developed a website to display them on. These were the instructions: “You are invited to anonymously contribute a secret to a group art project. Your secret can be a regret, fear, betrayal, desire, confession, or childhood humiliation. Reveal anything – as long as it is true and you have never shared it with anyone before. Be brief. Be legible. Be creative.”[1]

It was a brilliant idea with a humble beginning, and the world caught on.

Why? Because Warren is right. We all have secrets. Or at least, we all hide in some way. We hide our actions; we hide our memories and betrayals; we hide our feelings, our desires, our regrets. Sometimes, this is appropriate and healthy. “It’s none of your business,” we say. But sometimes, we hide because we are afraid to be vulnerable or rejected. Sometimes, we hide because we are ashamed of what we think, do, feel, remember. Sometimes, we hide because we know we are being unhealthy or destructive. We keep a part of ourselves or our lives a secret because we fear that if people found out, they would judge us. We fear that if they really knew what was going on, they wouldn’t accept us. We fear that they won’t love us anymore.

In Biblical terms, when we hide or keep secrets because we are sinning or doing what is evil in God’s sight, we are dwelling in darkness. When we are keeping other people’s secrets or trying to protect them because they are sinning or doing what is evil in God’s sight, we are also in the darkness. Sometimes, we are in darkness because our thinking is so backward and contrary to the God of love. We are so confused or lost. Other times, we are in darkness because we are in denial of the truth.

Dwelling in darkness or hiding is not as simple as keeping big secrets from the people you love or know, although, that is a part of it. Dwelling in darkness can simply, and also crucially be, not telling the people you know, work with, serve with, love how you really feel or what you really think, what you hope for and what you feel regret about.

Many of us justify keeping secrets, telling little white lies, hiding certain thoughts and feeling because we don’t want to upset people or we don’t want them to be upset with us. But the bottom line is, when we do these things, we are refusing to be true, to be real and authentic. And God wants us to be true, to be real and to be authentic.

John 3:19-20 says that we are judged by God for this: “that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” We don’t even have to be that evil to hide from the light. For most of us, all it takes is being human, which is to be flawed, vulnerable, sinful. And because we are afraid and ashamed of being human, we hide from the light that can set us free and heal us.

Feeling like we have to keep our actions, thoughts, beliefs, memories, etc a secret is a universal feeling. So what is so amazing about Frank Warren’s postcard project is that thousands upon thousands of people responded to it. The project took on a life of its own way beyond Warren’s expectations. It’s success must have had something to do with the fact that people could be anonymous, and also, that so many people had something they really wanted to get off their chests, so many people wanted out of the darkness and into the light.

Some of the secrets on the postcards are positive:

“I believe I will accomplish something truly great in this lifetime. I am going to be 53 tomorrow” (40).
“I am so grateful to the psychiatrist I saw when I was nineteen, who told me I would be fine again. He saved my life” (41).
“I still pray for you every night, and I probably always will” (204).
“I kicked cocaine for her” (?).

But most are about people’s pain:

“I don’t know what I want but I don’t want this…” (16).
“All of my life people have told me I’m not special…I’m very easy to replace. After 43 years it has finally sunk in. I finally get it” (86).
“I wish my parents said I love you…I can’t remember hearing them say it ever” (105).
“Three years ago, I tried to kill myself…Now I’m 18 and people say that I’m happy…But I still want to die…” (40).
“I can’t tell my mom about the rape…She wouldn’t want to know. And it kills me” (37).
“Honestly, I’m glad your uncle died, because he molested me that time in the 7th grade that I spent the night at your house… He told me that I liked it. I hope he likes it in his grave” (117).

Many contain a confession:

“I give decaf to customers who are rude to me” (116).
“There was no deer. I was just driving too fast” (36).
“People think I’ve stopped lying…but I’ve just gotten better at it” (?).
“I started shooting heroin again” (65).
“I wished on a dandelion for my husband to die” (68).
“I feel guilty about sometimes wishing that I didn’t have children. I don’t dare say it out loud for fear I might trigger something bad happening to them” (126).
“He’s been in prison for two years because of what I did. Nine more to go” (20).

A few even have to do with God or church:

“Finding God is proving difficult” (54).
“I miss feeling close to God” (141).
“As a child I would sit in church and pray that the lights would fall on people, so I wouldn’t have to be there” (drawing of people running out of a church yelling, “Help!”) (130).
“I tell people I’m an atheist, but I believe I’m going to hell” (143).
“I had gay sex at church camp three times” (141).
“I tell people that I don’t believe in God, when really, I just refuse to worship a god that would let my grandfather hurt me like he did” (68).

A couple are very wise:

“Dear Frank, How I wish I could hug everyone and tell them that it’s ok. It’s ok to be scared and angry and hurt and selfish. It’s part of being human” (108-9).

And this next one hits the nail on the head. You know why so many people responded to Frank Warren and sent in their secrets? Because it is pain and hurt and torture to live in the darkness. One wise person wrote:

“Sometimes just the act of sharing a painful secret can relieve some of the pain” (70-1).

Whatever can relieve some of the pain of this life is worth doing.

Scripture tells us and Jesus calls us to come out of the darkness and to expose ourselves to the light. There is nothing that God will not forgive us for. And when we open ourselves up and allow the light to shine upon us, we find that healing and liberation come into our lives. Warren spoke to this affect when he wrote, “After seeing thousands of secrets, I understand that sometimes when we believe we are keeping a secret, that secret is actually keeping us” (2). To hide and keep secrets is imprisonment; it’s captivity; it’s death. To speak your truth is liberation and life.

Perhaps you know, or maybe you don’t know, how freeing it is to confess your ‘secrets’ to someone that you trust. When you do and that person tells you, “It’s ok. I love you,” grace washes over you. I can remember instances when I’ve done it, and the feeling of acceptance, the feeling that I can totally be myself and I am still loved, is amazing. I felt very alive and not afraid or ashamed at all. It’s when we are really willing to open up and offer our deepest truths, no matter what they are, that we enter into truly intimate and meaningful relationships.

On the last page of PostSecret, Warren wrote, “I like to believe that whenever a painful secret ends its trip to my mailbox, a much longer personal journey of healing is beginning—for all of us” (276).

If you are looking for healing and freedom, and who isn’t? Then it’s time to step out of the darkness and into the light.

One way of doing this is to reveal ourselves to the people that we love and trust. A second way to do this is to live transparent lives, lives that we will let anyone see. To live a transparent life means that you act and speak in ways that if anyone found out, you wouldn’t feel ashamed or bad. It means making choices that you can stand behind. It means allowing yourself to feel what you feel.

Living a transparent life doesn’t mean everyone will always like you or agree with you, but as long as you can own your choices and be secure with how you feel, none of that really matters.

My friends, we don’t belong in the darkness. “For once [we] were in darkness, but now in the Lord, [we] are light. Live as children of light” (Ephesians 5: 8). There is not one part of you that needs to be hidden. And if there is, then maybe it’s time to change. Maybe it’s time to be a person you feel good about being.

Remember that Jesus forgives, loves and embraces every part of you, the good, the bad and the ugly. And true disciples forgive, love and embrace each other.

The last postcard in PostSecret says, “I’ve given away all my secrets…and I feel so free” (275). The words are printed atop a beautiful drawing of a bird taking flight against a sky blue backdrop. Freedom and healing await all of us. It’s time to step out of the darkness and into the light!

[1] Warren, Frank. PostSecret. William Morrow: New York. 2005. jacket cover.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Faithful and Proactive Christian

Luke 6: 17-26 and Jeremiah 17: 5-10

In Luke, chapter 6, a great multitude has come to hear Jesus preach, to have their diseases healed, and their spirits cleansed. They are coming to him in need. That’s often how it works. It’s when something is wrong or we’re desperate that we do our best crying out for help. It's when we need saving that we turn to God. It’s when we’ve been drive to our knees that we pray.

Jesus is filled with joy when we come to him in our need. He listens compassionately to us when we cry for help. He reaches to catch us when we are falling. What distresses Jesus is when we don’t need him at all. Or at least we think we don’t. When we don’t rely on him. When we go elsewhere to get our needs met.

Imagine the scene of Luke 6: Jesus standing amongst the crowd on a level place. People everywhere trying to touch him because they know that he can help them. And he does help them. The Scripture says, “All in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.”

As Jesus looks around at the scene, he notices who is among the people there and who is not. The only ones who have come in search of him are the ones who need something that only he can give. So Jesus says, blessed are you who are poor because you have come to me in your need, and I will help you. He says, blessed are you who are hungry because you have come to me in your need, and I will help you. He says, blessed are you who weep because you have come to me in your need, and I will help you.

But you see, those unfortunate people who are already rich, already filled, already laughing, they don't seek out Jesus because they don't think they need him. They are self-reliant. They have what they want without God's help, and if they are thinking anything spiritual at all, it certainly isn’t that they need a Savior. While they are satisfied in the physical world, they have lost their spiritual center. Thus, they are cursed because they do not turn to God.

As disciples of Christ, it is crucial that we turn to God in every situation we find ourselves in. When we are satisfied and well, that is our opportunity to praise God and give God thanks. When we are lacking and suffering, that is our time to trust in God's mercy and ask for help. Jesus is on the side of those who suffer. He intentionally seeks out the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the weak because it is his mission to change our broken existence and heal us until we are living abundantly as God's children.

We all know this. I'm not saying anything new here. Turn to Jesus, and he will save you. Give Jesus thanks for being our Lord and Savior. In fact, I think we know this message so well that our thinking and living has become distorted in some way. The message has become a problem. Too often, Christians take a passive role in their own lives, remaining weak and unempowered, waiting for God to come to their rescue. Waiting for God to do something, to take charge. We are continually being bombarded with the message: just give it to Jesus, give it to God, and God will take care of you, as though we have no role or responsibility for our lives and the development of God's kingdom here on earth.

Think of some of our most beloved hymn titles: God Will Take Care of You, Have Thine Own Way Lord, Trust and Obey (for there's no other way, to be happy in Jesus, than to trust and obey), If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee, Only Trust Him. These songs continually affirm our reliance upon God, which is true, we do rely upon God.

My fear is that they do so in detriment to our own responsibility as the children of God. While the Christian faith is all about turning our lives over to God, we have to be careful not to slip into the kind of thinking that will strip us of all accountability for our lives. There is alot of truth to the saying: God helps those who help themselves. This is your life, and while you have given it to God, still you must be empowered to make your own decisions and active in shaping your own future. Even with a God who is Lord and Savior, you play an active role in keeping your mind, body, spirit and relationships healthy. You play an active role in creating your own destiny.

The Holy Spirit is here to guide us and empower us, and it is our job to discern the leadings of the Spirit so that we can make choices for ourselves and for others well-being. This is why God gave us free will. So that we can make choices about the kind of people we will be, about the kind of life we will lead, and about the kind of world we create. With great discernment on our part, we can use our wills to bring about God's will on this earth.

I think of Ecclesiastes 3, which says that there is a time to sow and a time to reap, a time to be born a time to die, a time to laugh and a time to cry. A time to wait for God to reveal the future and a time for you to make choices that help to create the future.

As Jesus' disciples, we are all called to be co-creators with the Creator of the world. For example, when we make a choice to give love, we create the reality of love in the world. We also create ourselves as a more loving person. The opposite is also true. When we make a choice to act in anger, we create the reality of anger in the world. We also create ourselves as a more angry person.

[That is why it is very important for us to figure out why we make the good or bad, healthy or unhealthy decisions we make, and how to change our decision making process so that we are always choosing for the good, for health, for love.]

Believing in God does not mean that you have to be a weak, unempowered, passive human being. You should never feel victimized, like how did this happen to me, because you are following Jesus. You should not be complacent in the face of your or someone else's suffering because you believe that God's will will prevail.

Let me tell you about a woman I know named Margaret. Margaret is a faithful and spirited woman, but she fell prey to the sort of thinking I am warning against. When she was married and she and her husband wanted to have a child, but could not get pregnant, she sadly concluded: It must be God's will. Then, when she unexpectedly got pregnant years later, she joyously concluded: It must be God's will. About the same time, Margaret received a promotion and a raise at her job. She had been thinking about quitting work to stay home with her baby, but instead of following her instincts, she figured that the promotion must be a sign from God. God must want her to continue working, so she concluded: It is God's will that I continue at this job. When Margaret was laid off after her son turned five, she regretted not having been home more to watch him in his earliest years. Was her regret God's will too? I don't think so. I think Margaret's major regret was her complacency, her passivity (just accepting that anything that happens is God's will). That is mistaken theology. The real regret any of us could have is that we let our lives pass us by, without being assertive and active in making our own choices and cultivating our own destinies.

People throw the term "God's will" around much to casually as if anything that happens in life is God's will. When tragic events occur, we say, there must be a good reason for it. That's not true! Yes, good things can come of tragic events, but that is no reason to rationalize the pain and suffering of people. There is no good reason why children die from hunger. There is no good reason why women are tortured and violated as the spoils of war. There is no good reason why young men are being murdered in the streets by people they don't even know. If there is a reason at all, it's not because of God. It's because evil and greed and sin exist, and we do nothing to stop them.

God has given you a mind with which to think, a heart with which to feel, a will with which to choose, and as the New Year begins, I want to encourage you to use them all. This is your life, this is our world, and we are responsible for what happens. While it is good to yield and to be open to that which presents itself, it is bad to let life pass you by or happen to you and end up feeling like a victim.

Yes, we want God's will to be done. Yes, we must reach out to Jesus for help. Yes, we trust in the Lord. At the same time, we cannot afford to passively stand by thinking that whatever happens is God's plan. God had a plan when he created you and empowered you with his Spirit. Now is the time to use what we have been given - our minds, our hearts, ours wishes and our will - to establish Christ's kingdom on this earth and be the kind of people God gave us the potential to be.

Fulfilling God's Vision of the Church

(Read James 21:14-24 and John 2:13-22)

Driving up to the cream house with brown shutters at the end of Andover court, it looked like any other house. There was nothing special about it, no real personality to set it apart. In fact, if one didn’t know better, you might assume that no one lived there, so barren was its yard. Only a black van filled with a carpet layers tools sat in the driveway from 5 in the evening until 7 in the morning. Maybe these were the first clues that the people who lived inside this house were so unhappy.

Upon walking into the house, the air seemed stale. The house felt empty even though two adults and two teenage boys lived there. The kitchen was the saddest part. A wooden cabinet door was missing next to the stove, and two of the other wooden cabinet doors were half open, revealing a jar of peanut butter, some saltine crackers and a few spices. The wooden drawer housing the silverware was missing as well. Had they just fallen off and never been replaced? A table with paper plates, a toaster and a bunch of crumbs sat opposite the cabinets, and underneath the table was an overflowing garbage cans and a bunch of plastic bags like the kind you bring groceries home in. The kitchen smelled of neglect, which is exactly how the people who lived in the house felt.

You see, this house came into being accidentally just like the family who lived in it had. In high school, the homecoming king and queen were sweethearts, and right before graduation, they accidentally became soon-to-be parents. Three more children followed, and the king and queen did what they had to do to get by with resentment in their hearts. They never had any intention of creating a home and a family together, and there was certainly no intention of creating a loving home and family, so there wasn’t one. As the third youngest child told me, it’s not that our parents beat us or anything, they just didn’t raise us.

And so you have it. A sad family tale whose kitchen revealed their life story, a story of neglect and lost cabinet doors.

Having intention in life is important. If we don’t intend to do anything particular, we just stumble around doing whatever it is comes our way, like the family I just described, an unhappy and unfilled family. But if we do intend to do something particular, then that intention guides our actions, and those actions often lead to the attainment of a vision, realization of a goal, satisfaction in life, purpose, fulfillment.

God had a clear intention for the temple. God had a clear vision of what he intended the temple to be and how it would function in the lives of his chosen people. You may recall that God gave elaborate instructions to Solomon for how the temple was to be built. God did this because he knew what he wanted it to be. God also gave clear and detailed instructions for how one was to enter the temple, for the types of activities that were to be performed there, for what the acceptable sacrifices were.

When Jesus walks into the temple in Jerusalem and sees his Father’s house being disrespected, degraded, made into a mockery, he gets angry. Instead of finding people praying, discussing the scriptures and making sacrifices to God, Jesus walks in and finds “the temple teeming with people selling cattle and sheep and doves. The loan sharks [are] also there in full strength” (John 2: 14). The vision that God had for the Temple was being compromised. So, “Jesus put together a whip out of strips of leather and chased” those dishonorable and unfaithful people out, “stampeding the sheep and cattle, upending the tables of the loans sharks, spilling [their profits] left and right. He told the dove merchants, ‘Get your things out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a shopping mall!!” (John 2:15-16).

It’s easy to see why he was so angry. It would be like if you walked into your own home and someone had turned it into a drug den or a brothel. Zeal for your house would consume you.

As clear of a vision that God had for the Temple, God has for the Church. In the most basic terms, God intends the Church to be the body of Christ. We are meant to perform the ministries that Christ performed. To be Jesus’ arms and hands, his legs and feet, his ears, his eyes, his mouth. Jesus preached how to live our lives to honor God and bring forth God’s kingdom on earth. He taught the laws of God and instructed us to love one another. He healed the sick, offered compassion to the outcasts, and forgiveness to the sinners. We know what he did, and now we are called upon to do likewise.

The Korean Methodist Church’s affirmation of faith (#884 in the Hymnal), says this about the Church: “We believe in the church, those who are united in the living Lord for the purpose of worship and service.” Very simply and clearly, we are told of God’s intention for us as the church. We are to be a people united through Jesus with the common purposes of worshiping together and serving together. How we worship and how we serve, that is up to us. We have the freedom to choose the specifics based on our gifts and passions. It only takes two people to bring new forms of worship and service into the life of our church.

Our local church is nothing like the Temple was when Jesus cleared it out and rebuked the people there. In fact, we have much to be proud of because we are worshiping and serving God in many life-giving ways. But just like a human being’s potential is never exhausted, so to, is the Church’s potential never exhausted, and in particular, our church’s potential is not exhausted. The Church is a living organism that is able to meet the needs of people as they present themselves. The Church is a work in progress so we can always refine or redefine how we worship the Lord. It is us, the people, that are the church, and if one of us becomes inspired by the Spirit to serve or save or worship in a new way, it is that conviction and the help of our brothers and sisters that can actualize another piece of our potential as the body of Christ.

As we recall the life and death of Jesus Christ in these 40 days of Lent, let us renew our conviction to be his body in the world, and especially in our community. Let us reclaim the vision of God for us the people of God, and be intentional about realizing that vision to the best of our abilities. Let it be our intention that if Jesus himself walked into this church, he would be proud of it. Instead of creating a whip out of strips of leather, let’s pray he would extend the peace, his peace to each and every one of us.

I started this sermon by talking about intention, or the lack thereof. That house, that family I described did a poor job of being intentional, and the whole family suffered. What is hopeful though is that the four children who grew up in that house, all became more intentional about their lives than their parents were. The oldest and the third child made family a priority and bought houses next to each other. The second child chose to pursue a career in music and has worked hard to achieve that goal. The youngest, as far as I know, is still a bit lost. But if we are not clear about who we are and what we want to do, how can we ever expect to achieve great goals, kingdom goals? Or how will we know when we have gone astray if we aren’t even sure what we are supposed to be doing? It is to everyone’s advantage, the individual’s, the family’s, the church’s, if we are intentional, if we know who we want to be, where we want to go and what we are called to do, so that we can live out our calling and actualize God’s vision/fulfill our potential”?.
James 2 was chosen as a text for today as a means of encouragement. The life of faith includes works. Last week I preached on how important it is to have faith, how important it is to believe even when hope seems lost. And today, I am flushing out what that faith looks like besides saying the words, “I believe.” “Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove…[they] are yoked partners…faith expresses itself in works…and works are works of faith” (James 2: 18, 22) To believe includes action!

I made a list of some of the things I believe we are called to be and do, with some concrete ideas of how we might live into our calling. These are meant to get us thinking, but if one of them catches your attention or creates a flutter of inspiration, I need you to act on that. Tell me about it. Tell a friend here about it. Bring it up at Ad Council or Trustees or SPRC. All of us are responsible for the ministry of this church, and I think this church is so awesome and you have so many gifts, that I want us to keep going further, deeper into the heart of God.

This is not to overwhelm you. This is not to add to your list of things to do. But if you have inspiration or compelling compassion or a great concern, it will enrich your life and the life of the kingdom and the life of the church if you have the opportunity to see it through and to see it make a difference. Worship and service can happen in small clusters of 2-8 people or the whole body can get on board. It’s up to us so let’s be intentional about it.

A place of equality and inclusivity, where all people are welcomed – join MIND, our conferences advocacy group for the rights of homosexuals, or take one of our church cards and invite a person of a different color or ethnicity to church, maybe the lady who does your hair, or the man who helped you take your groceries to the car.
A place of learning. We need opportunities for the children, the youth, the adults, the older adults to learn.
A place of belonging and fellowship. . We need opportunities for the children, the youth, the adults, the older adults to have fun and have people to talk to
A place to grow spiritually. Attend bible studies or other events offered. Or create your own group with like-minded church members
Service to people who are suffering. The Children’s Home of Kingston. Those in nursing homes. Those in jail.
A place of celebration. When someone goes through a right of passage or gets a new job or does well in school, we should celebrate with them.
A place of health, in mind, body, spirit and relationships. Each member must work towards his or her own health, and we should also offer opportunities to help each other grow more healthy.

Let the Spirit come into your heart and inspire you. This church is relevant. Let’s keep doing things that Christ would be proud of !

Editorial Comment

Greetings, Friends,

I have been lazy about posting my sermons each week for two reasons: 1. It's a lot of work because I edit them to fit how I preached them, which is always different thanks to the Holy Spirit. 2. I figured no one was really reading them.

But several beautiful souls have asked me to keep posting so here goes nothing. But, I have decided not to be so crazy about editing, which will mean more grammatical errors and round about thinking. But it's the only way they will actually get posted. So forgive me and remember, these are meant to be heard! If you can, come to church!

Engagin Conflict Well

Which one of these sounds most like a typical congregation to you:

What I love most about my church is that everyone gets along all the time. It’s amazing to me that 100 people can agree on just about everything, from what color carpet we should get in the sanctuary to how we will celebrate our church’s 200th Anniversary. I give all the credit to Jesus. When we gather in his name, it’s like we’re totally different people.
Sunday morning is a special time of the week for me. I love coming together with other Christians to worship God and pray for each others needs. But I have to admit, sometimes, especially in meetings, my church family argues more than my family at home (and we have our fair share of arguing, let me tell you.) It makes me sad when we don’t get along, like we are failing to live as Jesus taught us. I thought the church was supposed to be different.

A or B?

B! Just like any other organization on the face of the earth, and just like any other family on the face of the earth, there are disagreements and conflict in the church. This is totally normal. We all want the church to rise up and be different than the rest of the world, set apart from organizations and families filled with people bickering, arguing, gossiping, backstabbing, and sometimes, we actually do rise above. But the reality is, the church is as broken as the people who are in it. That’s why it’s important for us to understand each other and pray for each other; that’s why it’s important for us to repent and seek forgiveness from one another; that’s why it’s important for us to be perfected in love and transformed to be more like Jesus – because as each of us grows more holy so does the church.

At the seminar that I went to two weeks ago where we talked about the racial and cultural issues that the church continues to struggle with, we also talked about conflict. Conflict in the church is natural, literally, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. There will always be some degree of CONFLICT in the church, so instead of talking about conflict resolution, our teacher, the Rev. Scott Summerville, encouraged us to learn how to “engage conflict well,” and bring what we learned back to you, the body of Christ. Though the body is many parts with different functions, different gifts, different weaknesses, we are called to be one, to work together. As it is written, “God has so arranged the body…that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Cor 12:24-26).
There are two presuppositions you need to know before I can explain how we, as Christ’s body, can engage conflict well.

The first has to do with our brain. This is why I said that conflict was natural. Very simply put, the human brain has three sections. 1. The primitive brain, also known as the reptile brain, which is in charge of our self-preservation. 2. The intermediate brain or the limbic system, which is in charge of our emotions and bonding. I’m not going to talk about this part of our brain today. But for example, a mother that would kill her young, whether by eating it or abandoning it, would lack the intermediate brain. 3. The rational brain or the neocortex, which is in charge of our intellectual tasks, thinking, reason.

As you can imagine, human beings and animals both have reptile brain. This is where our fight or flight response comes from. If we are in danger, we either fight back or get the heck out of there. The reptile brain is instinct, it’s defense, it’s survival. Sadly, human beings act out of this brain when we don’t need to, and that’s what causes much of our unnecessary conflict.

Only human beings have a neocortex. This part of our brain, which can reflect, which can process information, which can choose distinguishes us from the animal kingdom. When we respond using our neocortex, instead of react using our reptile brain, we make much better decisions and treat each other more in the way that the people of God should treat each other.

The second presupposition you need to know has to do with, what Scott called, our buttons. We all have buttons, and your buttons are different from my buttons are different from her buttons are different from his buttons. The point is, if I push one of your buttons, you feel attacked. And thus, you go instinctually into your reptile brain and then you either want to fight me or flee from me.

Our buttons are beliefs that we hold deep down, very close to our core self. And oftentimes, we don’t even know that we have these beliefs. The majority of them get established when we are very young, when we are children, maybe adolescents. For example, if your mother said to you, “You are such a good boy. I love you. Your brother is not as good of a boy as you are.” You will internalize that message, and it will become a belief you have. In this case, if I am a good boy, then I will be loved.

What happens then is say you are now 40 years old, and you are at work, and your supervisor says that you are doing poorly at work, that you aren’t trying hard enough, that you spend too much time on the internet. The truth is, your supervisor might be right, and you know it, but by saying what he said, he unknowingly pushed your button. Your body will tighten up, get tense, get in a defensive stance because what your reptile brain hears is: you’re bad; you’re not good.

And because of the beliefs you developed as a child, which aren’t necessarily true at all, what this means is that if you are bad, you are not loved. And being loved is such an important part of a human beings self-preservation that this comment by your supervisor will be conceived of as an attack on your very being. And you will flip into fight or flight response. And then, the next think you do, whether it’s shout or cry or not come into work for the next week or talk about your supervisor behind his back, that’s what escalates the conflict.

Does this make sense? Does anyone have questions? Just understanding this concept can literally change your life, and all of our lives as a whole. So much of the time, we are reacting defensively and hostilely to each other out of our self preservation brain when what we need to do is recognize that our buttons have been pushed and stop. When we calm down enough that we can get back into our higher level brain, then we are ready to have a conversation about what just happened.

When relating to each other, we have to find higher ground before we can find common ground. We might think that just because we believe in God and come together for the main purpose of worshiping and serving God that we have found higher ground, but we also need to understand how God made us, and use this special part of our brain that only we have to rise above the animal kingdom.

Jesus demonstrates how to handle extreme conflict in the best way possible. On the night he is to be betrayed, a night that he knows must happen, Jesus waits with his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. The chief priests, the scribes and the elders arrive with swords and clubs in their hands ready to attack Jesus if he resists.

You better belief Jesus buttons get pushed when he sees them coming. For a number of reasons. One is that he actually is in danger; he’s being threatened. One of two responses usually occurs when someone feels threatened. One, you fight. Two, you run, you flee. It’s the fight or flight response. Jesus does neither of these. He refuses to react to the threat from his reptile brain or his primal functioning; instead he chooses to respond to the threat from his neocortex or his higher functioning.

So how can this information help us? And what should you do next?

First of all, it would be wise to figure out what some of your buttons are. Your buttons are these deeply held beliefs that when challenged send you into a defensive, reptile, fight or flight brain. One suggestion is use an “I am…” statement to figure it out. For my brother for example, he is sincere. (I am sincere). When someone says something or does something that implies that he is not sincere, my brother gets angry because someone is challenging something that he believes to be true and essential to who he is as a person.

The second thing you can do is recognize, actually learn what it feels like, when your mind and body are sent into primitive brain. You will tighten, tense up, get irrational, get impulsive.

The third thing you can do is learn to stop, don’t speak, don’t act when this happens. Give yourself a minute, or 10, or 5 days to cool off, to get back in your head, your neocortex, to get back to higher ground.

The turning point in your life and for the body of Christ will be when you understand the difference between reactive/automatic behavior and responsive/thoughtful behavior, and you choose the latter.

I’d like to end with a new version of the beatitudes, written by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia:

Blessed are those who are willing to enter into the process of being healed, for they will become healers.

Blessed are those who recognize their own inner violence, for they will come to know nonviolence.

Blessed are those who can forgive self, for they will become forgivers.

Blessed are those who are willing to let go of selfishness and self-centeredness, for they will become a healing presence.

Blessed are those who listen with compassion, for they will become compassionate.

Blessed are those who are willing to enter into conflict, for they will find transformation.

Blessed are those who know their interdependence with all of creation, for they will become unifiers.

Blessed are those who live in a contemplative life stance, for they will find God in all things.

Blessed are those who strive to live these beatitudes, for they will be reconcilers.

May we be the healers. May we be the peace makers. May we be the reconcilers.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

In Faith We Continue to Glory

Read Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Proverbs 3:5-6, and Romans 4:13-25)

The story of Abram and Sarai is a miraculous story indeed. It is one of the great accounts of how God is faithful to his promises, and we are called to be faithful even through our disappointment and even through long periods of waiting. There is a lesson in this story for all of us. If we continue in faith, we will be glorified. And in our glorification, so too is God glorified.

In Genesis 15, the Lord told Abram, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendents be.” But, time passed and no child was born. Then, when Sarai was 90 and Abram was 99, they conceived their first child as the fulfillment of this promise made by God.

To conceive at Abram and Sarai’s great age is unheard of. In the most current and advanced medicine, Omkari Panwar made history when she delivered twins via c-section in India in July of 2008 at 70 years old. Today, Omkari’s story is almost unbelievable in and of itself, so for Abram and Sarai, people who lived thousands of years ago, who thought fertility was reserved for those of a younger age, people who had no medical technology to cure barreness, for them to conceive, it was truly a miracle attributed to God Almighty.

After God had made his promise to them, but prior to getting pregnant, Abram and Sarai must have thought that their time to have children was passed.
They were too old now. The belief that they would conceive children, let alone be the ancestors of a multitude of nations, must have waned or died altogether.

Whether it is with similar or very different circumstances in mind, isn’t that how most of us feel? At a certain point in our lives, if something hasn’t happened yet, don’t we begin to doubt in the prospect of it ever happening at all? (Don’t we lose hope?)

Sarai and Abram are one extreme situation, a long term extreme. Just yesterday, I saw a very short term extreme to the same point. In the Kingston girls’ varsity basketball game against Minisink to go on to the regional finals, Rachel Coffey, Kingston’s star player, only scored one basket in the first half. Everyone was waiting for her to get hot, but shot after shot, she missed until she got timid and stopped shooting at all. For Kingston to win without her seemed improbable, although the rest of the team kept them in the game. Finally, late in the third period, Coffey made a basket. Then, another one. Then, another one. Then, another one. Everything the crowd had been waiting for, everything that her coach had been waiting for, everything Rachel had been waiting for began to take shape. It was wonderful to see what we knew had the potential to happen actually become reality. Kingston went on to win the game. Hope waned in the second quarter, but it was renewed some 20 minutes later.

So it is with our lives, (although the timeline is most often somewhere between 20 minutes and 90 years.) We want something, not out of selfish ambition or sinfulness, but out of a great hope that comes from our hearts. We want to find a partner to spend the rest of our lives with, we want to have children, we want work that provides financial stability and utilizes our gifts. When the time comes, we want our children to find love and have children and find meaningful employment. We want the same for our grandchildren. Amidst the hope for these pillars of Christian life, we hope for other things as well. We hope to shed that one problem that has continued to plague us. We hope to find that one ministry that will inspire us. We hope to survive and heal from that one trauma that has scarred us.

You could say that life is a battlefield, and we hope against hope, that one day, we will win the battle.

But as time goes on, our faith often begins to wane. We cry out as the psalmist did, how long, oh Lord? And still we wait.

This is a pivotal moment in our lives. In the midst of the storm, when the stock market is crashing, when the cancer is back, when your children and grandchildren are struggling to live and be happy, what do you believe? Who do you believe in?

These doubts that it’s never going to happen, these feelings of hopelessness, this blank and fearful stare into the future, are some of the great poisonous thoughts to the spiritual life. They are signs that we are turning away from God. That our faith is crumbling.

But we cannot let our faith crumble. Faith is a choice. We will not turn our backs to God. We will not give up hope. Not if we’ve waited 10 minutes too long and not if we have waited 99 years.

Why? Because Jesus of Nazareth is getting ready to go to Jerusalem, and to die on a cross as a criminal so that we might live. Jesus is willing to give his life to show us, to prove to us that God is faithful. That God comes through on his promises.

Jesus didn’t know the end of the story anymore than you and I know the end of our stories, but he was faithful. God led him down a dark road, saying all the while, trust me. If you trust me and you keep going, not only will you be glorified, I, God, the maker of heaven and earth will also be glorified.

So Jesus trusted him. He kept walking in faith. His friends turned on him. The authorities beat him up, they put him in jail, but he remained faithful. They killed him, and he remained faithful. From our perspective, from the human perspective, that’s the end of the story. Jesus is dead. He gave his life, he remained faithful, and for what? He died.

But from the divine perspective, the story has not even begun yet. If this were a book, you have only heard the introduction. Because the story actually begins when God fulfills his promise and raises Jesus from the dead. The story begins on Easter. That is the beginning of new life, not just for Jesus, but for all people.

The Beastie Boys, which are the most famous Jewish, white, rappers ever, and whose music is respected in its genre, once said in their popular song, Paul Revere: “You think the story’s over but it’s ready to begin.”

Abram and Sarai thought their story was over, childless and in their 90’s. Many of us think our story is over, at least in some aspect. But guess what? A new story is ready to begin.

Romans 4:17 says, God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” The life that you do not have, God is raising up. Trust in that! Have faith in that! The things that you do not have, the situations you are not in that you desperately want and hope for, God is calling into existence. Trust in that! Have faith in that!

This is our God that we are talking about. And our faith in him matters! God “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4: 17). Your belief in God’s unlocks the power of this reality in the world.

I know the road gets weary. I know that you get tired of being disappointed so you want to give up. But don’t give up on God. God fulfills the promises that truly give life.

We can’t understand why some things happen and other things don’t. That’s the message of Proverbs 3: 5-6. At some point, our understanding fails us. Acknowledge God though, and God will direct your path into the place where abundant life is found.

Abraham “did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.

Therefore, his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness’” (Romans 4:19-22).
Abraham and Sarah’s faith made them right with God. Maybe when she didn’t get pregnant in her 20’s like everyone else, Sarai had some doubts. Again, maybe in her 30’s. Maybe in her 40’s she silently began to curse God. But at some point, both of them renewed their faith, and believed in God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

Because of Abraham and Sarah’s faith in God, and because of God’s faithfulness to fulfill his promises, people are as numerous as the stars. Just like God said. Entire nations have been born of Abraham and Sarah.

When you are at the end of your rope, when you can’t imagine the future anymore, don’t quit on God. Keep the faith no matter how long you have been waiting, no matter how uncertain the future seems. God is calling into existence something new. A new chapter in life for you!

Remember what happened to Jesus. His death was not the end, but the beginning of our history as Christians. Take Jesus’ story, take Abraham and Sarah’s story and make it your own. You might think the story’s over, but it’s ready to begin.