Monday, February 22, 2010

Looking Back, Faith Grows

(Read Deut 26:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13)

Let me begin with a snapshot of a woman’s life:

Staci was blessed to have been born to loving parents who lived in a nice home in suburban Ohio. Sadly, she inherited diabetes from her mother, and the life-threatening disease affected her entire life. Over the years, she had three kidney transplants and a pancreas transplant. Going to dialysis and being in the hospital were as common to Staci as after-school activities and visits to the grandparent’s house were to “normal” kids. But Staci was really just grateful to be alive. She loved playing in her yard with the neighbor kids, painting and participating in the life of her church. Staci’s mom died from complications due to her diabetes when Staci was just a young girl, and this made her, her brother and father very sad. Her father remarried some years later, and while her step-mother was no replacement for her mother, it was comforting to have a woman in the house again. One morning before high school, while walking her dog, Staci was raped near the woods in her backyard. Obviously, this was a traumatic event and time in Staci’s life. She persevered and attended a small, private college, majoring in English.

Staci’s doctors didn’t know how much longer she would live, and so Staci chose to see every day as a gift from God. When Staci turned 30, outliving doctors’ predictions by several years, she decided to have a child. The doctors told her not to, that it was life-threatening, but that did not deter her. After all that she had been through, Staci had become both a brave and daring woman. Her son, Brian, was born with minor complications, and he is to this day, the joy of Staci’s life. When Brian was three, a young man moved two houses down form Staci’s childhood home. They quickly fell in love and married. Her life was now a dream come true, and a miraculous success story. After a few years though, her husband lost his job, became severely depressed and attempted suicide. His failed attempt lead to treatment, and when I last saw them this past summer, Staci, Tom and Brian were doing well. Staci put it like this, “I’ve been through hell and back, but I’m still here, and they are here with me. Life is good.”

Staci is amazing to me, the way she stays positive, her laughter, her endurance in the face of multiple challenges. When I asked her if she believes in God after everything she has went through, her reply is, “Definitely. Without God, I wouldn’t even be here. Although,” she says, “I say that now. There were times in the past when I cursed God or doubted God’s existance. Things look different once you have gotten through them.”

I thought about Staci when I read the Scripture from Deuteronomy. In this passage, Israel is remembering their life story and what God has done for them. They say, “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous” (Deut. 26:5) Biblical commentary says that the word “wandering” can also mean “lost” or “dying,” and that the Aramean referred to is Jacob and his ancestors. So, Israel became a great nation in Egypt, but then, “the Egyptians mistreated [them] and made [them] suffer, putting [them] to hard labor” (Deut. 26:6). Now, I’m sure you can imagine that the many years that Israel toiled in Egypt as slaves (400 years?) were terrible, and that during that time, their trust in God’s goodness and power waned. There had to have been many people on many occasions who cursed God’s name because of their life situation, many people who cried for help and felt as though God did not answer them. But this Scripture was written long after Israel had left Egypt so they are remembering their story from a larger perspective. Thus, the Scripture continues on a positive note, not mentioning the times of doubt and despair

“Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders” (Deut 26: 8). Aka. the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. “He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with mild and honey” (Deut 26:9).

Now, that is what happened, but in between God freeing Israel from slavery and bringing them into Canaan, there was that awful time of 40 years spent wandering in the wilderness when they had no food, no water. They were fighting amongst themselves. They wanted to kill Moses for leading them out of Egypt and into unknown territory.

The point I am getting at here is that while we are going through something, it feels incredibly intense and we are absorbed in the play-by-play action. Especially during the tough times, we cry, and we don’t think we can take anymore affliction. We say that God has forsaken us, abandoned us, turned his back on us. I can recall many times in my life when I prayed and prayed for God to do this or that, for God to change my situation and help me to feel better. Then, after a while and nothing seeming to change, still feeling confused or angry or sad, just giving up on God. I’d start to pray and then think, “Oh, forget it. What’s the point?”

But the point is, once we are out of dire straights, out of the terrible time, and we are reflecting back on it, we tend to see things differently. We start to see how God was there in that time. How God did help us through. While in the situation, you can’t see the forest for the trees as it were because we are so consumed, absorbed, unable to see clearly. But things become clearer as we get further and further from the situation. As they say, hindsight is 20/20. We recognize that God was present, and God’s hand was working in that time and place. That Jesus was walking by our side, and the Holy Spirit was comforting us.

And as we realize that, we start to think, or at least I know I start to think, “If God was there then, God is here now. Whether I feel him or see him or not, the Lord is with me. A very present help in trouble. My rock and my salvation. The ground of my hope.”

An analogy that can help us to understand this idea is recognizing that God’s presence in your life is like watching a movie for the second time. The second time, you already know the ending, so as you are watching it, you can see how each scene that happens is moving you towards the final conclusion or how all the parts of the film contribute to the development of the whole film. The first time you watch a movie, you experience each scene and are ingrossed in the action, not knowing how it all fits together. But in watching the film the second time, it becomes clear how certain events are meaningful and propel the story forward. You can see a character crying and think, “It’s okay. No need to cry. You need this to happen so the real blessings can come into your life.”

In the times when life is challenging, when we are really being tested, the devil comes to tempt us to give up our faith, to question God’s existence. We feel like it is all up to us, and we have to rely on ourselves, on our will and effort alone. We fight to control our lives, trying to make them the way we want them to be, only to feel more frustrated and exhausted as hardships continue to come our way.

In the first temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, the devil says to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread” (Luke 4:3). When Jesus says, “Man does not live on bread alone (Luke 4:4)” he is resisting the temptation to provide for himself, to depend on himself to get what he needs. This is a lesson for us to learn. That it is God who provides for us. We can trust that whatever we need to live, God will give to us.

Today, I invite you to think back on your life. Think of all the hard times, all the strange things that have happened, and see how ultimately, they lead to some sort of blessing in your life. They made you who you are. The divorce was horrible to go through, but you are much happier on your own or with your new partner than fighting all the time and feeling misunderstood by your partner. Or the illness was/is painful to endure, but it has helped you realize who your real friends are, and you have seen the generosity and kindness of all sorts of people in your life. Or getting fired or laid off seemed like the end of the world. What are you going to do now? How will you make ends meet? But slowly you realized that you can trust God to provide, that there are more opportunities than you imagined. Hopefully, you get into a new vocation which is more rewarding and meaningful to you and for the world.

As we recognize that God was there for us in the past, our confidence grows that God is here for us now and will be there for us in the future. Like Staci and the Israelites, we become living witnesses to the steadfast love and faithfulness of our Creator. Weeping may tarry for the night, but with assurance, we know that joy comes in the morning.

Brothers and sisters, keep the faith. I know life is hard. I know the trials and tribulations keep coming. The same problems occur over and over again. But God is with us, and we will triumph. While part of what happens in life is out of our control, our response to what happens in life is within our control. Train your mind to be hopeful instead of skeptical and doubting. You never know. Be creative and respond to that same old problem in a new and different way. By acting differently, you just might get different results. And reach out to people you know, asking them for help. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive, but when we are struggling, that’s when we most need family and friends surrounding us, cheering us on, lifting us up. We are all on this journey together friends. May it be the best journey possible, and may we trust in God every step of the way, because the way of trust is the way that leads to peace and joy.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Where is the Justice?

On Jan. 12, a massive earthquake, registering 7.0 on the Richter scale, struck Haiti, reducing much of its capital, Port au Prince, to rubble. It was the worst earthquake in the region in more than 200 years, with as many as 50,000 feared dead. United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told NBC's "Today" program that 3 million people - about a third of Haiti's population - had been affected by the quake. Major buildings including the Presidential Palace, the UN headquarters, hospitals, schools and prisons have collapsed. Whole neighborhoods have been wiped out.

Haiti is, by a significant margin, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with four out of five people living in poverty. What this means is that there will be even more victims over the next several weeks, maybe even months, because of the lack of medical care and housing, poor sanitation, and shortage of food and safe water.

When a natural disaster like this earthquake hits an impoverished area, it shines a bright light on the inequality and injustice still very much present in our world. Do you know why so many buildings collapsed in this earthquake? Because they were poorly constructed and made of inferior materials. Do you know why the death toll will continue to rise for weeks to come? Because Haiti doesn’t have the infrastructure in place or the resources to save people who might still be alive right now.

On October 17, 1989, a massive earthquake, registering 6.9 on the Richter scale, struck the San Francisco Bay Area of California, which all things considered is a wealthy area. While it’s not completely accurate to compare the earthquake in Haiti to the earthquake in California, it is noteworthy that only 63 people were killed in California compared to an estimated 50,000 in Haiti. Only 3,757 were injured and only between 3,000-12,000 people were left homeless in California compared to much, much larger numbers in Haiti. Why did Californians fair so well? It wasn’t because they were lucky, and it wasn’t because God is on their side. It’s because they have more money. They have more resources. They have more hosptilas. Their buildings and homes are built of the finest materials available.

The injustice of it all is striking. Here we have similar earthquakes in terms of how strong they are, both in densely populated areas, but the end result is so much worse for the Haitians than for the Californians. The unfairness of it all makes me think about Hurricane Katrina. There are still people homeless in New Orleans and that happened in August 2005. Four and one-half years ago! I think that if a tragedy like that would have happened on the East Coast, basically everything would be restored by now.

It takes people of conviction to end injustice and inequality in this world. Conviction provides the motivating force that leads to action, and action is what is needed for change to happen.

The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of conviction.
On August 28, 1963, King spoke at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. at the largest civil rights rally in the history of the US (which he helped to organize) with more than 200,000 people gathered together for a nonviolent protest aimed at securing justice for black Americans.
In the beginning of King’s famous, “I Have a Dream” speech, he said these words:
“But one hundred years [after the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves], the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land.”

King was 100% positive, he was convinced that his people deserved more, that they deserved better. King described the problems of segregation like this:
“There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by a sign stating: "For Whites Only."* We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
That last line is Scripture. King’s conviction was based in what he knew to be true about God. He knew from reading the prophets that Almighty God deplores economic injustice and oppression. The Prophet Isaiah says, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people” (Isaiah 10: 1-2). While those words were written thousands of years ago, they were completely relevant to our government in 1968, and probably even still today in some capacity.
It was King’s leadership that inspired the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, on behalf of whom he spoke, to have a nonviolent policy when they protested. King based his philosophy on the teaching of Jesus and those of the Indian leader Mohandas Gandhi. It was Jesus who taught King to turn the other cheek. It was Jesus who said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6: 27-28). King shows that he is a disciple when he said:

But there is something that I must say to my people, who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice: In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King is an inspiration for all of God’s people. As we celebrate him and the victories of the civil rights movement this weekend, let us also contemplate what our convictions are. What do you care about?

Children are being abused and sent to work in sweatshops.
Girls are being sold into sex slavery.
Woman and people of color still make less money and have less opportunity than white men.
Our country is engaged in war and prisoners of war are being tortured.
The continent of Africa is dying of AIDS.
The environment is being polluted. The land fills are filling up with water bottles, the air and oceans are being polluted, trees are being cut down at alarming rates.
Animals are being raised in inhumane conditions, such as factory farms.
Americans are dying from diseases related to obesity while large potions of the world are dying from hunger.

We know the commandments of God. We know the teachings of Jesus Christ. Let’s get educated and figure out what is going on that is wrong, no if, ands, or but about it, and let’s get convicted as a church.
One of the saddest, yet happiest stories that I read online, was that on Friday, an Australian television news crew helped to rescue a 16-month-old girl from the ruins of a destroyed house in Haiti. It’s a happy story because they rescued her, but it’s a sad story because the girl had been buried in her house next to her dead father and mother for three days without food and water. Local residents could hear her crying and were trying to dig her out from under the rubble, but for some reason, it took a man who came from half way around the world to actually pull her out.

Let me close with the Starfish story of Loren Eiseley:

Once upon a time, there was a wise man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach before he began his work.

One day, as he was walking along the shore, he looked down the beach and saw a human figure moving like a dancer. He smiled to himself at the thought of someone who would dance to the day, and so, he walked faster to catch up.

As he got closer, he noticed that the figure was that of a young man, and that what he was doing was not dancing at all. The young man was reaching down to the shore, picking up small objects, and throwing them into the ocean.

He came closer still and called out "Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?"

The young man paused, looked up, and replied "Throwing starfish into the ocean."

"I must ask, then, why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?" asked the somewhat startled wise man.

To this, the young man replied, "The sun is up and the tide is going out. If I don't throw them in, they'll die."

Upon hearing this, the wise man commented, "But, young man, do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can't possibly make a difference!"

At this, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he said, "It made a difference for that one."

During Lent: Create Space

(Sermon for Ash Wednesday)

The season of Lent is a little bit like if we were going to clean out a house that is filled with magazines, newspapers, bills, boxes, garbage, dust, etc. Lent is a time to clean ourselves out, clean ourselves up, and make space for something new to come into our life.

The main tradition associated with the Lenton season is to give something up. The traditional idea (as I learned it) being that we will be in solidarity with Christ if we sacrifice something since he is sacrificing his life. Romans 8 expresses this sentiment when it says, “We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we're certainly going to go through the good times with him!”

This year, I would like to suggest that you give something up that is taking up too much space in your life (your spiritual house). Many of us hold onto things long after they are serving a healthy purpose in our lives, and if we get rid of them, we create space for God to do something new in our lives.

To give up:
A grudge, past hurt that continues to create conflict between you and someone, or that just keep you being sad.
An attitude that perpetuates unhappiness or is defeating.
A way that you spend your time that is wasteful.
Spending too much time alone or at work.

The Scripture says that we are to give our old life a decent burial and “get on with our new life” (Romans 8:13, so let's do it. Once we empty ourselves of whatever is taking up room and wasting space in our lives, then we can open ourselves to receiving whatever God wants to give us.

Instead of being depressed, you might learn acceptance and compassion.
Instead of getting frustrated, you might laugh and lighten up.
Instead of spending hours surfing the net, you might read or write or paint or clean or ...
Instead of hanging out with the same old crowd, you might challenge yourself to spend time with new people, or spend time with people you don’t give enough attention to now.

Just pick something to give up that, in giving it up, there will be a hole in you, a void, space. Then, open your heart and surrender yourself over to God. You don’t have to know what will come in its place, let God reveal that to you! You don’t know how God might bless you, but it will be something beneficial to you.

As it is written: “This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It's adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike "What's next, Papa?"(Romans 8:15). By the time we get to April, you will be seeing some sort of change in yourself, some form of new, resurrected life, but you have to take the Lenton challenge and give something up.

The difference between a stale, dirty, sad house and a lively, rich and happy house is cleaning the house out, opening the windows and letting the fresh air in.

May this Lent be a time of spring cleaning in your life/spiritual house.

Confession Leads to Healing and Reconciliation

(Read 1 John 1:5-2:2)

In late November, the news broke. Tiger Woods, the world’s favorite golfer and positive role model for people of all ages and races, was having an affair on his wife of more than 5 years, Elin. Over the next few weeks, Woods disgrace grew as he was linked to having affairs with more than a dozen women. Since that time, Woods has taken a leave from professional golfing; he has lost many endorsements, and his marital future is uncertain. Just this morning, I read headlines that Tiger was leaving the treatment center he was at for the past several weeks in Mississippi, where he was being treated for sex addiction.

One of the craziest things about this whole scandal to me is how long it was going on. Tiger kept up his charade, he hid his affairs for years. During that time, no matter what success he had in golf, no matter that his wife gave birth to their two children, everything Tiger experienced was tainted by his secret life. When people live their lives in lies and in hiding, they destroy their relationships, their families, their careers, and any hope they had to live a happy, healthy and peaceful existence. The same is true for those who live in denial of their problems, for those who pretend that everything is fine when, in reality, it is not. When people live in denial, what they are really doing is lying to themselves, to the people in their life, and to God. They also forfeit any chance of enduring happiness, health and peace for themselves and their family.

The opposite of lying, hiding and denial is to admit the truth. Admitting the truth can be very difficult and painful for us when we have to admit that we have done wrong, that we are not perfect, that we have failed, that we have sinned. For one, we have to be willing to give up what we are doing; we have to be willing to change. We also fear being judged and rejected by the people in our lives. But without truth and honesty, real love and belonging and acceptance cannot exist.

In Christianity, there are 12 traditional spiritual disciplines that are practices we can do to get closer to God and to one another. These disciplines or practices help us to become children of light. They help to make us holy and perfect us in love. The inward disciplines are meditation, prayer, fasting and study. The outward disciplines are simplicity, solitude, submission and service. The corporate disciplines are confession, worship, guidance and celebration. Today, we will look at the practice of confession.

To hide, lie and deny is to walk in the darkness, and walking in the darkness leads to death. As children of God, we are not meant to walk in darkness, but we are called to walk in the light, to live in the light. This is where confession can help us. Confession brings us into the light. It heals us. There is a saying: The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints. Confession is one of those things the church does to help us heal.

So, what is confession? Very simply put, confession is being honest about who you are, about what you think, say and do in relation to your sin and brokeness. The most basic prayer of confession says, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

St. Alphonsus Liguori said that for a confession to be a good confession, three things are necessary: an examination of conscience, sorrow and a determination to avoid sin (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Disciplines. Pg. 151.)

By an examination of conscience, Saint Alphonsus means that we should search ourselves to determine those thoughts and behaviors that are out of line with the ways of God, that disobey God’s commands to promote love, peace and happiness for all people.
(7 deadly sins: . wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony_)

By sorrow, Saint Alphonsus means that we should feel some regret, some sadness for the trespasses that we have committed.

By determination to avoid sin, Saint Alphonsus means that we have to want to stop. To be determined, we have to really know that what we are doing, thinking or saying is destructive and unhealthy for us and others; we have to be convinced it’s the path that leads to death, and we have to choose life instead.

One of the reasons I’m preaching this sermon today is because Lent begins in less than two weeks, and a big part of Lent is self-examination and confession. If we really want to enter into the new life, the resurrected life that comes on Easter morning, we have to be willing to look at the paths that we are on which lead to death. Confession helps us to move from death to life.

Confession can happen in at least 3 different ways:

First, there is the corporate act of confessing in Christian community. This is what we do most Sunday mornings when we say a somewhat general prayer of confession together. The prayer is intentionally general so that we can all relate to it in some way, but the important thing is that we come together as the one body of Christ, admitting that collectively we have all gone astray. Our sin is not just an individual problem, it is a collective problem that penetrates all of creation.

Second, there is the private act of confessing to God alone. This happens in our moment of silence after the corporate prayer of confession, and also, this is probably what you most often do in your personal prayer time. You come before God in all honesty, and specifically admit your sins and weaknesses.

A third type of confession is an inter-relational act of confessing to another person. Of all the types of confession, I believe this is the most powerful, but it is also the most scary and difficult. Often, we feel so ashamed of ourselves, and we fear others will judge us. But this is also why it is so freeing. Once you confess, and the person you confess to does not reject you, but forgives and embraces you in the name of God, it is like a great weight being lifted off of your shoulders.

Listen to this testimony by Richard Foster, one of the great spiritual leaders of our time. He writes about an experience he had when pastoring his first church:

“I longed for more power to do the work of God. I felt inadequate to deal with many of the desperate needs that confronted me. There had to be more spiritual resources than I was experiencing. ‘Lord,’ I prayed, ‘is there more you want to bring into my life? I want to be conquered and ruled by you. If there is anything blocking the flow of your power, reveal it to me.’ He did. Not by an audible voice or even through any human voice, but simply by a growing impression that perhaps something in my past was impeding the flow of his life. So I devised a plan. I divided my life into three periods: childhood, adolescence, adulthood. On the first day I came before God in payer and meditation, pencil and paper in hand. Inviting him to reveal to me anything during my childhood that needed either forgiveness or healing or both, I waiting in absolute silence for some ten minutes. Anything about my childhood that surfaced to my conscious mind, I wrote down. I made no attempt to analyze the items or put any value judgment on them. My assurance was that God would reveal anything that needed his healing touch. Having finished, I put the pencil and paper down for the day. The next day I went through the same exercise for my adolescent years, and the third day for my adult years.

Paper in hand, I then went to a dear brother in Christ. I had made arrangements with him a week ahead so he understood the purpose of our meeting. Slowly, sometimes painfully, I read my sheet, adding only those comments necessary to make my sin clear. When I had finished, I began to return the paper to my briefcase. Wisely, my counselor/confessor gently stopped my hand and took the sheet of paper. Without a word he took a wastebasket, and, as I watched, he tore the paper into hundreds of tiny pieces and dropped them into it. That powerful, nonverbal expression of forgiveness was followed by a simple absolution. [In the name of Jesus Christ, your sins have been forgiven.] Next, my friend, with the laying on of hands, prayed a prayer of healing for all he sorrows and hurts of the past. The power of that prayer lives with me today” (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Discipline. Pg. 149-50).

This testimony confirms several ideas about the power of confession:

One is how life affirming it is to admit our sins and weakness, to admit our shame and guilt, and then, to receive acceptance and love from another person. To experience that type of unconditional, merciful love is one of the deepest, most profound feelings you can have.

Second, confession is the first act of a larger process. Confession is meant to be responded to with forgiveness. We confess, and then, we receive forgiveness through Jesus Christ. Scripture says: If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Forgiveness is followed by transformation. For the individual life, forgiveness is a second chance that leads to us changing our ways. In the example of Tiger Woods, hopefully he will stop having affairs.

For the communal life, forgiveness is the beginning of reconciling and healing relationships. Maybe Elin will forgive Tiger and they can rebuild their life together.

As those in the recovery community know, you cannot begin the process of healing until you have admitted there is a problem. So “Confession might begin in sorrow, but it ends in joy. There is celebration in the forgiveness of sins because it results in a genuinely changed life” (Foster, Richard. Celebration of Discipline. Pg. 153).