Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Who Do You Report To?

(Read Jeremiah 2: 4-13)

I can understand why God is so upset with Israel. Israel has lost its soul.

First of all, Israel is the Lord’s chosen people. They are his baby. God has done everything he could to grow them into a strong and wealthy nation. God helped them to get out of slavery in Egypt; he led them through the wilderness; he supplied them with food and water. Then, the Lord brought them into the Promised Land, a garden land that was plentiful.

And what is the Israelites response to all that God has done for them? Gratitude? No. Trust? No. Steadfast love and faithfulness? No.

God’s heart is breaking. The people of Israel have abandoned their Creator. They are acting as though their Guardian and Guide is nothing to them. Have you ever had someone in your life who just stopped calling you or left you or abandoned you? Remember how badly that hurt. It might still hurt. The Prophet Jeremiah was sent by God to give the people a conscience, to make them realize that what they were doing, how they were treating God was a grave mistake.

In verse 5 we hear that Israel’s ancestors have drifted from the Lord, delving into worthless idols and becoming worthless themselves. In this life, we can search for whatever we choose, and Jesus says he will help us find it. Why go after things that will make us less than who God created us to be? Why not go after the things that will make us more? More loving, more wise, more free, more whole? Israel chose to go after the things that were of no profit to humanity or their own well-being.

They also stopped relying on God. In good times and in bad, they did not think to ask, “Where is the Lord?” They did not call upon God. Instead, they worshipped the false God Baal, and with that came a life of sexual immorality that went against the rules of the Torah.

Let’s learn from Israel’s mistakes. Let’s not turn our backs on God who has put our spirits inside of us and orchestrated our lives for us.

We may not prophesy to Baal per se, but I would like to suggest that we run the risk of abandoning God when we push down or shut off God’s spirit within us. God gave us his Spirit, God made us in his image, and we honor God when our spiritual lives are at the center of our daily living.

But all too often, our lives our divided. We think and feel one way, but we act another. Our spirits have a desire to go forward, but our physical beings stand still. We want to use our voice and say something important, but we just sit silently. To live a divided life means that our inner world, our hearts, our spirits, our souls are ignored, and our outer life does not reflect what is deep inside of us.

Let me give you an example. There was a man named John from Iowa who had been a farmer for 25 years. He loved the land. Then, he went to work for the US Department of Agriculture. He was given a proposal regarding the preservation of Midwestern topsoil, “which is being depleted at a rapid rate by [agricultural business] practices that value short term profits over the well-being of the earth” (18-19). It’s a serious problem, but the proposal leaned toward exploiting the land for financial gain, rather than saving the soil.

In his heart, John wanted to reject the proposal, but politically speaking, he knew it was a bad idea. John’s boss was in support of the proposal, and he made it clear to John that he expected his support as well.

So what should John do? Should he risk being ostrasized at the office or fired in order to express his true feelings on the matter? He thought to himself, it would just easier to go along with what his boss wants and not make any waves.

Ultimately, the question boils down to: who does John report to? Whose expectations of him does he want to live up to? His boss’s? His own? God’s?

We run into dilemmas like this all the time. A divided life is a life where we live by another’s standards or expectations. A divided life is a life where we have to pretend or hide. It is inauthentic. The real problem is that a divided life is a life that denies God’s and the self that God created you to be.

Psalm 139 says, “For it was you [God] who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb…In your book were written all the days that were formed for me” (Psalm 139, 13, 16). God made each of us intentionally and planned our days for us, but all too often worldly pressures, perverted desires and poor coping tactics lead us astray.

Some examples of a divided life: (from pg 6)
• We conceal our true identities for fear of being criticized, shunned or attacked.
• We remain in settings or relationships that steadily kill off our spirits.
• We make our living at jobs that violate our basic values and diminish our happiness, even when survival does not absolutely demand it.

I read about this concept of a divided life in Parker Palmer’s book, A Hidden Wholeness. He describes it like this:

“My knowledge of the divided life comes first from personal experience. I yearn to be whole, but dividedness often seems the easier choice. A “still, small voice” speaks the truth about me, my work or the world. I hear it and yet act as if I did not.”

“Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls, [which is God’s imprint in us]. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the integrity that comes from being [the person who God created us to be.]”

The word integrity means “The state or quality of being entire, complete and unbroken,” as in the words integer or integral. So what Parker is saying is that living a divided life prevents us from being complete or whole people.

Where does this divided life lead us?

“[We] pay a steep price when [we] live a divided life—feeling fraudulent, anxious about being found out, and depressed by the fact that [we are] denying [our] own selfhood[s]. The people around [us] pay a price as well, for now they walk on ground made unstable by [our] dividedness. How can [we] affirm another’s identity when [we] deny [our] own? How can [we] trust another’s integrity when [we] defy [our] own? A fault line runs down the middle of [our lives,] and whenever it cracks open, divorcing [our] words and actions from the truth[s] [we] hold within—things… get shaky and start to fall apart.” (4-5).

Part of preventing a divided life is knowing what we believe and what is important to us so that we can stay true to ourselves. A great beauty arises when people refuse to live divided lives. Inspiration and enthusiasm spread and joy swirls in the air as we begin to live, think and act from the divine center within us.

The key is to bring our inner and outer worlds into harmony. That requires courage on each of our parts and a supportive community, a community that values each individual unique person and our quests for wholeness. A place where all people are listened to, a place where people are encouraged to live authentically. A place where there is honesty and compassion among the people.

The church is called to be such a community, a place where the divided life can heal and be made whole. I pray that we are such a community, where each of us is free to express his or her own soul, his or her own truth, and to encourage that truth in others.

Remember John, the man who worked for the department of Agriculture. He was struggling with how to deal with the situation at work, and he went to a men’s retreat where he talked about the tensions he was feeling. The others listened to him; they helped him to clarify his thoughts; they prayed with him. Finally, after a sleepless night of trying to decide what to do, John had a realization. He told his newfound brothers, “During this retreat, I’ve remembered something important; I don’t report to my boss. I report to the land.” (19). And with that wisdom, John was able to “stick to his guns”, and the great divide that was within him, causing him anxiety, came together. John felt a great peace because he was following his heart.

So I was thinking: I report to Jesus. Being true to him is what guides my decisions and behavior. Who do you report to?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Faith: One Thing We Cannot Live Without

(Read Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16)

A friend recently sent me an email where people were asked the five things they couldn’t live without. It was humorous and interesting to see the various responses people answered to the question. One man took a purely material approach. He said he couldn’t live without his ipod, his computer, his car, his golf clubs and his bank account. One woman took a very literal approach to the question. She said she couldn’t live without oxygen, water, food, shelter and yes, red wine. And yet, another woman took a spiritual approach, saying she couldn’t live without family, friends, love, laughter and compassion.

Of all the ways to answer the question, I leaned towards the spiritual approach. Except instead of family, friends, love, laughter and compassion, my answer was family, friends, love, laughter and faith . Faith is something that none of us can happily live without.

The author of Hebrews says, “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” In other words, faith is truly believing that you will receive what you hope for. Faith is believing that even if you don’t see what you want at this moment, you will one day. When we say, “I have faith,” we are also saying, “I trust in God to provide for me.” Faith is an inexhaustible confidence in God.

I ask you, how strong is your faith these days? Are you confident in God, how God is working, orchestrating and developing your life?

If yes, wonderful! If no or not really, don’t despair! The life of faith is categorized by three defining stages: confidence, doubt and renewed confidence.

In the beginning of our faith life, it is quite normal to feel blissfully confident in the Lord. We have seen God for the first time, or perhaps we have seen God so vividly that we have recommitted our life to the journey of faith. We feel optimistic and assured. We feel like the Lord has us in the palm of his hand, and we are just basking in the glow of promises to be fulfilled.

However, in time, it is normal for that basking glow to fade like a sinking sunset. We get hit with the realities of life. Just when we think everything is going well, we get the bad news. Just when we think we’ve got what we want, it vanishes before our eyes. Just when we think we’ve made it, the time comes to start over, and we’ve no idea what to do next. This is not a pleasant time in life at all, but it is still part of the faith journey, a very natural part, so if you are in it, do not be dismayed.

Like most people, my brother and sister in law were exuberant when they first married. They were in love and had all the hope and promise of the future lying before them. You could say their faith had yet to be tested in their relationship.

But then, with their love in full bloom, they tried to have a child, and conception did not come easily to them. After a significant period of time trying to conceive on their own, they sought the help of medical professionals, and throughout those months and into years of tests and prescription medicines and procedures, their faith waned. I remember my brother sort of staring off into space, saying in a distant voice, “I’m starting to think it’s never going to happen.” His wife was equally troubled in her own way. Would they ever be able to have a child?

Real doubt, dark and troubling, entered into all of our lives, but their lives in particular.

It was then, just after my brother had mournfully stated, “I’m starting to think it’s never going to happen,” that my mother hugged my brother and said, “Oh yes it will. You are going to have a baby of your own. I just know you will.”

And in that moment, the doubt and darkness lost its foothold in my brother’s mind. You should have seen the way his expression changed, his whole demeanor. He went from looking forlorn and despondent to having a glimmer of hope himself. “Do you really think so?” he said. My mom should her head, yes.

And then and there, my brother’s faith was reborn. His confidence, however small, was restored. And it was because of my mother’s faith for him.

You see, faith is contagious, infectious even, in a good way.

We all go through periods of doubt, confusion and darkness, but the faith of others can help us through, get us back on course. If the faith journey is has three stages –confidence, doubt and renewed confidence, then we all play a part in that renewing of faith. We need each other on this journey, to believe for each other when the light has grown dim.

Faith is what gets us through the tough times. Faith is the virtue by which we endure. Faith is what leads us into our futures. To have a strong faith is truly a blessing that makes life better. Sometimes we have it all by ourselves, and sometimes, we need each other to help us have it. But when it returns in us, it is as authentic and pleasing in the sight of God as when we had it at the first. Maybe even moreso, because now we have truly been tested, and we have returned to God.

Think of your own life story. How has your faith ebbed and flowed over the years? Who has helped to lift you up? This is all a part of the process the way God intends it to be.

When our faith wanes, there is another whose faith can always pull us through. And that is the faith of Jesus Christ. Jesus always has faith in God even if we don’t because he gets the bigger, fuller picture of God’s plan. He sees for us!

In life, often our gratification is delayed for reasons we do not know. Things happen to us, and we can’t understand why. No one has experienced this reality more fully than Jesus. God’s plan for his life flies in the face of reason. Why would the Father ask his own Son, whom he loves absolutely, to sacrifice his life? And how could Jesus being dead be better for the world than him being alive?

As Christians, we know the answer-that Jesus’ sacrifice and his death are what leads to life for all people. But no one who had to go through that sort of life plan could have remained faithful except for Jesus because he was so utterly confident in God.

My prayer for all of us is to have such great faith as never to doubt the lives we are leading and the God who is leading our lives, but when that faith disappears, simply know that Jesus believes for you, and that he is carrying you along.

Today, I invite you to renew your faith in God. Believe that God has your best interests at heart and is designing the world on your behalf. Believe in the assurance of things hoped for and the fulfillment of things not yet seen.

I also invite you to offer hope to one another by having faith for one another. When one of our eyes is filled with tears, we need each other to see God clearly.

My mom was right. My brother and his wife did conceive a child. A beautiful baby girl, whom I was privileged to baptize and am still privileged to babysit. And my brother and sister in law are living witnesses that faith can and will be restored.

The meaning of faith is never giving up on God, believing in God’s power and love for your life and this world, and continuing to hope in the things you have not yet seen. On this average day of days, may our faith in God be renewed. May we be confident and uplifted. I am certain that faith is the one of those things that we cannot live without.

What Makes For A Great Life

(Read Luke 12:13-21)

Money gets somewhat of a bad reputation in the Bible or religion in general. But let’s face it, money is necessary. We need it to feed, clothe and shelter our families, pay our bills, and enjoy some of the luxuries of life. Money adds to our stress and discomfort if we don’t have it, and it adds to our comfort and enjoyment if we do have it.

But there comes a point when money goes from being a resource that is useful in maintaining a healthy, happy life to when it becomes a burden and a source of unhappiness. Greed is an unhealthy hunger for money and things in excess of what you need.

The Bible warns against greed because it can destroy your life. Greed destroyed Bernie Madoff’s life. He stole from others in order to have more for himself and ended up in prison. Excessive wealth seems to contribute to the downfall of many celebrities including Brittany Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Mel Gibson, all of who have had public breakdowns in the past couple of years.

Yes, money can actually interfere with our happiness and decrease the quality of our lives. For one reason, the acquisition of money requires a great deal of time. The time you spend earning can keep you from taking care of yourself and can keep you from spending quality time with the people that you love. Plus, you might have to work a job you don’t like in order to earn a great income. A second reason money can interfere with our happiness is that money is meant to be a secondary concern in our lives, somewhere behind spiritual awareness and the cultivation of wisdom. No where in the Bible does it say you need money to be a good Christian or a disciple of Jesus. In fact, a preoccupation with money can stunt spiritual maturation, and it is spiritual maturation which actually leads to the peace and joy we seek. A third reason money can decrease the quality of our lives is because it can decrease the quality of other people’s lives, such as was the case with Bernie Madoff. If I need more, then you have to have less, and that is not the way God intends us to live.

A terrible thing just happened amongst a group of friends of mine who were working together on building a house. The contractor paid himself before paying his sub-contractors, which it’s supposed to be the other way around, and then he claimed he ran out of money. Now, there isn’t the money to pay the sub-contractors. Because the contractor was greedy and paid himself a huge upfront fee, those who worked for him are without the money they need to support their families. Not only are friendships dissolving over this situation, but people who were once good friends are suing each other over the matter. That’s the problem with greed.

The idea that tons of money will lead to security and happiness is a fallacy. We all want to win the lottery thinking it will solve all of our problems, but research shows that lottery winners often end up miserable, broke and fighting with their loved ones within a relatively short period of time. With a lot of money comes a lot of demands and a lot of responsibility.

21st Century Americans aren’t the only ones who worship money and think it will solve all of our problems. It’s been going on since the beginning of humanity. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us the parable of the rich fool. The man’s crops produced abundantly, and rather than share his wealth, he builds huge barns to store his grain and goods in. The man says to himself, “Now I can be happy. I can relax, eat, drink and be merry because I don’t have to work hard now, and I have all the food and money I need.”

God says, “You fool. What if you lose your life tonight? Then, what will you have?”

Certainly, he won’t have his life, and without life, he will lose not only his possessions, but the ability to relax, eat, drink and be merry as well.

The real issue is this: we think money will make us happy, but Jesus says, “For one’s life does not consist in the abundance of material possessions” (Luke 12: 13-21). What does one’s life consist of then? Where is a meaningful, happy, worthwhile life found?

I’m going to suggest three ideas. First, one’s life is found in the ability to be able to relax, eat, drink and be merry without having to have it all. I’ll explain further in a moment. Second, one’s life is found in how engaged and invested a person is in life. Curiosity, exploration, getting to know people and places, developing skills…these ways of being lead to a more fulfilling life than acquiring possessions. And third, one’s life is made meaningful in having meaningful relationships. Connecting with others, feelings of belonging, this is where the good life is found.

First, many of us are under the impression that when we get to a certain place in life, then we will be happy, then we’ll have the good life. Perhaps we want to get to that time in life when we own our own home and the mortgage is paid off, or have a $50,000 safety net in our bank account. Perhaps we want to get to that place in life where we have achieved a certain career goal or have gotten married or have started raising children.

The problem here is we can waste many months and years waiting to achieve these goals. A person with a 30 year mortgage might have to wait until he is in his 50’s to be happy. A person who can’t find Mr. or Mrs. Right might spend half of their adult life unfulfilled.

The real key to having abundant life is being able to relax, eat, drink and be merry while we are in the process of achieving our goals. Don’t wait for tomorrow to be happy. Today, even though you don’t have everything you want, is the day to be happy. Keep working towards what you want and enjoy the day.

Second, better than having plenty of things in life is having plenty of interests in life. There’s that bumper sticker, which I disagree with, that says something like: the one with the most toys wins. It’s not the toys that matter, it’s what you do with those toys that makes life good. Having a boat is only worthwhile if you use it. Owning a motorcycle isn’t nearly as fun as riding a motorcycle.

Do you know what made my week this week? It wasn’t any thing. It was getting to know a new person who is very different from myself. On Tuesday, Adam Acard and I went to visit a former student of his named Taryll. Currently, Taryll is living at the Hillcrest House, not in their emergency shelter, which we support, but in their transitional housing. Taryll has lived a life I am blind to: living in the projects surrounded by crack cocaine, growing up on the streets, as a little boy being out until all hours of the night. Eventually going on to use and sell drugs himself. Being involved in the violence that comes with all that. But now he’s trying to straighten out his life, and so he sat down with Adam and I and gave us an education not only about his life, but about what’s happening on the streets of Poughkeepsie, stuff you wouldn’t see if you didn’t know it was happening. And we also talked about what we, Adam and I, might do to help.

Getting to know new people, exploring foreign situations, traveling, cultivating new skills, being curious and invested in life is where one’s life is found.

Third, the good life has everything to do with good relationships. God did not put us here to be alone, to be isolated, to be unknown. God wants us together, in community, and to be known and accepted for who we are as individuals. When you feel supported, it makes all the difference in life. When you feel alone, life is sad and depressing.

Not only do we need one another, we also need to give to and receive from one another. First, I think we need to receive because you can’t give what you don’t have, but once you do have, then you can give.

A perfect example is our food pantry, which was last Thursday night. Because we as a congregation have been so fortunate, we are able to give to those who are less fortunate. It warmed my heart because one little boy, who was only three or four and who attends our nursery school, was so excited when he saw Trix yogurt in his food bag. He was so excited he asked me for a spoon and ate the yogurt right then on the way out to the car. To see someone so happy, and we were able to contribute to making that happiness possible, that is living a good life.

My friends, next time your struggling with what will make your life feel more satisfying, more meaningful, more happy, know that the answer is not found in an abundance of material possessions. The answer is not having more or getting to a certain place.

The answer is that you already have enough, and that your happiness can be found in the present moment on your way to someplace else. The answer is that excitement and joy is found in exploration and getting to know God’s world and God’s people. The answer is that deep, meaningful connections, which make life worth living, are found when we engage one another, when we are real and we share with one another.

We are not rich fools, but wise disciples.

Hanging in my hallway so that I walk past it about 30 times a day is this sign, saying, “You have enough.” May we all be blessed to know that we have enough; we don’t need more and that true happiness is found in the ways of God.