Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Light Lives in You!

One of my best friends. Dawn, struggles with depression. For her, this means that she isolates herself and goes from work to home, home to work. She cries over things that aren’t worth crying over, like when her boss yells at her or when her sister tells her how happy she is with her husband and two children, the family Dawn wishes she had. Recently, we went out for a nice dinner with the intentions of painting the town red. But Dawn’s eyes had no fire in them. She wanted to go home. The light had gone out within her.

Sadly, Dawn’s depression is not uncommon. I have spoken with many people, young and old, male and female, single and married, church-goer and non church-goer, who feel disillusioned by the hardships of life, overwhelmed, anxious, depressed. Those who suffer like this face each day with a bit of dread, and their own light is struggling to shine within them

John, a good man that I know through the prison system, was not disillusioned or anxious about life when he was 19. He was actually happy and cavorting about the streets. But one day, unintentionally, he got himself into a whole heap of trouble. John is from a rough neighborhood, and one day some 12 years ago, his best friend’s girlfriend was slashed across the face with a knife by a kid from the neighborhood. John accompanied his best friend to confront the boy, and as one thing lead to another, John found himself with the gun. He shot the kid from the neighborhood. He killed him. John was sentenced to 15 year in prison without parole and all the happiness and goodwill he had in his heart was lost. He became angry and blamed everyone but himself for the crime he had committed. When he came to Fishkill Correctional Facility, a men’s medium security prison which you can see off of Interstate 84, he was bitter and mean. He had a reputation even before arriving at the prison and was feared. In his eyes was darkness. The light had gone out within him.

While most of us will never commit murder, anger and blaming others for our problems runs rampant among us. We feel we deserve more than we have. We are sick and tired of the demands placed upon us. We feel wronged by those who are supposed to love us most. We face each day lost and lonely. Darkness looms large. Our own light is struggling to shine within us.

Where is God in all of this, we wonder. For many of us, believing in God means putting our faith and hope in a divine being outside of ourselves. This means that we put ourselves in a powerless situation waiting for God, who is out there, external to us, to rescue us from ourselves and that which we struggle with. It’s no wonder that so many people end up feeling bitter towards God and helpless. It’s no wonder that many of us stop believing. In trying to be faithful, we give our power away and we lose our accountability and responsibility. In doing this, we miss out on being the children of God we are created to be.

Scripture says that “In [Jesus Christ] was life, and that life was the light of all people” (John 1:4). Jesus brings light to the world. But so many of us feel that our light has been extinghished for one reason or another. Relationsihps, money, work, demands, not having the life we believe we deserve, you name it. Many of us feel lost in darkness as though the light has gone out within our souls.

But tonight, we celebrate and rejoice in the incarnation, that God came to earth to be with us in the person of Jesus Christ. We aren’t just remembering a historical event that took place 2000 years ago halfway around the world though. Tonight, we are rejoicing and celebrating in that light which was in Jesus that has been given to us as the children of God. Tonight, Jesus is being born again in the hearts of all who believe, and he is lighting the fire of life within us once again, dispelling the darkness we have known. On this most sacred of evenings, consider that God has come to dwell in you. Jesus was a human being with the divine inside of him. The miracle of Christmas is that we are human beings with the divine inside of us also, bringing us alive, filled with light.

To have faith in God is to let the Christ child grow inside of you so that as you think, speak and act, it is Christ thinking, speaking and acting in you. You become the light just as he was the light. Jesus remains present in the world through each of us. As Paul proclaims in Galatians, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

Think what this means then. The power of God is no longer something completely external to yourselves, something you are waiting for, something you have no control over. The power of God dwells in you. To believe in God is to believe in yourself. To have faith in God is to have faith in yourself. To have confidence in God is to have confidence in yourself. And to trust in God is to trust in yourself because you and God are one, like Jesus and the Father are one.

The depression that rules you, the anger that strangles your joy, the bad habit or addiction that diminishes your life, with the light of God in you, you will find the power to choose differently, to choose happiness over sorrow, health over destruction. The worry over money that keeps you up at night and on edge during the day, with the light of God in you, you will have a new perspective from which to approach the world. That cycle of blame and regret you have with your loved one, with the light of God in you, you will break that cycle by becoming someone who responds rather than reacts and someone who listens before you speak.

To have faith in God is to have confidence and trust in yourself as a child of light.

By the grace of God, my friend Dawn, now knows that the Living God lives inside of her. She has taken action to overcome her depression, her anxiety and fears. She is currently cultivating a life that encompasses much more than home and work. She is seeking her dream of marriage and family. She is taking care of herself. As someone who cares deeply about her, I am happy to say that the light has been rekindled within her. The light of God now shines in her soul

And John, who is still serving his time in prison, is a changed man. No longer does anger and blame fill his heart. By the grace and power of God, he has spent the last 12 years transforming himself. I saw him on Monday night. He was valedictorian of the Rising Hope class of 2010, a college level program offered in the prison. I saw a light in his eyes, and he could not stop smiling. (He had a huge grin. His smile made me smile). He told me that he had been resurrected from the dead and transformed both inside and out. He no longer felt and thought and acted like he did so many years ago. I am happy to say that the light has been rekindled within him. The light of God now shines in his soul.

Just a few days ago, I saw a full moon and a sky filled with stars. It was glorious and lit up both the sky and the earth. That light comes from God, but that is not the only light that comes from God There is also light inside of each of us. If no one ever told you this before, listen to these words tonight, the light of God shines within you. And with the birth of Jesus on this night, that light is being rekindled in your soul once again.

Just like there are billions of stars up there shining down upon the billions of people on the earth, so too is that light from God shining within us all. From depressed to hopeful. From angry to joyful. From unfulfilled to content. Whatever the situation, whoever you may be, the baby is being born and he is bringing light into your life. On this night, may the light be rekindled within us all. This year, Christmas comes for everyone, everyone alive.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How Do You Respond?

(Read Matthew 1:18-25)

In October of this year, in the Bible-belt in Georgia, an evangelical minister, Bishop Jim Swilley, decided to do something shocking. Before any scandal erupted, before any serious indiscretion had been committed, Bishop Swilley announced to his rather conservative congregation that he was a homosexual. He was gay. And he came out on his own terms because he felt compelled to do so.

One of the main reasons Bishop Swilley felt compelled to do so was because of the suicide of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who jumped off a bridge after his roommate streamed footage of him having sex with a man. Swilley said, “There was just one suicide too many. I had this moment of clarity; I am going to tell everyone I am gay. And maybe if it helps, I can save [someone’s life].”

Regardless of one’s beliefs about homosexuality, I think Swilley’s confession was incredibly brave. He didn’t have to, but to him, it was living life in truth or living life as a lie. And it was about trying to help others who had similar struggles.

How do you think the congregation felt to his admission? How would you feel if I stood up here and told you my deepest secret? And how do you think they responded to what they felt? Did they cry? Yell? Condemn? Walk away? Stay? Offer acceptance? Show love, compassion and empathy?

Today, we are talking and thinking about how we respond to the situations in our lives, no matter what the situation may be. No matter how big or how small. No matter if its self-created or if its imposed upon us.

My ex-boyfriend’s sister is 34 years old. Just a year or so older than I am. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year. You probably know that pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly kinds. Why? Why did she get it? Why her? She’s so young. She doesn’t deserve this sentence.

How do you think her father feels? How would you feel if your child was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 34? And how do you think her father has responded to his feelings? Does he cry? Yell? Curse God? Turn his back on God because he feels God has turned his back on him? Put distance between him and his daughter to protect himself emotionally? Or get closer to her? Help her? Care for her? Do anything he can to make the life she has left the best life possible?

In today’s Bible text, Joseph is dealt a difficult hand. He finds out that the woman he is about to marry is pregnant, and he knows it is not his child. He could have played it one of many ways. He could have left Mary. He could have humiliated her in public or done it privately. He could stay with Mary. He could have been angry and bitter for the rest of their lives or he could be accepting and loving towards her.

The Scriptures say that he thought of dismissing her, but because he was a righteous man, he was going to do so quietly, discreetly. Just when he had resolved to do this though, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. The angel said, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).

A note about angels: They don’t have to be winged, superhuman creatures. The Bible tells us that we can entertain angels unaware. An angel might be your child, your next door neighbor, a stranger in the supermarket. Listen up and keep your mind and ears open. An angel might be speaking to you at any moment.

How do you think Joseph felt about seeing an angel? About the message the angel delivered? How would you feel if the person you loved was having a child and you were not the biological parent of that child? Dismayed? Angry? Betrayed? Numb? Understanding? Loving, compassionate and full of empathy?

All day, every day, human beings engage in a dance of interacting with each other. We must respond to what each other says and does. When your husband or child walks in the house late, yells at you, and then storms off, how do you respond? Do you yell back? I know its difficult in the moment, but the best thing we can do is respond in love.

To respond in love requires courage and faith. It requires courage because we have to set our egos aside. It requires courage because we have to put our fears aside. And it requires faith because we have to believe that God is present in that situation, Emmanuel, God is with us. (This is what celebrating Christmas is all about- that God comes to be with us in the person of Jesus Christ.) It requires faith because we have to believe that God is using his power to bring about healing, even if it seems to us that God is taking a long, winding road, and maybe even seems to be going in the wrong direction.

How did people respond to Bishop Swilley? Well, the presiding Bishop of the International Communion of Charismatic Churches, David Huskins, criticized Swilley for yielding to a lifestyle that is contradictory to the Word of God. Many of his parishioners left the church. However, many stayed and embraced their pastor in the difficult situation he found himself. Perhaps most importantly was the responses of Bishop Swilley’s family. His wife, Debye, who had already known his secret all along, stood by side, defending their 21 year marriage and her husband’s character. Bishop Swilley’s sons had not known their father was a homosexual, but when asked whether this information would affect their relationship with him, his one son said, “Of course not. It took a lot of guts, and I respect him more now.” That’s responding in love, and it took them all courage and faith to do so.

How did Dayna’s father, George, respond to her situation? It caused him to get angry with God at first. It caused him to feel angry at himself because there was nothing he could do to help her. But rather than let himself get more and more frenzied, he surrendered to the situation and just started doing everything he could to care for Dayna and make her happy. He threw her a party. He went with her to chemo treatments. That’s responding in love, and it took him courage and faith to do so.

How did Joseph respond to Mary’s situation? He protected her against everything that people were saying. He took her as his wife and held nothing against her. He named his son, Jesus, as the angel told him to do, and took care of Jesus all the days of his life. That’s responding in love, and it took him courage and faith to do so.

This holiday season, while its wonderful to get together with relatives and friends, there will be difficult situations of all kinds: someone will drink too much and insist on driving, two people will get in an argument over political or religious views, an in-law or distant cousin will give you a back-handed compliment that has the potential to turn into an ugly situation if you let it. When this happens, I invite you to think of how Bishop Swilley’s sons stuck by his side, how Dayna’s father stuck by her side, and how Joseph stuck by Mary’s side. And how they all acted in love with courage and faith. All of us have the ability to act in love with courage and faith no matter what the situation.

Right now, we are going to say the Magnificat together. The Magnificat is Mary’s loving, courageous and faithful response to God when she found out that she had conceived a son. Now remember, she was a young, young, unmarried woman, and this was her response to a very difficult situation. If she can respond in love, so can we.