Sunday, January 30, 2011

We Live By Faith

I’ve heard a lot of sad stories in the past few weeks.

A friend of mine just got news that the bank is looking to foreclose on his house. Meanwhile, another set of friends finally conceded to bankruptcy. The people of the world are in a sea of financial burden at this time, and some of us are swimming while others of us are sinking. What was God thinking when he created money and allowed it to be the means for our survival in the civilized world?

And then, a friend who was living in fear of his girlfriend walking out on their relationship had his nightmare confirmed when she packed up her stuff and left the other night. Across the river, a woman I know caught her husband in a sea of lies and deception because he was having an affair. What was God thinking when he made us one for the other, to live in pairs, when relationships can be the source of so much suffering?

Along work lines, a close friend of mine, who is a college professor out at a small university in Iowa, was finally granted a job interview at a prestigious university in a charming town that she would love to live. The job of her dreams! She prepared 50 hours for this interview, including writing an original lecture, one she’d never given before, to teach the students. She nailed the lecture; the students loved it. But later on, while giving her faith testimony to a panel who was interviewing her, she teared up; she was vulnerable and showed her passion for God. Well, the dean took her tears as weakness, and then criticized her for not having enough publications in her portfolio. She said to me on the phone, “I have never felt so inadequate in my professional life.” But the crazy thing is, she had just finished doing an outstanding job giving an impassioned and inspiring lecture. I told her, “What can they expect? If you’re passionate, you’re passionate. That means both giving great lectures and crying when talking about your faith journey. They can’t expect one without the other.” What was God thinking when he created deans, who are supposed to lift people to new heights, but instead, who make other people feel thoroughly inadequate?

And then, there are the saddest stories of all, the stories about death. On Wednesday, a senior high student was killed at our intersection up here, Cross Rd. and Route 55. What a tragedy, a young life gone forever…And then, only a few weeks before, we lost Roger Grant to an addiction that he struggled with for over 20 years. What was God thinking when he created drugs? When he created death? When he allows children to die?

Maybe, it’s not all God’s fault, but I have a tendency of wanting to blame God. God gets the credit when things go well. Why shouldn’t he get the credit when things go poorly? Afterall, most people feel the need to blame someone when bad things happen. Homes taken, loves lost, dreams demolished, lives stolen…what are we to think?

I guess we could blame ourselves instead. We could attribute our suffering to our own fault. We could beat ourselves up, and then vow to never do that again. Whatever “that” is. We could vow never get in that situation again or to handle things differently the next time. While we are responsible for much of what happens in our lives, there is even more that is beyond our control. Besides, blaming ourselves is as useless as blaming God. It doesn’t help the pain. It doesn’t ease our suffering but only compounds it.

You know what helped me the other day? Taking a break from the blame game and viewing life through a different lens. It wasn’t my intention to develop a different perspective. In fact, I was just trying to escape reality for a little while by watching television, but this show on the creatures of the earth came to me like a gift and opened my eyes to a new way of seeing.

It showed all different life forms upon the earth, how unique they are, how varied the courses of their lives are. We all know how whales swim thousands of miles to give birth to their calves in certain waters, but did you know that there is a tree frog the size of your fingernail, bright blue and red in color, who carries its tiny eggs one at a time thousands of feet upward and deposits them in the cup of a flower filled with water so that there babies will grow to full size. It can’t leave all the babies together in one place because the babies will eat each other if left together. It’s amazing what this tiny animal does in order to sustain the life of its young. It’s even more amazing to see this animal grow to full size and color, and it’s no bigger than a fruit loop.

I think the reason this show altered my perspective and gave me comfort was because it reminded me of God’s power, benevolence and creativity when he formed the creatures that live on this magnificent earth. It reminded me that God created the universe intentionally and with order, and that God gave each creature purpose and survival skills.

Faith is one of the survival skills that God gave to us. We live by faith. When we are being severely challenge, when our hearts are broken, our faith in God, believing that everything will ultimately be okay, believing that God will help us, prevents us from completely giving up and falling apart. Faith keeps us going. It keeps us alive.

We live by faith. Our faith in God, yes, but perhaps even more importantly, we live by God’s faith in us. God believes in us. God knows that we have the strength to endure tremendous hardship. God knows that we have the courage and resilience and love to keep going even when we are overwhelmed and disheartened.

The reason God believes in us, even if we doubt him, is because God gives us the strength, courage, resilience and love to go on. God is faithful to us at all times and in all circumstances. God completely believes in us because he knows that he won’t abandon us. The Lord will help us through.
In Psalm 34, we hear the personal witness of one who has experienced God’s faithfulness for himself. The psalmist says, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears… This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles” (Psalm 34:4, 6).

It’s not just the psalmist who is delivered by God’s faithfulness though. The Scripture continues saying, “The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them [as well]; he delivers them from all their troubles. The Lord is [also] close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34: 17-18).
“Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” (Psalm 34: 5, 10)

God is faithful to all of us, especially those who seek him and believe in his grace and mercy. But if life hits you so hard that you can’t remain faithful to God, know this: God will always, always remain faithful to you!

I am reminded of the hymn, Great is Thy Faithfulness. O God my father… Great is they faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! Morning by morning new mercies I see; all I have needed thy hand hast provided; great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

The song is right. We are all still here, aren’t we? Here to greet a new morning. Every person I mentioned earlier in this sermon going through difficult times, except for the ones who passed, they endure as well. Actually, even the ones who passed endure, I believe. And faithfully, I believe that those of us who remain, our lives will get better. We will be healed, and our dreams will be fulfilled.

Jesus of Nazareth has the same faithfulness that God the father has. Never does he doubt us. Always he remains faithful to us and surrounds us with encouragement and love by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

With Jesus as our example, with the Holy Spirit as our guide, may we remain faithful to one another. Our homes ma be taken, our loves may be lost, our dreams may be demolished and our lives may be stolen, but we remain here to support each other and surround each other in love. Heartbreak is too difficult to bear alone. We need to carry each other’s burdens, and we need to let other people carry our burdens for us just as we let the Father, Son and Holy Spirit carry them.

I know there is hardship, suffering and sorrow in this sanctuary, but do not blame God or yourselves and do not doubt God or yourselves. We live by faith. We live by our faith in God. We live by God’s faith in us. We live because God is faithful. No one is alone in his or her suffering and that is because God is with us every step of the way. As Peter tells us in his letter, “Let the Lord have all your worries and cares, for he is always thinking about you and watching everything that concerns you” (1 Peter 5:7). My faithful friends, be still and know that the Lord is good.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Spirit of God Descends

As part of getting my new year off to a good start and incorporating health into my lifestyle, I re-joined the tennis club, Sportplex, in New Winsdor last week. In January of 2009, I signed up at Sportsplex because I wanted to get in better shape and get back to the game that I loved so much throughout my childhood and adulthood, but I had quit playing in 2010 because once I moved to Lagrangeville, the club seemed too far away. I missed it though, and since I couldn’t find a club around here that felt like home, I re-joined Sportsplex.

My first match back, I was playing with my good friend, Sheila. At first, we went back and forth pretty well; I would win on my serve, she on hers. But eventually, she took over and went ahead. I knew that one of the reasons she was beating me was because she’s been playing the last 1 ½ years while I haven’t been, but I immediatley found myself getting mad at myself, getting increasingly intense and agitated, wanting to be better than I was. I started rushing and just made more mistakes. Pretty soon I was yelling at myself via the internal dialogue running through my head.

And then, I stopped. I stopped talking; I stopped running. This was not the attitude I wanted to have while playing tennis. Tennis is supposed to be fun for me, a time to release energy and enjoy myself. But instead, I was engaging in negative self-talk, and taking all the fun out of playing. Just like it sounds, negative self-talk is when we speak to ourselves in harsh and negative ways.

Perhaps you too engage in negative self-talk. We all say things to oursleves like, “I’m not good enough.” Or “ I can’t do anything right.” Or we call oursleves names, like lazy or dummy or stupid. We criticize our bodies that we are too fat, too ugly, too wrinkley… You name it. We all say things meaner to ourselves than we would say to anybody else.

Negative self-talk is the opposite of being gentle and of loving yourself. And it’s crucial that we all love ourselves . First of all because God wants us to love ourselves, and second of all, because the way we treat ourselves is eventually the way we treat others. If you speak to yourself in a negative way, in time, you will hear yourself saying those same things to friends, children, parents, co-workers. Criticizing others because of our own insecurities is a far cry from what Jesus intended when he told us to “love our neighbors as ourselves.”

On the tennis court, when I stopped, the word that immediately came to mind was “gentle.” “Be gentle with yourself, Mandy,” I heard inside my head. “Enjoy this time you have set aside to make yourself a better person.”

I think every one of us could be more gentle with ourselves.

And so, gentleness is on my mind. When I read today’s Scripture from Isaiah,it was obvious to me how God describes his chosen one as gentle. God spoke thorugh the prophet Isaiah, saying about Jesus, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:1-3).

A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench. To me this means that Jesus will not use violence or hostility to get his point across. Christ is gentle in his pursuit of justice, and yet, he won’t quit. He will faithfully bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, and yet, the world will hear him.

Jesus is transforming the earth by his gentle ways, winning allegaince to his side, hearts to his cause, and bringing wills in conformance with his own. He doesn’t do this by coersion or condemnation, but by gentleness and love.

We can do the same in our own lives. We can transform ourselves through gentleness, acceptance and love. We can guide others through gentleness, acceptance and love.

Today we celebrate the Bapstim of Jesus. Scripture says, “And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:16-17).

And when we think about Jesus baptism, how God’s Spirit descended upon him, not only are we reminded that he is the chsoen one, but how through him, we are also the chosen ones. God’s Spirit descends on us as well as baptizsed Christains, and when that Spirit does descend, we are transformed from the inside out and blessed with the fruits of the Spirit.

Gentleness is one of the fruits of the Spirit, but there are 8 more, and these are qualities that become mainfest in our lives as the Spirit of God comes to dwell in our hearts. The fruits of the Spirit are: Joy, love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. This means that as we come to know Christ in our lives, as we mature as Christians, we become more joyful, loving, peaceful, patient, kind, gentle, good, faithful and in control of ourselves.

At different phases on our spiritual journeys, I believe God is cultivating at least one particluar fruit in our lives. Right now, in my life, I believe it is gentleness. I feel like I am being called to be more gentle with myself while playing tennis, while doing my work, while I speak to myself within the confines of my own mind. And I need to learn to be more gentle with others, while listening to them, while speaking with them, while thinking about them within the confines of my own mind. For me, being more gentle means being less judgmental, less pushy and rushed. It means yielding to God and that which is in life.

Right now, God is also culitvating at least one particular fruit of the Spirit in your life as well.

With Jesus baptism, we are called to remember and live into our own baptisms as children of God. On this morning, which is just an ordinary morning and yet precious because it is what we have been given for right now, the Spirit of God descends upon you. I leave you with a final question, what fruit is God bringing forth in your life? Joy, love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control. This is the Spirit’s gift to you. Receive it.