Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Grateful For It All

(Read Job 42:10-17)

It all becomes so clear when we look back on our lives. How this turns into that. How that turns into this. And we can be grateful for it all.

Hindsight is always 20/20 or so the saying goes. When we reflect upon the twists and turns, it’s much easier to see how God was working to orchestrate our futures looking back than while we were actually going through our ordeals.

For example, Steve Jobs, one of the founders of Apple Computers, dropped out of college after six months, which was very scary for him considering he had been told from birth that he must go to college. He dropped out because Reed College, where he was attending, was incredibly expensive. Jobs parents’ were working class and all of their savings were being eaten up by his college tuition. Since Jobs had no idea what he wanted to do with his life and didn’t think the required classes that he was taking were leading him down any definitive road to happiness, he dropped out. But in doing so, he started dropping in on other classes that did interest him.

One such class was a calligraphy course. Jobs was fascinated by serif and san serif typefaces, about the amount of space that went between different letters and about the art of typography in general. At the time, the course didn’t have any practical application to his life, but 10 years later, when Jobs was designing the first Macintosh computer, this information had a tremendous impact. Jobs said this in his Stanford commencement address:

“[The Macintosh] was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.”

I like this idea about connecting the dots as we look back at our lives.

Think about your life. Perhaps that bully from school who tormented you is the reason you are so courageous and successful today. Or perhaps your mother who never gave you adequate attention and affection is why you married the loving woman sitting next to you. Or perhaps the school who rejected you or the employee who sent you away is why you are now on a chartered course more in line with your gifts and passions than if you had just followed some generic path you thought you should be taking. Or perhaps surviving cancer is the reason you no longer take life for granted, and the reason you have so much compassion for the suffering of others.

Connecting the dots is something that we do looking backwards, and it is affirms who God is in our lives as the great orchestrator, the One who transforms even the most difficult times and circumstances into our growth and maturation as the children of God. Romans 8: 28 says, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”
This philosophy about connecting the dots can positively impact how we live today because we now know that the present moment creates a better future. Everything may not be perfect in your current situation, that’s pretty much a guarantee, but everything now is leading to something orchestrated by God and the outcome is secure. That’s a reason to give thanks at all times, no matter if it’s a good or bad period of life.

Rascal Flatt’s wrote a song called “Bless the Broken Road,” and he picked up on this idea in the song. Some of the lyrics are:

"Bless The Broken Road"
I set out on a narrow way many years ago
Hoping I would find true love along the broken road
But I got lost a time or two
Wiped my brow and kept pushing through
I couldn't see how every sign pointed straight to you

Every long lost dream led me to where you are
Others who broke my heart they were like Northern stars
Pointing me on my way into your loving arms
This much I know is true
That God blessed the broken road
That led me straight to you

That’s connecting the dots.

Take Job for example. He was a man who was afflicted in many ways. To use the language we applied to ourselves, everything was not perfect in his life. Far from it. His donkeys, oxen and livestock were stolen, his children were killed and he had boils from his head to his toes.

At one point, Job cursed the day he was born, but at another point, he refused to curse God and give up his faith. I think Job knew that even his suffering and loss were not reasons to given up on being thankful because healing would be on its way.

That takes us to the text we heard this morning when Jobs fortunes are restored. Scripture says, “The Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (Job 42: 10).

The scripture doesn’t tell us Job’s response, but I bet he was giving God thanks and praise for a myriad of things. Yes, that his fortunes had been restored, but also thanks that God had saw him though the period of trial, thanks that he had the courage and fortitude to endure, thanks that his outcome was secure in the hands of the Lord.

Looking back, Job could see the dots connecting. He could see how his relationships with his siblings had improved Scripture says that they came to him and ate bread with him, that they had sympathy for him and comforted him because of all the evil that had been inflicted upon him.

I bet that first meal Job had with his family after his fortunes were restored was the best meal of his life. I bet the hugs he received were cherished unlike any embrace he had formerly known. When he had more children, I bet a day didn’t go by that he didn’t appreciate them. Scripture says he even gave the daughters an inheritance along with the brothers, which was not the practice in those days. There was no amount of generosity too great because Job now knew after all that he had been through the superior value of having people in his life whom he loved.

Every person has a default position. Some people that you know are happy and optimistic, while other people that you know are depressed and fatalistic. Some smile while some are sarcastic. Some want more while some give as much as they can away.

Giving thanks can be our default mindset. By default mindset I mean it can be the attitude we revert to in any given moment no matter what the circumstances are.

Many people make thanksgiving about the blessings we have, and that’s not wrong, it’s just not the full picture. When we give thanks, we are thankful for the good things. We say, I am thankful for my loving family. I am thankful for my good health. I am thankful for my material wealth and the security it affords me.

But what if we gave thanks for all things, whether it feels like a blessing or a curse at the time, knowing that God is plotting a course, and that we will be able to go back and connect the dots later. As crazy as it sounds, the biopsy can be a reason to give thanks. The divorce can be a reason to give thanks. The bankruptcy can be a reason to give thanks.

It can all becomes so clear when we look at our lives. How this is turning into that. How that is turning into this. And we can be grateful for it all.

And that is because 1. We are alive to experience all of these things. 2. Because we never know what blessing God will bring out of them. And 3. Because God has placed in each of us the intrinsic ability to take even the most difficult worldly circumstance and turn them into rich and meaningful experiences though God’s Spirit who dwells in us. Steve Jobs was able to do this. Job was able to do this. And all of us are also able to do this.

Giving thanks can be analogous to our breathing. It’s our default position. When things are good, we give thanks, and when things are bad, we still give thanks.

Our faith is that we believe in a God of redemption, a God of salvation. We believe that weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning. We believe in a new heaven and a new earth where crying and pain and death will be no more. We believe that all things work for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.

There’s always something to be thankful for. We can look at our past, connect the dots and be grateful. We can look at our present situation, count our blessings and be grateful. We can see in our minds eye a future that we know is secure because it is in the hands of God and be grateful.

Those of us who have this default, perpetual attitude of gratitude (and with some spiritual growth, it can be all of us), last longer, recover quicker and become more.

We last longer in the face of adversity. We don’t let hardship beat us down, but we endure knowing God give us the strength and will see us through.

We recover quicker when life doesn’t seem to be going our way or when we are mistreated. We have resilience because God’s Spirit dwells in us and Jesus walks along side of us.

And we become more. We don’t settle for mediocrity because we know God has plans for our future, plans for our good and not for our harm.

So connect the dots and let them give you hope for your future.

It all becomes so clear when we start looking ahead to our lives that are being created. How this will turn into that. How that will turn into this. And we can be grateful for it all.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Say “Yes” to God

(Read Jonah 1)

One of my favorite scenes in the Academy Award winning film, American Beauty, is this wonder-filled moment when the camera follows a plastic bag being blown by the wind. As the wind whips and stirs, the bag rises in a spiral like motion up into the air, and as the wind calms, the bag drops down to the ground. It dances along in the street for a moment, before it is again taken up by the wind. It is as though the bag has a life, not of its own, but because of the wind. The interaction between the bag and the wind reminds me of the dance between the creature and the Creator.

God is like the wind, bringing forth life and movement. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, God is the wind in my sails. Imagine that you are a sailboat, propelled forward by God’s strength and energy, by God’s breath and Spirit. When our sails are in line with the wind, we move forward swiftly on the course chartered by God. But when our sails don’t align with the wind, we can find ourselves barley moving or at a rocky standstill. Our lives are more dynamic and flow easier when our sails are filled with God’s Spirit.

God is always trying to do something in our lives. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that God is always trying to get us to do something with our lives. After all, our God is the God of direction. There is always some path we are supposed to be following and some decisions we need to be making. When we resist God, when we effectively say “no,” it is as though our sails are not aligned with the wind. Our boat doesn’t follow God’s trajectory. But when we are willing, when we effectively say “yes” to God, our sails are filled with wind, and we move forward as God intends.

Take the story of Jonah for example. God wants Jonah to do something, to go to Nineveh and cry out against the city because of their wicked ways, but Jonah refuses. He makes his refusal known by fleeing to a different city called Tarshish; this is a place that Scripture says is “away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1: 3). And that’s when things really start to go wrong for Jonah. While on the ship, God raises up a storm, perhaps in his anger, which causes all the men on the ship to quake with fear. When the sailors realize that Jonah is the reason for the storm, they throw him overboard. Jonah brought calamity to himself and others because he said “no” to God.

Throughout my life, this has happened to me in subtle ways, but one time, just like with my friend Jonah, God was very direct. It was in 2002 when I was working in Los Angeles as an assistant to a film producer. I felt God calling me into the ministry, and I even applied to two seminaries in an attempt to follow the calling, but when I got accepted, I decided to turn the offers down so I could stay in Hollywood. In my heart of hearts, I knew the film industry wasn’t for me. I knew because I was actually quite unhappy working there, but I had hopes that things would get better.

One day, I told my boss, Keri, that I had been accepted to seminary, but that as long as I had a job with her, I was going to pass on the option. She assured me that my job was safe and that things were going well. Only a few days later, I left for a week to attend my sister’s wedding in Hawaii. While there, I heard God speaking to me, telling me that he had plans for my life. In my mind I heard a very clear statement that I wrote in my journal. It was: “I am going to give you your land.” I didn’t know it at the time, but God meant that he was sending me to seminary.

When I returned to California, I found out a little bit more about the way God works when we say “no” to his plan. You see, the night I returned, I opened up my mailbox to find a letter from Keri, my boss. I wish I could say it was a letter of thanks for what a great employee I was, but I cannot. It read, “Mandy, I hate to do this to you because you are a very nice person, but you are fired. I think you belong in seminary.” Talk about taking the wind out of my sails! In a matter of second, I had been brought to a dead halt. God was intervening. I had said “no,” but God was saying “yes.”

After crying all night, I called Harvard, the school I really wanted to go to, but they said my position had already been filled. Now, I was really panicking. I called Princeton next, my back up school. They said “yes” I could still attend. I was relieved and overjoyed. I boarded a plane a few days later, and as I was driving through the lush green town of Princeton, I heard the words again, “I am going to give you your land.”

God did what he had to do to get Jonah to go to Nineveh. God did what he had to do to get me to go to seminary. And I imagine, God does what he has to do to get all people following in the direction he wants them to go, for our God is a God of direction. In what direction has God urged you? Or in what direction is God urging you?

Maybe you’re estranged from a loved one. Perhaps God is urging you to reconnect with a family member or distant friend. Maybe you have been working 70 hours a week and are completely stressed out. Perhaps God is urging you to take a vacation or even just a walk in Central Park. Maybe you have been lonely and without the support you need in your life. Perhaps God is urging you to meet new people, to develop relationships. Maybe you feel unfulfilled in your current work. Perhaps God is urging you to take a class or switch fields.

I have learned that saying “yes” to God is the best response because it will make our lives easier and lead us towards our highest callings. Saying “no” can lead us to estrangement, fatigue, loneliness and unfulfillment. Saying “No” is frustrating, moreso for us than for God, because let’s face it, God always gets his way in the end.

Here I am in the ministry, and trust me, getting fired from that Hollywood job was not the route I wanted to take. And I’m sure Jonah didn’t want to get hated by people, thrown from a boat, and swallowed by a fish. But that fish actually saved Jonah’s life, and after three days in its belly, Jonah had a change of heart. When he returns to dry land and God asks him a second time to go to Nineveh, this time you best believe he goes. Saying “yes” is like aligning your sails with the wind. You get to your destination more quickly and with less turmoil.

Remember that bag and how it danced in the wind. This is the dance that happens when we say “yes.” Yes to changing, yes to growing, yes to challenges, yes to the journey, and ultimately, yes to God.

Instead of ending this sermon by saying the traditional, “Amen.” I’ll simply end it by raising my hands to heaven and saying “Yes!”