Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Grace Prevails Over the Wars Within Us and Among Us

There are parts of the Bible I have a hard time understanding and cannot relate to, like the book of Numbers and parts of Revelation, for example. But one passage I understand and relate to very well, and I expect you might also, is Paul’s words from Romans 7. Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

You know what he’s talking about, right? Some days, maybe even every day, we find ourselves in conflict, wanting to behave in one way, but instead behaving in another. We want to eat healthy, but we end up at McDonald’s or Crumbs. We want to get up early, perhaps to workout or have devotional time, but we end up hitting the snooze until the last possible second. We want to take care of matters of the heart, like calling our parents or friends who live far away or putting together the photos from last year’s vacation, but instead, we end up watching some pointless TV show or surfing the web.

Sometimes, when we “do the very thing [we] hate,” our actions are even more detrimental. We want to serve God, but we feed our own selfish desires instead. We want to give love, but we end up hurting the people we love instead. We want to follow a straight and narrow path that leads to life, but we end up going down the dark road that takes us deeper into the heart of our own misery.

As Paul says, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it” (Romans 7: 18).

Being unable to do what we want to do is a part of being human. In a way, it sounds ridiculous. Why wouldn’t we be able to do what we want to do? Paul says that it is the sin that dwells within us that keeps us from doing the good we want. Without speaking any condemnation at all this morning, I simply want us to acknowledge that the inner conflict and the damaging behaviors that come from it are a part of our shared human reality.

We love God and we want to do what we believe is the good and right thing for us and others, but there is a war that rages within us. Sometimes, we follow the good. Other times, we are overcome, destructive, even possessed. We succumb to the very addictions, actions, and interactions that ultimately convict us of our brokenness and our weakness.

Everyone needs forgiveness.

Do you think the woman who committed adultery, was caught and put before Jesus as an example wanted to be in that situation?

I don’t! I can’t explain why she did what she did but I don’t think she intentionally wanted to be in a situation of adultery, knowing all the pain that causes so many people, including herself.

What happens to the woman caught in adultery though? No one is going to argue that she was right in her behavior, and yet, no one can condemn her or stone her.

You know what Jesus said. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

And everyone disappeared because the scribes and Pharisees and people listening to Jesus suffer from the inner conflict and the actions it leads to just like she did, just like we do.

Jesus says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

Her reply, “No one, sir.”

And then these words, some of the greatest words in the whole Bible. “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Everyone needs forgiveness, and in Christ, everyone receives forgiveness.

Jesus doesn’t condemn us for our sin or weakness. Just the opposite: He saves us from it! Paul says, “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And then immediately, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” because it is Jesus who breaks the law of sin and death, and it is Jesus who takes our condemnation upon himself and keeps us in a dynamic, working relationship with God. It’s Jesus who gives us a fresh start and another chance every day. As our opening hymn reminds us, “Morning by morning, new mercies I see.”

Thanks be to God is right!

Doing what we don’t want to do is a part of what it means to be truly human. And rather than condemn us, what this must convict us of is that we need help. To be human is to be in need.

Everyone needs help, and in Christ, everyone receives help.

You might be wondering, how does God help us?

One way is by giving us each other. We have the choice of whether we will love each other through our troubles and difficulties or whether we will hold grudges and be unaccepting.

One of the most touching stories of reconciliation that I know was a friend of mine who lived in a seriously dysfunctional family. When she was a child, Veronica’s father was an alcoholic and verbally abusive. Her mother was afraid to leave because she had two young children and no money of her own. Sadly, it’s a common story. From birth until she was 13, Veronica’s father drank heavily every night, whether at home or the bar, and he barely paid attention to anyone in the family. Then on May 12, 2007, he quit drinking. I don’t know his exact story, but he had hit his bottom, as they say. He apologized to everyone in the family, but it was difficult to forgive after all the pain and suffering they had endured for those many years.

When Veronica left for college, she had no real relationship with her father to speak of. But when her dad got sick in her senior year, Veronica went to visit him in the hospital. The road to repairing their relationship has been a long one, but one time I was with Veronica and her whole family at one of her birthday parties. Her dad said to me very quietly but with conviction, “I love this daughter of mine so much because she was willing to see past my mistakes and love me again.” That’s it. That’s all he said, but I could tell that Veronica’s acceptance and love had changed his world.

Everyone needs love, and if we act like Christ acts towards us, everyone can have love.

Another way God helps us is by giving us the strength to change our ways and to actually stop doing the very things we hate. It is possible to do things differently, and I believe it is it the work of the Holy Spirit to empower us to see the world from a new perspective and to make new choices. Veronica’s father did it with his drinking, and there are millions of success stories of people like him, who went from being weak and broken to being strong and whole.

My prayer is that we can do this and that the people whom we love can do this as well.

So when you find yourself conflicted and acting in ways that diminish your existence as a unique, loving, Spirit-filled person, don’t waste time condemning yourself. When you see others going astray, don’t waste time condemning them. Jesus isn’t.

But point yourself or point that person in God’s direction. Turn your life back over to Christ. He will help you. God will be gracious to you. God will “relieve the troubles of [your] heart, and bring [you] out of [your] distress” (Psalm 25: 17).

This morning, I simply invite you to open up your hearts and lives and let God love you just as you are…perfectly imperfect. Acceptance, strength, transformation – these things can all be yours because…Everyone needs grace, and in Christ, everyone receives grace.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What Happens After We Say "Yes" To God?

(Read Jonah 3: 1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20)

Do you ever feel stuck? Like you aren’t moving forward in any positive direction? Uninspired? Unmotivated? In a funk, we might say.

In the dead of winter, this can happen to us. Whether its actually the dead of winter, like in the months of January and February, or if we find ourselves in the dead of winter in our souls.

I know I do, but the blah days don’t have feel like the end of the world or like we’re failing in the game of life. They can just be taken in stride. The blah days are the days we treat ourselves to watching movies, eating cupcakes and taking naps, enjoying the simple pleasures of being human.

Life is a journey and a process. The beginning of the journey is when we say “yes” to God. Jesus comes to all of us and says, “Follow me.” And when we reply, “yes,” our lives head off in new directions. The disciples went from being fishermen to fishers of men, and Jonah, after he said, “yes,” went from the belly of a whale to Ninevah to proclaim the message of God. It is in saying “Yes” to God’s call that we find our lives expanding and ourselves transforming. It is in saying “yes” to God’s call that we live into our highest callings.

But this doesn’t happen overnight. What does happen overnight is a great deal of trial, of testing, of wrestling within ourselves and with God. That’s because where we are at and where God is taking us is a journey of the soul.

Think of a caterpillar on its way to becoming a butterfly. It must go through a process of metamorphosis. The caterpillar needs to wrap itself up tightly in a cocoon and allow itself to be changed.

The soul’s journey is no different. If God is calling you to change a way you think or act, you must go through the events and have the realizations that will bring you to a new place. What feels like blah days, what feels like being stuck, might actually be your own process of metamorphosis.

I also like the image of a mother who is pregnant, waiting to give birth to her child. For nine months, she is in a process called gestation. The time is necessary for the baby to develop so that when it is born it can live and thrive in this new world. Our souls also go through periods of gestation. As the Holy Spirit is actively working to sanctify us, we might feel as though we are just waiting around, being unproductive and not moving forward, but in truth, we are making advances in our development, it just takes time.

And here’s the thing, the process that we are going through, the time of metamorphosis, gestation, transition is not something you can force. It happens when the time is right and for as long as is necessary.

This can be one of the most frustrating aspects of the spiritual journey if we don’t understand what is happening because internally we feel conflict. We feel like we are stuck and changing at the same time. We long for some resolution or advancement that is not happening quickly enough.

But, if we recognize that what we are feeling and thinking is normal, if we know that what we are hoping for will in fact happen in its own due process, than we can relax into this stage of our journey. It is preparing us for the greatness to come. I now know that everything I’ve been though I needed to go through to get to that next step, and the same is true for every soul.

Think about actors or musicians who hit it big when they are only kids or teenagers, Drew Barrymore, Brittany Spears, Lindsay Lohan, River Phoenix. These people aren’t ready for their success and they inevitably can’t handle their reality and destruct. When we try to force our growth or be someone that we haven’t yet become, we too aren’t ready for the work that God gives to us. We find ourselves in the limelight without the right words to share. We find ourselves in the job without the skills necessary to complete the tasks required.

But if we are wise, if we allow for the process of maturation and give ourselves the time needed, then when we finally do burst forth, we are ready for it. We are like George Clooney acting and producing film after film of Academy Award caliber. Or author Steven Pressfield who went from being unable to write 10 pages in a six month period to someone who churns out bestseller after bestseller.

While we cannot force the timing of our evolution, we can play a part in our own development. One thing we can do I’ve already mentioned, and that’s trusting the process. Another thing we can do is take one step forward each time we are ready. The journey of a 1000 miles starts with one step. And then another step. And another step. And another. And another. Until one day, we find ourselves in the place we always wanted to reach. Having a willing attitude will make us co-creators with God in order to live into our highest callings.

What happens after we say “Yes” to God?

The journey truly begins. We find happiness in the process. There will be days, weeks, months, hopefully not years, that seem like a waste, but don’t panic. These are actually times of metamorphosis and gestation. When the time is full, we will soar like a butterfly.