Tag Archives: Human Condition

Living on the Edge

While life on hospice has become more normal for me, I still have the feeling that I am “living on the edge.”  Today is all I really have for certain and I need to live each day with that in mind.   While my strength is waning a little each day, signs of the inability of my heart not being able to pump blood to my extremities point toward heart failure and I face a heart attack at any time.  I realize that tomorrow may not be mine to live and therefore  make sure to tell my loved ones every day of my love for them and thank them for their loving care for me.  And I try to live each day as fully as I can—not knowing whether I will have another one.     I am blessed that I have this foreknowledge of my condition so I can prepare, as many do not have that foreknowledge. Others are not so blessed.

But as I look at this dangerous world in which we live I think  all of us are in a similar position to mine.   Illnesses strike us down unexpectedly; terrorists set off car bombs or blow themselves up in large crowds;  automobile accidents snuff  out lives quickly and without warning;  we are gunned down by bullets meant for others but we are unluckily in their path or a deranged shooter chooses the  place we are in to open fire —it may be a shopping mall, a movie theater, a school or a church.  It seems that we are not safe anywhere!

The principle is the same or all of us—without warning we and our loved ones lives may be snuffed out.

So when we tell our loved ones goodbye in the morning we need to tell them that they are loved   That may be the last time we have a chance to do so   Death is so final—-it erases any attempt we might wish we had to express our love; to express our need for forgiveness;  to express our own forgiveness to those we love.

That is the life we all live as we are “living on the edge”.   We may not think the phrase applies to us, but it does.   Give your husband, your wife, your children, your mother and father, your grandchildren  and your siblings the love you feel for them every chance you are given  because, like it or not we are all “living on the edge”  every day.

May we build our lives as the French writer Stephen Grellet (1773-1855) wrote:

I shall pass thru this world but once.

Any good I can do or any kindness I can show another human being

Let me do it now.

Let me not deter or neglect it—

FOR I SHALL NOT PASS THIS WAY AGAIN.

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“Go to the world” not just “Go to Church”

 

Why should we go to church?   Do we go to seek healing from our “brokenness”?  Do we go to seek God’s will for our lives together with others who are searching for the same thing?    Do we go there to worship God?   Do we go for the beautiful music and the good feelings we have as we listen to it?   Do we go because it is a requirement for salvation?  Do we go to learn together with fellow Christians how to be disciples of Jesus?   Bingo!   You’ve got it!!

What is it that the church does that we should support it?   Are we discipling people so that they can go into the world and fulfill Jesus’ commission?   If we are not doing that, then perhaps we should support it as a nice social club, but not because it is the Church of Jesus Christ—because it isn’t.

In my opinion,most churches have things all turned around.   In our selfishness and our conceit we think that the church is a building or group of people that exists somehow for our benefit.    Isn’t that what all of the above, except the last statement,  is saying?

Instead of “going to churchhave we considered thechurch going to the world?”

Jesus, the itinerant preacher, early in his career visited his home synagogue of Nazareth. It was the equivalent of “going to church” today.   As he was already gaining fame, he was asked to read from the scrolls..  He read a passage taken from Isaiah 61,  and he so infuriated them with his remarks after the reading that the synagogue as a body rose up in rage and took him and tried to throw him off a cliff outside the town.   (Read Luke: 4:14-30 for the details!)   Clearly the synagogue wasn’t in agreement when Jesus read his job description:   The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.   He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.   They especially weren’t impressed when he told them he (Jesus) was the one that Isaiah was talking about.  I can almost hear them say:   “What is all this claptrap about the poor and the oppressed and the blind?  Who does this simple carpenter’s son think he is anyway?   What does all this stuff have to do with our church (synagogue)”?

If you read the gospels that tell of Jesus, it had everything to do with what churches should be doing.    Jesus never founded a church.   He never taught that people should go to church.   Jesus committed the “good news of the gospel”to those who were his disciples.  The church should be the gathering of those disciples today.    You can read his commission to his disciples  several places in the New Testament:   In Matthew 28: 19-20 he commissioned them to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.   And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” 

A similar commission to his disciples is found in Acts 1:7-8 :   It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.   But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The purpose of the church is to make disciples If you are one of those disciples then your commission is to “GO INTO THE WORLD” , not just to  “go to church.”   

There is a world that is hurting outside the doors of our churches.   There are children that are hungry.   There is massive poverty.   There is lack of medical care.   There are people who are mentally ill not getting help.   There are oppressed people.   There are people in prison.   There are people trying to turn their lives around.   There are hopeless people that need a word of hope.   There are people in despair.   There are people in mourning over the death of a loved one.   There are people who are warehoused in nursing homes with no family.  There are people who are victims of human trafficking.   There are people dying alone.   There are people with no housing, living on the streets.

All of these are people to whom Jesus send us as his disciples, his church, when we “go into the world.”

All of these are people who need to hear and see in the lives of Jesus’ disciples the “good news” that God loves them and will care for them through Jesus’ disciples—that’s us!   We need to go to church to prepare to be disciples, but we need to then go to the world and fulfill the commission given to Jesus’ disciples—-the church.

The Candles of Advent—Peace

 

Text:    Philippians 4;4-7

Theme:  Only when we are “anxious in nothing, prayerful in everything, thankful in much” does the “peace of God” settle over our hearts and minds.

            A lot of people like to wander through antique and collectible stores.  My wife loved to do that and therefore I spent a lot of time in antique stores.  There was a certain feeling of nostalgia, I’ll admit,  as I saw things that I remembered when I was young and recognized  them as familiar.    It sort of made me long for the “good old days” when life seemed simpler and better.   One of the things I often saw was an old kerosene lantern.  It made me think of the days when my Dad and I would light the lantern early in the morning and follow its glow to the barn, hang it on a post in the barn, and get to work on milking the cows.    It made me long for those days!   I treasured those times with my Dad.  Many people look back on their lives with longing, feeling that something precious has been lost or taken from them.   They want a missing treasure restored!  

            But what I lost cannot be restored by a visit to an antique store or by the purchase of an old lantern, can it?     As we struggle through our daily lives, we often stumble and fall, hurt ourselves and others, crash into obstacles and leave a trail of debris behind us.   We long many times for a lantern that will light our path, a beacon to guide us and lead us home.    And so we light a candle—an advent candle.   This is done on the first Sunday of the Advent season, and again on the second, third and fourth Sunday.  

            Each Sunday we light another candle and say,  “Restore us, O God”.   Restore our hope.   Restore our peace.   Restore our joy.   Restore your love.

            Last week we focused on the restoration of hope that we find in a relationship with God.   Today we will focus on the restoration of Peace. 

            When I say “Peace” I am not talking about peace as the absence of conflict.   During Jesus time on earth the word “peace” was often linked to Rome.   The time is referred to by historians as the Pax Romana—the Roman Peace.   This was a peace that was kept by the power of the sword of the Roman Army.   While there was an absence of conflict it was because of the overwhelming force of the Roman armies scattered throughout the world to keep the peace by the sword.

            The “Peace” I am referring to is the “Pax Christos”—the peace of Christ.   It is the Peace that comes not by the power of the sword but by the power of Love. 

            It is the “Peace” is reflected in the Hebrew word for “Peace” which is “Shalom”.    English translations often translate “shalom” as “peace”, but in reality the meaning of the word is much more complex.   As Sharon Watkins says in her book  Whole: A Call to unity in a Fractured World ,  Shalom “comes from a root word that means “whole”, as in “complete” or “safe”, either personally or within society.   Shalom does not indicate a passive harmony or mere absence of conflict, as the word “peace” sometimes does.   Shalom evokes a situation that is actively good, where the circumstances offer opportunities for inidividuals and communities to flourish….A good translation for “shalom” is “wholeness”.   (p. 48)            

            Many people in our world long for this kind of shalom peace and wholeness in their lives.   They feel an emptiness that remains deep within them.    Only God can fill this emptiness.   Long ago Augustine of Hippo, one of the great leaders of the early church, expressed it this way in his writing called “The Confessions”:   “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you!”  

            And so God’s peace will escape us until our restless hearts begin to rest in God.   This peace will come as a gift from God,  who  is the source of shalom or wholeness that we seek!    Paul writes of this shalom Peace in his letter to the church he founded at Philippi.    And he gives a way that we can to seek that peace.  Listen to what he writes:

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice.   Let your gentleness be known to everyone.   The Lord is near.   Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God.   And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.   (Philippians 4:4-7)

A more literal translation of this that gets right to the point is:  “Be anxious in nothing, prayerful in everything, thankful in anything…then the peace of God that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”   

            Let’s look more closely at this way of attaining God’s peace in our lives.  

First,  Be Anxious in Nothing:

            Frances Willard, the great temperance movement leader, once remarked that “anxiety is atheistic”!    What she was saying is that to be constantly anxious suggests that somehow we don’t trust God. 

            Some of us may remember our teenagers coming in just seconds before they were due home and finding us up and waiting for them.   They’d ask:  “What’s wrong, don’t you trust me?”

            What we don’t trust, what makes us anxious, whether it be our teenager’s curfew, our spouse’s health, or our own career—is when we feel we no longer have complete control over the situations we are facing.   No matter how many precautions we might take, or how well we think we have fortified ourselves against sneak attacks, down deep in our hearts we know that the much of the influences on our lives are out of our control.   Kids grow upillnesses attack without warningcompanies down-scale and lay off workers, an economy goes sourLife happens and we can’t control it!

            But if we let our anxieties over these uncontrollable factors in our lives rule us, we will never experience the “peace” of God.   If we can’t trust God to be in control of our lives regardless of what happens, then we will always be anxious.   That’s why we need to trust God and be anxious in nothing because God is God:  today, tomorrow, and always.  God will be there for us, no matter what happens.   We must trust in that to have “Shalom Peace”

 

Secondly, “Be Prayerful in Everything”  Paul advises.   

            The reason we can “be anxious in nothing”  and rejoice in God, is that God is powerfully present for us in prayer, always.    Paul recognizes that a good percentage of our prayers are more correctly “supplications” and “requests”.   Sometimes when we are spiritually strong our souls turn toward God and seek nothing but God’s presence—-but most of the time we approach God on our knees  (if not literally, figuratively) and come to God as supplicants who are admitting our own inadequacies and recognizing God as the source of our wholeness and strength.   Often our specific requests must seem childish and simple to God—-like the cartoon of two little boys who in early September donned all their mittens, coats and hats, perched themselves on their sled on the top of a hill and requested of God, “We’re ready….let ‘er rip!”    But other times our supplications and requests are deeply serious as we cry out…  “Help me!”   “Heal her!”   “Hear me!”   “Please, God, help me get through this!”

            Jesus told us that God wants our prayers and supplications and requests.  God wants to be vitally present in our lives and prayer is the way God can do that!    No wonder Paul advised his churches to “Pray without ceasing!”

 

Third, Be Thankful in All Things!

            Being thankful for all things does not mean putting on an “act” of being cheery come what may!   But being thankful in anything does mean believing that the guiding hand of God is constantly present in our lives.   It means our awareness that we are never “abandoned children” and that the love of God through Christ remains steadfastly by our side no matter what we face.  

            That is the reason we can be thankful in anything.   Our thankfulness is not a matter of “surface smiles” but is based in the confidence that whatever comes our way, God is there for us and will give us strength and wisdom to cope with our lives. 

If we truly practice the above three admonitions, then the “peace of God which passes understanding” that Paul writes of is ours.   God will guard our hearts and our minds and will give us Joy in Living.   And we’ll talk about that “Joy” next week as “Joy” is the Third Candle of Advent.

Let me close with a story that touched my heart when I read it and revealed how we find peace with God:

This story dates back to 1994—that was the year my wife and I visited our daughter Lisa and son-in-law Brian in Novisibursk, Siberia, in Russia.   They were there at the invitation of the Russian Department of Education to teach teachers how to teach morals and ethics to their students.   Another team in a different place for the same purpose told this story about a visit to a Russian orphanage: 

At the orphanage the team told the traditional story of Christmas to the children who had been abandoned, abused, and left in care of the government-run program at the orphanage.  It was the first time the children, and many of the staff had heard the Christmas story and they sat in amazement at hearing it told.

            The writers wrote:  “We told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem, and finding no room in the inn they went to a stable where the baby Jesus was born and placed in a manger.   Completing the story, we gave the children three small pieces of cardboard to make a crude manger.   Each child was given a small paper square, cut from yellow napkins I had brought with me.   No colored papers was available in the city.   Following instructions, the children tore the paper and carefully laid strips in the manger for straw.   Small squares of flannel, cut from a worn-out nightgown an American lady was throwing away as she left Russia, were used for the baby’s blanket.   A doll-like baby was cut from tan felt we had brought from the United States. 

            The orphans were busily assembling their mangers as I walked among them to see if they needed any help.   All went well until I got to one table where little Misha sat—he looked to be about 6 years old and had finished his project.   As I looked at the little boy’s manger, I was startled to see not one, but two babies in the manger!

            Quickly I called for the translator to ask Misha why there were two babies in the manger.   Crossing his arms in front of him and looking at his completed manger scene, the child began to repeat the Christmas story very seriously.   For such a young boy, who had heard the Christmas story only once, he related the happenings very accurately until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger.Then Misha started to ad lib.   He made up his own ending to the story as he said:  “And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay.  I told him I have no mamma and I have no papa, so I don’t have any place to stay.   Then Jesus told me I could stay with him.   But I told him I couldn’t because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everybody else did.   But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much that I thought and thought and decided that maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift.   So I asked Jesus,  “If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?”  And Jesus told me, “If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.”   So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him—for always!”

            As little Misha finished his story, his eyes brimmed full of tears.   The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon nor abuse him, someone who would stay with him—for always. 

We call Jesus by the name “IMMANUEL”, which means “GOD WITH US”.   In this Advent season we need to discover, like the orphan Misha, that the God who came in Jesus Christ will never abandon or abuse us, but will stay with us—for always

God will be with us:

When the cancer biopsy comes back positive, instead of negative.

 When the final exam is marked with an “F” rather than an “A”.

When the spouse of 15 years stomps out the door and doesn’t return.

When the dream of success in business is once again downsized and diminished.

When the late-night long-distance call communicates a death, not a birth.

When the longing for family harmony is shattered by a shouting match.

When the desire for companionship is drained by another lonely holiday season.

 

And we will have the “Shalom” Peace that we seek.  It is ours, a free gift from a loving God as we:

Are anxious in nothing!

Are prayerful in everything!

Are thankful for all things!

 

Amen!!!

 

           

 

 

 

 

The Candles of Advent

 

It is a practice in many churches to celebrate the Season of Advent—a season when we look forward to the coming of the Christ Child— by lighting a candle each of the four Sundays preceding Christmas.   Each candle helps us remember something as we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child on Christmas Eve, when we light the Christ Candle remembering the birth of Jesus the Christ.   The first candle is a candle of “Hope”; the second a candle of “Peace”; the third a candle of “Joy” and the fourth is a candle of “Love.”

My posts for this month are built around an exposition of the meaning of each of these candles for our lives and the life of our churches.    I hope you will join me as we discuss each of the candles the next four weeks.

RESTORE US, O GOD:   Hope

Text:  Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19

Theme:   God’s strength meets us in the midst of our weakness and gives us hope.   That is the message of Advent.

 

Despite all the modern day electronic communication technology today there is something missing in the lives of many people.  That is that in the midst of all of this electronic communication people feel very alone.      What is missing is  real “heart to heart” talks where we see the person we are communicating with, not on a screen we are “skyping” on;  but we are missing the ability to reach out and touch each other  and reassure and express your concern for them with a hug.  We are missing  the messages we can read in their eyes and the vocal nuances that help us look into our hearts and share with in a way that all the electronic media in the world does not allow us to share.  In a nutshell—-we are missing having a relationship with each other “face to face” as we have what the French call a “tete a tete—-head to head communication.

That is the way we can have the hope that the Psalmist is crying out for in our text today.  Through our relationship with God.   Only as we place our lives in a personal relationship with God can we have hope for God’s strength in the times of our weakness.

Listen to some of his words: 

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock!

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.

But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.   Then we will never turn back from you; 

Give us life and we will call on your name!

 

Do you catch all the references to a “Face-to-Face” relationship with God that is desired by the Psalmist?     In that face to face relationship with God the Psalmist seeks and finds the strength of God in times of trouble.

This Psalm lays bare our need for God’s intervention in our lives and for a personal relationship with God.   The writer is not asking for a message of assurance.  This Psalm was probably written during the period of the Babylonian Exile and  he speaks for a people without hope– A people that fear they are being utterly consumed and lost—A people that feel alienated and alone.   The psalmist speaks of a need for hope in God’s favor, strength and love  because without hope, the people are not only not delivered from Exile, but are doomed to hopeless despair.

This Psalm then is a cry for relationship, for personal interaction, for “face time” with God!!

I believe the prayer of the Psalmist echoes the hopeful yearning of  people today.   “Let your face shine that we may be savedis the call of people today who are surrounded by technology but are still lonely for meaningful communication and relationship. It is the  hope  today we have as we seek to find strength for our trials in personal relationships with other people and the hope for a strength that we can find only in God.    It is the cry of people who may receive hundreds of texts every day on their smart phones but who still feel unheard and trapped by forces in their lives they cannot control.    It is the hope in the human heart which does not want simply to be told of love but needs to experience that love personally—from others and from our God.

Thus the  prayer of the Psalmist for God’s strength is echoed in different circumstances today by many people who feel that   are overcome by the stresses in their world and are losing or have lost all hope. 

Sometimes we may feel like we are “hitting the wall”  and spinning out of control.

We may face unemployment with the resulting loss of faith in ourselves and feel that future employment is hopeless.

We may  feel like the economy over which they seem to have no control, is eating us alive.

We may be faced with terminal illness for ourselves or a loved one.

We may be grieving the loss of a loved one.

All of these may cause us to feel hopeless.   But the message of the psalmist  is that we can find hope in all these things in our personal relationship with a God who loves us and cares for us, if we will open ourselves to His love and care.

One thing that I have experienced in my life is that we must face our losses and our helplessness, as the psalmist is doing, before we are able to seek God to restore us.  We must recognize that we cannot do it on our own.   We must come to the point where we see that we  have no hope by simply using only the resources that we have—-that they will not see us through—-then we are able to open ourselves to God and let God’s strength and love come to our rescue.    As Paul says in Romans 8:  “If God is for us, who can be against us?”  God’s strength then meets us in the midst of our weakness and gives us the hope that we so desperately need.   That is the message of  this candle of Advent.

A candle is made to give light, and the light of God’s love that the Psalmist proclaimed long before is portrayed again in the Gospel of John:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.   He was in the beginning with God.   All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.   The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. 

Hope is found in the “shining face of God” today as it was for the psalmist.   It is the hope we find as we experience a relationship with God.    The light of the knowledge and love of God that Jesus brought into the world is the source of the hope that still shines in our darkness and the darkness has not been able to overcome it. 

The question for us is—-where do we see and experience God’s face shining today?   The good news for this dark time is that the light of hope   continues to shine in the darkness of our world today.      The darkness cannot overcome God’s light of hope.   God’s face will shine and reflect God’s mercy and forgiveness for a world “hitting the wall and out of control.”   That is the hope expressed by the candle of Hope this week.

The answer to the plea of the Psalmist in Psalm 80 and the answer to our plea today is a resounding “YES”!!   GOD SAYS:

Yes, I will give ear to your cry.  I hear you!  

Yes, I will come and give you the strength you need because I love you.

Yes, I will restore our relationship that has been fractured by your faithlessness.

Yes, my hand of love and strength will be upon you.

Yes, you have hope because I am there for you whatever happens to you.

This is the promise of advent—-that God’s strength will meet us in the midst of our weakness.   There is no place too dismal, no sin too bad, no transgression too terrible to separate us from the love of God who now comes to us through Jesus the Christ.  That is what gives us Hope to face today and tomorrow and the future.

We need to open our heart, our soul, our mind, to the God who is our hope—-in a personal and tangible way.  God sends the  message of hope for us, not  in a text, not by a star in the sky. He sent it through Jesus the Christ, and  it is the message that God wants to reach out to us in a personal and mutually loving relationship. so that His face can shine upon us and give us His strength to overcome our weaknesses.   That is the message of Hope we have if we will open our lives to his transforming love and presence.   Amen.

 

 

Being Both Here and There

It’s hard to be two places at the same time—-we would probably agree that it is impossible!!  It’s a paradox!   And paradoxes aren’t rational.  We have to be one place or the other according to our dualistic minds!     Sometimes we are here and sometimes we are there.   If you are sitting in church  you  can’t be at the golf-course!   If you have something pressing to attend to elsewhere, you must leave “here” and go “there”.   When you do go “there”, what was once “there” becomes“here.” for you.   Everybody knows that you can’t be in two places at the same time.

Now we can fantasize about what it would be like if we could do so.  For example, I often dreamed that I could be in my dorm room sleeping while also sitting in my 8 a.m. class at college.   While I tried to master the art of sleeping in class with my eyes open, I must admit that it didn’t work well for me!   I think everyone here would agree that it would be nice to be at work and also lounging on the beach at Malibu.   However,  we know it’s not going to happen!

But according to the Book of Revelation that was what happened to John, the writer of Revelation—-he was in two places at the same time.

John wrote that he was on the island of Patmos.   That is a tiny island in the Aegean Sea.   It’s a beautiful little place now, it is said, but in the time that John lived it was a Roman prison colony—similar to the place we call Alcatraz.    When you went to Patmos during  John’s time you only needed a one-way ticket—-you hardly ever came back from Patmos!!   And that was where John was—on Patmos, and yet he was not only there, he was also in God’s Kingdom as  he wrote:   “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.  And he wrote of seeing God’s throne and a vision of Jesus  “on the clouds” and of the coming completion of God’ Kingdom  as he was  “caught up” and transported to another place  He was at two places at the same time!!

            Although John is in a difficult place on Patmos and probably awaiting a sad fate—he was also in a blessed place in his life—in the Kingdom of God.   

I would suggest to you this morning that Patmos is not only a place, a geographical location, but a frame of mind.  We all can be on our Patmos islands because Patmos is wherever and whenever we find  ourselves trapped and imprisoned by our actions and  our life.   There are many people who feel they are trapped on their  islands of Patmos.   Somehow life has given us a one-way ticket  and we feel as though we are trapped in a prison of our own making or someone else’s making—-but nevertheless  we are “trapped.”

            The reasons for our being on Patmos are as many and as unique as each of us are unique and individual human beings.   We may be there because of bad decisions that we made.   Or we may be there because of bad decisions others made that have affected us.

We may be imprisoned by a disease that is slowly taking our energy and eventually our life.   We may be imprisoned by habits that dominate and ruin our lives and that we have not been able to overcome.  We may feel life has “done us dirty” and that we shouldn’t be on Patmos—-but all of us spend some time on our  “islands of Patmos”.

            The great psychotherapist, Victor Frankl, writes of his “Patmos” in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”.    Frankl was arrested by the Nazis in W.W. II Germany and sent to a Nazi prison camp.   It was a horrible prison camp and most of his fellow prisoners soon died under the terrible conditions, the brutality, the starvation and the resulting hopelessness.   But Frankl survived.   How?    He describes how he survived by recounting that on his way out to the work site every morning, he would be composing a book, all in his mind.   He would go over the book, chapter by chapter.   He would form each page in his brain, imagining in great detail the grand book that he was going to write once he got out of the Nazi prison.   And that kept him going.   In his body he was a slave in a horrible prison camp—-his Patmos—but in his soul he was free .   He was in two places at the same time!!

Part of the human condition is that we don’t have control over everything that affects our lives.   The one thing we have control of is how we cope with the things affecting our lives—-such as was the case with Victor Frankl.

John on the island of Patmos, was in the same circumstances as Frankl.   He had been imprisoned by the emperor—-probably because he was a Christian.   There he was languishing on the island of Patmos, right?   Wrong!   That is not what John says about himself.   Rather he wrote that he “was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day”.   John was in prison, in exile, far from home and loved ones, but he managed to “be in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.   In other words, he was in a quite different place and a long way from the island of Patmost.   He was with God through the Holy Spirit on the Lord’s Day and God was showing him about wonderful things to come in God’s Kingdom.

 John was in two different places at the same time—-and so can you be.   You can always be with God, no matter what your life’s circumstances may be.  

  Think about it!  

 

             

 

Fearfulness and Faithfulness

 

Text:  Matthew 10:24-39

Theme:   Faith in God cancels our fears.

There is a story about a young man who went off to college with great expectations of success.   After he had been there a month, he sent a note to his father, “Feather in my cap, elected class president”.   Two months later, he sent another note to his father, “Another feather in my cap; accepted into the best fraternity”.   One month later, a third note:   Still another feather in my cap, leading role in class play”.

One semester later, he sent a note to his brother:  “Flunked out, prepare father.   Tell him to send money for me to get home!”

The brother sent a note back:   “Father prepared.  Prepare yourself.   Father says put those feathers on your shoulders and fly home!”

Obviously the young man was afraid and insecure and was trying to convince  both himself and his father that he was successful by these “feather in the cap” notes—-while, in reality, he was struggling and gripped by feelings of fear of failure.   I often wonder how the story might have been different if he had faced the fear, talked about it with his father, and askd for help and advice.  He might have discovered his father had struggled with the same issues and could have given him help and support.   BUT HE WAS AFRAID TO DO SO!!

 

ONE OF  THE GREATEST  CAUSES OF HUMAN STUPIDITY IN ACTION THAT LEADS TO WARS, AND KILLING AND CHAOS AND SUFFERING  TODAY IS FEAR.   We are afraid of others.   We are afraid of ourselvesBeing fearful seems to be a national characteristic in our current times in the U.S.    We are afraid of the horrific things happening in the middle east spreading to our country.  Fear was at the heart of the terrible thing that happened in Ferguson, MO recently—-fear the white policeman had of black people—-fear the black teenager had of the police.   And because of that a needless death and resulting chaos,  fed by fear on both sides.

We do live in a frightening world—frightening in many ways.   Pick up your morning paper and read about terrorists who attack randomly and try to kill as many as possible; mass shootings at schools and public places regularly; murders, drunken drivers that kill innocent and unsuspecting people; lying, cheating; storms such as tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes.

We are afraid of losing jobs and afraid  of cancer, We fear for our children’s safety as well as our own, and this fearfulness causes us to teach our kids not to trust anyone they don’t know.   Fear causes us to encase ourselves in a protective shell that triest to shut out the rest of society and the world.

 

 

Just what is this FEAR  that we are talking about?   I like Barbara Taylor Brown’s description of it:  “Fear is a small cell with no air in it and no light.  It is suffocating inside and dark.   There is no room to turn around inside it.   You can only face in one direction, but it hardly matters since you cannot see anyhow.   There is no future in the dark.  Everything is over.  Everything is past.   When you are locked up like that, tomorrow is as far away as the moon.”

IN OTHER WORDS, YOU CAN’T OPEN THE DOOR OUT OF THIS PRISON BECAUSE YOUR FEAR PARALYZES YOU.   If you do anything it might make it worse.  You feel safer to stay where you are even if you cannot breathe and cannot move—-that is how fear feels!

Only faith in God can cancel this kind of fear.  And Brown describes FAITH as:   “More like a rope bridge over a scenic gorge, sturdy but swinging back and forth, with plenty of light and plenty of air but precious little to hold on to except the stories that you have heard that this is the best and the only way across and that it is possible that it will bear your weight.!!

IN OTHER WORDS—–we have to have faith in the power of the bridge to deliver us safely more than we do in the power of the gorge to kill us, if we are to overcome our fear.  We need to trust in God’s love for us and God’s presence in our lives at all times, if we are to overcome our fearfulness.   Only God is able to help us cancel our fearfulness.

There is a lot of fear in the world.   And we need to differentiate a little here.   There is a difference between “fear” and “being fearful.”

“Fear” is a reaction to a definite threat.   It causes our adrenal glands to shoot adrenalin into our body and prepare by increasing heartbeat, respiration, etc. for either “flight” or “fight.”

“Being Fearful” is a general feeling of being afraid without any concrete reason to feel that way.    It is more an attitude—-the way we view things.    Being fearful is like being anxious—there may not be any concrete and specific reason for it.

So—WHAT IS OUR FEARFULNESS THAT IS CONSTANTLY OUR COMPANION ALL ABOUT?    WHY ARE MOST OF US “BEING FEARFUL MOST OF THE TIME?  I THINK IT IS BECAUSE OF SOMETHING I CALL “THE HUMAN CONDITION” THAT LEADS US TO “BEING FEARFUL.”

The human condition is something we all have to live with It can be summarized this way:   Firstsome things will budge for us and some won’t.  Second, We cannot live forever no matter how desperately we try.   And third, We cannot control everything that happens to us.

THAT IS THE HUMAN CONDITION AND IT CAN BE FRIGHTENING BECAUSE WHAT IT MEANS IS THAT WE CANNOT CHOOSE ALL OF THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF OUR LIVES.   WE CANNOT CONTROL EVERYTHING THAT HAPPENS TO US!

Our lives can be comfortable one minute and spin completely out of control the next.

We can be a happily married couple one minute and a widow or widower the next minute—all in a heartbeat or the lack of a heartbeat

We can plan for our future retirement and wake up the morning before we retire and find that much of what we have worked so hard for and saved has been wiped out by a stock market or bank failure over which we have no control.

We can build our dream home and the week we move in huddle in its basement as a tornado destroys it.

WHAT ALL OF THE ABOVE WITNESS TO US IS THAT WE ARE NOT IN CONTROL!!.

All we can really control is how we respond to what happens to us that is beyond our control.

And just because we believe in God doesn’t shield us from any of the results of the human condition!    Our only assurance is that God loves us and will be with us to give us the strength and resources we need to cope with our human condition.    God’s resources are many,  God’s constant presence  and love are all around us.   God even sends his people, his servants to minister to us in times of need and to help us through any of the storms of life that we face

We are not alone.   We need not fear.   As Paul writes in  Romans 8:

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?   Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …..No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who love us.    For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  

It takes a lot of courage to be a human being!!!  And it takes a lot of trust in God!!!  That’s why Jesus’s words are so important—-“Fear Not”!!

Jesus spoke to the problem of the human condition in our text today.  If we put the reading in context, Jesus was preparing his disciples to go on a mission to preach to the towns and villages in Galilee.  and was warning them that the things that people say and do about him will also be said and done to his disciples.   His disciples would be the recipients of the same hostility and rejection Jesus had already experienced.   They must  have shown signs of fear to go on the assignment as Jesus told them a total of 3 times to “Fear Not”.    He said:   “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves;….Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me….(10:16-18).    Because of our own experiences with fear, we can imagine something of the dread the disciples must have felt as Jesus sent them on their mission, especially because he went on to speak of the threats and dangers they could expect to encounter:  arrests, floggings, hatred, betrayal, and other forms of persecution.   I’m sure Peter must have said to himself—“Hey Jesus!  I didn’t sign up for this when I left my fishing boat to follow you!!”

But then Jesus told his disciples to not fear any of these things he had just listed.   He said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”

Jesus also told his disciples:   “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.   What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.    ….

And:  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?   Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.   And even the hairs of your head are all counted.   So do not be afraid, you are of more value than many sparrows.”

 

In the final analysis, Jesus said in this passage,  only two events could  befall his followers—life and death—–and both are in the hands of God.  Trust in God cancels out fear!   THEREFORE, DO NOT BE AFRAID.   God is God of the past,  is God of the present, and is God of the future.   YOU ARE IN GOD’S HANDS AND THERE IS NOTHING TO BE AFRAID OF IF YOU TRUST IN GOD!!  GOD’S GRACE CANCELS OUT FEAR!!  Trust in God’s Grace!!

It’s always been that way.   Long before Jesus spoke, God had spoken to Isaiah, saying:

Thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel.  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;  I have called you by name, you are mine.    When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;  when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you…..because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you!” (Isaiah 43: 1-4)

 

Some time ago, I read this story and it has stayed in my mind.   It so perfectly gives meaning to the text of this sermon that I’d like to share it with you.

A man was traveling across the country on an airliner.   Somewhere over Texas, the plane hit a storm and the pilot came on and said,  “We are not going to be able to go around this storm or over it so we’ll be going through it.   Please fasten your seatbelts as there will be a lot of turbulence.

Not too long after the announcement the storm struck.   There was thunder and lightening and the plane was tossed around like a child’s toy in the turbulence as the pilot fought to keep control of the plane.   Everyone was frightened—some were praying others were hugging loved ones—-except for one little girl the traveler observed.    She was about six years old and was sitting quietly in her seat,  seemingly not frightened at all by the fear and turbulence that was all around her.

After the plane safely landed, the traveler approached the little girl, still in her seat, and said:   I am surprised that you weren’t afraid of all that storm and what happened like the rest of us were.   Can you tell me why?

The small girl answered:   “My Daddy is the captain and he was taking me home.”

IF GOD IS THE CAPTAIN OF OUR LIVES—-GOD WILL TAKE US HOME SAFELY—-DO NOT FEAR!!!   Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hope in the Midst of Despair

Back in the “good old days” (that didn’t seem so good then) of  the late 20th century we seemed to have a “motivational icon” for every decade.   For the 70’s it was a “Smiley Face” with the words “Have a nice day!”.   In the 80’s we sang “Don’t worry, be happy” with Bobby McFerrin.   For the 90’s we were told by Nike to “Just do it!!”

Those days seem to have gone away in the first decade of the 21st century, haven’t they?   We’ve experienced the sea-change of fear brought about by the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon;  executive wrongdoing on a massive scale that cost many their homes and livelihood;  wars in Afghanistan and Iraq resulting in the death of thousands of our young men and women;  the threat of nuclear weapons development by Korea and Iran—our sworn enemies; high gas prices; mortgage failures.   What should the icon be for the first decade of the 21st century?–an “orange alert”?  Taps being played at a gravesite of our young men and women killed in the wars?   a foreclosure sign?  the song “Brother can you spare a Dime?”

The pain and suffering we see  is enough  to drive us to despair and a company called Despair, Inc. has tapped into it to make a buck by selling “pragmatic pessimism”.   For example, they market a glass mug with a line in the middle that says “half-empty”.   Also  lithographs that feature beautiful photos with depressing twists, such as a photo of a dark sunset with the saying:  “DESPAIR:  It is always darkest just before going pitchblack! ”  or a photo of a lightning storm, saying:   “PESSIMISM:   Every cloud has a silver lining, but lightning kills hundres of people each year who are trying to find it”

Despair, Inc. has tapped into a truth that all of us know and few of us want to admit—Pain and suffering is a grim reality for human beings.   It is part of the human condition.

In my work as a hospice chaplain I saw a lot of pain and suffering along with valiant attempts to alleviate it by palliative care specialists every day.   We all know that no amount of wealth, no measure of security, no low-fat, oat-bran diet can defend us against suffering, pain and eventually death.   At birth there is the knowledge that this new life will eventually end.  Good or bad, rich or poor, we know that pain and death are just a word, a mistake, an accident or an illness away from us all.    Depressing?  Exactly!   Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide with over 9 percent of Americans affected by it every year.

We’ve all known some amount of despair, haven’t we?    It happens in times of stress like a move, a job loss, an extensive illness, a loss of a loved one through divorce or death, an economic downturn or a natural disaster such as hurricanes, floods, forest fires.    While this despair usually lifts in time it is very stressful at the time and can leave us broken and in fear of our very lives—feeling like we have been abandoned by God.

This is not just a 21st century feeling—-it is part of the human condition and has been with us through the ages.   We see it in Psalm 22, our text today,  written hundreds of years before the birth of the Christ.   The Psalmist feels he is surrounded by enemies, broken in body, and spirit.  He cries out for help with the words:   “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”   In the midst of pain and impending death the psalmist seeks the intimacy of a relationship with God, but God seems so far away from helping him.   However he remembers that God HAS been a help for others and for his nation in the past; but just now he feels he is surrounded, tortured, and almost dead.   He hears the sarcastic taunts of his enemies ringing in his ears, “He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him” (v.8).   No wonder he asks  WHY?

When we our those we love are in pain or are suffering, we also want to know “WHY?”    I remember a hospice patient, a man in his late 40’s dying of MS who told me:   “Chaplain, when I see God after I die I have only one question for God:   WHY!!!

But when we cry out for answers to the “WHY?” question we seldom receive them.   Perhaps it is because we are asking the wrong question.   THE QUESTION SHOULD NOT BE “WHY?”   but “WHO?

Although God may not answer the “why question,   God is not silent.   Someone has said “What God whispers to us in our pleasure, he shouts to us in our pain”.   And what God shouts is:  “I am here for you!   I will help you through this time!  Trust me!

This is what the Psalmist acknowledges.   This is what Jesus acknowledged on the cross when he said:  “Into your hands I commend my spirit” right before his death.   The answer to pain and suffering is not in the “why” but in the “Who”.  God will be with us if we trust in God’s presence.   And as Paul says:   “If God is for us, who can be against us?”   If we draw near to God he will draw near to us.

I love the words of a hymn that tells us this.   “I was there to Hear Your Borning Cry”.

I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old.

I rejoiced the day you were baptized, to see your life unfold.

I was there when you were but a child, with a faith to suit you well;

In a blaze of light you wandered off to find where demons dwell.

When you heard the wonder of the word, I was there to cheer you on;

You were raised to praise the living God, to whom you now belong.

When you find someone to share your time, and you join your hearts as one;

I’ll be there to make your verses rhyme from dusk till rising sun.

In the middle ages of your life, not too old, no longer young.

I’ll be there to guide you through the night, complete what I’ve begun.

When the evening gently closes in and you shut your weary eyes,

I’ll be there as I have always been, with just one more surprise.

I was there to hear your borning cry.  I’ll be there when you are old.

I rejoiced the day you were baptized, to see your life unfold.    Amen.