Monday, September 21, 2009

Sermon for Sept. 20, 2009

I Doubt, Therefore I Am
September 20, 2009

You turn on me ruthlessly; with the might of your hand you attack me. You snatch me up and drive me before the wind; you toss me about in the storm. I know you will bring me down to death, to the place appointed for all the living. "Surely no one lays a hand on a broken man when he cries for help in his distress. Have I not wept for those in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor? Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness. The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me. I go about blackened, but not by the sun; I stand up in the assembly and cry for help. I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls. My skin grows black and peels; my body burns with fever. — Job 30:21-30

Today’s reading comes from one of the oldest stories in existence. The central character named is named Job. His children are dead. His wealth has been obliterated. His wife walked out on him. He is sick, covered with skin boils and rashes. His friends don’t really know how to console him. He is a good man, a righteous man. He did not do anything to deserve such suffering. There is no reason for it. God doesn’t answer his prayers. He suffers. He complains. Job is consumed by confusion and doubt. Who could blame him?

Here we are centuries upon centuries later and we are still consumed by the same questions. If God is good and all-powerful, why is there evil? Why not stop wars and genocides? Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Why does God allow my loved ones to suffer? If God is near, why doesn’t God answer my prayers? In the play J.B. by Archibald McLeish, Job comes to this conclusion: “If god is god, he is not good. If god is good, he is not god.”

We get tired of the pat answers. We learned from childhood that when we do wrong we get punished. Do something good, you’ll get a reward. Disobey, and you get in trouble. Is that what’s happening here? Is God punishing us for our sin? Sometimes, well-meaning people will quote Scripture frequently and loosely to give you an explanation. They tell us: If we obey God, and live moral and wholesome lives, we will be healthy and wealthy. If we suffer, God must want to teach us something. Suffering is the only way God can get our attention. They are full of spiritual diagnosis and prescription. It all sounds so hopeful. But then we begin to wonder, “Why is it that for all their apparent compassion, we feel worse instead of better?

As we get older, we often realize that there is no real correlation between the amount of wrong we commit and the amount of pain we experience. In fact, sometimes the opposite is true. We do the right thing and still get knocked down. We do the best we are capable of doing, and just as we are reaching out to receive our reward we are hit from behind side and sent spinning. This is the suffering that first bewilders and then outrages us. This is the kind of suffering that bewilders and outrages Job. Job does everything right, but everything goes so wrong. He rejects the kind of teaching that has God all figured out, the advice that provides glib explanations for every painful condition. Job suffers. Period. And he doubts God.

Is that OK? Is it alright to have doubts? After all, some studies show that rejecting one’s previously held beliefs can lead to shame and guilt. In fact, the Book of Romans in the New Testament unequivocally states that, “... he who doubts is condemned.” Feelings of guilt and shame can erode a person's sense of self-worth, diminished self-esteem is associated, in turn, with greater physical and mental health problems.” As the famous protestant theologian named Karl Barth wrote, “No one should flirt with his unbelief or with his doubt. The theologian should only be sincerely ashamed of it.” Thank you Mr. Barth! Now I not only have doubts. I feel guilty and ashamed as well.

Barth and Paul do not get the last word. There are wise people who tell us it’s OK to doubt. Consider an ancient Zen saying: “Great Doubt: great awakening. Little Doubt: little awakening. No Doubt: no awakening.”

Remember Renee Descartes – the “I think therefore I am” guy? Descartes had another philosophy that doesn’t get repeated as much: dubito ergo sum, “I doubt, therefore I am.” Descartes believed that doubt was essential for learning the truth. More specifically, Descarte believed that a person can grasp the truth only by doubting and calling into question everything one knows.

C.S. Lewis, one of the greatest Christian writers and theologians of modern times, believed that doubts were good in our faith development because the make us examine our faith. He wrote, “If ours is an examined faith we should be unafraid to doubt. If doubt is eventually justified, then we were believing that which was not worth believing. But if doubt is answered, our faith has grown stronger . . .” This statement comes from a man who started his faith journey as an atheist. When Lewis gave himself permission to explore of his doubts, that’s he became a believer. After years of searching and struggling, he became one of the most powerful and insightful writers about Christianity.

In fact, some say that doubt is part of our psychological development. A psychologist named James Fowler has studied faith development in Christians. Fowler’s fourth stage is known as "Individuative-Reflective." OK, let’s drop the fancy psych words and get to the heart of it. When people hit their 30s and 40s, they enter a time of anxiety and struggle as they face difficult questions about who they are and what they believe. Perhaps for the first time, a person takes responsibility for her beliefs and feelings. Where once a person believed what religious authorities told them without any questions, he now re-examines what he’s been told. Nothing feels certain anymore. Disillusionment reigns. This stage is not a comfortable place to be in. Most people, after entering this stage, sense that the world is far more complex than they previously thought.

I can speak from experience and say that when I am in those times of doubt, when I am journeying in those dark nights of the soul, when it seems that God has moved or that the box I was trying to trap God in was exploding, those are the times I grew the most.

In so many ways doubt is good for us. It can motivate us to study and learn. It can purify false beliefs that have crept into our faith. It can humble our arrogance. It can give us patience and compassion with other doubters. It can remind us of how much truth matters.

So here is my question: Is it possible that doubt might be one of those unwelcome guests of life that is sometimes, in the right circumstances, good for you? The Church needs to recognize that genuine and authentic faith must be as open to questions as it is receptive of answers. The Church should step aside and let the people of the world raise questions. The Church should be a listening body—sensitive to the deepest concerns of the world's peoples, intently interested in their problems, struggling to provide solutions to their troublesome inquiries, and endeavoring always to serve as their servant. It's all too easy for the people of the Church to say, “We've got the answers,” without having first asked as to what the questions might be.

If this is not a place where tears are understood, where can we go to cry?
If this is not a place where our questions can be asked, where can we go to seek?
If this is not a place where our heart cries can be heard, where shall we go to find comfort? May this church be such a place for all of us—a place where our questions, and even our doubts, are always welcome.

Sources:

• http://www.religioustolerance.org/reldoubt2.htm.
• James Fowler, Faith Development and Pastoral Care (Philadelphia,: Fortress, 1987).
• Neal Krause and Keith M. Wulff. “Religious doubt and health: exploring the potential dark side of religion,” Sociology of Religion (Spring, 2004). http://findarticles.com/p/articles/ mi_m0SOR/ is_1_65/ai_n6141810/? tag=content;col1.
• Rev. David Tinney. “Can we doubt?” www.inglefarmbaptist.com/media/focus/ focus270806.pdf.
• Dr. David T. Howeth, "Upgrading Our Faith by Asking Questions." http://www.schreiberumc.org/sermons/08-12-14.pdf.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Sermon for Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009

The Science and Art of Forgiveness

Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”Matthew 18:21

Is forgiveness a choice, or a biological necessity? Jesus asks us to forgive, but why? Is there a spiritual befit only? Can forgiveness change us, body and soul?

Imagine being in your car, peacefully driving, when suddenly something rock-hard shatters your windshield, hits you and breaks nearly every bone in your face. Imagine that the “weapon” is a frozen turkey, hurled from the rear window of a speeding car by a teenage college student out for a joyride with friends. That’s what happened in November 2005 to 44 year old Victoria Ruvolo, on a road in the town of Riverhead on Long Island. She could have been killed, and she could have had brain damage. Surgeons had to rebuild her face, using metal plates and screws. But remarkably, she recovered. Within a few months, Victoria was back on her own and working again.

But that’s not the real story. It’s what happened the following August in court that makes this a tale to remember. The boy who threw the turkey, 19-year-old Ryan Cushing, who suffers from impaired vision, was indicted on a first-degree assault charge and could have faced up to 25 years in prison. Until Victoria Ruvolo stepped in. She saw her assailant coming out of the courtroom. He stopped, choking and crying as he tried to apologize to her. A journalist for the New York Times witnessed the event and wrote, “For an intensely emotional few minutes, Victoria alternately embraced him tightly, stroked his face and patted his back as he sobbed uncontrollably.” As the young man kept saying, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it,” his victim repeated, “It’s OK. It’s OK. I just want you to make your life the best it can be.”

Then, at Victoria’s insistence, prosecutors agreed to a plea bargain for Cushing, giving him six months in jail and five years’ probation instead of 25 years in prison. Later, one witness said that in his 30 years as a prosecutor “he had not seen such a forgiving victim.” The New York Times actually wrote an editorial about Ruvolo, titling it “A Moment of Grace.” Their words were touching.
Given the opportunity for retribution, Ms. Ruvolo gave and got something better: the dissipation of anger and the restoration of hope, in a gesture as cleansing as the tears washing down her damaged face, and the face of the foolish, miserable boy whose life she single-handedly restored.
Amazing isn’t it. Not easy. But amazing. Making the choice to forgive can be a liberating practice -- one that can lead to a life filled with exquisite experiences. We must remember that forgiveness is possible because we have the ability to make choices. We have the choice to forgive or not to forgive and no one can force us to do either. If we want to forgive someone, no one can stop us no matter how poorly the offender may have acted.

Forgiveness happens in stages. In the beginning, you are filled with self justified anger. At some point in your life, you have been wounded and you are mad at and hurt by the person who wronged you. You blame the offending person for how you are feeling. You are certain that it is another’s actions that cause your distress. You have no choice in the matter. You have forgotten that you have choices as to how you can react. You feel so injured that you are convinced it would not be right to forgive the offense. You are angry. You are in pain. But anger and pain don’t have to declare the final word.

The second step towards forgiveness emerges when, after feeling upset with someone for a while, you realize that the hurt and anger do not feel good to you. It may be impacting your emotional balance or your physical health. You may wish to repair the damage done to the relationship. You may begin to see the problem from the other person’s point of view. You may simply decide to let the problem go. In either case, after a while you are no longer done in by your anger. You forgive the person with whom you were angry.

The third stage of forgiveness comes after you have seen the results of forgiveness. You are now ready to work to either repair damaged relationships or let go of seeing the situation as a problem. You decide to forgive because you have had some practice with it and see the clear benefit in your life. This could emerge in a situation as simple as being cut off by another car on the highway or in a complex situation like an affair in a marriage. At this stage of forgiveness you are aware that the length of time you experience a situation as a grievance is primarily up to you.

I have to confess to you, I feel like I squandered my Summer away being angry at some people. I had some misunderstandings with some people. Words were said. Feelings were hurt. I felt angry, hurt, and betrayed and I didn’t know what to do. I was disgusted with hypocrisy – my own included. I tried to distract myself, but sooner or later I would remind myself of my wounded spirit. I would try to avoid those who hurt me, but we would eventually see each other and I’d remember my injuries.

I can tell you exactly how things changed for me. I was reading a quote about hypocrisy by the famous activist and preacher William Sloane Coffin. He wrote:
Of course we all pass ourselves off as something we are not, but not as anything we are not. Generally, we try to pass ourselves off as something that is special in our hearts and minds, something we yearn for, something beyond us. That’s rather touching.
Reading that quote changed my perspective. I realized that I’m human and I act to protect the wellbeing of myself and my family. Others are human, and they act to preserve their interests. I don’t need to harbor anger. I can make a different choice. I can forgive. And I hope that people can forgive me. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. If I have done things that anger you, I ask for your forgiveness. If I make decisions that you don’t understand or agree with, please forgive me. If I say or do something and your feelings are hurt, please forgive me. Let’s walk in the healing love and unity that can be the trademark of our congregation.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the journey. There is still one more step to healing.

The fourth stage of forgiveness involves the choice to rarely if ever take offense in the first place. There is an ancient and well-kept secret to happiness that sages have known for centuries. They rarely talk about it, but they use it all the time, and it is fundamental to good mental health. This secret is called The Fine Art of Not Being Offended. In order to truly be a master of this art, one must be able to see that every statement, action and reaction of another human being is the sum result of one’s total life experience to date. In other words, the majority of people in our world say what they say and do what they do from their own set of fears, conclusions, defenses and attempts to survive. We all act out of self interest. When we understand that, the world can become more manageable.

Maybe you are now at a point in your life where you don’t want to waste your precious life in the discomfort caused by anger or hurt. You are ready to feel differently. You are able to forgive yourself, forgive others, forgive life, and forgive God.

Maybe you’ve learned that life is filled with incredible beauty and wonder and you are missing these experiences when you’re stuck in the remembrance of old hurts or disappointments.

Perhaps you realize that everyone, including you, operates primarily out of self-interest. In my self-interest, I will be annoyed by some one else’s expression of self-interest. If I can understand that this is an ordinary part of life, what is there to be upset about? If I understand that self-interest is my guiding principle, how can I not offer forgiveness to everyone, including myself for behaving that way?

In this sense, forgiveness is an art. It takes practice, discipline, and patience to get to a point where you desire not to get offended in the first place.

As it turns out, there is also some science to forgiveness. Forgiveness may be a choice and a discipline, but it also comes from a changed reality at a subconscious level of impulses. The subconscious is ruled by our most in-grained fears and desires, so if we can train our subconsciouses to crave reconciliation and lessen fear, then the world can be changed one thought at a time.

I’m going to keep this very basic, because that’s all I can understand. There is a part of the brain called the Cingulate Gyrus, Latin for “belt ridge”. The Cingulate Gyrus partially wraps around the Corpus Callosum. The Cingulate is an evolved feature of the mammalian brain. It functions as a clearing house for the subconscious mind, deciding which primal instincts are appropriate for a given situation. Think of the Cingulate as the belt around your consciousness. It functions in the brain a little like a mediator. It helps restore balance between your thoughts and your feelings, between behaviors and emotions.

What’s this got to do with forgiveness? Research shows that activity increases in the Cingulate during moments of forgiveness. The brain is hardwired for forgiveness. Your brain is able to consider another person’s intentions, another person’s emotional state and the forgivability of another’s actions. If the brain wasn’t so crowded out with competing demands and opposing stories from the past, there would be more forgiveness because our brains would be free to do what they can do so well and so impersonally. We tend to think that forgiveness only benefits the person being forgiven. However research has found that forgiveness is good for the person forgiving as well. It lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular health and strengthens the immune system.

This is not to mention the social benefits. People who forgive tend to have less depression, longer lasting marriages and stronger social networks. With forgiveness, what goes around most definitely comes around.

The science and spirit of forgiveness is summed up like this: Loosen the belt of your consciousness. You can absorb pain and injustice without becoming a bitter person. You can come face to face with pain, your own and others, without becoming hostile. Forgiveness is good for you, and so much better than holding on to resentment. Forgiveness is also good for the world. Forgiveness is one of the powerful thoughts that change the world, beginning with your inner world. So forgive. Stop expecting the world to be perfect. Forgive seventy times seven times. Forgive because it’s good for others. Forgive because it’s good for you. Forgive because it’s part of your biological make-up. Forgive because God forgives you.

Sources:
• “'The Science and Spirit of Forgiveness " By Ian Lawton. February 24, 2008
• The Art and Science of Forgiveness by Frederic Luskin, Ph.D. Avaialalbe online at http://www.cancersupportivecare.com/forgive.html



A Prayer
Say to yourself:
May I be at peace. May I be a lake of forgiveness. May I be truly happy.

Think of someone who has harmed you, or needs your forgiveness:
May you be at peace. May you be free from suffering. May you be free from pain. May you be happy.

Bring all the peoples of the world into your focus:
May the world be at peace. May it be free from suffering. May it be free from pain. May it be happy.

Finally, bring the Earth into your focus:
May she be at peace. May she be free from suffering. May she be free from pain. May she be happy.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sermon for Sept. 6, 2009

Surviving the Torrents of the Times

“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’ Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.” When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, for he taught with real authority—quite unlike their teachers of religious law. Matthew 7:21-29

Throughout the day Jesus preached to the crowds and they listened to him with amazement. But listening is not enough. If his words are to have a genuine effect, the people must not only hear Christ’s words, but also act upon them. To drive the point home, Jesus tells the story of two builders – two houses. Standing inside these homes, going from room to room, there is little to no difference between. Imagine two identical homes. The same architect designed them. Each home is made of the same material. Each home has the same number of doors and windows. Looking at the homes, you might think that they are solid, well-built, and ready for anything. But one home will collapse and the other will stand. There is one major difference between the houses -- the foundations. One house was constructed upon rock and the other upon sand.

The crowds listening to Jesus’ teaching got it. Few people in ancient Palestine wanted to live in the rocks. It meant grading the side of a slope and hauling up building materials. Living in the hills made travel more difficult. Water had to be carried to the house and winter winds were colder. Most people built along the river beds. The scenery was more pleasant, the water was more convenient to tote, and the house was sheltered from the cold winds of winter. Although flooding was a danger, most of the year the streams trickled pleasantly down the hillsides into the nearby river. But on rare occasions, perhaps only once a generation, the 100-year flood would come. A combination of heavy snow, a quick spring thaw, and a torrential downpour would create a vicious flash flood that swept away everything in its path. House after house washed away. Jesus may be referring to this image in Matthew 7. The lesson? Never cheat on the foundation.

Jesus teaches about the absolute necessity of building our lives on the right kind of foundation. The foundation is what holds everything up. No matter what quality of materials you use for the house, no matter how carefully you join the frame together, no matter how skilled your contractor may be, if the foundation isn’t solid and stable, your life will lack integrity. Over time, cracks will develop in the walls you’ve carefully constructed. The windows will stick. The roof will leak. And sooner or later, the storms of life will bring it crashing down, and everything you’ve worked so hard to build will be lost.

In the 1990’s the “Leaning Tower of Pisa” was finally reopened to the public, after having been closed for almost a dozen years. During that time, engineers completed a 25 million dollar renovation project designed to stabilize the tower. They removed 110 tons of dirt, and reduced its famous lean by about sixteen inches. Apparently, the tower had been tilting further and further away from vertical for hundreds of years, to the point that the top of the 185-foot tower was seventeen feet further south than the bottom. Italian authorities were concerned that if nothing was done, it would soon collapse. What was the problem? Bad design? Poor workmanship? An inferior grade of marble? No. The problem was what was underneath. The sandy soil on which the city of Pisa was built was just not stable enough to support a monument of this size. The tower had no firm foundation.

Let’s get back to the two builders. I assume that the person who built the house on sand did a lot of things correctly. For instance, the builder was must have been a hard worker. It’s no easy thing to put up a house, especially not in those days, with no power tools or Home Depot. He had to carry stone, cut wood, and form bricks out of clay. It probably took him weeks and months of backbreaking labor. He didn’t quit. He persevered until the structure was complete. Yet in the end, all his hard work was for nothing. In the life of faith, the same thing can happen to us. We can confuse activity with godliness. We assume that if someone is hard-working and energetic, he or she must be a sincere Christian. We think, “That person must be close to God.” But what will happen if all that activity and service is built upon a foundation of sand. A person could be doing tons of great things for all the wrong reasons. It may not be obvious what those reasons are; just as it may not be obvious what kind of foundation is underneath a house. But in the end, the true motivation will become apparent. Even the most costly service and the most strenuous labors won’t save you, if the foundational motivation is something other than love.


I am not criticizing active service; far from it. In fact, we make service a requirement for church membership. I am suggesting that we examine our hearts. Ask yourself; what is my foundational motivation in doing this work? Is it sincere love for Christ and for his people? Or is it something else? Pride, or self-righteousness, or habit, or duty, or people-pleasing? If your answer is “something else,” then you may be in danger of a spiritual collapse. The point I’m making is not limited to church life. It applies to any kind of work and service – spouses serving one another, or parents serving their children. It applies to how we treat family members, or friends, or neighbors. In fact, it applies to everything we do, from the time we get up in the morning to the time we lay down at night. Are you working and serving out of love? Just being active and diligent and hard-working isn’t enough. If the foundation is not built on love for Christ and his people, you are setting yourself up for collapse. Never cheat on the foundation.

Now what about the wise builder? Did he work harder than the first builder? Did he use better materials? Not necessarily. The only difference was in the foundation. But that made all the difference in the world. Even the most terrible, frightful storm could not destroy that house.

And make no mistake. The storms will come. Jesus does not say that if you have your foundation on the rock you will never be hit by storms. He does not say that standing on the rock will shelter you from hard times, struggles and suffering. What does Jesus say? “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house.” We should not be surprised when rain, floods and winds fall in our lives. If bad stuff is happening to you it doesn’t mean you are not in God’s favor. It simply means that life happens. Stuff goes wrong. People get sick. Debt stacks up. Times get tough. That’s life. We should not come here and worship God and then be disappointed when life happens. Life will never be pain, sorrow, and struggle free. Rain will fall, streams will rise, and the wind will blow. I wonder how many people would come to church if we put that message on our sign. What if our church sign said: “Come and join us as we suffer and struggle.” How many people would come ready to serve the Lord? We like things easy and convenient -- maximum pleasure and minimum pain. But Jesus knows that life is full of suffering and struggling. He calls us to a life that hears the Word of God and then puts them into practice.

No matter what you are building in life, you don’t want to cheat on the foundation. If you must skimp on anything, be sparing with the trivial. Skimp on the non-essentials. Save on the windows, the wallpaper, or the paint if you have to save a few dollars; but don’t ever cheat on the foundation. Which builder are you, the wise or the foolish? Are you building your life on listening to Christ’s words and acting on Christ’s words? Or are you relying on something else, or someone else, to get you through the storms of life?

When our lives are built upon faith and obedience to Christ, nothing can separate us from God. God wants us to hear and do -- to listen and then act upon what we hear. This is our strong foundation. The storms of life may rage, we may become frightened, we may lose courage and come close to despair. But no matter what happens, our faith cannot be destroyed. Christ will not lose us. When the tempests of life threaten, when the sky grows black, and the wind starts to howl, and the rain pours down, the key thing to remember is we do not need to have the strength to hold on to the foundation. We survive the torrents of time because Christ holds on to us.

As we come to the Lord’s Table today, we remember that when life gets uncomfortable on the rock, AND IT WILL, we have a foundation that is unshakable. We can have the strength and courage to survive the torrents of time. We can stand here and sing “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand.”

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...