“Release” – the 5th Sermon in a Series Called, “The 40-Day Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs, on Sunday, July 23, 2017

“Release” – the 5th Sermon in a Series Called, “The 40-Day Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs, on Sunday, July 23, 2017

Stupid Monkeys…

One technique for catching monkeys is to drill a hole in a coconut, just large enough for the monkey to slip his hand through, and fill it with rice.  When the monkey reaches in, to grab a fist-full of rice, he’s trapped, because his full-fist is too big to pull out of the hole.  The monkey just needs let go.  But, letting go never crosses the monkey’s mind.  He clings to what he thinks he has.  In reality, what he thinks he has, has him.

If only he could let it go, he could be free.  If only he could let it go.

Isn’t nice to be smarter than a monkey?

Before we are too self-righteous about how stupid monkeys are and how smart we are, we probably need to be reminded that there are some who believe humans evolved from monkeys.  Even if you don’t believe that, monkeys do seem to be our closest animal relatives.

Maybe monkeys aren’t the only ones who have a hard time letting go.

I wonder, what’s inside of your coconut?

 

What are your plans?

Learning how to let go is one of the ways that many of us need to be stretched.

Humans, like monkeys, also tend to cling.  We cling to stuff.  We cling to hurts.  We cling to relationships – even unhealthy ones.  We cling to ideas – even when we’re wrong.  We cling to traditions.  We cling to prejudices.  We cling to people – which why we say some people are called “clingy.”  We cling to our children – which is why some people are called “helicopter parents.”

Today, I want us to focus on the myriad ways we cling to the illusion of control.

Most of us believe that we are basically in control of our lives.  We live like we want.  We work where we want.  We hang out with whomever we want.  We eat what we want.

We try to have our finances under control.  We try to have our careers under control.  We attempt to have our kids well disciplined, well behaved, and under control.  We even try to have our spouses under control.

We set daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, annual goals, a 5 and 10 year plans, and plans for retirement.  Our days are well-planned – scheduled to the minute.

Most of all, we keep our images under control.  Even if we don’t really have everything under control, we wouldn’t want anyone to know.  Keep a smile on your face.  Never let them see you cry.  Never let them see you sweat.  Maintain a stiff upper lip.  When anyone asks how you’re doing, just say “great!”  In essence, lie.

Then,d something unexpected, unforeseen, unplanned, uncontrollable happens.  The car breaks down.  The kids get sick.  Lightning strikes.  Your husband gets fired.  Your parent dies.  You’re hospitalized.  The kids move back home after college.  Your aging mother-in-law moves in.  A category 5 hurricane blows through town.  The economy crashes.  The house catches on fire.

Or, maybe it’s not something so negative.  You win the lottery. You’re offered a great new job.  A long-lost friend calls.  You meet your future spouse.  You make a new friendship.  A friend invites you to church, and it changes your life.  You break a terrible habit.  You finally get help you’ve needed.  God calls you to do something unexpected.  You go on a mission trip that changes the way you see the world.

The point is that control is an illusion.  We may attempt to manage some level of control in our lives.  And, there’s nothing wrong with that.  Planning and organization is wise.  But, even the best plans are not always possible to execute, and there’s only so much we can do to plan for the unexpected.  Everything, no matter how well it’s planned or how under-control you think you are – EVERYTHING – is subject to change.  Unexpected stuff happens.

We used to have a magnet on our refrigerator that said, “We plan.  God laughs.”

While we may think that we’re in control; while we might attempt to be in control; while we might cling to our plans and agendas: we’re definitely not in control, no matter how tightly we cling!  You’re not in control of your life, oy anyone else’s.  Control is an illusion.

One of the primary principles of all 12-step recovery programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, is that addicts have to confront the illusion that they are in control and capable of managing their lives successfully.  Every addict believes that they’re in control of their “problem,” and can quit any time.  There’s no hope for recovery until the addict acknowledges they are out of control, and that they have a problem they CAN’T control.  The first 3 steps are…

1.     We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.

2.     We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3.     We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.

You may not be an addict that needs 12 steps to recover from an addiction to drugs or alcohol.  But, lots of us are addicted to control, and would do well to, turn our will and our lives over to the care of God.”

 

Sovereign God…

While God gives us free will and responsibility for our lives, God is the only one ultimately in control.  I may control what time I set my alarm clock, or how fast I drive, or what I wear, or what I eat for lunch, etc. But, the Bible is clear, God, and God alone, is ultimately in control.  Theologians use the word “sovereignty” to mean that God is in charge, in control, and that ultimately his divine purposes will be accomplished.

1 Chronicles 29 tells the story of King David gathering all of the materials that were needed to build a Temple for God in Jerusalem.  David made plans to build the Temple himself.  But, due to some significant moral failings, God gave the task of building the Temple to David’s son, Solomon.  So, instead, David humbled himself, and gathered the materials that would be needed.

In 1 Chronicles 29, as David completed his collection, he offered a prayer of thanks.  In verse 11 he prays, “Yours, Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours.  Yours, Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all.”  I like the way the New Living Translation says it, “We adore you as the one who is over all things… for you rule over everything.” 

God is over all things.  God rules over everything.

It ought to come as great comfort to us to know that, even when we think we are in charge, ultimately God is the one over all things.  That doesn’t mean I can be irresponsible.  I’m responsible for all that God has given me.  But, it does mean that when I mess up, or things don’t go as planned, God is still in control!

            Proverbs 29:21 says, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.”

            And, Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. “

 

Living with Open Hands…

Many spiritual traditions talk about the importance of “detachment.”  In simplest terms, “detachment” is learning how to let go of our impulse to cling too tightly to our plans, to let go of our false-sense of control, and to trust more in God.  Detachment is letting go of agendas, plans, control, demands, and expectations.

Henri Nouwen writes, “To be able to enjoy fully the many good things the world has to offer, we must be detached from them. To be detached does not mean to be indifferent or uninterested. It means to be non-possessive. Life is a gift to be grateful for and not a property to cling to.  A non-possessive life is a free life.”

            Here’s a helpful exercise in detachment.  Hold something in your hand, and make a tight fist.  Cling as tightly as you can.  Really squeeze!  Depending on what your squeezing, clinging might feel uncomfortable.  Eventually, your hand will definitely get tired.

Do you possess it?  Of course.  But, at what cost?  And, with your fist closed tight, how can you receive anything new?

Now, still holding the object, turn your hand palm-up, and release your grip.  Likely, the object is still lying in your hand.  You still possess it.  You can relax.  The item can rest there without stress or pain.

Do you still have it?  Of course. Is it possible it could be taken from your hand?  Yes.  You could close your grip, momentarily, temporarily, if you need to.  But, maybe it needs to be removed from your hand.  Maybe, something even better could be put in its place?

In your relationship with God, do you want to approach him with clinched fists, or with open hands, ready to give and receive?

One of my favorite books is The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis.  The book is a fictional correspondence between a senior demon, named Screwtape, and his apprentice, Wormwood, about their efforts to undermine a young Christian man.  Screwtape shares that what he finds most outrageous about God is how he asks his followers to surrender control of our lives to him, but then gives everything back to us, “When He (God) talks of their losing their selves; He means only abandoning the clamor of self-will; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personality, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever.” 

That’s detachment.  We also call it surrender.

Let me ask you a question.  Do you profess that Jesus is your Lord and Savior?  To call Jesus Savior, acknowledges that you need someone to save you from your sinfulness, and that Jesus did that for you on the cross.  But, “Lord” means something else. Lord is a term of royalty and authority.  A Lord rules over a place and a people.  To say that “Jesus Christ is Lord” is to say that Jesus rules.  He’s in charge.  He calls the shots.

To say, “Jesus is your Lord,” is to say that he’s in charge of your life.  If Jesus is your Lord, that means he is in control, and you’re not!

Many of us say Jesus is our Lord and Savior.  But, really, we just want to benefits of a Savior.  Taking the next step of surrendering to the Lordship of Christ is a difficult step,

Jesus doesn’t have any desire to be just a figure-head in your life, a puppet-king, an absentee landlord, ex-officio, a silent partner, an accessory, or even your assistant manager.  He refuses to be second in command.  Either he is Lord of all, or Lord of nothing.  That’s why he’s crystal clear about what it means to follow him, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”  Mark 8:34-37   There are no half-measures with Jesus.  With Jesus, it’s all or nothing.

 

Option C

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with people, who are stuck between two options – a or b – neither of which they like.  They’ve done their homework.  They’ve considered the options.  It’s either this or that; black or white; stay or go; yes or no;  A or B.  And, like I said, they don’t like either option.

I don’t personally believe that God is limited to just two options.  I believe in “Option C.”  There’s always an “Option C.”  When I can only imagine Options A and B, it’s because I’m thinking from my very limited perspective.  But, God always has another option; an alternative; maybe a better option; an “Option C.”  But, the only way you’ll discover Option C, typically, is to let go of Options A and B, and surrender control to God.

What outcome are you trying to control?  What are you clinging to?

You have to let go.

You can either trust God, with open hands.  Or, you can clinch your fist and hang on to your plans – like a stupid monkey!

 

 

 

“Look!” The Fourth Sermon in a Series Called “The 2017 Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on July 16, 2017

“Look!”  The Fourth Sermon in a Series Called “The 2017 Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on July 16, 2017

Last Sunday, we watched a video, in which the Kid President advised us, “Before you say something about the BBQ sauce on someone’s else’s shirt, take a look at the BBQ sauce on your own shirt.” I don’t know about you, but that sounded very familiar to me.

Like when Jesus said, in Matthew 7:1-2, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” 

I like the way The Message versions says it, “Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults— unless, of course, you want the same treatment. That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging.”

James adds, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?”  James 4:12

And, in the words of the great prophet, Bob Marley, “Who are you to judge the life I live?  I know I’m not perfect… before you start pointing fingers… make sure your hands are clean!”

Confession:  I judge people all of the time.

I judge people for what they wear.  I judge people for how they talk.  I judge people for how they spend money.  I judge people for how often they miss church, or if they don’t go to church.  I judge people for how educated they are, or not.  I judge people for where they are from.  I judge people for how they drive.  I judge people for talking too loud on their phones – I don’t need to hear that.  I’ve judged old people and I’ve judged young people.  I even judge people for judging people.

I’ve judged other Christians.  I’ve judged non-Christians.  I’ve judged other pastors.  I’ve judged the President.  I’ve judged family members.  I’ve even judged some of you – most of you – maybe, all of you!  Maybe, I’ve judged you this morning.

And, I know for a fact, you judge me to.  It just goes with the territory of being a pastor.

We are judging, judgmental, judge-ful, judgers!  And, Jesus says… “in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  For a bunch of judging judgers, this is NOT good news!

And, to make matters worse, we feel so superior and self-righteous when we do it.  That’s called pride – and it’s a sin – and it’s gross.

Years ago, when I started a church in Port St. Lucie, I intentionally marketed our church as a place for people that didn’t normally feel welcome in church – because of their pasts, or because of how they dressed, etc.  And, that’s who came.  I had clean-cut professionals, and scruffy blue-collar laborers, bikers, builders, landscapers, construction workers, tradesmen, addicts, the bankrupt, poor people, divorcees, former-inmates and current-inmates, a tug boat captain and a Coast Guard officer, a former stripper, a bunch of punk kids from the neighborhood – and everything in between.  In order to help anyone and everyone feel welcome, I grew my hair out long, had my ears pierced, got a tattoo, and wore jeans and t-shirt.  Lots of “church people” came to our church, got one look at me, and never came back – and that was fine.  Lot’s more came, who wouldn’t feel welcome in any other church, looked at me, and stayed.  I always figured if someone couldn’t handle my long hair, then our church wasn’t the right place for them.

Later, when I became a campus minister, I still had long hair and earrings.  But, that created a problem I didn’t expect.  As a campus minister, I preached in churches, like ours, to raise money to support our ministry.  Time after time, I showed up at churches, where I was scheduled to preach on a Sunday morning, robe and Bible in arm, and was completely ignored.  Now, I’m not easy to miss – especially with long hair.  At one glance, you know if I am a regular attender, or not.  Time after time, it was obvious that, until they found out I was the visiting pastor, that I was not wanted or welcome.

I eventually had to cut my hair, because it was getting in the way of raising money for my campus ministry.

The truth is, the only reason I don’t have long hair today is that it’s just too much trouble to grow back, it’s too hot in South Florida, and I don’t want to deal with the complaints.  And, that there would be complaints, is a major problem!  I always tell people; I still have long hair in my heart!

In 2012, a book was written, called UnChristian, based on an extensive study of non-Church-going young adults conducted by the Barna Research Group.  The book reveals that nearly 9-out-of-10 young adults believe that the Church is too judgmental.  Conversely, less than half of those surveyed, including church-goers, believed that churches love unconditionally.

Isn’t the message of Gospel of Jesus Christ that – in spite of our failures, flaws and shortcomings –  Christ loves us, died for us, and saves us, even when we fall way short?  Why do so many people think that the message is, “Jesus will love you, when you stop being a sinner.  We, the Church, will love and accept you when you look like us, act like us, think like us, and get your act together”?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard Christians justify judging others by saying, “Love the sinner, but hate the sin,“  as though they’re quoting Scripture.  They aren’t.  It isn’t in there!

Instead, I especially like what Tony Campolo says “Jesus never said, love the sinner, but hate his sin… He said, love the sinner and hate your own sin.”

Jesus asked, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?   You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”  (Matthew 7:3-5)

In other words, “before you hate the speck in your brother’s eye, hate the log in your own!”

Now, listen to me.  Jesus is NOT condoning walking around with sawdust in our eyes.  He is NOT endorsing having eyeballs covered in sawdust.  He is NOT saying that sawdust in a person’s eye is not a problem.

The greater problem is the people who are so quick to see, judge, reject and publically condemn the sawdust in another person’s eye, while they are walking around with a log, or a plank, in their own.

Here’s the image.  Sawdust in your eye is a problem because it impairs your sight.  Jesus talked a lot about spiritual-blindness, and having eyes to see the truth.   Good vision matters – physically and spiritually.  But, comparably, a log or plank in your eye is a far greater impairment than a little sawdust.  If a little sawdust impairs vision, then a log is blinding!

If I’m blind, because I have a log in my eye, how can I see the sawdust in your eye accurately?  If I’m blind, because I have a log in my eye, how can I see accurately enough to assist you with removing the sawdust from yours?  If I’m blind, and have a log sticking out of my eye, how can I possibly get close enough to you to help you with your sawdust – my log will just hit you in the face!  And, if I’m blind to the fact that I have a log in my eye in the first place, then I’m in absolutely no position to say anything to anybody about anything!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.” 

Think about that log in your eye, standing between you and the person you’re judging.  That’s what judging does – it distances us.  I can judge you without bothering to know you.  I can judge you without knowing your history, your story, your background, your pain.  I can judge you without getting my hands dirty.  I can judge you easily, without having to do the harder work of self-examination.  I can judge you from a distance, without any intention or desire to help you with your sawdust.  I can just feel safely smug and self-righteous, by keeping my distance.

So, what’s your log?

Is it pride?  Insecurity?  Fear?

Is it self-centered, self-focused, self-righteousness?

Is it an inability to feel empathy or sympathy?

Is it hate?  Jealousy?  Immaturity?

Is it a lack of mercy?

What’s your log?  And, what are you going to do about it?

We can never forget that the opposite of judgement is not acceptance.  Let me repeat that.  The opposite of judgment is not acceptance.  The point of this passage is not to accept the sawdust in other people’s eyes.  Sawdust in eyes is a problem!  The opposite of judgement is self-examination.  Before I judge someone else’s shortcomings, I need to take a good hard look at my own.

Is my own spiritual house in order?

Am I sin free?

Am I doing/being all that I have been called to be?

Am I seeking God?

Do I have any skeletons in my closets?  Any unresolved conflicts?  Any brokenness?  Any shortcomings?  Any failures?

We can never forget that Jesus was judged, too.  Jesus was constantly being judged by the religious leaders, for…

  • Breaking rules, like healing on the Sabbath.
  • Associating with sinners – like tax collectors and prostitutes.
  • Being from Nazareth – nothing good comes from Nazareth.
  • Being the son of a carpenter – not a rabbi.
  • Forgiving sins.
  • Touching and healing the untouchable.

In response, Jesus had a few words for the religious leaders, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. You blind guides!  You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.   Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.  Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matthew 23, selected verses)

In contrast, Jesus was amazingly gentle with others – those, whom the religious leaders were quick to judge and condemn…

  • Zacchaeus, the tax collector…
  • The woman, caught in adultery…
  • The prostitute, who anointed his feet…
  • The sick, the blind, the deaf, the lame…
  • Children…
  • The demon-infested…
  • Foreigners…
  • The poor…

Nadia Bolz-Weber writes, “Every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it.”

The Pharisee’s judgement of Jesus ultimately led to his crucifixion.  But, from the cross, Jesus said, “Father, forgive them.  They don’t know what they are doing.” 

Even dying, he didn’t judge.  And, if Christ is for me, who do you think you are to judge me?  If Christ is for you, who am I to judge you?

Jesus said, “First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

The point is, before you have any business pointing out the speck in someone else’s eye, you need to deal with the plank in yours.  My first spiritual responsibility is to be aware of the log in my eye, and to do all I can to remove it.  Such spiritual awareness only comes with humility.  Such spiritual awareness only comes from surrender, confession, and repentance.

The truth is, there is no place for smugness, or self-righteousness, or priggishness for a truly humble Christian.  ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  ALL are sinners in need of a savior.  EVERYONE has sawdust in their eyes.  EVERYONE needs Jesus.

The more you become aware of the log, or logs, rolling around in your own eye, the less you are likely to judge, and the more likely you are to say to someone with sawdust in their eyes, “Me too.  I get sawdust in my eyes too.”

And, the more we become aware of our own logs – how many there are, and how hard they are to remove, how blind we can be so much of the time –the more compassionate we are likely to be.

Think about it.  If I have sawdust in my eye, I hope you won’t point your finger and condemn me for it.  I hope you will feel compassion for me, and offer to help.

It’s those who are most aware of their own logs, who know the pain and burden of them.  It’s those who are most aware of their own logs, who’ve felt the guilt and shame.  It’s those who are most aware of their own logs, who’ve felt the most helpless at removing them.  And, it is those who are most aware of the logs that have been removed, who are most grateful, and most likely to offer compassion and grace to others.

Makoto Fujimura writes, “Compassion can be made available to those willing to wade into the uncertain, muddy territory of the human heart.” 

            So, back to my question.  What’s your log?  What’s the log that is blinding you to God’s mercy and grace – for you and for others?  What’s your log?

Bless – The Third Sermon in a Series Called “The 2017 Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on July 9, 2017

Bless – The Third Sermon in a Series Called “The 2017 Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on July 9, 2017

I’m friends with a Nazarene pastor named Jay.  We worked on our doctoral degrees together.  On the whole, Nazarenes tend to be pretty conservative about lots of things – especially their behavior.  Historically, they don’t go to movies, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t wear jewelry, don’t gamble, etc., etc.

            While I try to be careful about what I say and how I say it, I can get in silly moods and say some foolish stuff – not hurtful, not mean, not inappropriate, not offensive – just goofy.  While my friend is a fun guy, and we laugh easily, he has a line he doesn’t cross.  More than once he has quoted Matthew 12:36 -37 to me, But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

            Actually, he shortened it, just saying, “Every word.  Every word, my friend.”

Other versions say, “every idle word” or “every careless word” or “every useless word.”

The Bible actually says a lot about the kind of words that are not becoming for Christians to say…

  • Misusing the Lord’s Name
  • False Witness
  • Gossip
  • Meaningless Talk
  • Malicious Talk
  • Unwholesome Talk
  • Foolish Talk
  • Coarse Joking
  • Obscene Talk
  • Deception
  • Ignorant Talk
  • Corrupt Talk
  • Smooth Talk
  • Sinful Talk
  • Lies
  • Slander
  • Seductive Words
  • Perverse Words
  • Empty Words
  • Quarreling
  • Boastful Words
  • Defiant Words
  • Blasphemy
  • Grumbling
  • Cruel Words
  • Rash Words
  • Words of Hatred

There are also a number of good words, that we are supposed to say, which I will get to in a moment.  But, for now, back to Matthew 12:36, “Everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” 

I can honestly say that when I imagine Judgement Day, and giving an accounting of my life, I tend to think about the deeds I have done and the deeds I haven’t done – the sins I have committed, and the good works I have omitted.  But, Jesus says that we will also be judged for every word which we have spoken.  EVERY WORD!

An image popped in my head the other day of a funeral service, and the public reading of everything the deceased has ever said – how many times they’ve gossiped; how many times they’ve cussed; how many times they’ve complained about the pastor; how many times they’ve been ugly or critical; how many times they’ve used the Lord’s name in vain.  For many of us, that would be a pretty lengthy report!

According to the Bible, what we say and how we say it matters a lot – enough for us to be held accountable to our words on Judgement Day!  If that doesn’t give you pause to consider your words, I don’t know what will!  That ought to be more effective than threatening to wash someone’s mouth out with soap!

John Calvin, the Church reformer said, “I consider looseness with words no less of a defect than looseness of the bowels.”

I grew up in a conservative home.  We didn’t go to church very much.  But, I was raised with a high standard of morality – including my language.  I was not allowed to cuss, or use bad language in any way.  In fact, I wasn’t even allowed to say things like gosh, golly, dang, or darn, as they were close to bad words – sort of.  My High School best friend made fun of me for frequently saying, “dadgummit” – I don’t even know how that one snuck into my vocabulary!

When I started a church in Port St. Lucie, one summer I offered my congregation the opportunity to put me to work.  One day each week of the summer, I was available to go to work with anyone who could work it out with their employer, and I would work for one day for free.  I rode with the Coast Guard.  I rode with Animal Control.  I worked in a kitchen in Jupiter – and others.  My desire was to experience the lives of my members.  It was great.  But, the biggest surprise from that experience was how much people cuss in the real world.  In the church, I don’t hear that a lot.  But, in the secular work place, I was amazed how much people cuss – all of the time.

While I’m not an advocate for using obscene language, I’ve also heard some supposed Christians say some pretty awful things without using four-letter words to do it.  So, we are not just talking about R-rated language.  We’re talking about anything said that is ugly, degrading, or just rude.

The point, of course, is the intent.  Are my words rooted and grounded in love?  Or, are they at best thoughtless, or, at worst, intentionally negative and harmful.

Why do words matter so much?  Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.”  Words have power.

When we were kids we were taught, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  That’s a ridiculous lie!  Sticks and stones might hurt and leave bruises.  But, cuts and bruises heal.  Words wound.  Words wound deeply.  Some words wound permanently.

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to remember the many nice things people say about us, but we can easily remember ugly things that were said?  Why? Because words have power, and ugly words seem to be particularly powerful.

A few days ago, I recalled an instance from my childhood.  I had made my father angry about something, which led to him following me outside, and accidentally locking us out of the house.  In his anger at the situation, and me, he said, “Get out of my sight.  I’m sick of looking at you.”  When I remembered it the other day, over 4 decades later, I wept.

Sticks and stones.

Gary Chapman writes that words can be either seeds or bullets.  When we speak words of encouragement, love, affirmation, gratitude, and kindness, we plant seeds in a person that can grow to become something beautiful.  But, when we speak words that are hurtful, condescending, destructive, belittling, and ugly, they can be like bullets that wound, injure and possibly even kill and destroy.

So, let’s do some honest self-assessment.  What kind of seeds are you planting – and in whom?  And, what kind of bullets are you shooting – and at whom?  In whom are you sowing seeds of blessing?  At whom are you firing bullets that injure and curse?

Maybe that’s another image.  On Judgement Day, will there be more evidence of the seeds you have planted through your words?  Or, will there be more evidence of the destruction you have caused by your word bullets?

Here’s another image.  Joyce Landorf Heartherly wrote a book called Balcony People.  She writes that we all need balcony people in our lives.  They are the ones who believe in us, encourage us, and cheer us upward.  But, many of us also have basement people in our lives.  They are the ones who insult and discourage us, and drag us down.  Her challenge is to be a balcony person for someone else – and to avoid being a basement person!

Biblically speaking, we are talking about blessing and cursing.  In the Bible, when a blessing or a curse was spoken over a person, it was believed that those words had power, and could not be taken back.  Blessings build people up.  Curses tear people down.

James 3:3-12 says, When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.  All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind,  but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?  My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Well, frankly, that’s pretty discouraging.  James does not provide any hope of controlling our tongues at all!  He just names the problem as hopeless, and then tells us that we shouldn’t do it!  That’s a major problem!  If we will be judged for our words, and we can’t control them, we are all in big trouble!

While James doesn’t give us much help, thankfully other verses of scripture do.  For instance,

  • “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Ephesians 4:29
  • “Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.”  Proverbs 4:24
  • “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Proverbs 16:24
  • “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” Romans 12:14

The point is, we have to be very intentional about what we say and what we don’t say.  We have to develop self-control when it comes to things like gossip, grumbling, complaining, criticizing and cussing.  And, we have to be intentional about speaking words of encouragement, affirmation, and blessing – words rooted in love.

We may have to learn new habits and break old ones.  If you’re not in the habit of blessing, it may mean you need to learn a new language.  Or, you may have to relearn what we learned as children –  “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

            James is very clear that getting control of the tongue is hard.  But, this is the 40-day Summer Stretch!  And, I can’t think of anything that deserves more effort than controlling what we say, and what we don’t say.

Let me be very clear.  This does not mean that difficult, truthful, sometimes painful conversations can’t happen.  Sometimes, those conversations are necessary – even if they are hard.  Sometimes, avoiding difficult conversations is the worst thing we can do, and only makes the problem worse.  But, difficult conversations must be for the purpose of working through a problem, and offering forgiveness, and seeking reconciliation, and rebuilding what is broken.  They can never be for the purpose of hurting, or belittling, or tearing down.

In the village where I work in Guatemala, they speak a Mayan language called Quiche’.  The first word I learned in Quiche’ was “utz.”  It also seems to be the most frequently used word, in a variety of ways.

“Utz” simply means good.  If you like something, it is “utz.”  If you feel good, you are “utz.”  If you are healthy, you are “utz.”  When you greet someone, you say, “utz, uwuch?,” which basically means, “are you good?”  To which you respond, “utz.”  Or, if you are really good, you might say, “pudu utz,” or, more often, “utz, utz, utz.”  Or, if it’s really good, you might say, “pudu utz pin pin,” which means it is the best of the best!

When you are welcomed, you hear, “utz a patik,” which basically means, “good for you to come.”  If something is beautiful, it is “utz kakyak.”  If you like something, you say, “utz kinwilo,” which literally means it is good for you to look at.

If you want to know if you have done something correctly, you might ask, “utz?’  To which you will most likely be told, “utz.”  In essence, you spend the day asking and saying over and over, variations on a theme of “good.”

What if, at the core of everything we ever said was simply, “good?”

The Unquenchable Thirst of Grief

The Unquenchable Thirst of Grief

I recently led a memorial service for a 23-year-old man, whose family attends my church.  23-years-old is obviously too young to die, so his death was unexpected, a terrible shock, and particularly tragic.  After years of addiction, successful recovery, and then a recent relapse, he died of a drug overdose.  Tragic.

Exactly one year prior to the memorial service, I was moving in to my new home and job in Coral Springs.  As this young man was living in Boston, and I’ve only been at my current church for a year, I never had the opportunity to know him.  As a pastor, I find that leading memorial services on behalf of strangers is difficult – even more difficult than for those I personally know.  A memorial service is a very personal thing, and it’s impossible to speak personally, with any credibility, about a stranger.

So, instead of talking about the all-too-short life of this young man, I felt led to speak as a father of a 23-year old daughter and a 22-year-old son.  I spoke from the perspective of what I might need to hear from a pastor if the roles were reversed, and I was the grieving parent.

This is what I said…

Though I’ve never experienced this particular kind of grief – the loss of a child – I believe that the one common reality for all humans is that we will experience grief.  We will all experience loss.  We all hurt.  Scratch the surface of any human being, and you will find some degree of pain and suffering inside of us.  Everyone.  All of us.  No exceptions.

When I am in pain, when I doubt, when I’m uncertain, I’ve found comfort and strength in the honesty of Psalm 42…

As the deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God.
I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?
Day and night I have only tears for food,
while my enemies continually taunt me, saying,
“Where is this God of yours?”

My heart is breaking
as I remember how it used to be:
I walked among the crowds of worshipers,
leading a great procession to the house of God,
singing for joy and giving thanks
amid the sound of a great celebration!

Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and 
my God!

Now I am deeply discouraged,
but I will remember you—
even from distant Mount Hermon, the source of the Jordan,
from the land of Mount Mizar.
I hear the tumult of the raging seas
as your waves and surging tides sweep over me.
But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me,
and through each night I sing his songs,
praying to God who gives me life.

“O God my rock,” I cry,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I wander around in grief,
oppressed by my enemies?”
10 Their taunts break my bones.
They scoff, “Where is this God of yours?”

11 Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

I deeply appreciate the Psalmist’s honesty, vulnerability, rawness, and questioning.

The Psalmist compares himself to deer in the desert, desperately searching for a drink of water.  Often, in my opinion, this Psalm is incorrectly used as inspiration for prayer or worship, as though this is a gentle thirst.  This is no gentle thirst!  This animal is parched and may not survive. This is the desperate search of an animal clinging to life, in need of water where there’s not even a puddle.

As the deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for you, O God.
I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?

 Just as the deer pants desperately for water, the Psalmist is desperate for God – a God that feels far away.  Desperate for answers.  Desperate for comfort.  Desperate for a sense of God’s presence.  And, none can be found.

Day and night I have only tears for food.

 Throughout the Psalm, you can hear the anguish the Psalmist is enduring…

  My heart is breaking
as I remember how it used to be:

Why am I discouraged?
Why is my heart so sad?

Now I am deeply discouraged.

 I hear the tumult of the raging seas
as your waves and surging tides sweep over me.

“O God my rock,” I cry,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I wander around in grief?

Six times, the Psalmist asks “why?”  The most common question I’m asked following any tragedy is, “why?”  We desperately need to make sense of the pain or loss.  We desperately need to hear something to make it “ok.”  Nothing anyone could possibly say could make a tragedy “ok.”  And, yet, we ask.  We can’t help but ask.

Even for Christians, who believe in Heaven and eternity, death is still an enemy.  Even for those of who believe that Jesus defeated death on the cross, and rose from the dead, it is still an enemy that we must face before we can pass from this life to the next.  It is still an enemy that robs us of people we love, and long to be with. The enemy has been defeated.  Yet…

Death undeniably shakes our foundations.  Death pushes us to confront mysteries we can’t possibly comprehend. Death makes us ask questions about justice – “how can this be right?  How is this fair?”  Death makes us question the goodness of God.

“Whys?” are normal.  Inevitable.  Yet, there are no meaningful answers.

 Yet, peppered throughout this Psalm our words of faith…

 I thirst for God, the living God.
When can I go and stand before him?

 I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

  But each day the Lord pours his unfailing love upon me,
and through each night I sing his songs,
praying to God who gives me life.

 I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again—
my Savior and my God!

The key, I think, is that even when we doubt God’s goodness, God’s presence, or even God’s existence, direct those doubts to God. Don’t turn your back on him.  Direct all of your pain, emotion, and questions AT God – not away from him.  He can take your worst anger.  He understands.  He hurts with us too.  He gets angry too.  He grieves for tragic loss too.

Though I undeniably struggle sometimes; though there is so much I don’t understand and can’t explain; I believe 3 things with all of my heart and soul.

  1. There is a God.
  2. He is good.
  3. He is for us, and not against us.

 If we cling to those things, even when we go through the darkest valleys of this life, those simple truths will get you through.

 I think, if the roles were reversed, and I were the one in mourning, I would need to hear a pastor say…

 Everything you are thinking and feeling is ok – including anger and doubt toward God.  The pain, the terrible sadness, and the grief is NORMAL.  It doesn’t feel normal.  But, how could you expect to feel anything else in a moment like this?

 It’s ok not to be ok – any time soon.  You will be.  But, it will take time.

 It’s ok to yell, scream, cry, and even cuss if you need to – even if it’s toward God; even if it’s toward the one who has died.

 And, most importantly, God is with you.  He knows that, if you had the choice, you would choose to be with the one who has gone.  God gets that.  But, God is with you none-the-less.

 And, you can be sure, even now…

There is a God.

He is good.

He is for us, and not against us.