Sunday, August 30, 2015

The language of love

Song of Songs 2: 8-17/ James 1:17-27

Close your eyes and take a moment to remember when you first fell in love.  Maybe it was the first glance across the room, your first date, or your first kiss.  Remember the flood of emotions that went along with it.  Your heart pounding in your chest, wishing the moment would last forever. It's exciting but also a little anxiety producing.  You wondered how they felt and whether or not they liked you as much as you liked them.  
Think about that moment when you first said “I love you” and they said it back- the smile that beamed across your face.  It is a roller coaster of very intense emotions all rolled up into one experience.  It is exciting and scary.  You are hopeful but afraid.  But when it works- it works and it is an overwhelmingly intense, maybe even a passionate experience!  
Our scripture lesion today from the Old Testament is all about this experience.  It is a book that many often wonder why it’s even in the Bible and many preachers are apprehensive to address.  It never mentions God or worship or anything connected with God.  It is a collection of love poems between a woman and a man who are madly in love and desperate for each other.  
Some want to sanitize this book and want to say it as a love poem between God and Israel or Jesus and the Church but all that is stretching it.   Maybe it is what it is- words of romance and passion shared between lovers.  
So the question still remains.  Why include it in the Bible?  Maybe it is to remind us that God gave us this gift of passion, romance and love for a reason.  Our scripture from James tells us that all good gifts come from God and well let’s be honest, this is one of God’s very good gifts!  Maybe it is a way for humans to understand how God feels towards humanity.  How intensely God loves us.  How desperate God is to be loved back.  
 We often say things like God loves you and we talk about how God desires us and wants to be in a relationship with us.  We read in scripture that God is a jealous God and wants us all to God’s self. God wants our devotion and our love for God only- not for the other gods or idols in this world.  And while we may say it or read it in a ho-hum way. God says it with passion!
We read in scripture about the lengths God goes to in order to provide for us, give us gifts, and that God loves us so much that he gave us Jesus as a flesh and blood, life and death expression of that love. If that isn't an extreme show of love… What is? 
In 1995, Gary Chapman published a book that described his theory that all humans feel and express love in 5 basic ways that he calls “love languages.” They are “words of affirmation,” “Quality time,” “Gifts,” “Touch,” and “Acts of Service.”  
Now think back for a moment to the experience you were remembering just a few minutes ago.  How did you express your love for the other person?  How did they show their love for you?
Did they bring you flowers or take you out to dinner?  Did you go for walks after school- making sure you took the longest route possible just to spend time together?  
Did they tell you how beautiful, smart or talented you are? Did they hold your hand or give you a warm embrace?  

Did they wash dishes for you or fix something that was broken or take care of you when you were sick?  There are a multitude of ways that people express their love for another person.  And as you respond and reciprocate those gestures of love you find your relationship growing.
God shows love for us in exactly the same ways!  
God does give you words of affirmation.  They are the love letters of the psalms, the stories of grace and how God loves us so much that we are always able to come back into God’s loving arms- even when we stray.  It is the words of a teacher, friend or stranger that tells you how much you are valued as a beloved child of God.   
God spends quality time with you- always available to talk whenever we need it, even when it is less than loving things we want to say.  It is those long walks, the flicker of a candle, and the silence just before dawn when you feel content, just to be in God’s presence.
God gives us gifts.  It is impossible to look around this beautiful place we live and not see a gift from God.  The majestic mountains, the beautiful flowers that made any bouquet your partner ever gave you, the green trees, the soft breeze- all gifts from God.  Not to mention the non-material gifts- the gift of compassion, patience, generosity, musical gifts, cooking, or art- whatever gift you have- you received it from God.  
The gift of touch- may be the hardest to identify but yes that too is a gift from God.  It is the child who cuddles up in your lap so you can read them a book.  It is the hug of a parent or a friend.  It is the hand that picks you up when you fall down.  It is the lick from the dog or the comfort of the purring cat.  But it is also the softness of a warm blanket or the coolness of a creek and the warmth of the sun on your face.  

And acts of service-  those are innumerable!  All those times you weren’t sure how you would make ends meet or put food on the table and someone shows up out of the blue with an invitation to dinner or fresh corn from their garden.  Or simply the fact that your garden produced food at all.  It is the kindness of a stranger that changes your flat on the side of the road.  It is the guidance and advice we receive from scripture and the experiences of life that teach us to be grateful.  
The list of how God shows us love goes on and on.  But, just like any relationship, it is important that we not take these gifts for granted and that we reciprocate that love.  
How do we show our love for God?  
We show our love for God by spending time with God in worship, prayer, study and giving thanks for all God has done.  But we also show God our love in how we treat others.  Our scripture from James today reminds us that we show love for God in this way.  We should be quick to listen, pay attention to what is going on around us and welcome the word of God.  We are to be slow to speak and slow to anger; checking our motives, our emotions and our justifications for anger and aggression.  
we are to be doers of the word, not just hearers.  We not only accept the love and guidance of God but we also respond with actions of our own.  Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, care for the sick, the oppressed, the poor, the orphaned and the widow.  
We are to welcome the stranger, visit with the lonely and use whatever gifts we have been given freely and generously to work on God’s behalf.  Jesus said in Matthew that whoever does to the least of these does unto him.
  As we act toward one another- that is how we act toward God.  When we say things that hurt others, we hurt God.  As we close the door in the face of a stranger, we shut the door on God.  
But in the same way, as we treat others with love and respect we are treating God with love and respect.  As we open the doors of our homes, our churches and our hearts to others, we are opening the door to the love of God.  
But love isn’t the only part of a relationship.  Love also calls for a commitment.  It is why when people declare their love for one another they do it through vows.  When we get married to another person we make promises to them.  We commit ourselves to stay faithful to that person and no matter what happens they will be a part of each other’s lives.  And this isn’t just a temporary promise with an expiration date.  It is until death do we part promise.  
This is a very similar promise we make to God in our baptisms.  We acknowledge the love of God in our lives and promise to love God through our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.  We vow that we will have no other god’s in our lives than the one true God.  We promise that we will work to rid the world of evil, injustice and oppression and act as Christ’s representative in this world.  
This like a marriage is a life altering and forever promise.  And we believe that as we make this promise to God, that even when we are unfaithful to God- God will never be unfaithful to us.  And, no matter what, God will never leave us or forsake us.  While human love has its faults and failures, a love affair with God does not.  

As we read the scriptures and remember the feelings of love in our life, we get a glimpse of the power of God’s love for us.  We sense in our own emotions the persistent desire God has to be in a relationship with us. 
From the moment of your birth, God has been wooing you into a love affair, and God continues to shower us with love and affection in the ways that are personal and meaningful.  Embrace that love, reciprocate that love through your own actions.  Breathe in the immensity of God’s love and renew your vows to God.  
It is indeed a passionate love affair full of all that we could ever dream.  Enjoy every moment that you receive God’s love and in every way that you respond to that love.  It is a love that will not only last a life time but will last for eternity.  

Thursday, August 27, 2015

healthy diet

John 6: 56-69


A few years ago there was a nutri-grain bar commercial that started out by watching people eat breakfast on their way to work on the subway.  They were all eating horrible sugary “breakfast foods” like doughnuts, cinnamon rolls, sodas etc.  It isn’t until they stand up and try to leave the train that you realize that they have become what they were eating.  The woman now has cinnamon rolls for her rear end and a man has a huge chocolate covered doughnut around his waist and can’t fit through the turn style.  It is only the man eating the “healthy” nutri-grain bar that is tall, lean and of course handsome.  

This was a great commercial, very memorable and to some extent truth telling.  You are what you eat.  Now this is a problem for some of us.  Especially on days when we have church potlucks with dishes made with cream of mushroom soup, butter, cheese, sugar, bacon, and all those other things that make them such an exciting and fun event. 

Thankfully we don’t eat like this on a regular basis.  But we live in a world that doesn’t encourage us to do much better.  It is faster and easier to run through the drive through, throw a frozen pizza in the oven, or just have an entire bag of chips for dinner than it is to buy fresh vegetables, or spend time in the kitchen cooking something that not only tastes better but is better for you. 

Our lives are dictated by food.  When you give someone directions- you choose restaurants as land marks. We say things like- “it’s behind McDonalds” We want to spend time with friends… so we go out to lunch.  We have to eat. 

But what we put into our bodies matters.  Some of us have to watch our salt intake while others are watching their sugar and some are counting calories.  And those of us who pay close attention to what we eat know the difference in how we feel when we cheat. 

The same is true with our spiritual life as well.  What are we hungry for?  Are we hungry for spiritual junk?  Only wanting to hear messages that tell us that saying we believe is enough, and that if we listen to the right preacher, say the right prayer or give to the right cause that we will be guaranteed happiness and success?  All the while our ego and our waste grows larger.  Or are we willing to make the sacrifice following Jesus requires? Do we want to only listen to scriptures that we agree with, that is sweet to hear and makes us feel better about ourselves or are we willing to be challenged by what we hear and read?  Motivated to be better people. 

The people who were following Jesus at first, liked that being around him felt exciting and interesting.  He was always saying something that stuck it to “the man.”  They were getting some of the positive vibes and attention from all those seeking to be healed.  It was like being the best friend of a rock star- even if you didn’t have much to offer- just being near them makes you feel important and popular too.  There were benefits to hanging around Jesus………… and then it starts getting weird. 

Then he starts talking about people eating his flesh and drinking his blood!  What kind of quack job is he?  Has he lost his mind?  What had been fun and exciting, just got real.  This wasn’t something people would ignore.  This was offensive.  Not just because of the cannibalistic talk but because their way to eternal life was being questioned.  He isn’t just some guy performing miracles- he is God!  The source of life, and fulfillment.  He has switched from telling the people that he will give them the bread of life to being the bread of life. 

This is not an easy word to hear.  It goes against all they understood the scriptures to mean.  It went against who they thought God to be and it challenged their whole belief system and all they had thought was right and wrong.  It was offensive, it was harsh and difficult to agree with and even more difficult to follow because it meant that all the things that had been cut and dry, black and white, right and wrong were now shades of gray.

He would begin asking them to love people they didn’t think were loveable.  They would be called to touch people and offer healing and acts of mercy to those who were unclean and thought to be unworthy of God’s blessings.  They would be called to stand up against the injustices in this world- not just watch Jesus do it on their behalf.  They would be called to not only feed themselves, but feed others. 

What they thought would be a fun and easy path to changing the world around them now asked them to think differently, act differently and be different. 

When I was 25 or so, I began seeing ads on TV for the new prescription weight loss medications.  I was overweight and unhappy with how I looked and felt.  I went to the doctor hoping that he would tell me that this pill was the answer to my problems.  I wanted to blame my obesity on something other than myself.  I wanted him to tell me that it wasn’t my fault I was fat.  I wanted him to tell me there was an easy solution to my problem. 

What he told me offended me.  He told me my problem was that I ate too much and made unhealthy food choices.  I needed to eat right and exercise more.  In fact he said “you have fork to mouth syndrome… put the fork down!”  How dare he challenge the choices I had made and tell me my life priorities were out of order?  I like sodas.  I like chocolate.  I like fast food.  And I worked hard!  I was tired when I got home.  I didn’t have the energy to exercise.  I had every excuse in the book! 

It took me 5 years to acknowledge he was right.  At that point, I visited a nutritionist who challenged me to eat healthier, got a personal trainer who challenged me to work harder, and I begin to make the changes necessary to live a healthier life.  I am not perfect.  I still need to be challenged to drink water instead of soda and eat salsa instead of guacamole, veggies instead of chips, but it is getting easier and I am getting wiser about the choices I make, even if I don’t always make the right choice.

Many people come to church with the same expectations I had when I went to the doctor.  We want affirmation that we are doing everything right. We want to be told that we are good, moral, kind hearted and generous people who already have the correct political, social and religious opinions and that whatever is wrong in our lives and world is someone or something else’s fault.  All we need is a dose of Jesus every week and we will be perfect and we can go on living our delusions.

 But, if I am doing my job correctly, that is not what you hear.  If you are reading the scriptures, that is not what you hear either.   

Jesus offended a lot of people that day when he told them that he was the way, the truth and the source of life.  He offended people when he told them that the religious rules they had so strictly held sacred for so long were actually bad habits that were not strengthening their faith but damaging it. Many people walked away from Jesus that day.  They weren’t ready to hear what he had to say.

 Jesus, if listened to, continues to offend and challenge all of us.   

Sometimes, in the life of faith you will get pats on the back and kudos for striving to live a life that is honorable and good.  Sometimes you will read scripture that makes you feel good about yourself and the decisions you make.  But if we are honest with ourselves we will also be challenged.  We will be reminded that the junk food we occasionally or regularly like to eat is not good for our bodies nor is the spiritual junk food good for our souls.

We will be held accountable for our biases and assumptions.  We will be  reminded that there are always hungry that need to be fed, homeless that need to be housed, sick who need to be healed, lonely who need to be visited and people who have made mistakes who will need to be welcomed home.  We will be challenged to forgive even those who have and will betray us.  We will be challenged to share meals and conversations with those we don’t always agree with.  And we will be challenged to live and worship with people who are difficult to love. 

So what does a spiritually healthy diet look like?  It is worshiping together, studying together and fellowshipping together.  It is reading scripture and talking with God.  It is surrounding yourself with people who love you enough to tell you the truth, hold you accountable, challenge each other and learn from one another.  It is being with others who want to see you grow in your faith and love you in spite of your faults; who will encourage and support you.  People who will help you get back on the wagon when you fall off.

And the exercise?  Is service- it is using the gifts God gave you to make the community and the world a better place.  It is packing backpacks, it is offering communion to the homebound, it is chopping wood for the winter for others to stay warm, it is tutoring a child after school, it is offering a warm coat to someone who is cold.  Some days it is a run and other days it is a stroll- all that is necessary is that you keep moving.  Some days will be easier than others but in the end we will grow in our faith, in our knowledge that it is life with Jesus that is fulfilling and it is Jesus himself who is the source of that life.  There is no more need for junk when you have the real thing.   

True food, true drink, true life comes from the source of Life itself- Jesus Christ.  There are no short cuts or quick fixes.  But there is always today.  Each day we are given the chance to start a new.  The things of the past are just that- past they don’t have to dictate your future.  God offers you the love, forgiveness and clean slate to start over each day or each breath.  The commonly told joke is that the best day to start a diet is tomorrow.  But when it comes to your spiritual life…. Start living it today!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

wisdom and life

Proverbs 9:1-6, Ephesians 5:15-20, John 6: 51-58

We all want to live a long and happy life right?  We celebrate when people live well into their 90’s and we mourn when people die young or in the prime of their life.  But then we also parrot the saying “Its not the years of your life that matter but the life in your years.”  Ultimately we all want to have eternal life.  We want to be immortal. 

I see it all the time as I walk around museums, college campuses and even while I am driving.  Exhibits, buildings, streets all named after people in an attempt to honor people and have their legacy live on forever.  But yet, buildings fall, roads are renamed and museums are updated and rebranded.  So even those who wanted to live at least forever in our memories are sometimes forgotten. 

But what about the life we have been given now?  We all know people who lived a long time and were miserable, grouchy, always complaining and never seemed to be happy.  Then we also know others who always seem up beat and optimistic, finding the positive in any situation and giving their lives in devotion to things that matter. 

That is the life we want to live right?  We want to live a full and satisfied life.  Even Paul directs us in our second scripture lesson today that we are to “Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time.”

We hear people say things like this all the time- live life to the fullest, make every day count, live every day as if it is your last.  All nice sentiments and good rules of thumb to live by but what does it mean and how do we do it with wisdom?  How do we know if we are living the life we are supposed to live and what are the rules, directions, lessons I need to learn and follow to have this wonderful life?

A quick search of reveals that there are at least 53,295 different self-help books, all telling you that they have the answer you are looking for.  With titles like: “7 steps for radical change”, “healing your emotional self”, self-esteem: discover the fool proof, fully actionable solutions”, “Start creating your dream life today”, “100 ways to be a better man”, “10 life transformation rules”, “100 paramount techniques to master any skill in one day”, and “change your life today with positive thinking and happiness”- you would think we could all find our path to happiness and fulfillment.  It is just that easy right? 

All we need to do is spend $20 and read the words of someone who says they have it all together and have the wisdom we need.  Now, I am not saying that these books don’t have some nugget of truth in them and I fully agree with one of the commentaries I read this week that “the mark of maturity is to acknowledge that there is always room for progress and improvement.” (Aitken)  Sure we could all live a better life- be more patient, more forgiving, more kindhearted, more generous etc.

The challenging part to finding and experiencing this wisdom is not simply reading these books; it is discerning what it really means to have a fulfilled life and who or what has the key to that guidance for each of us.  Sometimes we can read books like this and nod our head in agreement- finishing a book and thinking well, they didn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know.  Or you read 5 books each telling you how to be successful and happy and they each have different and often conflicting answers.  It takes wisdom and discernment to figure out who to listen to.

Wisdom and discernment are tricky things.  We may think someone is wise because their smiling face is on the cover of hundreds of books and they make more money than we can ever dream of having. 

We may pick a guide or suggestion because it seems that it will be the quickest or easiest way to get what we want.  Of course we want to Lose 50 lbs in 2 days!  But then, we realize that what we really gained is something that takes up room on a bookshelf and actually added on weight instead of taking it off.  Instead of success we once again feel rejection and failure.  If it is so easy than why doesn’t it work for me?

Other times, we experience what seems to be horrible situation in our life: family or financial tragedy, emotional breakdowns and the like and no matter how much we try to avoid it, like taking bad tasting medicine- in the end we realize that we are better off because we lived through a challenging or simply distasteful situation.   We are wiser, stronger, braver, more faithful because of what we’ve been through.

Often what the world teaches us is good, right and wise, is indeed bad for the soul. At the same time, it is often the pain, challenges and conflict that make us better and stronger. 

The gospel of John, is a little hard to swallow- both literally and figuratively.  So much so that it not only turned off his opponents but it made some of the people who had been following Jesus leave too.  It was contrary to popular belief.  It went against their understanding of literal dietary laws but also their understanding of who God is.  And, it raises the question of what it means to have eternal life and what it means to have life in general. 

We are also told by John that Jesus came so that we could have life and have it abundantly.  Jesus wants us to have that same fulfilled life that we seek but what Jesus knows is that achieving that life comes with no effort on our part.  The work has already been done in our creation and through the life and death of Jesus himself.  The desire to live a joy filled life is real and true and good but we often go about getting it the wrong way.

We often seek self-help books because we want a quick fix.  There is something we don’t like about ourselves and we want to change it but in the process of pointing out all the things that we don’t like about ourselves we are also trying to fit into the mold of what the world thinks will make us perfect, successful or fulfilled.  This is not what God and scripture tells us will make us whole and perfect.

We forget that we are already made in God’s image and that we are not perfected by what we do but what Jesus did for us.  Jesus wants us to strive after living our lives better and seeking fulfillment but he wants us to find it at the true source, him, not our own efforts.

It is hard to see the fulfillment and perfection of Christ in ourselves and in our world when we look around the time and place where we live.  We hear stories of a teacher murdered by her own son, terrorists using chemical warfare on innocent people, planes that fall out of the sky, riots in the streets where people wonder if black, brown, young, old, gay, straight or transgendered lives matter and we struggle to see where this perfect creation is. 

So, instead of looking to the source we, ask: what self-help guru, police chief or politician can lead us to fix this damaged and broken world?  And then maybe we ask the question- what does it matter if my life is perfect and fulfilled- if the world around me is falling apart?  How can I be happy when so many are suffering?

There is always a struggle to find this balance between learning and doing.  Being fulfilled and fulfilling our call to be in communion with others.  The African term Umbutu contains the concept that we can never be fully human by ourselves.  We are by nature interdependent and communal and it is only when we reach out and care for others that we can be fully who God created us to be.  (Feasting on the Word)

This life, this wisdom, this fulfillment, this love of Jesus is free and available to all who desire it.  But it is more than just learning about who Jesus is.  It is more than just accepting Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior.  It is more than just reading scripture and believing.  And, it is more than just doing what is “right” by the world’s standards.  It is about reading scripture together, learning from both old and young, discussing and discerning God’s plan for us in this world at this time then deciding- Are we willing to apply what we are learning? 

This is where real wisdom and discernment arises.  We all like to think we are right but it is in being willing to listen to the opinions of others, discovering a new perspective and sharing what we know with others that we gain a deeper and wiser understanding of life.  It is in living, learning and serving together that we discover what it is like to be loved by God and to love as Jesus loves.

We can have every building in a town named after us but eventually they will be torn down to build new ones.  We can have millions in the bank or give millions to charity feeding every person in any given country and still feel lost.  It isn’t just about having purpose or even immortality in this world.  It is about discerning, praying and living the life that God has called us to live. 

Paul, tries to teach us this way of living.  Spend time in prayer, worshiping and sharing your joys with others.  Fill your life, not with things that mask pain or illicit a false sense of joy and security but fill your life with the Holy Spirit.  Be mindful of all the ways that your life has been blessed; for life, faith, family, and community. 

True wisdom, true fulfillment, true living only happens when we are willing to be changed by what we have learned.  When we are willing to look beyond the flashiness of quick fixes and how to guides to the true source of life and wisdom herself; Jesus Christ.