Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ashes to Ashes

Today is kind of a strange day in my spirit.

Last night, at childbirth class, it kind of hit me in a way that I'm gonna be a dad! There will soon come into the world an entirely new person, another heir to the magnificent love of God, and that person will be entrusted to our care. It's terrifying but for the first time last night it truly felt like a noble and wonderful calling. Feeling little Scooter swim around in his "mummy's tummy" made me understand a new and invigorating reason why we Christians are here.

But today is also Ash Wednesday. It is the one day of the year that is set aside to remember our mortality, where we place ashes on our forehead to remember that while we have a divine spark, we remain simply dust.

And so you understand the tension in my soul. But it is a good kind of tension; it's the kind of tension you sit in it, pickle in it a little bit, and let it flavor you. Out of this kind of tension, tension between the old life and the new, we gain depth and thoughtfulness. We allow ourselves to experience joy and sadness all at once until we realize there is a world greater than we yet know.

Our little one coming into the world soon will be treated and subjected to a terrifying world which still manages to be good beyond words. But our little one's life never will be completely good until a world beyond ashes.

Maybe you are having similar feelings today, on the day we remember our mortality. Don't run away; don't hide from it. Let it flavor you and spread that flavor to a bland world.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

What would you do...

...if you had time and money to do anything?

This question is an important one if you are trying to find your spiritual gifts. Most of us (once we got past the fantasy of having our own private island in the South Pacific) would find that there is something in us we are longing to do that we dare not let ourselves think about for fear of failing to do it. The pain of thinking we can't do what we most long to do is enough to make most people stop thinking about the question altogether.

Still, it's important. Go ahead. Think about it. Risk the pain. What would you do if you had time and money to do anything?

Me? It's complicated. I would like to write, I would like to teach, I would like to preach. Since I can dream big, I'd like to be able to do all of those things. I'd like to balance the solitude of writing with the community of preaching, the cut and thrust of classroom debate with the sparkling word of life in the pulpit. If I had my dream, I'd be able to do those things in equal parts. That would be my work, those three things.

Knowing that is my dream is important, even if I never attain it, as is likely. Because it tells me something about myself. When we know our dreams, we know what it is we miss in life. So many people go through life with a nagging sense of "Is this all there is?" and they try to fill that void in all kinds of unhealthy ways--through sex, through food, through shopping, and countless other ways. But when we know our dreams, we know what we miss; we know why we occasionally feel dissatisfied. It is not because of a lack of food, goods or sex; it is because we are not yet able to live completely in keeping with our gifts.

When we know our gifts, then, we find healthier ways of dealing with our dissatisfaction. It is not that we must always have the type of food, sex, or consumer goods that we want; and getting those things will not leave us feeling better. Instead, the more we live into our gifts, the more we allow ourselves to become the person God is making us to be, the more we are then able to be fulfilled and give ourselves completely away to others.

So what would you do if you had time and money to do anything? Go ahead. Be brave. Think about it.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Worship on Sunday, February 26

Hi all--what a great time in worship this morning! We sang great hymns of the church, two by Charles Wesley. Especially wanted to lift up the last verse of Love Divine, All Loves Excelling which has been very meaningful to me after a recent death in the family:

Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee.
Changed from glory into glory,
'Til in heaven we take our place,
'Til we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

The sermon on Mark 2:1-12 follows here.

I wonder what you would do this morning, if, on the way out, as we were shaking hands, I looked at you in the eye, and said, “Jeff: I know what you did. I know about that time you messed up; I know all about it and I just want you to know that I forgive you. And most importantly, God forgives you.”

If you’re anything like most people, you wouldn’t be particularly happy I had said that! It might be nice that I had forgiven you, but if you’re like most people, you would say, “Pastor Mike, I didn’t do anything wrong in the first place! Why are you insinuating that I did something wrong? I didn’t do anything wrong!” Or there may be another reason why you’re not happy: you might have thought I didn’t know what you did! You might have a little voodoo doll at home that looks like me and you poke it all full of pins and needles that you didn’t think I knew about! And so, when I say, “I forgive you; and God forgives you,” you might be thinking, “How did he find out?”

It’s a strange way to start a conversation, isn’t it? “I forgive you.” Nobody starts a conversation that way, do they? Well–it seems here that Jesus does. We read that Jesus was in Capernaum, a sort of adopted home for him. He had just been away going to all the towns in Galilee; when he would come into town, he would go to the synagogue in town. And there he would preach, and after he had preached, he would heal people. He cast out demons. He healed people from leprosy. He went over to Simon’s house and healed many people there. Jesus had become a sensation; crowds now followed him wherever he went.

And so when he came back to his adopted home, crowds followed him there. And he went into a little local home, and was teaching there, and crowds filled the whole house and spilled over to the street. And a group of young men were nearby, five friends, one of whom was paralyzed. Together, they had heard the stories of how Jesus had been healing people all over the country, and the five of them thought, “Maybe this is the way we can help our friend to be healed.” And so they heard that Jesus was in town and they marched right over to the house where he was.

When they got there, they saw the crowds and they knew that they would not be able to get in the house at all, much less to get their paralyzed friend in–at least, they wouldn’t be able to get him in through the door. So instead, they hatch a new plan. They climb up to the roof. In those days, roofs were flat and made of earth. People would often go up to the roof to escape the heat in their homes, and to be quiet and get away for awhile. And when they get up on the roof, they cut a hole in the roof, and they use long ropes to lower their friend down through the hole in the roof, right to where Jesus is.

Suddenly, in what must have seemed bizarre, Jesus’ sermon is interrupted by this invalid descending from above on a mat. And they set him down there, on the floor, in front of Jesus, and Jesus now has the power to say anything. And before anything else–he doesn’t introduce himself, doesn’t ask the man his name, doesn’t offer the man peace, doesn’t even say hello!–before anything else, he says to him, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

It’s difficult to imagine precisely what that man felt at that time. Most of us have never been in as desperate a place as he was. And yet we do know that there is something scary about being forgiven; most of us feel very threatened if someone comes along and tries to forgive us. I know that if I were paralyzed and Jesus came here today and healed me, it would be very upsetting to me if the first thing he said was, “Mike, your sins are forgiven.”

It would threaten me for lots of reasons. First, for Jesus to say I was forgiven would also be for Jesus to say I had done something wrong. After all, he wouldn’t say I was forgiven if I didn’t have anything to be forgiven for. And so, when someone forgives us, it brings us face-to-face with our own wrongdoing. And we all like to pretend that we’re perfect, that we don’t do bad things, but when someone forgives us, we can’t pretend that anymore. We have to realize that we’ve done something wrong. And nobody likes to look at the things they’ve done wrong, and so it can be very threatening to be forgiven.

It would also upset me if Jesus told me my sins were forgiven because it would show me that I’m not so good at hiding from God. We all try to hide from God, just like we tried to hide from our parents when we were little. I’ve never liked it when my hair gets long. In fact, right now, it’s just about as long as I let it get. I just hate the feeling of my hair tickling my ears or growing down too far on my sideburns–I just hate it. And when I was a little boy, I decided that I was going to take my school scissors and cut my hair! I was just so tired of it being too long, and I couldn’t wait for my next scheduled haircut, and so I went and cut it myself. And I thought my parents would never find out. And of course they did, and I was punished accordingly. You probably have the same kinds of stories about your kids and your grandkids, when they tried to hide something from you that you obviously could see.

But we have to realize that when it comes to God, we often act like those same little children. We think that we’re so good at hiding our hearts from God, and we forget that God can see it. God can see us better than we see ourselves. God knows us better than we know ourselves. We might think we’re pretty clever, and that we can hide our hearts from God, that God doesn’t know about whatever we want to hide from him. We might think that God doesn’t know about the stinginess of our hearts, or the impurity of our hearts, or the dishonesty of our hearts, but God does. It’s just as obvious to him as it was to my parents when I cut my hair.

And when God says to us, “I forgive you,” then we realize we’re not any good at hiding from God. And that’s another thing that’s threatening about forgiveness; if we accept forgiveness, then we realize how foolish we are to try to hide things from God. If we accept forgiveness, it means admitting that we are not as strong or as clever as we think we are. We might not exactly know what this man felt when Jesus forgave him, but we know that it can be very scary to accept forgiveness–it means that we realize we’re not perfect, that we can’t hide from God anymore.

Yes, it’s hard to accept forgiveness, but I want you to look at what happens next in the story. Some in the crowd get very angry when Jesus forgives the man. They say that he has no right to do that, that only God can forgive sins. And Jesus says, “Well, tell you what. Would you believe that I have the power to forgive if I made this man to walk? So you will believe that I have the power to forgive, I will raise this man up to walk.” And he says to the paralytic, “Stand up, take your mat, and go home.” And the people are amazed. The man has been completely healed of his disease–before, he could not walk, and now he can walk perfectly well!

It’s important for us to see that the man was not only physically healed, there was also spiritual healing that happened that day. That man came into the house as a nobody. I mean, I’m sure he had a family, I’m sure he had friends, I’m sure people cared about him. But in a few years, after he died, no one would remember him twenty, fifty, one hundred years later. Certainly, we wouldn’t be talking about him today.

But the fact is we are talking about him today. The fact is that Jesus took this man, this
nobody, and he made him a somebody. He made him a partner in one of his most stunning miracles ever. Jesus used this man’s healing to demonstrate that he was God; because people saw this man rise from sickness to life, they believed that Jesus was the Son of God. This man became more than just physically healed; he also became a healer for that crowd. He helped to heal their relationship with God. He went from being nothing to being a person who was Jesus’ partner in doing some amazing things!

Now–I want you to see the most important part of this passage. Forgiveness comes before healing. Before this man is healed of anything physically or spiritually, before he becomes a partner with God, before any of this, before anything, he has to first be forgiven. For Jesus, you must learn to be forgiven if you are going to be healed, and certainly if you’re going to heal anyone else.

As it is for this man in the Bible, so it is for us. In our lives too, forgiveness must come before healing. If we are to be healed, and if we are to heal others, we must first be forgiven. Think of it this way: before we can stand on our own, we must allow God to help us up. And certainly, before we can help anyone else to stand, we must allow God to help us up.

Let me tell you a story to try to explain this relationship between forgiveness and healing. We all have friends in our lives, people who are friends on all different levels. Those of us who are married have a spouse as a best friend. And then, a notch below your spouse, all of us have an inner circle, a little group of really close friends, your best friends. These are friends who you would call at 3 AM if you desperately need a favor, or just need someone to talk to. And then, below that, you have a group of good friends, people who you know and like, people you might have dinner with occasionally, people who you might share some deep things with, though not very much. And then, below that, you have a group of rather distant friends, people who you’re nice to, and they’re nice to you, but you don’t really know the details of each others’ lives. And then, finally, you have acquaintances, people you say hi to and know their names, but you don’t really know anything about them at all beyond that.

Now forgiveness, remember, is heavy. When we forgive another person, we are telling them that they have done something wrong, and it’s hard to hear that. Forgiveness is heavy. And the relationships on the bottom of this ladder are not sturdy enough to handle heavy forgiveness. If you’re an acquaintance of mine, down here, and one of us does something wrong to each other, our thoughts don’t turn to forgiveness; they turn to breaking the relationship. If we’re distant friends, and one of us hurts each other, our thoughts don’t turn to reconciliation, they turn to, “How can we basically avoid each other while not talking about the issues?”

But as you move up the ladder, the stronger the relationships are, the more forgiveness they can hold. If you and I are pretty good friends, if one of us tells the other, “You did something to hurt me here, but I forgive you,” the relationship might just make it. If you’re in the inner circle, we can speak our minds completely freely about each other because we won’t let go of each other because of a couple of hurt feelings. And certainly, in a marriage, when Jill tells me I’ve done something wrong, I would move heaven and earth to make it right and I treasure her insight. In a healthy marriage, our spouses are the most direct way in which God shapes us and grows us for service in the world.

But here’s the connection between forgiveness and healing: those relationships where forgiveness can happen are also those relationships where healing can happen. If you and I can forgive each other, we can also heal each other. Acquaintances and distant friends can’t forgive each other, but they also can’t heal each other. Good friends can begin to forgive each other, not perfectly; and likewise, they can heal each other, if not perfectly. The “Inner Circle?” We can forgive each other for just about anything and those few relationships provide such great healing. And Jill? Those of you who are married know that it takes an awful lot of forgiveness to make a marriage work, but no other relationship on earth brings that much healing. When a marriage is healthy (read: when the partners are forgiving each other), marriage is the way God heals us and prepares us for service perhaps more than any other.

I know so many people who want to keep their relationship with God right here on the bottom. I know so many people who want to go around and talk about being friends with God when what they really mean is they want to be distant friends or acquaintances. You see, the pain of having to be forgiven is just too great for them; they know that to be forgiven means they’re going to have to admit to being sinful. And that’s just too hard. So they settle for being acquaintances or distant friends with God. They are glad to have God’s name and number on their Rolodex, and proud to have their name on a church roll or to have a church wedding. But don’t ask them to be too serious about it; don’t ask them to be too religious; don’t ask them to become a religious fanatic who reads the Bible and prays everyday. Don’t ask them to do such a crazy thing as “deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Christ” throughout life until life’s end. And so, afraid to take on a greater relationship, they settle for the dance that characterizes all relationships at this level: bad communication, grudges being held, etc. etc.

God asks for a rightful spot atop this list. And the reason so few people want to put him there in their lives is that they just can’t be forgiven, because they are so afraid to say they’ve ever messed up. Instead, they prefer to continue to hide their true selves from God, preferring ignorance to truth, preferring blindness to sight. They settle for a relationship with God where they do not have to be forgiven; but the dirty little secret is that that kind of relationship with God can never bring healing either.

Remember this: when we are forgiven, then we can be healed. When we are not afraid to put God at the top of this list, yes it will cost us. We can no longer pretend we’re perfect; we can no longer hide from God. But when we are willing to put God here, we can know healing. Just like this man, who was not afraid to be forgiven, and was healed. God can heal us and use us to bring glory to his name throughout the world.