Wednesday, May 10, 2006

When does "real life" begin?

All my life, people have been telling me that “real” life hasn’t started for me yet. When you’re in kindergarten, all the third-graders you know come home and tell you how hard third grade is, how you think you’ve got it bad now, but when you get to third grade, then you’ll see how hard life can be. Then you arrive at the third grade, new lunchbox in hand and grim look of determination plastered on your face, and you find the bar has been moved. Now it is sixth grade that’s cruel and difficult, and third grade that is the pined-for yesterday. So you work for three more years to prove yourself, and arrive at the sixth grade with all your steely resolve and find the bar has been moved to high school, ninth grade. Again, you work for three more years, arrive at high school showered and refreshed, loins girded for battle, and you find that now everyone comes home from college and assures you it is college that is difficult and ninth grade that was the true Garden of Eden, where you could parade around in innocence without a care.

So you go to college, and then people look at you ruefully and say, “You should enjoy these years—these are the best years of your life. Wait ‘til you get out in the real world, and things get tough. You’re single, no real job, no real better enjoy it now.” So you go and get married and get a job. And, lo and behold, the same people say, “Enjoy it now. You’ve got it good. Wait ‘til you have kids—and then things really get tough.”

I guess I’m still gullible, because somehow I believed that once we had Gracie, people really would stop saying such things. I really would have arrived; I really would finally be a real grown-up. I thought I’d finally be welcomed into the club. But, lo and behold, the bar has moved again!

“Enjoy it now: just wait ‘til she starts to walk. Then things are going to get tough.”

I can see it now, can’t you?
2016: “Enjoy it now: just wait ‘til she starts to date.”
2022: “Enjoy it now. Just wait ‘til she gets married—then it gets tough.”
2030: “Enjoy it now. Just wait ‘til she has kids of her own and forgets all about you.”
2036: “Enjoy it now. Just wait ‘til her kids grow up and start running you ragged.”
2050: “Enjoy it now. Just wait ‘til her kids start driving—and take your keys away!”
2064: “Enjoy it now. Just wait ‘til she has grandkids and forgets all about you again.”

Of course, I’m joking (I think). But there is something both sweet and sad about the way people say this to each other. It’s sweet because it’s wistful—it is truly a good-hearted thing to tell someone to enjoy the moment they are living in.

But it’s sad because it suggests that most people go around wishing that they had their yesterday back instead of living their today. It suggests that people love the past enough that they have a hard time appreciating the unique gift of the present—until, ironically enough, it becomes the past. Then they appreciate it.

It’s profoundly sad to me to think that some of us all the time—and all of us some of the time—live our lives wishing for a time that we cannot have back. We long for what was ten years ago; never mind that, ten years ago, we were wishing for what was ten years before that. And, on top of that, because everyone is always telling us how hard the future will be, we spend our lives anxiously worrying about a future that we’re not sure how we’re going to survive, since we feel stretched to the limit as it is. Between pining for the past and worrying about the future, we have no time or energy left to enjoy the present.

That is the ironic shame of all of this; the present is our most constant gift from God and the one we appreciate the least. How many miss the joy of the moment because they are fretting about the future? All around us are sweet gifts from heaven and we miss them because we want a snippet of a romanticized past or fear a looming future? How many new parents in my situation miss the beauty of seeing their baby girl at 4 in the morning because they want their sleep back, like they had in the past? How absurd! To live in the past or the future is to reject the gift of the present.

It is like the children of Israel looking at the miraculous manna and quail and demanding the leeks and onions of Egypt.

So, whatever your age, I say to you: Enjoy it now. Not because things are so great, but because now is God’s most recent gift to you!

Monday, May 08, 2006

Sermon from 5-7

Hi all--here's the sermon I preached yesterday in worship. I thought it was a good one. :) Hope it's meaningful for you.

I’m celebrating this week because I just finished school for the semester. When I’m in school, I’m obviously a fairly busy person. I have a full-time job here, and I take a 2/3 courseload at school, and it’s a long commute, etc. Oh yeah, and there’s the minor complication of having a 2-week-old daughter also. So life can be fairly hectic.

So sometimes I sit and think of all the things I would do if life wasn’t quite so hectic. Well, the first thing I think I would do would be to spend more time on other people. I would try to be a better friend to my friends, do more e-mailing of faraway friends, spend time on relationships that are dear to me. I’d make sure the people that I love knew I was thinking of them and cared for them.

Another thing I’m quite sure I would do would be to devote more time to prayer. I’m
certain that if I weren’t so busy, I would take more of my time and use it just to sit in God’s presence and soak in the power and love of His Spirit. After all, if you want to really get to know God, There is no substitute for simply being in the presence of God, taking time out from the world and being with Him.

I’m also quite certain I would take more time for Bible study. I look at this good book, and I see that in it lie the keys to living life in a full way. Here I look and I see the truth preserved, a written Word that bears witness to a living Word. I know that if I just had a little more time in my life, I would make more time for studying this important book.

Finally, I know that if I had more time in my life, I would do more cooking. I really like to cook, good healthy, tasty meals, and I know that if I had more time in my life, if I just didn’t have to run from work to school to Grace, that I’d take more time to cook good meals and then enjoy them slowly.

Maybe your list is something like mine, things you’d like to do if you just had more time. Maybe, like me, you’d make more time for friends, for prayer, for Bible study, for healthy living. Your list might not be exactly the same as mine, but it’s probably similar. If you just had more time, you’d make sure to experience the important things in life, the good things. At least that’s what I would do.

Or would I?

Now that I think about it, I’m not so sure that I actually would do those things if I had
more free time. They say that “the best predictor of the future is the past.” In other words, the most likely way for me to tell how I’d spend my free time is how I’ve spent my free time in the past. And I must confess to you that most often, it hasn’t been days of writing to friends, memorizing Scripture, spending time in contemplative prayer, and cooking and enjoying fresh food. Rather, a free day for me often looks like getting up at 10:30, surfing the Internet like an addict while eating too much Taco Bell and telling myself I really should be getting a shower. I collapse into bed 14 hours later, self-loathing, wondering why I wasted the day and thinking about all that has to be done tomorrow–and wishing that I had more free time, still sure that if I had that free time, I’d spend it well.

Now, I’m not denying that we all need days like this every once in a blue moon, days of doing absolutely nothing. But for me, simple honesty demands that I realize that having more free time is not the key to being a better friend, a better Christian or a healthier person. Having more free time might just have the opposite effect. If I’m the kind of person who wastes free time and uses it in destructive ways, then giving me more free time is going to make me less like Jesus rather than more like Jesus. The key to achieving these goals is not in having more time to spend; the key to achieving these goals is making good and godly choices with the time we do have. I’d be far better off learning how to use the free time I have to achieve these important goals than waiting for the free time fairy to drop more free time in my life that I’d waste anyway.

So much of life is about the choices we make: the foods that we choose to put into our body, the people we allow to shape and mold our minds and spirits, the way we use the 24 hours we are given each day. We have choices over all of this, and it is the way we choose, not the number of choices we have, which determines much about our spirits and our lives.

We must realize, though, that what makes this difficult is our ability to deceive ourselves. What seems good to us is not always good. It seems good to sit around, not taking showers, eating Taco Bell and surfing the Internet, but at the end of the day, when we feel fat, dirty and wasted, we realize that it was not such a good idea after all. In the same way, it might not seem good to use our free time to write to a friend or memorize Scripture, and yet that leaves us feeling much better. We humans have this amazing ability to be attracted to self-destructive things and repulsed by things that would give us life. That’s just part of being a person.

We see it even back in the Bible, even in our text this morning. Peter has just healed a crippled beggar, a man who has been unable to walk since birth. Every morning he would sit at the temple gate, where lots of people would walk by, feeling charitable and maybe a little bit guilty on their way to the temple, and so they’d give him some money so he’d have something to eat. Peter walks by and says that he has no money, but tells him that he has something better; “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth,” says Peter, “stand up and walk!” And he does, this man who has been lame ever since he was born, this man who many people saw every day laying on his mat, was now walking and leaping and praising God.

And so the people are amazed and they crowd around Peter and the beggar. And Peter sees this and he says, “Why are you looking at this man and thinking that it was human power that did this? It was God who did this, God’s own decision and God’s own power that made this happen!” For Peter, there is a sharp distinction between human power and God’s power. Human power could never heal another person, and often, on their own, humans make the wrong choices. But God’s power can bring healing and new life to another person.

To illustrate what happens when humans get power, Peter starts to accuse the crowd. He says, “This was done by Jesus, the same Jesus who you decided to have crucified even though Pilate wanted to release him. You had a choice, and you rejected the Holy and Righteous One, the very Author of Life, and instead you chose a murderer, a merchant of death.”

When Peter says this to them, this is the supreme example of what we’ve been talking about this morning. When people get choices, they don’t always make the right ones. When people get choices, they often can deceive themselves into thinking they’re doing the right thing, when in reality it is wrong. People have a stunning capacity to choose murderers over life-givers; people have this tendency to choose merchants of death over the Author of life. And we see it in our lives all the time, if we’re honest enough to look at ourselves: time and time again, we humans can choose death over life with a straight face. We make decisions that we believe are right and good, and they lead to brokenness and pain. It’s part of being human.

As Peter preaches to the crowd, they begin to despair. They begin to see that they have killed the only One who can bring life. They begin to see the destructive consequences of their very bad choices. You might feel a touch of the same kind of despair as we talk this morning about our tendency to make bad choices. I certainly felt a bit of it when I was talking about my bad choices, and it’s natural to feel a bit of despair when we look at the consequences of our decisions, the brokenness we sometimes leave in our wake–brokenness in our own lives and brokenness in the lives of others.

In fact, we might begin to wonder, “What’s the point?” If this is how humans are destined to make decisions, then is there any hope at all? If we humans are doomed to just kind of fritter our lives away with bad decision after bad decision, is there actually any hope that we could make a good decision? Is there any hope for us at all or are we just going to go from bad choice to bad choice, knowing only brokenness?

Here is where Peter interrupts the crowd’s despair and our despair with good news. He looks out and says, “And now, friends I know that you acted in ignorance.” In other words, you didn’t know what you were doing. But Peter goes on: “In this way God fulfilled what had always been prophesied, that the Messiah would suffer.”

Here is the beginning of good news: even in the midst of our brokenness and our bad decisions, God can bring good out of them. God looked at the suffering of Jesus and used this to fulfill a prophesy that the Messiah would suffer. God has this amazing capacity to take what has been intended for evil and turn it into good.

Certainly, we know this in our own lives right now. There’s nothing like looking at your infant daughter and being fully aware that you’re going to screw her up somehow. In some way, her mom and I are going to mess her up. We all have our own insecurities, our own flaws, that cloud our good judgment and make us not quite perfect at what we do. And so we’ll ground her when we should go easy on her, or go easy on her when we ought to lay the law down. Or we’ll make a big deal of something little or not enough of a big deal about something that really is important.

And yet amazingly enough, God can use even the times we screw up to change her for the better. Instinctively, we know this. A person is truly doing well when they can look at their parents and can say, “Huh, they weren’t perfect, but they were pretty good, and here’s what I learned from my childhood. I don’t let their mistakes define me but I learned from them and I’m better for it.” That’s what I’m relying on–that God’s grace will be shown to little Grace and where we screwed up, God intervened and showered grace upon Grace that our weaknesses might make her even stronger. This is what Peter said God can do–take human failings and turn them around for His good.

But there is more good news than just this. Peter goes on: “Repent, therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.” This verse may sound harsh to our modern ears, but listen to what Peter is saying: He is saying that there is a way that our sins may be wiped out; there is a way that our bent toward failure can begin to reverse and that we can literally begin to turn that around. He is saying that we are not merely doomed to make mistakes, to a lifetime of bad judgment, but there is a way in which we can begin to take on the mind of God. We can literally turn ourselves around, re-orient ourselves so that rather than having a mere human mind, we can begin to think like and act like God.

For Peter, this idea is summed up in one word: repent. That word has been abused by religion over the decades and centuries, so much so that many of us cannot hear someone tell us to “repent” without wincing, without feeling like we are being condemned. And yet, for Peter, and for me, “repent” is not a bad word. It is a joyful word; it is a word pregnant with possibility. It is a word that invites us to turn away from a way of living that is slowly killing us, and into a way of living in Christ Jesus that would give us true life. Repentance is a word that gives us hope–hope that we can stop choosing murderers and start choosing the Holy and Righteous One. Hope that we can stop choosing things in life that bring death and start choosing the Author of Life. When someone tells us to repent, it is a precious opportunity to look at our lives and start over, start to live differently, with different priorities.

I started this sermon talking about the way I spend my free time, how I think I’ll just love it and then I spend it in a way that fills me with self-loathing. Repentance throws me a lifesaver in the midst of that mess and says, “You know, you don’t have to do it that way anymore. You could make different choices. You could choose to do different things, things that will bring you joy and not pain, things that will make you feel fulfilled, not fat, dirty and wasted. You don’t have to live in a way that will be painful to you. If you will repent, if you will turn, you too can live differently.”

Repentance offers the same thing to those of us who are willing to be honest about our lives and the poor decisions we make sometimes. If we are willing to turn, to repent, we don’t have to live with that same pain anymore. We can begin to see ourselves honestly, look at our compulsions and illusions, and with God’s help, can begin to say, “I don’t need that anymore. I want something different, something better.”

Today, we come to the table, and as it often does, it cuts to the quick and preaches sermons words could never preach. For this is a table where many eat but only some are nourished. Many eat but only some are nourished. Some eat because they always have and believe they have a right to the meal; some eat to fit in, to reassure others gathered at the table that they’re all right; some eat to calm their spirit, to reassure themselves that they’re all right.
But some eat because they want the bread of repentance more than anything else; they eat because more than anything else, they want to imitate the Bread of life, the one who has come down from heaven and nourishes the world. They eat because they want desperately to repent, to become like him, to leave life and not brokenness in their wake. They eat because like bread, they are willing to be plucked up and crushed and baked and broken and chewed and swallowed all for the joy of nourishing another, and they are willing to live lives of repentance until they get there. And these alone are nourished at this table...