Sunday, March 27, 2011

Finding Joy (Even When Life's Decisions are Hard)

What kinds of choices have you faced this week?  None of us have any choice about being born, our family or the color of our eyes.  Choosing really begins with how we will use the circumstances we inherit.  In 1784 Ben Franklin wrote to his daughter because he was really tweaked over the poor choice the American government had made in selecting the eagle as our national symbol; Ben wanted the TURKEY!
Some choices carry greater consequences than others.  A nurse came into the hospital room to give her 79-year-old patient a shot.  She said, "You can choose which hip you want this shot in.”  He answered, "YOURS, HONEY!"  Choosing is important in life.
Paul had a hard choice in front of him.  He was languishing in a Roman prison – a dark, dirty, sickening place.  The circumstances of his life were appalling; he certainly wished for release (nobody likes prison).  But there was more to the choices before Paul than whether he should just sit back and wait to die.  If he did, at least he'd be with Jesus, and that was preferable in his mind.  What was complicating Paul’s choice was the nagging thought that he wasn’t yet done with all God had called him to do in ministry.  This was a very trying decision.
And we face many decisions about family, job, relationships.  We (like Paul) want to make sound decisions, Christian decisions – choices that will be good for our welfare, and pleasing in God's sight.  The question before the house today is,
The answer to that question is found in Paul's diatribe.  The text is Paul’s thinking out loud, like a question and answer session where you’re the only one in the room.  (If you have one of those conversations, make sure you ARE the only one in the room…otherwise you COULD BE all alone in a room – at the state hospital!)
In Paul’s little “conversation with himself” he uncovers for us four FACTORS that influence Christian decision-making.  The decision that you make is determined by:
1. What You Want
22If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer.  23I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; 24but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.  25Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, Philippians 1.22 - 25 (NRSV)
Paul knew what he wanted; whether in prison or free, he wanted to please God.  He chose Jesus in everything.  He said he was “convinced” or persuaded!  The question becomes, "Do you want Jesus, and the life He offers?"  C.S. Lewis, in "Mere Christianity," wrote:  ...every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part that chooses, into something a little different than it was before.  And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, you are slowly turning this central thing either into a Heavenly creature or into a hellish creature...
Here is the lesson about choosing - When you choose Christ first, you begin to know Christlikeness firsthand.  I often pattern my prayer after Jesus' prayer in Gethsemane, "Lord, I want to be more like you when I make choices – NOT MY WILL, FATHER, YOURS!"   When you begin to want Jesus, you will begin to want to BE like Jesus, and decisions will be more like Jesus makes!
Secondly, notice that Christian decision-making is influenced not only by what you want, but by:
2. Who You Depend Upon
26so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Philippians 1.26 (NRSV)
Jesus depended upon the Father.  Paul would later write (2.7) that Jesus ...made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant.  You say, "Of course I depend on God -- Who else do you think I'm praying to?"  Do you leave room in your petition for the miraculous?  When Jesus prayed He expected an answer - BUT HE ALWAYS LEFT THE KIND OF ANSWER IN THE FATHER'S HAND.  It is appropriate to make our requests known and even our wants; but it is so much smarter to leave the way God answers up to Him.  He has been known to come up with better answers than ours!  All your plans for your family, ministry and relationships need room for the miracle-working power of God.  Remember, if you're covering every angle it is YOU that you're depending on, not God.
What you want…who you depend upon, and…
3.  Your Attitude Towards the Body of Christ
27Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, 28and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing.  Philippians 1:27 - 28 (NRSV)
This is a focus that requires a different kind of lens.  Paul knew that there was a chance he wouldn't ever see daylight as a free man.  So he made this request to the believers at Philippi – whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.   Our decisions are not made in a vacuum.  Everything we do affects other people.  It is especially so in the body of Christ.  What is it that Jesus would choose for the body; for you and me?
HE CHOOSES UNITY   “Standing firm in one spirit”
The church of Jesus Christ is to be a united church.  An attitude of selfishness or carelessness does not belong.  It is like my hand deciding to go on vacation.  If the hand decides the mouth doesn't need to be fed, the entire body will suffer.  Unity is only a reality when the whole body is working together.
HE CHOOSES INDUSTRY  “Striving side by side”
Christ never intended the church to limp along with just a few doing the giving, working, worshiping and praying.  Every member can make a contribution to the body.  If you really want to help you can find a way.  If you have trouble finding a way to help - ASK!
HE CHOOSES INTREPIDITY  “in no way intimidated by your opponents”
To be intrepid is to be courageous.  Paul says that the body of Christ, standing as unified and industrious will be intrepid – not intimidated by opposition.  The word comes from an ancient Greek word ptoo'-ro, which literally translated means "to spit."  A perfect example is the camel.  When surprised, or frightened, a camel will spit at its enemy.  The application is simple; whatever happens in this life, the Christian that is standing united with the church, working diligently in the kingdom will not be unduly frightened by ANYTHING!  Now that is a freedom that's worth having.
What you want, Who you depend upon, Your attitude towards the body, and
4. Your Willingness to Serve
29For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— 30since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.     Philippians 1:29 - 30 (NRSV)
The servant index is simply a measure of your willingness to follow Jesus on HIS terms, rather than yours.  Jesus suffered, and so will His followers.  We must be willing to choose following Christ – whatever the cost – or we cannot be considered worthy to be called His disciples.  Jesus said, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me."
And so, the crux of the matter is, are you willing to suffer?  Paul was, and he warned the church that one of the great gifts God had entrusted them with was the privilege to suffer for him.  In their day it was arenas with lions.  For us it means choosing to respond to whatever sacrifice we’re facing.
Joy is not related to the kinds of circumstances that make us happy.  If that were the case, my job would be more along the lines of an employment counselor telling you how to get a better career, so you could earn more money, so you can buy more things, and take more vacations, so you wouldn’t have any unhappiness or lack for anything you want.  But you know – that isn’t joy.  Joy is a bigger target!  Joy is connected to genuine fulfillment, not superficial, temporary circumstances; it’s a deep-down knowing you’re really connected to God; you’re loved by your Creator, and nothing can separate you from Him!
So, to get to the bottom line here about where you find the joy in all these questions about life’s tough decisions, we need to remember Paul’s audience.  He was speaking to the church of joy.  He shows us that all these…
…is all working together to produce joy in your life.
The question is,
"Do you want it?"
To help in deciding this vital issue, consider this scenario.  We go to the state fair.  We are standing in front of a booth where you throw the ball at plastic pins standing on edge.  Knock-down the pins, you're a winner!  The blue pins are worth $5 each; the yellow are worth $500 each; and the red ones are worth $50,000 apiece.  No tricks – just a simple, straightforward question; which will YOU throw at?
Life is just that simplified when it comes to making decisions.  Jesus is the red one!  Love him.....Depend on him....Love and work for his church....serve.  It will produce genuine joy!  And when that joy lodges down deep inside you, the world can ask whatever questions it wants – Jesus will always be your answer!
Father, you have created us for Yourself.  We are like you – made in Your image with a spirit that is designed to blossom and bloom in joy.
But, we are children who prefer happiness…and we go searching for it in material possessions and pleasures and relationships.  All of that is unable to produce more than a passing happiness – and in the end we are devastated, finding we’ve wasted our time on this planet on vanity…emptiness.
Lord, help us to find real, genuine joy in the One who died for us; let us experience joy in Christ’s family as we work together in unity – fiercely courageous in a day when the world is in fear and anxiety and divided.
We pray in the Name of the Father, Because of the Son, Cooperating with the Spirit…Amen!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

When God Fails

It is hard to look at some circumstances and not think, Boy, God sure messed that one up!  I have had extended conversations with unbelievers who cite natural tragedies like hurricane Katrina, Tsunami’s or the AIDS epidemic as reasons why there cannot be a God.  Deep down, they know that’s foolishness; they just cannot reconcile why God allows some things to happen.  Their perspective of how God ought to act doesn’t allow for human beings’ poor choices.  Sometimes it just looks like God’s asleep at the switch; it appears that He’s just failing to do His job as God.  Mother Teresa is often quoted as having prayed:  Father, you’d have more friends if you treated the ones you’ve got better.
Apparent Failures
It’s true – sometimes we just don’t get what God is up to.  But things are not always as they appear.  Near the end of World War II the American beloved president Franklin Roosevelt died.  It was difficult for Harry Truman to fill his shoes.  When the war was over, America craved change.  It didn’t look good for Harry Truman’s bid to be elected.
That November election night in 1948 everyone went to bed having read the newspaper headlines confidently announcing Mr. Dewey as the winner.  Thomas Dewey would be the next president of the United States.
But somebody forgot to tell the voters that, and Harry Truman spent the next four years in the house at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
There are a lot of apparent failures in history:
Abraham Lincoln lost many an election on the way to winning the presidency in 1860.
Thomas Edison found thousands of ways to NOT make a light bulb before he lit things up.
Babe Ruth struck out twice as many times as he hit home runs.
But the most notable and most abject apparent failure in history was Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus was not really popular or particularly well-liked apart from his very close followers.  In fact, after one of his sermons everybody left except the twelve disciples.
Jesus was a political failure; he was rejected at every level of government. Then they conspired to kill him.
He had no wealth, holdings, world headquarters; he didn’t build a Christian amusement park or host a TV talk-show.
In the end it was one of his closest friends who betrayed him to the authorities.
But the most compelling piece of “failure evidence” is the cross.  When they took Jesus down from the cross, he was dead, stone-cold dead!  This was a man who talked of eternal life and kingdoms.  What a failure!
The language and measuring stick of the world is not the same as that of the Gospel.  After Good Friday, on Sunday, there was no talk of failure.  There was no talk of failure on the day of Pentecost, when the power of God fell on all the friends of Jesus.  What we celebrate today when we remember the cross and tomb is seen by the world as fools remembering a fool.  But we sing Victory in Jesus.
Throughout the past twenty centuries, those who have followed Jesus, and been his most useful servants, have also been seen by the world as failures.
Paul was certainly one of those.  After a career of riots, imprisonments, threats, beatings and shipwrecks, Paul was confined to the nastiest Roman prison imaginable.  People were saying bad things about him.  He was not able to defend his character, or his leadership.  By worldly standards the life of Paul was a miserable failure!  But Christian followers hold a different view of what was happening.
The Bold Advance
By definition the word “failure” means to fall short in an attempt to accomplish a goal or set of goals.  Paul saw what was happening as a great success, because his goal of spreading the gospel, the Good News of Jesus, in the most efficient way possible, was being accomplished.
Rome was the center of the world back then, and the Roman emperor held the reigns of worldwide power.  Paul was arrested and shackled to Roman soldiers.  That put him in a position to share Christ with the whole Praetorian Guard, the emperor's select personal army.  What better platform from which to preach Jesus?
On top of that, his imprisonment was the inspiration that some believers needed to “come out of the Christian closet" and begin witnessing boldly.
Sometimes (because we're using the world's measuring stick) the things which lead us to believe that God has somehow failed – that Christianity doesn't work in 2011, are only apparent failures.  We need to see things as God sees things.
The Bottom-Line Way of Looking at Things
People see things through different lenses.  Jed and his buddy Gomer had been out of work for a good while.  Then they heard of the problem with the wolf population preying on Southern Mediterranean sheep flocks.  There was a bounty of $150 on each wolf hide.  They gathered their gear and headed off to make big bucks.
They didn’t see so much as a track for days.  Then, one night, just after they’d fallen asleep by the campfire, Jed was awakened by a low growl.  When he opened his eyes there were 150 pairs of evil yellow eyes staring at him from every angle.  Jed broke into a grin, poked his buddy and said, Gomer…wake up man, we’re rich!
In Paul’s circumstance there was mixed reaction also.  While some of the church folks got bold and preached Christ out of love (both for Christ and Paul), some preached in a cynical attempt to add to Paul's problems.  They were looking to capitalize on the publicity about Paul, and make a little profit.  What did Paul think about such goings-on?  Paul knew the goal of spreading the gospel was happening.  And it caused one thing to happen in him - he REJOICED!  And he promised to keep on rejoicing.
While the world looks on and says power, prestige, position, money, sex, things – these are the important issues of life; God looks down from heaven and whispers, My ways are higher than your ways.
This is how we should be in the family of God.  We weep with, and comfort those who weep.  But we also rejoice with those that rejoice.  The bottom line assessment is that it is God's kingdom - we are servants.  In the long view, it really doesn't matter what the details are concerning our comfort and personal circumstances.  If Christ is preached, we must rejoice.
Father, our greatest joy is the anticipation of hearing ‘well-done, thou good and faithful servant’.  Grant us the ability to see the richness of a bold advance in the Gospel, even in our weakest circumstances.
We pray in the Name of the Father, Because of the Son, Cooperating with the Spirit…Amen!