January 27, 2019
We’re spending January considering the way we’d like to live in 2019.
We only get one shot at this one precious, irreplaceable life, and our attitudes can either embrace and enhance or distort and diminish our experience of those God-given days.
We’ve not been talking about the usual suspects of New Year’s resolutions – exercise more, eat less – but about how we orient our soul along the way.
This kind of change is an inside job.
As Anne Lamott writes, “The courage to change the things we can means the stuff inside the snow globe, not where it sits on the mantel.”
But it turns out that just like our promises to hit the gym five times a week, re-orienting our perspective on life is equally elusive.
Why is it so hard for us to change?
The Apostle Paul was a disciplined Pharisee, but he wrestled with the fact that as much as he resolved to follow God’s laws, he kept falling short.
Romans 7:18-20 I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.
I can relate.
I set out to be more grateful and forgiving, but without quite realizing it, I fall back into my old ruts.
Carlos Dominguez is the chairman of Cisco Systems, the giant IT, networking, and cybersecurity firm.
He has the opportunity to speak to audiences all over the world.
One of the questions he asks his audiences is, “How many of you like change?”
Maybe because it’s the tech audiences he normally addresses, the large majority raise their hands with enthusiasm.
Then he asks a follow-up question: “OK then, how many of you believe you could change if your life depended on it?”
Sensing that he is asking a somewhat deeper question, the crowd takes a minute before responding, and invariably fewer hands go up.
Then he asks, “After a heart attack, how many of you will adhere to a healthy lifestyle: eat right, exercise regularly, and stop smoking?”
Giving just (a) second for them to consider, he shouts the answer: “Twenty percent! Or, to put it another way, four out of five of you will not change to save your lives!”
And therein is the issue we face as we seek to live humbly, cultivate gratitude,
and unburden ourselves from resentments – the three topics we’ve explored this month.
Romans 7:15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.
The world and our own natures collude to stop our positive life changes.
For example, you’re sincere about changing your diet, but you are bombarded with brilliantly crafted commercials urging you to return to sugary, salty and fatty junk food.
Plus, you’ve conditioned yourself to equate a quarter pounder with cheese with a feel-good comfort, so your emotions work against you as well.
I knew a man whose doctor had given grave warnings about his weight and high cholesterol, and so his wife dropped into high gear, micromanaging his diet, monitoring his daily intake of fats, casually leaving articles about the health risks of fatty foods and the benefits of exercise sitting on the counter for him to find.
And he did eat the healthy meals, but unbeknownst to her, he also stopped at McDonald’s on his way home from work.
Unfortunately, his story does not have a happy ending as he died decades prematurely.
You’ll never bully someone into changing.
Neither will you succeed by bullying yourself to be more grateful or forgiving – you’ll just shovel on more shame when you fall short.
So that we’re not victims of these conspiring forces, throughout the month we looked at some ways to reorient our spirits so we can have a richer experience of life.
First, we said that life is not all about me, even my own life story is not all about me.
Life is about my part in God’s unfolding story.
History is His Story.
Romans chapter 7 is Paul’s experience of willpower failing, and in Romans chapter 8 he invites us to engage the life-changing power of Christ.
Romans 8:8-9 Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God.
Where good intentions and willpower fail, the power of Christ changes lives.
I repeat what’s been so helpful to me: in any giving situation ask yourself, what is God up to here, and how can I get on board?
The American justice system seems to have one bad news story after another: high rate of incarceration (we are 4.4% of the world’s population but we have 22% of the world’s incarcerated), the high recidivism rate (68% of prisoners were arrested again within 3-years and 83% within 9-years.
There are lots of contributing factors – drugs, gangs, violence – but we wonder if there isn’t a spiritual intervention possible to make meaningful changes in the hearts of convicts.
In 1995, New Orleans Baptist Seminary began an extraordinary program in Angola Prison, the Louisiana State Penitentiary with the reputation of being one of the bloodiest prisons in America.
Rather than just sending chaplains into the prison, they opened an actual satellite campus within the prison walls that would fully credential and ordain pastors from among the inmate population.
Those pastors and the presence of Jesus within them transformed the whole prison.
Ordained prisoners now hold 400 worship services per month and are credited as being a significant part of Angola’s 80% reduction in violence.
In 2015, Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan was inspired to try a similar program in Handlon Correctional Facility, offering an Associates degree followed by a Bachelors degree in Ministry.
At one point, these Calvin Seminary students-behind-bars decided to plant a vegetable garden, which was soon yielding an abundance of produce.
Their discussion turned to what to do with all the cucumbers, beans and squash they were growing.
As they talked, the inmates realized that one thing they had in common was that virtually all of them had abused the women in their lives: sisters, girlfriends, and wives had all suffered from their verbal and often physical abuse.
About this time, they found out about Safe Haven, a shelter for battered and abused women in Grand Rapids, and they learned that they could help by providing vegetables for the shelter’s meal program.
Now Handlon Prison has graduates of Calvin Seminary making reparations for the abuses they had committed against women as well as counseling fellow inmates.
The power of Christ can accomplish what willpower alone can never do – in a cruel prison or in your own life.
Humility begins with stepping back and seeing yourself as part of God’s unfolding story, His purpose in each moment and each encounter you have.
Two Sundays ago, we talked about how cultivating gratitude opens us to experiencing more blessings in the coming year.
John Ortberg writes, “Gratitude is the ability to experience life as a gift. It opens us up to wonder, delight, and humility. It makes our hearts generous. It liberates us from the prison of self-preoccupation…. Without gratitude our lives degenerate into envy, dissatisfaction, and complaints, taking what we have for granted and always wanting more.”
In the parable of the lepers, Jesus heals ten people of their dreaded skin disease.
In their culture, this was more than just physical healing because leprosy forced victims into absolute isolation from society.
It was so isolating that they had to call out to warn people that they were coming so that everyone could keep their distance.
It was thought that leprosy was a punishment from God – so its victims were isolated both by the fear of contamination and also by their own feelings of shame.
So, Jesus heals all ten, reestablishing their physical health, their connection to their community, and removing their shame.
Then the story continues:
Luke 17:15-19 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
Jesus said, “Were not ten healed? Where are the nine? Can none be found to come back and give glory to God except this outsider?” Then he said to him, “Get up. On your way. Your faith has made you well.”
They all were cured, but the one who had gratitude was opened to even more.
Noticing grace draws you beyond the confines of your normal preoccupation with the frustrations, and responsibilities of the day and opens you to the abundance of grace that surrounds you.
Jesus said, “your faith has made you well” but wasn’t he already made well?
Sozo is the Greek word we translate as “well” and it can also be translated “whole” and even “saved.”
So, Jesus was saying that noticing and responding to the unearned grace that made him whole ushered the Samaritan into a realm of grace – to living in the Kingdom of God in the here and now.
Gratitude is the recognition that life owes me nothing and all the good I have is a gift.
For most of us, gratitude does not come naturally – especially if we are used to a comfortable life.
Most of us develop a sense of entitlement which actually closes us to a deep connection with God and other people.
The spiritual practices of humility, gratitude, and forgiveness go hand in hand.
Unhealed wounds and betrayals from our past preoccupy our souls with resentment, anger, and feelings of victimhood.
To the extent we perpetuate those old stories, we are diverted from fully embracing life this year.
You remember that forgiveness is not forgetting what happened or removing its consequences.
Forgiveness is not something we do for someone else, it is what we do to free ourselves.
Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge our future.
I was struck by how powerful the hold of resentment and betrayal can be when last week I heard the story of the phone-in prayer request line of the Satan Missionary Society in Olympia, Washington.
It was started in 2012 as a parody of the prayer request line promoted by a smug and pious Evangelical church.
The founder was blown away by the number of people who called
earnestly requesting Satan’s intervention in their life.
Their phone number – no kidding – is 512 33 SATAN.
The prayers, which conclude with the phrase “hail Satan”, are recorded and posted online.
The founder doesn’t believe in Satan; as I said, this whole thing was intended
to mock what he perceived as a local church’s sanctimonious prayer request line.
He admits that he’s not been reliable in posting all the prayers, in fact, he soon lost interest and didn’t even listen for a couple of years, but he did post some prayers on his website.
What struck me are requests for revenge, retaliation, and retribution – things people know they can’t ask God for, but which have such a grip on them that they are willing to risk engaging the forces of evil to intervene.
One example: “Hi, I would like to place a hex on my old roommate and her girlfriend Molly and Gabi. Due to the fact that they moved out of our old apartment without giving me
any warning and sticking me with the full rent.”
Our hurts and betrayals may have happened years ago, but without unloading them we are left trying to navigate forward in life by watching our rearview mirrors.
I understand as much as any of you how impossible it seems to forgive some past wrongs.
I tried for years to move forward, but it was too much for me alone.
To use the language of Paul, my flesh (my human nature) wanted revenge and vindication – but that only left me angry and feeling victimized.
Romans 8:5 Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires;
But God is not distant.
Through Jesus, God has come close and wants to be part of your healing.
Romans 8:6 but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.
So, the three-step process for me was this:
First, I meditated to see my life as part of God’s bigger story.
In the big scheme of things, my little drama is not that important, but I can become part of something bigger than myself, something loving and healing – first to me, and then through me to others.
I learned through things such as the meditation we learned a couple of weeks ago to pause and see God’s presence everywhere and in all times.
Second, I did the simple exercises we talked about such as ending each day by making a list of things – even trivial things – for which I was grateful.
And third, I prayed and engaged a counselor to go through a difficult process of forgiving.
Forgiving freed me from living as a disempowered victim to the past – and it would only be possible by engaging God.
God is building the Kingdom among us. He is the one we remember to praise, and through His power, we are freed.