Partnership

Membership says “what’s in it for me?” Partnership says, “how can I be a part of this?”

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Being a Partner is all about being connected. There is a big difference between membership and partnership. Let me explain it like this. It is possible to be a member of a gym, but only go there once a year, correct? But when you are a Partner you are connected, there is a connecting and a joining that takes place. You have a vested interest in everything that happens.  It is so much more than just being a member.

The same thing is true when it comes to be a partner in a church.  It’s not the fact that you visit that place, it’s all about that ministry – being a part of who you are and you are a part of what that ministry is. There is a connection, a joining and a communion that takes place in that. The purpose of this ministry is to bring you to the place where you fulfil the call of God on your life.

Think about it this way:  membership says “what’s in it for me?”  Partnership says, “how can I be a part of this?”

This letter of Paul’s to the Philippians is often referred to as the letter of joy. We can certainly understand why it would be called that hearing some of the phrases that Paul uses:

“I thank my God…”

“I’m thankful for all of you”

“it’s always a prayer full of joy”

“I’m glad…”

“I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.”

“I’m glad…and I’ll continue to be glad.”

 

He sounds pretty joyful for someone writing a letter from jail. But it’s not necessarily that he’s joyful because of his circumstances. But more than that – I think he’s so joyful because of the way in which the Philippians, the people of the church, have partnered with him, have taken care of him, and have been working in the ministry of the gospel with him

And so, as I was reading this passage, I kept being drawn to these two verses about partnership: Verse 5: I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now.  And verse 7: I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel.

Now, when we think about partners…we probably have different responses. Perhaps some of you have partners who you work with professionally, and those may be good relationships, but it’s possible that some of them are strained.

And I don’t know about you, but when I was in school I would cringe a bit whenever a professor informed us that we’d be working in groups for a certain project. I didn’t necessarily always want partners – sometimes it would have been a whole lot easier if I could have just taken care of something on my own and did it myself.

Perhaps it’s because of the very individualistic society that we live in, but I’m sure that many of us would admit, if pressed, that we often prefer to be lone rangers…taking care of things by ourselves, rather than having the help of others.

But the thing is…we can’t do it alone. Sure maybe I could have knocked out a project quicker by myself…but when we are talking about the stuff of life, when we are talking about the work that God has called us to participate in, in the world…that’s not something that is easily done as lone rangers.

And we’ve known this from the very beginning. As we look back to the creation story in Genesis…after God had created Adam, God said, “It’s not good that the man is alone. I will make a helper that is perfect for him.” We were not meant to be alone…and we were not meant to do this work alone…

We need partners. Here in Philippians, Paul is profusely thanking the Philippians for being partners in the ministry of the gospel. They supported Paul during his ministry with them, and continued to support him while he was in prison…most likely that was made manifest by the Philippians providing Paul with food and other necessities that he wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.

For us, this morning, one of the questions we need to ask ourselves is how are we being partners in ministry with God and to each other? How are we supporting what God is doing in this church and in our world? This work of the ministry of the gospel is not something that I do…it’s not something that only the church council does…this is work that we all participate in.

We all need to partner together to accomplish the values and dreams that we have set before ourselves. We will become just like Jesus:

  1. We will create an atmosphere which welcomes and connects people to the Body of Christ.
  2. We were made to worship. So we will create an atmosphere where worship is the centerpiece of our lives.  We will create an atmosphere where people can experience the presence of God.
  3. We will create disciples who are increasing in their love of God and neighbor.
  4. We will create a culture of the call; an atmosphere where every partner takes the step into serving and ministry and transforms the world.
  5. We will create an atmosphere and expectation of extravagant generosity. We will live our whole lives for God and God’s purposes.

This isn’t going to be something that we do alone. But it’s not just that we’re partnering with each other and with this church…we’re actually partnering with God, our creator, redeemer and sustainer.

God invites you and me to partner with him so that we can all be actively pursuing, and participating in, ushering in God’s kingdom…the ushering in of God’s hopes and dreams for our lives and for this world.  So that we can become just like Jesus.

I want to share with you a story called “Does God Have a Big Toe: Stories about Stories in the Bible.” It’s written by Marc Gellman. This story is called “Partners.”

 Before there was anything, there was God, a few angels, and a huge swirling glob of rocks and water with no place to go. The angels asked God, “Why don’t you clean up this mess?”  So God collected rocks from the huge swirling glob and put them together in clumps and said, “Some of these clumps of rocks will be planets, and some will be stars, and some of these rocks will be…just rocks.”

Then God collected water from the huge swirling glob and put it together in pools of water and said, “Some of these pools of water will be oceans, and some will become clouds, and some of this water will be…just water.”

Then the angels said, “Well God, it’s neater now, but is it finished?” And God answered…“NOPE!”

On some of the rocks God placed growing things, and creeping things, and things that only God knows what they are, and when God had done all this, the angels asked God, “Is the world finished now?” and God answered…“NOPE!”

God made a man and a woman from some of the water and dust and said to them, “I am tired now. Please finish up the world for me…really it’s almost done.” But the man and woman said, “We can’t finish the world alone! You have the plans and we are too little.”

“You are big enough,” God answered them. “But I agree to this. If you keep trying to finish the world, I will be your partner.”

The man and the woman asked, “What’s a partner?” and God answered, “A partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means that you can never give up, because your partner is depending on you. On the days you think I am not doing enough and on the days I think you are not doing enough, even on THOSE days we are still partners and we must not stop trying to finish the world. That’s the deal.” And they all agreed to that deal.

Then the angels asked God, “Is the world finished yet?” and God answered, “I don’t know. Go ask my partners.”

So we not only partner with one another to participate in this ministry of the gospel, but we partner with God.  We are working with God, so that God’s kingdom may come. We can read the news, glance at our Facebook News Feed, or even just look all around us, and see the ways in which this world is clearly unfinished…and not as God would have it.

Children all around the world die every day from lack of clean water, food and shelter. Single moms work long hours at multiple jobs, and can barely earn enough money to put food on the table for their kids. We hear about mass shootings, and are shocked and saddened for a few days, and then move on with our lives, not taking the necessary steps to prevent future tragedies.

We live in a world where cyber-bullying continues to be a huge problem for young people, so much so that many have decided it was not worth living anymore and have taken their lives.  Is the world finished yet?  “NOPE.”

Teresa of Avila, the 16th century mystic, wrote the following:

Christ has no body but yours, No hands, no feet on earth but yours; yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world, Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.”  Is the world finished yet?  “NOPE.”

Since we all have different gifts and talents …partnering with God is going to look a little different for each person here.

There’s no end to the possible ways that we can partner with God.

But perhaps the most significant thing that we all can do is to simply reframe how we view ourselves in relation to God.

If we think that God is the one who just… does it all, that’s going to form and shape how we live in the world, how we engage with others throughout our day, how we treat other people.

But if we think of ourselves as God’s partners…if we realize that God works through you…that changes everything. That changes the way we view ourselves, the way we view God, and the way we view our place in the world.

When we realize that we are God’s partners, we know that we can’t just sit around and wait, expecting God to be the one to bring about change in the world.

As followers in the way of Jesus, we have been called to partner with God to embody and bring about the Kingdom of God in the here-and-now; the Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in Heaven.

Worship Because God is Worthy!

A number of years ago, a woman in Kansas City walked into a Haagen-Dazs ice cream shop at her local shopping center.  While waiting, she turned to find actor Paul Newman standing behind her.  He was in town filming a movie and was now standing behind his biggest fan.

He smiled at her and said ‘hello.’  She took one look into his eyes and her knees almost buckled.  Her heart was in her throat.  She tried to speak, but not a sound came out.  Mortified, she turned around, paid for her ice cream, then quickly walked out of the store.  Outside, she sat down on a bench and caught her breath.  As she calmed down, she realized she didn’t have her ice cream cone.  She was debating walking back in to get it when Paul Newman walked out.  “You looking for your ice cream cone?” he asked.  Speechless again, she nodded.  “You put it in your purse with your change.”

If you or I would come face to face with a celebrity we admired, I imagine we would behave in a similar way.  I wonder we, who get excited about celebrity – why it is that we can enter into the presence of God with a yawn and a shrug?

Worshiping God is the single most important thing that you and I can do.  In fact we, we were created to worship God (Isaiah 43:21).  Worship brings pleasure to God.  In worship we practice the greatest commandment that Jesus taught – Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Worship bends our lives toward God.

When Scripture talks about worship it always reminds us that the purpose of our worship is glorify, honor, praise, exalt, and please God.  Worship is the number one priority.

Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher in the 19th century, once clarified the most common misconception about worship using the analogy of a drama. “When we come to worship God, we generally feel as though the preacher and other ministers are the performers and God is the subject of the performance and we as the congregation are merely the audience…but this is a terrible misunderstanding of worship.”

Kierkegaard is describing a consumer-oriented approach, focused more on what we receive than what we give. Kierkegaard goes on to say, “Authentic Christian worship is just the opposite. We, the congregation, are the performers. The preachers and other ministers are the directors and God is the audience.”

It is revolutionary to worship something other than ourselves.  Every time we worship, we set our own egos, desires, ambitions aside so that God is the audience.  When we worship we should make much of God!

That’s why real worship can only happen when we enter into the presence of the Living God.  Worship is a deliberate encounter with God in Jesus Christ.  We can’t worship to squeeze God in; to feel better for the week; or to get a blessing.  With eagerness and expectancy we encounter God and are drawn into his presence where our focus is on giving to him. Worship is an encounter with the Holy God!

While there are many moments in Scripture were we see people encountering God, one act of worship stands out.  One story that should be the rule instead of the exception.  It is the story of the moment Isaiah encountered the Living God.  It is a story of worship and what naturally happens when we rightly worship God.

READ Isaiah 6:1-4

Let me provide some context for these verses.  The first five chapters set the stage of Isaiah’s vision of God.  In Isaiah 1-5 we are given a description of God’s people – Israel.  It is a picture of a people who have completely and deliberately turned their back on God.  They have exalted themselves in the place of God.  They worship the creation instead of the Creator.  The bow down to idols that they have made.  They care only about accumulating wealth and military power.  They confuse evil with good and good with evil.  And God does everything he could for his people, but they won’t respond to God’s goodness.  But even in this context of his vision, Isaiah holds out the possibility of radical transformation – an unholy people can become a holy people.

These people for whom Isaiah cared so much about were experiencing turmoil under King Uzziah.  When the king died, Isaiah has this vision of God.  Who was Uzziah?  In 2Chronicles 26 we are given a detailed account of his reign.  Uzziah was 16 years old when he was crowned king of Judah, and he reigned a long time – 52 years.  For years his reign as king was grand and significant.  Uzziah trusted God and took Judah to a period of prosperity and glory.

But unfortunately Uzziah’s reign which had begun in faithfulness and obedience to God, ended in shame and humility.  He grew proud and arrogant.  One day he entered the temple and went to the holy place where only the priest could go.  But when he came out he was no longer the proud and glorious king.  Instead he staggered out a leper; broken and humiliated.  Uzziah lived as an outcast for the rest of his reign.

And when that once powerful king died, Isaiah has this vision of God.  Isaiah and the whole nation felt devastated and abandoned.  The one they placed their hope in was gone.  What next?  But this emptying was absolutely essential.  It was necessary if Isaiah was going to see God.  His own throne had to be emptied before he could see God sitting on his throne.  His false Gods had to be brought down before he could see God high and lifted up.  Generally we don’t really seek after God and find him until we have tried almost everything else; every other possible way and found it empty.  When we reach the end of our own resources, we turn to God and worship him.

And that is why this event from Isaiah teaches us so much about worship.  God is all that we can turn to.  God is all that we can trust in the darkest moments of life.  And when we move from ourselves into the presence of the living God – we find life.  That’s worship!  The place where we glorify, honor, praise, exalt and please God.

So who is this God who calls us into worship?  And why is God worthy of worship?  He is the same God that Isaiah sees.

This God who we worship; this God who calls us to himself; who invites us into a life with him – this God is holy!  This vision has a profound effect on Isaiah.  What does he see?  What does he comprehend for the first time?  It can be summed up in one word – a word that the angels repeated three times:  “Holy, holy, holy!”  Isaiah got a glimpse of the holiness of God.  It became clear to him as never before that God is holy.  There was this great sense of awe.

Holiness is not just one attribute of God.  Holiness is all that God is.  At the very beginning of this vision, Isaiah sees God sitting on a throne, high and exalted.  At that very moment Isaiah emphasizes God’s separateness; his transcendence over all of creation and all that is.  God alone is exalted!  Isaiah sees nothing higher than God.  To say that God is holy is to say that he is utterly different than you and I and all the rest of creation.  And as Isaiah encountered this God, the temple shook!

When was the last time you stood in awe of this holy God?  When was the last time you were engulfed by an encounter with this God who is high and exalted?  Most of us are guilty of what is called the “sin of reductionism.”  We reduce God to a manageable size.  We put God in a box – we don’t want too much of God; we want to control the outcomes; we want to limit what we know about God.  Isaiah would have been so in awe of God’s holiness that he couldn’t help but approach God with reverence and honor.  We need to guard against casual, indifferent attitudes when we enter the presence of God.  God is more powerful and more holy than our ability to describe him.

Yet, here is the amazing characteristic of this holy God whom we worship with reverence and awe.  This holy God can be known!  When we commit the sin of reductionism, we not only reduce God to what is manageable to us, but we also reduce Christianity to a set of moral and ethical imperatives devoid of relationship to God.  Christianity and Christian worship is primarily about having a deeply connected relationship with the God of creation.

What is amazing about God, as we see it unfolding in this worship experience of Isaiah, is that God chooses to make himself known.  He allows Isaiah to see him high and lifted up.  And when God makes himself known, you and I can enjoy his presence.  The God who is holy and high and exalted, comes to you and makes himself known to you.  And in worship we can enjoy the presence of God.

Even though we have access to him, we never take it for granted.  We never treat it lightly.  We are going to his throne, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.  He is at the same time our heavenly Father and yet he is the reigning, ruling righteous supreme king of the universe and we live in that tension.  He is the God of all, the supreme judge, yet we have a relationship with him.  And so we can come in with that intimacy yet with reverence at the same time.  He’s our father, he’s our friend.  He’s a shepherd.  He’s redeemer.  He’s righteous king.  He’s the judge and ruler of all.  And he makes himself known.  He wants the whole earth to be filled with his glory. He is looking for people who will be receptive of him.  God is looking for people who will present to him.

Of course, God is present everywhere at all times, but not everyone is aware of his presence.  I’m not sure we always come to worship expecting a life-changing encounter with God.  Many people go to church.  Not all worship!  But God is present whether we are aware or not, but his presence is made manifest only when we are aware of it!  God makes himself known, but God’s presence must be sought.  We must be receptive to God’s presence.  God is always present to us, but in order for his presence to have its full impact upon our lives, we must learn to be present to God.  And in corporate worship we can be present with God when we pray, when we read and hear the Scripture, and when we break bread through the sacrament of communion.

God is holy.  He is utterly and completely separate from you and I and creation, itself.  God is high and exalted.  But God chooses to make himself known.  And ultimately, God makes himself known to creation in Jesus Christ.  We know God through Jesus. Jesus is the self-revelation of God.  God in the flesh.  When you are intentional about knowing and following Jesus, you are intentional about knowing this God who makes himself known.

One last thing I want you to see (and we will spend much more time on this over the next two weeks) – it is that while God is holy and God makes himself known, God calls you and I to holiness.   When Isaiah has this vision of God during worship, he sees and maybe even feels the temple shake and the whole place fills with smoke.

Smoke means a couple of things in the Bible.  Sometimes it symbolizes the presence of God.  Other times, like right here, smoke also conveys God’s judgement.  Remember the context here – God’s people had turned away from God.  They were worshipping creation instead of the Creator; they bowed down to idols.  They care only about accumulating wealth and military power.  They confuse evil with good and good with evil.

One of the things that should happen when we encounter God in worship, is that we change.  We become more of who God wants us to be – just like Jesus.  In an encounter with the Living God you and I are called to be holy as God is holy.  In worship we should be convicted of the ways our lives are not lining up with God’s will.  In this encounter between Isaiah and God, and running throughout Scripture is the call to separate ourselves form the values and life-style of the culture around us.  To be holy, is to be separate.  Separate from the culture-driven values and lifestyles and free to be attached to God!

Read Romans 12.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could experience God, face to face, like Isaiah did?  Scripture tells us that we can.  A little girl was drawing intensely one morning in Sunday school.  Her teacher asked her, “what are you drawing?”  “God,” answered the little girl.  The teacher laughed and said, “Honey, no one knows what God looks like.”  She never even looked up from her drawing – “well, they will when I get done.”

We’ll never see God with our physical eyes, on this side of heaven.  But we can encounter God with our spirits through the act of worship.  In worship, we become aware of the presence of God.

Resources:  Dr. Steve Seamands Holiness of Heart and Life

 

My Next Right Step

  1. Remember and journal a moment of deep worship – one in which you were very aware of the presence of God.
  2. Apart from Sunday worship, when are you practicing disciplines of worship like prayer, Bible reading, meditation, etc.?
  3. If worship is a lifestyle, how are you reflecting that lifestyle? Where do you need growth?
  4. God is holy and calls me to holiness. If I stay close to God (worship) I can reflect more of God in my life.  By God’s grace, how am I becoming more like Jesus and less like culture?

 

 

 

Father’s Day

Fathers-day-text-photos-2aFather’s Day is that one time of the year when I get complete obedience from every member of my family. I tell them not to spend a lot of money on me—and they don’t.

Personally, I remember how scared I was both times Melissa uttered those words, “I’m pregnant!”  People told me that becoming a parent changes everything.  I brushed them off, but they were certainly right.  Being a father, a parent is hard work.  It may be the toughest and most certainly the most important job we ever do.  However, I heard about this guy who didn’t quite grasp the importance of fatherhood.

After bringing their first baby home from the hospital, the wife suggested to her husband that he try his hand at changing diapers. “I’m busy,” he said. “I’ll do the next one.”

The next time the baby was wet, she asked if he was ready to learn how to change diapers. He gave her a puzzled look, then said finally, “I didn’t mean the next diaper; I meant the next baby!”

I’m glad that we have a special day set aside to remember, thank and honor dads.  That’s a good thing.  And I hope this is a good day for all you dads, especially the new dads.  But we’re also all aware that Father’s Day can be a hard day, too.  You might be a person who did not have a good experience with your father: he wasn’t physically, emotionally or spiritually available to you.  His absence has left an absence in your maturity.  If you’re a man who didn’t have a good male role model, you might be struggling to figure out what being a man means.

Some of you are sad this Father’s Day because you’ve lost your dad.  You miss him. I hope your memories are pleasant and you can still celebrate his life and take all the good he taught and apply it now.

Some of you are far away from dad today.  Make those phone calls.

I thought it would be helpful for all of us to express our thoughts for Father’s Day.   So on your message notes I’ve offered three ways to give some words to your Father’s Day thoughts.  Take a moment and jot down a sentence or two.

Responses

In Christianity we believe in one God who reveals himself in three unique ways.  We believe that God revealed himself to us in Jesus – God became flesh.  We believe that God reveals himself to us in the Holy Spirit – God with God’s people every day.  But we also believe that God reveals himself as Creator or Father.  When Jesus prayed, he called God Abba – daddy, father.  God is the one who gave life to everything but he is also a personal, caring dad.  That’s why when we pray, we use language of God as a father.

God is the absolute best father/dad.  Sometimes we want to think about God by using the example of our earthly father.  That might be good if your earthly dad blessed you but if your relationship with your earthly dad is less than you wish it were we can discover what a good father is in the character and nature of God our heavenly Father.  So let’s take a look today at God’s character as a Father.

Deuteronomy 32/message notes.

Chapter 32 is a very long poem written by Moses.  Moses is dying, his life and ministry are coming to a close.  He’s passing the baton of leadership to Joshua.  Chapter 32 are some of his final words to Israel.  In this poem, which he reads in front of everyone, Moses reminds God’s family about the nature and character of God.  He wants to leave them with hope in who God is, what God has done on their behalf and how they can be faithful to God in all things.  What does Moses say about God, the Father?

READ 32:1-4.  A faithful God who does no wrong…  Our father is faithful.  Moses could say a whole lot about God, the Father but the first thing – the most important characteristic about God is that God is faithful.  God, the Father doesn’t leave.  God, the Father stays!  God, the Father is constant.  God, the Father is loyal.  God, the Father keeps his word.

This is really tremendous that this is the first thing Moses says about God, the Father.  Moses is speaking out of his experience.  Moses is at the end of his life, but he’s thinking back to all the ways God was loyal, constant, keeping his word, always there.  He’s remembering how God saved him from being slaughtered with all the other babies and how God rescued him out of the Nile River.  Moses is thinking about the God who showed up in a burning bush and invited Moses to join God’s revolution and rescue God’s people from Pharaoh.  Moses is thinking about coming out on the other side of the Red Sea.  He’s remembering the God who got them through the desert.  He’s remembering the faithful God who has now positioned his people on the edge of the Promised Land.  And all Moses can say is he is a faithful God – who keep his word and his promises.

This is our God.  Our Father who looked at you and said, “I don’t like where he’s heading.  I don’t like where her life is going.”  And this God steps out of eternity and in Jesus comes and rescues you and me from sin and death and Hell.  The God who loves you beyond what you can imagine, who left everything to suffer and die for you to have life.  That’s our faithful God.

This is the same faithful Father who has walked down some tough roads with you, whether you knew it or not.  This the Father who has been constant and loyal.

And Moses says, I want to whole earth to sit up and take notice of this God!  This God is great!  This God is a Rock!  This God is perfect.  This God is a faithful father.  This God is the father who made me and formed me.  This is the faithful Father I want to praise!

Some of you might be saying I can’t believe that.  My dad walked away.  My dad was a loser.  My dad was never there.  God’s not like your dad!  Men, if you need to find out what it means to be man, here is where it starts.  Be faithful!  Your dad was not and you want to be – be faithful.  Be there.  The strength of your presence is life-changing.  You may not have the track record you want as a dad yet, but start now.  Be faithful, be present, be loyal.  The Holy Spirit will form the character of God in you, if you ask.  God make me a better man, a better dad, after your own heart.

Our Father is faithful and our Father loves his family. 32:9  In Christ, you belong to God.  You’re in God’s family.  God has loved you, rescued you from sin and death, and put his name on you.  You belong to God and he loves you.  You are his.  He’s not letting you go. In fact, everything God has done has been for you.

A little boy was eagerly looking forward to the birthday party of a friend who lived only a few blocks away. When the day finally arrived, a blizzard made the sidewalks and roads nearly impassable. The boy’s father, sensing the danger, hesitated to let his son go. The youngster reacted tearfully. “But Dad,” he pleaded, “all the other kids will be there. Their parents are letting them go.” The father thought for a moment, then replied softly, “All right, you may go.”

Surprised but overjoyed, the boy bundled up and plunged into the raging storm. The driving snow made visibility almost impossible, and it took him more than half an hour to trudge the short distance to the party. As he rang the doorbell, he turned briefly to look out into the storm. His eye caught the shadow of a retreating figure. It was his father. He had followed his son’s every step to make sure he arrived safely.

Too often there are more stories like this: There’s a Spanish story of a father and son who had become estranged. The son ran away, and the father set off to find him. He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in a Madrid newspaper. The ad read: Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father. On Saturday 800 Pacos showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.

“Portion” describes inheritance.  Can you think of anything God wouldn’t do for you?  The Father loves his children and does everything for your good.  It may not seem like it sometimes.  We think we know what is best for us.  But God has the bigger picture in mind.  And he is always working toward that end.

That’s what God not only loves his family but our Father gives the best.  32:10 describes the way God found Israel and what he did next for them.  Read 10-14.  These are the words that describe all the good things the Father gives to his people.  Reminds me of what Jesus said, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!’ (Matthew 7:11)

What’s the best gift your dad, or your parent, ever gave to you?  You asked for it and you got it.  A bike?  A car?  Clothes?  This is going to seem ridiculous but when I was 9 there was one thing I must have bugged my parents about for months –a six million dollar man action figure.  Steve Austin had the bionic arm, the cool running suit, you could look through his bionic eye.  Man was that cool.  I kept asking for it; after every commercial I would make sure to remind my parents that this is what I wanted – the perfect thing.  I still remember that Christmas when I opened one of the boxes under the tree and there was my very own Six Million Dollar Man.  Good day.  I have no idea where it is now, but that was a good day.

We have a God, who is a Father, who gives great gifts to you.  He gives you the best.  You matter to him.  God doesn’t give you what’s left over.  What are the best gifts that you can be aware of today and celebrate – they are the best from God.

Let me take you to one last place that describes God’s character as Father.  This is a tough one.  But it is Scripture and it describes God.  Read 32:43.  Moses is concluding his poem about the nature of God.  It ends with God rising up and protecting his kids.  We see the wrath and vengeance of God.  There’s that side of God, too. Our Father protects.

Crazy memory.  A few times I went hunting with my dad when I was young.  We were walking through a field and two things seemed to happen almost simultaneously.  I saw a big snake and heard a couple of gunshots.  One of those times I remember my dad protecting me from danger and harm.

If God is our Father we cannot dismiss his nature and character that not only loves and cares for you as his child but that part of God’s nature that will rise up with an avenging force to protect his people.  The God and Father Moses knew was a God who was relentless in protecting his children.  That is still our God.  That is still our Father’s nature.

In fact Scripture ends on that note of promise – at the end of all things, God destroys those things which intend evil and harm for God’s people; things like pain, evil, death, hell.  God will destroy those things so all that is left is joy, peace, abundance, life.

I hope your dad got it right.  But if he didn’t I hope that you can live into a place of forgiveness.  He was/is human.  I’m sure he’s doing/did the best he could.  As a dad today you can start making better choices.  But wherever you are in that relationship with dad, with yourself, fatherhood begins in the character and nature of God.  Our heavenly Father will show you how you can be the best kind of dad.

Communicating through the craziness

Our families are the center of our universe. Family is there when no one else is around. Family supports us, helps us, loves us. Family DRIVES US CRAZY!

In “Building Family Strengths: Communications,” Brenda Thames and Deborah Thomason define family communication as “more than just the exchange of words between family members.” It is not just the words we speak but also “components like facial expressions, body language, tone of speech and posture.” Family communication, then, is sharing information with verbal and nonverbal cues. Thames and Thomason maintain that listening is as important as communication because listening allows you to understand the family member’s point of view.  Rick Peterson and Stephen Green, maintains that family communication can be divided into two areas, Instrumental and Affective. Instrumental communication is the “exchange of factual information that enables individuals to fulfill common family functions,” such as telling your children what time dinner is served. Affective communication “refers to how family members share their emotions” such as anger or happiness with one another. Some family members might successfully communicate in one area but not the other.

But poor communication is a hallmark of a dysfunctional family. Communication may be strained, ineffective, or nonexistent. Family members may have difficulty communicating their wants and needs to other members, which can result in misunderstandings and little self-expression.

What could poor communication look like?  We communicate poorly when we dismiss, ignore, or talk over the other person.  This style of communication says that the other person is not important.  Triangulation – we don’t talk directly to the family member and instead use someone as an intermediary.  You are not really permitted to share your thoughts but expected to keep your opinions to yourself.  There’s rarely any hope of resolving problems; things are swept under the rug.

Remember you and your family are made in the image of God.  The first family – Adam and Eve – were “naked and not ashamed.”  They were transparent with each other and with God.  Communication pattern would have been good; open, honest.  The moment humanity chose to do things their own way – immediately communication broke down.  They hid from each other and God.  Relationships were challenged.  But as disciples of Jesus – especially in our families; we have the opportunity to live like God intended in relationships and a big piece of living this way is practicing communication habits that honor God and reveal our new life in Jesus.  The way you communicate with your family will be a significant way that God can bring his grace.

Last week I told you I wanted us to have fun with these very serious topics, so what do you think of this?  There was a man who lived up in upstate New York and he was getting tired of the cold weather, so he decided to go to Florida. His wife was on a business trip at the time so he called her to let her know what he was doing and to tell her not to go back to New York but to meet him in Florida.

When he arrived he sent her an e-mail to let her know he was there, but he got a few letters wrong in the address and instead of going to his wife the e-mail went to a little old lady in Iowa, who was a pastor’s wife. And whose husband had died the day before.

The little old lady turned on her computer – read the e-mail, screamed and fainted right on the spot. Her family and friends who were there came in saw her on the floor – and when they read the screen they understood why she fainted..

Ø Dearest darling just wanted you to know I arrived safely
Ø Looking forward to you being with me, tomorrow
Ø Signed, your husband – PS, it sure is hot down here…

Communication is what we say and what we hear – so it’s got to be clear.

How about the man who was struggling to get his washing machine through the front door of his home as his neighbor was walking past.  The neighbor stopped and asked if he could help.  The man breathed a sigh of relief and said, “That would be great.  I’ll get it from the inside and you get it from the outside.  We should be able to handle this quickly.”

But after five minutes of continual struggle, they were both exhausted.  Wiping the sweat from his brow, the neighbor said, “This thing is bigger than it looks.  I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get it into your house.”  “Into my house?  I’m trying to get it out of my house!”

Rather than fighting against each other let’s see what the Bible says about helpful communication.  The family we’re  going to study today is found in the OT book of Esther.  I don’t know how familiar you are with this story so let me give you some background.  The book begins with a six month celebration that King Xerxes holds to show off all the good things he has.  As a finale to the celebration the king summons Queen Vashti to appear in all of her regale to display her beauty and show off the king’s glory.  Vashti snubs the king’s request.  Because he’s already a little unstable, the king’s masculinity is challenged.  So he basically fires her from the position of queen.

Once Xerxes gets over his tantrum, he decides to look for a new queen. Eventually he manages to choose Esther.  She’s beautiful; he was attracted to her; she had the character and strength of a queen.  And so Xerxes made Esther queen of Persia.

But here’s Esther’s back story that Xerxes doesn’t know yet.  She’s Jewish.  She isn’t Persian.  Esther was an orphan raised by her cousin Mordecai.  When she hears the king is looking for a new queen, she jumps in line.  She is well liked by the people and eventually with the king himself and becomes queen.

While all this is happening, Mordecai uncovers a plot to kill the king.  He alerts Esther and she warns the king in time.

But there’s more craziness.  There is treachery.  When Mordecai refuses to bow down to the evil counselor, Haman; Haman engineers a plot to murder all the Jews in the Persian empire.  The plot basically involves Haman going to the king and saying, “I think we should kill all the Jews in the Persian empire.”  And the king says, “Alright!”

Haman walks away glad the king has agreed to his plans for genocide.  The king doesn’t know that his new wife is Jewish.  Esther has been keeping it secret.  But the threat of their imminent demise kicks Esther and Mordecai into action.  Esther fasts for three days before visiting the king and alerting him to what is about to happen.

Esther is worried herself that the king will execute her for visiting unannounced – but he’s pleased to see her.  He offers her whatever she wants. She asks to have a banquet for her and Haman the next day.  Meanwhile, Haman is excited about the massacre that’s about to happen and he builds a huge pole on which to impale Mordecai.

But his hopes are dashed the following morning, when the king, remembering how Mordecai saved his life – orders Haman to honor Mordecai and throw him a parade through the town (which Haman reluctantly does).  At the second banquet, Esther asks the king to punish Haman for trying to kill her and her people – and the king does.  Haman is killed on the same pole he built for Mordecai.  Ironic.  The Jews of Persia massacre all of Haman’s supporters, Mordecai is made the kings new counselor and Purim becomes an official Jewish holiday to celebrate.  Good times, gang!  There’s craziness in every family system.

I tell you that story of Esther so that we can understand some Biblical concepts of healthy communication that can be beneficial in every family system.  What we see is healthy communication habits occur between Esther and Xerxes.  Watch for the healthy that happens in the crazy.

Before we get to communication, I want to set this up by looking at Esther 4:14.  “If you remain silent, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish.  And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this.”  For such a time as this – very quoted portion of Esther.  The point was that Esther needed to communicate – to speak up – to save her family.  So much is at stake in how we communicate.  Your family may be at stake.  For some of you – if you don’t start communicating better now, you may not have a family left.  If you keep doing what you’ve been doing you will get what you always get.  What needs to be better about communication in your family?  It may be time for you to relearn communication strategy that is life-giving.

When it comes to communicating through the craziness, Position yourself.   Read 5:1.  Positioning yourself means getting ready for communication.  Sometimes it’s going to mean believing you are valuable and have something to say.  This is very important if you are in a family system in which you are not valued as a person; always put down; never taken seriously.  A first step in helpful communication is believing that you are valuable and that what you say matters.

But more so, are you thinking and praying about what you need to communicate?  Esther herself, was in a difficult place.  She had to be sure that she was intentional and concise.  She had a game plan.  She owned what she wanted to say.  She is not caught off guard.  If you want to change the way your family communicates it may come down to you and your plan for change.  This is an important place to lead.  Position yourself.

Second, Be Clear.  Ask for what you want.  Be assertive.  When I do marriage counseling, this is always the step that is most uncomfortable.  Many of us aren’t accustomed to have permission to ask for what we really want.  I usually have families write a wish list of the things they want from their spouse or family.  It’s hard to be assertive. Often we want to apologize for the things we really want in a relationship.  Being assertive means that I will have the ability to express feelings and ask for what I want in this relationship.

You might think it’s selfish.  But how many of you live day to day feeling like your family relationships could be better if only…And you never ask for that one thing that could make it better.  I need you to put your phone down and look me in the eyes when we’re talking; I need you to call when you are running late; I need you to speak encouraging words to me; I need you to touch me…If you don’t clearly ask for that which would be helpful to you in your relationship, you probably won’t get it.  Your family cannot read your mind!

Esther has positioned herself with Xerxes and when the opportunity comes she is intentional, assertive and concise.  Not just once but multiple times throughout the story.  “If it pleases the king, let the king together with Haman, come today to a banquet I have prepared for him.”  Specific.

Now remember.  Just because you ask doesn’t always mean your family can give you what you need.  But the significance is in taking the courage to ask and in being heard.

In fact this is the last fill in today.  Listen Attentively.  Communication is a two-way event.  You talk and you listen.  Ideally the asking and listening happens in an environment where you and your family member are sitting down, facing each other and fully engaged.

Notice Xerxes action and response:  “What is it?  What is your request?”  He is attentive.  He is interested.  He’s looking at her. He isn’t interrupting.  Studies show that a person will interrupt someone else, on average, after 17 seconds.  When we listen attentively, we are not interrupting.  We’re letting our family member say everything they need.  We pay attention not only to what they are saying but also to non-verbal communication.  And then we respond.  And when we respond we should be able to tell them exactly what we heard them say.  This takes work.  We’re usually not used to this level of communication.

The way to improve your listening skills is to practice “active listening.” This is where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, try to understand the complete message being sent.  In order to do this you must pay attention to the other person very carefully.  You cannot allow yourself to become distracted by whatever else may be going on around you, or by forming counter arguments that you’ll make when the other person stops speaking. Nor can you allow yourself to get bored, and lose focus on what the other person is saying. All of these contribute to a lack of listening and understanding.

Communication within the family is extremely important because it enables members to express their needs, wants, and concerns to each other. Open and honest communication creates an atmosphere that allows family members to express their differences as well as love and admiration for one another. It is through communication that family members are able to resolve the unavoidable problems that arise in all families.

Family is God’s Gift

Our families are the center of our universe. Family is there when no one else is around. Family supports us, helps us, loves us. Family DRIVES US CRAZY!

What’s the old saying? “You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family.” There was a point in the creation story when the family unit was living in harmony; communicating, loving unconditionally and unaware of each others shortcomings. But then they ate the apple and in flew all the dysfunction. You know as well as I do that each of our families have some level of dysfunction; some level of crazy. There are some Biblical families that had a certain amount of issues; a certain amount of dysfunction – just like yours and mine. And in these stories we’re going to look for God’s grace. We’re going to listen for the good news God can speak into our dysfunction. We’ll discover that our family problems are not all that different from anyone else’s problems. And we’ll discover that God loves our families and can give grace even in the craziness.

Dysfunctional is a word we hear a lot in the context of family. Dysfunctional is an adjective that means “not operating normally or properly.” It means “deviating from the norm in a way that’s regarded as bad.” Dysfunctional is a term that’s so often attached to family. We talk about the dysfunctional family. You don’t hear much about the functional family, but you hear a lot about the dysfunctional family. The definition of a dysfunctional family is this:  “A dysfunctional family is one in which conflict, misbehavior, and often abuse on the part of individual members occur continually and regularly, leading other parts of individual or other members of the family to accommodate such actions.”

That’s a good definition. There’s something wrong in one part of the family and it causes the other part of the family to act in a different, weird, crazy way in order to accommodate the bad actions.

God didn’t create family to be a dysfunctional thing. He didn’t create home to be a place where it’s just World War III. You know, we understand, as little kids, what home is supposed to be. When I was a kid growing up, my home had a lot of fighting and yelling and it was all brought on by a lot of variables; poor communication, unresolved conflict, money, fear, uncertainty.  I remember tense times.  Times when I wanted to leave/escape.  That’s not God’s intention for the family. That’s not God’s best.

You know, when you played tag as a kid the first thing you do is you set up home base? And once you set up home base that was the safe place. You know, when you’re playing tag and you’re on home, nobody can tag you out. You’d be like, “You can’t get me; I’m home.” And I used to play, and my friends would play, and my brother would always do this. He’d take his hand off home like this, just that close and you’d come to get him and he’d be like, “I’m home. Can’t get me! I’m home.” Home’s a safe place. It’s a refuge. But for so many people home’s not a safe place. It’s not a safe zone. It becomes a war zone. God has a better plan.

So what we’re going to do for the next several weeks is talk about family.  I believe that family matters.  But there are attacks taking place against the family. So while I want us to have fun with this; I want us to be real about this topic; maybe you’ll face some moments when you realize that God has something better for you and your family.  But all us, we have some craziness in our families.  We have some dysfunction.  It might be with our spouse, in-laws, parents, adult children, aging parents, kids.  We’ve all got a little bit of crazy. Own it.  Admit it.  I’m broken; you are broken. Ask my kids, they’ll tell you we’ve got crazy in our house, too.  None of us are immune and a lot of us have the same stories we could tell.  But when we come together in family, all those broken pieces can fit together and make something good.

So I want the next few weeks to be helpful for all of us.  Let’s own our craziness and at the same time discover God’s best for families; God’s purpose for families; and how we can receive God’s grace in our crazy, messy, chaotic families.

The place we’re starting today will be in setting the foundation.  We’re going to go back to the beginning, to the earliest story of family and discover God’s intention and purpose for family.  What is the measuring stick for family?  I know what my family is like but how does it measure up to God’s hopes and dreams and expectations for family?

Family starts with God!  God created the family.  In the beginning there is time, space, matter, humanity; the beginning of culture, customs, languages and nations.  At the center of all of human history is the family.  The formation of the family may be the most important event in the entire story of Genesis.  God created the family as the basic building block of society.  Your family, regardless of what it looks like, is a gift to you.  Even in the craziness, your family is a gift to you.  You may not believe me!  Let me tell you why – let’s build some theology around our family.

Let’s go to Genesis 1&2 and remember God’s intention for family and how this can be really practical right now, especially if your family is in a tough spot.

The place to start if you’re taking notes:  My family is God’s gift because they are made in the image of God.  That’s right.  You and your family are made in God’s image.  READ GENESIS 1:26-27. Have you ever stopped to think about what it really means?  “Made in the image of God” is an audacious claim—and one that probably carries some responsibility with it.  So, what does it mean to be created in God’s image? The Hebrew root of the Latin phrase for image of God—imago Dei—means image, shadow or likeness of God.  When this piece of Scripture was being written kings, Pharaohs, Caesars would put their image on a lot of things, especially coins.  So you knew what belonged to that king.  So this is radical what is written here in Genesis. God creates humanity to make himself visible.  God puts his stamp; his image on you.  That gives us value. You know who is represented through you.  And both sexes have godly value – God created male and female.

Now here’s the tough part – when your family is struggling and messed up and there’s pain or chaos; it can be hard to remember that you are created in God’s image and that person in your family who making it hard for you is created in God’s image.  When there is chaos, and pain and craziness usually a first reaction is to ostracize and demonize the person bringing the pain.  That just brings more pain.  What if we saw each other as the image bearers of God; even if it means digging through the crazy?

How you and I live in relationships is a reflection of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity says that the three Persons of the Godhead are all one, yet in some sense distinct from each other. The significance of this is that God is an intrinsically relational being in and of Himself, living in eternal loving relations between Father, Son and Spirit. So humanity made in His image is relational.

Your aging parents are made in the image of God.  Your addicted child is made in the image of God.  Your physically challenged brother is made in the image of God.  The husband who cheated on you is made in the image of God.  Your wife who divorced you is made in the image of God.  Your parents who didn’t have the best skill in raising you are made in the image of God.

Regardless of the level and pain of the craziness, messiness and chaos; how you relate to your family speaks volumes about what you believe.  If I believe you are made in God’s image then that’s how I will treat you as a person; and it’s a reflection of what you believe about yourself.  This doesn’t mean you endorse their craziness but it does mean that in some intrinsic way they are valuable to God and they hold value for you.  Even in the current reality of sin and brokenness we hold within us as created people the image of God.

What we see next in Scripture – READ Genesis 1:31.  God wraps up the action of creating and calls everything good.   Everything that God has made is good.  And he places these first people in Eden.  Eden means joy or delight.  God places us in a position of joy and delight.  So God created us for relationships and he places us in a place of joy and delight.  When we focus solely on the craziness and messiness and chaos we lose the joy and delight that is intended for relationships.

God says I’ve made this good.  When we lose sight of the good of our family; the potential of our family – the good starts to slip away.   But God calls this good and we have the capacity to reflect the work of the master artist who created us.

A lot of us are guilty of being critical about other family members.  We spend more time putting them down than lifting them up.  What if we lived out some goodness in our families like:  thinking before we talk!  Serving each other.  Giving compliments.

Everything God makes is good.  God makes nothing evil.  You know where evil comes from?  Genesis 3:1 it’s all good.  All of this good stuff and you can’t have it.  Eve knows Genesis 3:2.  You’re not going to die.  You’ll be like God.  Verse 6 – she took some ate it and gave some to her husband.  They think they’re going to find life but ultimately there is isolation (v8).  The goodness God intends is broken.

How are you letting God reverse the craziness and brokenness that leads to more and more isolation – and allow God through you bring his intended goodness into your family?  As redeemed people of God, God can use you to bring back his intended purpose.

Let’s get back to chapter two.  Here’s the next thing we see happening in this first family built on God’s intention.  We need each other.  READ Genesis 2.  God created us in His image. We were made for relationship.  The first relationship which profoundly affects all other relationships begins with God. It is on this meaningful relationship all others are to be built. We love God first and love our neighbors with the same legitimate concern we have for our own well-being. When we remove God from first place, we will rapidly begin to fail one another.  Meaningful life is found in meaningful relationships.

Each of us has value by virtue of being human, but as God said of Adam, it is not good for man to be alone. Our family is God’s gift because we need each other.  No one is an island.

The first thing God does in creation is that he brings Adam and Eve together – the first marriage – but more so to show creations that family is central to creation.  This first family is in a position of helping and serving each other. 

 From experience we could probably admit that the first thought we have when my family is crazy, messy or broken is to escape that family.  They are so screwed up I can do better on my own.  That’s a legitimate response.  At some point, each of us will become discouraged and disappointed with a relationship.

The health and maturity of a relationship are not measured by an absence of problems, but by the way the problems are handled.  How do you deal with relational disappointments? Do you blame, deny, run away, avoid, threaten, and manipulate? Or do you speak the truth, exhibit patience, approach people gently, ask for and grant forgiveness, overlook minor offenses, encourage and honor others?

Have you ever wondered why God doesn’t just make your relationships better overnight? We often think that if God really cared for us, he would make our relationships easier. In reality, a difficult relationship is a mark of his love and care. We would prefer that God would just change the relationship, but he won’t be content until the relationship changes us too. This is how God created relationships to function.

What happens in the messiness of relationships is that our hearts are revealed, our weaknesses are exposed, and we start coming to the end of ourselves. Only when this happens do we reach out for the help God alone can provide. While we would like to avoid the mess and enjoy deep and intimate community, God says that it is in the very process of working through the mess that intimacy is found.

Here’s the last point for today.  The gift of family is that there is a safe place.  God’s original intent is for a safe place.  READ Genesis 2:25.  The family can be a place of transparency; where there is no shame; no embarrassment; no ridicule.

This particular context is marriage so let me say this to those of you who are married and struggling with transparency and intimacy.  After God brought together the first man and woman, we find an expression of pure intimacy: “They were both naked and they felt no shame.” In other words, they had nothing to hide physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually. They were “not embarrassed or ashamed in each other’s presence” In the Biblical model the Hebrew words used in the creation account reveals much about the unique gifts Adam and Eve brought to intimacy.

His gift. “The Lord God formed [yatsar] man …” (Genesis 2:7). The word yatsar means forming by plan or design, like a potter. Just as a pot usually has a singular purpose, God gifted man with a purity of focus that helps him initiate, protect and provide.

Her gift. “Then the Lord God made [banah] a woman from the rib …” (Genesis 2:22). Banah was sometimes used to describe constructing a palace. God fashioned woman with an emotional, physical and relational complexity that allows her to nurture deep connections. The good news for us is that intimacy thrives on differences! By refusing to hide from each other and God, and through honoring our differences, we bring each other exceptional gifts.  And it creates a place of safety.

Now we can broaden this to all of our other family relationships and ask “how am I intentionally creating a safe place where people in my family can be transparent with each other with no fear?”

All of us have a certain amount of dysfunction in our family; craziness, messiness, chaos.  Call it what you will.  Sometimes we get used to it and start to think it’s normal. In Genesis, God describes normal.  God made the family and God has a great picture of what a healthy family can be.  God has a plan for the family.  It is still the basic building block of society.  So, as Jesus followers, how do we let God take our brokenness and craziness and turn it around to bless people and show our culture how God still uses the family.

Why is Love So Hard?

Relationships are hard! Can we agree on that? Whether it’s marriage, kids, co-workers, aging parents, an ex, or church – relationships are hard. Sometime we manage relationships really well and they thrive. Other times, regardless of what we do – relationships just blow up and create a chain reaction. It is impossible to do life by ourselves, so we need relationships – but sometimes we have to admit that life would be pretty good if it weren’t for other people.

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Relationships are hard! Can we agree on that? Whether it’s marriage, kids, co-workers, aging parents, an ex, or church – relationships are hard. Sometime we manage relationships really well and they thrive. Other times, regardless of what we do – relationships just blow up and create a chain reaction. It is impossible to do life by ourselves, so we need relationships – but sometimes we have to admit that life would be pretty good if it weren’t for other people.

But unless we go off the grid and hole up in some cabin in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles from another soul, we’re going to need to interact with people.

So here in the middle of summer, I thought we’d take some time to get really practical with Scripture and see what God says about relationships and how to live together. Today, I want to take a big picture look at relationships. In the coming weeks we’ll get really specific about things like communication and conflict; about betrayal and commitment. But today, let’s just get a big picture view of relationships from Scripture and begin to understand why they are so hard in the first place. Now this series isn’t about marriage, although we’ll talk about marriage – because marriage is one of the hardest things we do. This series is about all our relationships and how to move to a place of thriving and healing. So whether you’re single or married, a parent or child whatever season and position of life you are in, God’s word will give us wisdom.

Now as someone who has been married for twenty years, with two teenage boys and work as a church professional – I know a thing or two about relationships. In a marriage of twenty years, I’ll confess that Melissa and I have had one or two conflicts! Does that surprise you? Can anyone else understand that? Someone once asked Melissa if in the really hard times when I really screwed up if she ever thought about divorce. She said, “divorce, no. Murder, yes.” So I’ve been on thin ice. Relationships are hard. They are complicated and messy. Have you lived there before? Why does love need to be so hard? It seems like it should be easy. You love freely and completely and that love is returned to you freely and completely. But that’s not how it always works.

Let’s go back to the first pages of the Bible and begin to build a Biblical worldview on relationships and discover why they work like they do and why love is so hard. Because there are two competing worldviews in our minds right now. One is the Biblical worldview on relationships and the other is the secular/cultural worldview. This worldview says, basically, that the whole goal of life is to be happy. But there’s something interesting about the pursuit of happiness. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this but there’s something called the Hedonism Paradox. Here’s what it says: We fail to attain pleasures/happiness if we deliberately seek them. Isn’t that miserable? We seek happiness but we’ll never attain it.

There was a guy named Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist, a holocaust survivor. He wrote a book called man’s search for meaning. In that book he talks about happiness and he says, “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than one’s self or as the byproduct of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

Life must be lived that you give yourself, your energies to something or someone other than yourself. That’s where happiness is found. Here’s the amazing thing – that’s the Biblical worldview. So if you somehow get sucked into the idea that happiness is the goal and relationship exist to make me happy you will be consistently miserable. Continuing to search for someone who can finally make you happy and if you’re not happy the problem is them. Relationships are hard.

Genesis 3 – the very first relationship recorded in the Bible.
How do we see this relationship work and what kind of things are still true today?

v.1 right away the serpent is bringing doubt into what God has said. Now this is not what God says. God says that they have a lush garden with plenty of food to enjoy. But that cannot eat from the tree in the middle of the garden – knowledge of good and evil. Serpent says – did God really says you couldn’t eat from any tree in the garden? Here comes that wave of deception. God is holding out on us. Your obedience to God is costing you. There are things that are good and great for you out there if you’ll just throw off the shackles of your religion. There’s so many great things and God is holding you back. Here’s the thing, God really doesn’t love you. If he did he wouldn’t be holding out on you.

v.2 -3 read – so far so good. She’s confident she’s clear. She’s accurate. You must not eat or even touch it you will die. Did God say anything about touching it (Gen 2:16)? Feely eat from every tree…

Do you see the subtlety? She was so clear but then she’s drawn into confusion. Start to believe that God is holding out on us and then we start to look outside of the commands. Things start to look good and great. And God is so restrictive and so binding.

v. 4 You won’t die! Now the lie has gotten even more subtle. In some ways there’s truth to this. They won’t die immediately.

v.5 God knows that your eyes will opened and you will be like God. At first it was lies about God’s character but now it’s lies about how God feels about you. It’s not only that God is holding out on you but now he’s doesn’t really love you.

v. 6 Now she is convinced. She saw that the tree was beautiful and she took the fruit. Then she took some and gave it to her husband. Who was strangely passive and silent to this point. And he ate it too and at that moment their eyes were opened and they suddenly felt the shame of their nakedness.

v. 8 heard the sound of God walking in the garden. The same thing they heard countless times before now disturbs them. So they hid. And God starts to call out for them, “where are you?” He already knows the answer. But he asks the question to draw them in. From the very first pages of Scripture God becomes the pursuer of us. He seeks to draw us out. God steps into time and space history and pursues he children to tell them that he loves. But we are constantly rebelling, believing lies, and hiding.

v. 10 – 11. More questions to which God knows answer. But now the man replies in typical manly fashion. It was the woman you gave me! Before Adam was happy. He remembered that whole rib thing and she was great. But now, it was the woman! You gave her to me, remember. It’s not just her fault. God, it’s your fault. You gave her to me. She gave me the fruit, because she prepares the meals, I just consume them.

v.13 God asks the woman And in like fashion she responds, the serpent deceived me. And who made that serpent, God? That’s why I ate it. It had nothing to do with me. It’s really not my fault.

Do you see the temptation come in? The deceiver brings lies. It’s consistent with his character. The Deception comes in – you won’t die, your rebellion won’t cost you anything. And God is holding out on you, he doesn’t really love you.

The biblical worldview says that humanity in its very nature is broken. From this moment on, every relationship is broken. And I can tell you that my relationship looks just like that! And so do yours. It’s so unpopular to talk about mankind having a sickness in their souls; it’s almost illegal. But the Biblical worldview says that humanity is broken. Left to ourselves we are sinful. And because of this brokenness inside us, every relationship we enter into has a sense of brokenness. And we don’t like it! We’d rather blame someone else. There’s a deep problem in all of us and that problem is that we are selfish to the core.

We can see as we watch this story unfold that we can see the effects of sin on this relationship. The first thing we see is that there is fear rooted in shame. They become afraid. First to be able to show themselves to one another and then to show themselves to God. They are suddenly aware and insecure about what is showing. I don’t think we can imagine a relationship where we can stand before our spouse and God and not even realize we’re naked. If I were to come out here without a shirt on I be so freaked out and so would you and we wouldn’t get a thing done. We’re completely wrapped up in our physical appearance and they become suddenly afraid and they cover and hide.

And just so you know every relationship is like that. All of us are covering stuff we don’t want seen. And hiding stuff we don’t want to come out. And it’s marked with this very destruction emotion called shame. And while Jesus forgives our sin and completely removes sin, we still marked with the residual effects of sin that pops up in shame. And so we’ll hide in our insecurities. We’ll make sure that you don’t get to see the kinds of things that we’re capable of. Man if you knew all of the things that are true about me you call the bishop immediately. Or you’d at least go to a different church. I’m not going to show you all that! No way. And you’re not going to show me. Thank you! I don’t want to see that. I’ve got my own stuff! Relationships are complicated because we never know when the real us is going to show up.

And when we get brave or whenever we slip up or whenever we stay in a relationship long enough where we can’t hide it anymore; we hide our stuff based upon insecurities but then we forget the lies we’ve already told. So we slip up and show the real us. And whenever that happens we get the third effect: blame rooted in denial. It’s not my fault. It’s just something that happened. Fear. Hiding. And blame.

Now what do we do with this? What do we do knowing that every single relationship is broken? It’s broken because we’re broken.

Identify the lies in your life that you’ve begun to embrace. The story of the gospel has a bad news component and a good news component. The bad news is God is holy and we’re not; sin costs. There’s a penalty to sin. The good news is that Jesus paid that penalty. And by faith through grace you can be absolutely forgiven.

Now Satan attacks both of those. He says on the one hand, sin’s not that bad. It won’t cost you. You deserve it. God won’t mind.

On the other hand, he’ll say God hasn’t forgiven you. He’s holding out, he’s still ticked at you. God’s up there angry.
Identify which lie you’re embracing.

Admit your failures. If you embrace a biblical worldview admitting your failures should be the easiest thing you could do. You already know at the outset your broken so when you make a mistake its not a surprise. It doesn’t mean your not sorry about it but it shouldn’t be a surprise.

We live by grace but yet we find it so hard to admit our failures. Relationships get even harder when there are mistakes that happen and no one wants to admit it. Relationships cannot move forward when you’re not willing to admit when you’re wrong. Reconciliation is impossible when your not willing to admit failure. Relationships are hard. We think if they know I messed up, or failed or made mistakes; they’ll think I’m weak, or that I goofed up, or that I can’t control myself. They already think that! They’ll think I’ve got a problem – because we all do. That’s why Jesus came.

Embrace the truth. What is the truth about the people who are God’s people? What is the essence of your identity? You are the beloved! God looks on you with such favor and such love.

Henri Nouwen said this, “self rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the beloved.” You thought is was something else. But how you identify yourself at your core in your heart of hearts defines all of the relationships that you have.
You are God’s beloved.

In this story Satan comes to us and he brings accusations about God that are not true. And we believe him. God’s holding out on you. Yeah I think he is. God’s too strict. Yeah he is pretty strict.
Satan also goes to God and makes accusations about you that are partially true. And God rejects them every time.

When we hear accusations about God we are so quick to embrace them. But God will never do that with you. When Satan comes and makes accusations against us, God says no that person is covered by the blood of Jesus.

If you’ve never embraced the love of God in Christ, today is the day to embrace it because all of us are broken inside. And the only hope we have of getting fixed because we can’t fix ourselves; if you’re holding out for more education, more training or resources to fix your relationships, take a look around. If training, resources or education would make relationships work then the US would certainly have the most healthy relationships anywhere. How are we doing?

If you’ve never embraced the reality of Jesus surrender your heart to him. And if you have embraced Jesus and your relationships are difficult it should make sense that they are. But step back from it and remember “I am Christ’s beloved.” I can extend graciousness and I can be brave and admit failure because I am completely forgiven. God knows you completely and loves you unconditionally.

Romans 8:31-39.

Relationships are hard. Your relationships are broken and so are mine. But there is hope in Jesus.

Next Steps

Growth is not an option. Maturity is not for just a few. Growing in relationship with God is life! Our relationship with God will determine success or failure in every other facet of life.

Why do you follow Jesus?

We have our reasons, but the operative word is “follow.” Follow implies movement. Standing still is never an option in our relationship with Jesus. Time after time in the Gospels, Jesus runs into someone and says, “follow me.” And in following Jesus, ordinary people are transformed and used powerfully by God. Would you like to be used by God to make a difference? Sure, I think most of us do.

But that will require growth with God. The more you and I grow with God, the more God can use you. So I want to talk about growth and maturity today. As Cardinal Newman said decades ago, “growth is the only evidence of life.”

Recently many denominations have been meeting for annual gatherings. Our United Methodist denomination has been meeting and so have the Southern Baptists. A report from the SBC caught my eye this week. The report discovered that “Many of our churches have chosen to celebrate other things as the measure of success rather than believers following Jesus. We have drifted into a loss of expectation.”

Does that describe us here at Christ Church? Have we drifted into a loss of expectation? What do we expect from each other as we follow Jesus? Do we expect anything? Do we only expect that we show up on Sunday morning and put money in the offering plate? Is there more to following Jesus? Remember, growth is the only evidence of life.
On the flip side, I wonder if some of us believe that we have it all together and we don’t need growth and maturity with Jesus. This is just as dangerous and a loss of expectation.

Did you watch the Cavs lose, I mean play, this past week. Tough series. Golden State is strong. But more than what happened on the court, I was once again transfixed by the bravado of Lebron James. After last Sunday night’s game, Lebron had an interesting statement about himself…”I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world. It’s simple.”

That’s bravado! And maybe it’s okay for a sports star, but it can be death for a Jesus follower.

Growth is the only evidence of life. And each one of us needs to take the next step in spiritual maturity with Jesus. We can become pretty content to stand still in our relationship with Jesus. We can become too comfortable and feel that we’ve already arrived where God wants us to be. And maturity does not develop overnight.

When Pablo Casals reached 95, a young reporter asked him: “Mr. Casals, you are 95 and the greatest cellist that ever lived. Why do you still practice six hours a day?” And Mr. Casals answered, “Because I think I am making progress.” Our movement should be to make some kind of progress every day with God. So let’s look at 1Corinthians and talk openly and honestly about our current relationship with Jesus and what our next step could be.

1Corinthians 9:24-27

Paul uses a couple of metaphors here: running and boxing. Paul compares our life with God and maturity to competitive athletics, and he urges us to win. To understand what Paul is talking about and what he is communicating to the Corinthian church, we have to understand the sports culture of the first century.

In the city of Corinth, there was a place called the campus. This was the old drill ground for soldiers. Over time the campus became a track and field playground. Young men would gather on the campus to play and exercise. Men would participate in foot racing, jumping, archery, wrestling, boxing, riding…

These sports developed out of the ancient Greek Olympics. The Olympics offered several different types of races from short distance to long distance. They also offered boxing which was one of the most popular events. There was also one special event called the pankration which was a combination of boxing and wrestling – sort of resembling MMA. It was violent and many times the athletes were in danger of being killed in the ring.

Paul uses this imagery to talk about the intentionality and training that goes into growth and maturity with God. When he wrote about running or boxers swinging wildly, the Corinthians knew exactly what Paul was talking about.

In this passage Paul gives us the rules of running: a lot of people run the race; only one wins; run to win. The rules are clear. And he goes on to make the point that the runners in the race in Corinth run for a crown that doesn’t last – a laurel wreath. Paul writes that disciples are running for a crown that will last forever. So what’s the point?

Well, as we read 1Corinthians 9 & 10 we get the picture of a man who is making his case in the strongest possible terms. Everything Paul does, every way that Paul is living is only for the message of Jesus. He has sacrificed, he has used all of his gifts and skills, he has traveled tirelessly been shipwrecked, beaten, arrested, ridiculed, rejected – all for Jesus and for the purpose of inviting people to grow with God.

Growth is not an option. Maturity is not for just a few. Growing in relationship with God is life! Our relationship with God will determine success or failure in every other facet of life.

Jesus is at the center of everything. And Paul emphasizes the work and training that must occur in spiritual maturity.

Here’s what we learn from Paul about growth and spiritual maturity:

1. It is not a game, it is a matter of life and death! Spiritual maturity is not about “what you do,” but about “who you become.” Its essence is found in conforming yourself to the character of God.
The essence of spiritual maturity does not relate to knowledge you gain or skills you acquire. Our goal, as believers in Christ, is not to learn or to do things. Rather it is to become the kind of person whose character imitates God.
Granted, in order to work on this goal we must gain knowledge and do actions. But those are only steps in the process of achieving the real goal – conforming ourselves to the character of God. Your spiritual maturity will advance only to the degree you understand and work toward this end.
2. It’s not easy, it requires training and commitment. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.

Spiritual maturity must be intentional. Maturity is not automatic with the passing of time. The writer of Hebrews sadly noted, “… though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.” (Heb. 5:12)

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Millions of Christians have grown older without ever growing up. The truth is that spiritual growth requires a commitment to grow. A person must want to grow, decide to grow, and make an effort to grow.
Discipleship begins with a decision. It doesn’t have to be a complex decision, but it does have to be sincere.
When the first disciples decided to follow Jesus they didn’t understand all of the implications of their decision. They simply expressed a desire to follow him. Jesus took that simple but sincere decision and built on it.
Philippians 2:12-13 says, “… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
Notice that it says “work out” – not “work on” – your salvation. There is nothing you can add to what Christ did for your salvation. Paul is talking about spiritual growth in this passage to people who are already saved.
The important thing to note is that God has a part in our growth but so do we. We must make an intentional effort to grow.
Becoming like Jesus is the result of the commitments we make. We become whatever we are committed to – without a commitment to grow, any growth that occurs will be circumstantial, rather than intentional. Spiritual growth is too important to be left to circumstance. It needs to be intentional, not incidental.
Spiritual growth that leads to maturity begins with the kind of commitment described in Romans 6:13: “… give yourselves completely to God – every part of you – for you are back from death and you want to be tools in the hands of God, to be used for his good purposes.”
3. It has a goal. There is a finish line and winners circle. The goal is to be just like Jesus. In our Methodist history we call it “going onto perfection in love.” John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist renewal movement, clearly understood that every follower of Jesus must be moving forward. Accountability is crucial. Wesley cared so much for his Methodist Christians, that he created a system of spiritual maturity called the class meeting – or small group. Attendance in the small group was required for the Methodist. In the small group people were moving onto the goal of maturity – having the character of Jesus shaped within them – moving forward to be able to love perfectly and completely.
For Wesley, just as for Paul, spiritual maturity – discipleship, was not a game – it was life and eternity.
So let’s make our conversation about spiritual maturity – discipleship – very practical. What is going on at Christ United Methodist Church to equip every single one of us to take the next step of maturity? So that we can be just like Jesus – having his character shaped within. For discipleship to take root and for maturity to happen there must be an intentional process.