Choose (Abundant) Life

It’s that time in the semester when the students are getting really stressed out.  Have you ever wondered why they phrase is stressed “out” and not stressed “in”?  Yes if the stress starts leaking everywhere, it’s eventually going to come out, but there’s so much inward affect that stress has on us.  Facing challenging, difficult, and overwhelming situations from every direction can take a huge toll on a person and as the “prayer” section of Winthrop Wesley’s prayers and praises notebook seems to heartily begin to outweigh the praises you know people are starting to feel down and discouraged.

Around this midterm time it can feel like when it rains it pours.  It seems that when things begin to get hard, the difficulty sometimes can grow exponentially.   A couple weeks ago, we looked at Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and I feel like some of the themes in that text are cropping up all over the place.  God clearly lays out two courses – two ways in which life can go and God asks for us to “Choose life.” 

Choose life even when things seem out of control or insurmountable.  Choose life even when there’s no way things could in a million years work out.  Choose life even when by all logic in this world there aren’t easy or clear answers.  A pastor colleague of mine who frequently amuses and challenges me with his facebook statuses, posted this earlier today, “I watched some news this evening.  I watched FOX, MSNBC and CNN. The message I got? We’re doomed. There is no hope. Pack up your kids and head to the hills. Empty your bank account and hide your money under the mattress. Stock up your shelves. Be afraid, very afraid. And Justin Beiber made the cover of Rolling Stone. Yep, the world is coming to an end!”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or crawl under the bed myself.  I admit that I have caught a little “Bieber fever” in that I enjoyed his Glee episode and some of the songs are quite annoyingly catchy, but I’m not watching the movie.  That’s neither here nor there.  His status was another reminder of very much what the world gives us.  We’re doomed.  There is no hope.  It’s like one of the Charlotte local news networks that Mike and I refuse to watch because the guy always seems so happy when something really awful has happened and he gets to report on it.  I know you’ve got to sell the news but do you have to be so gleeful about an awful car accident or shooting or fire?  

There’s a lot in our world that says yep, we’re doomed.  It actually would be a lot easier to say that in a lot of ways.  You don’t really have to work to bring about change and transformation when the world tells you it’s a waste of time.  What’s the point? 

But is that the way of faith?  Is that the way of the cross?  Or more significantly – the way of an Easter – resurrection people?  Is that the follow up of the verse – “Choose life so that you and our descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lords swore to give your ancestors to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”  It’s not just choose life.  It’s not just choose to believe in the bright side, the cup half full, the silver lining.  It’s not just reject the negativity that we all know is contagious, the complaining and criticism that does harm and not a bit of good, the spiraling of fear and angst that has no end.  It’s choose life that you may live – loving God, obeying God, and holding fast to God even when all may seem lost or today feels about as cruddy as it can get.  It very clearly reminds us that Jesus said he came to bring us abundant li

What does the word abundance conjure up for you?  Abundance is enough for everyone.  It’s more than enough.  It’s awesome.  It’s bountiful.  A bountiful life.

Is it hard to believe this sometimes?  Yes.  Heck yes.  We got word on Friday that Mike’s 2 year old cousin, Lachlan, who was born with some heart defects and has already experienced heart surgeries, now has a brain tumor.  The neurosurgeon would like to operate and the family is meeting with the cardiologist this Friday for approval of the surgery.  I can’t imagine what Leslie and Cullen are going through in these days as they await these appointments.  There aren’t any words or platitudes or anything that can sermonize that or make it go away and be all right. 

There’s that choosing though even in the midst.  And sometimes we can’t make the choice on our own.  Sometimes it takes a community of faith, a family of strength, a body of believers united in hope to help us continue to choose life.  There are good days and there are bad.  Sometimes it means that we need to cut out some of the negative – whether a toxic situation, person, or past hurt or wound that we haven’t given to God.  Sometimes it’s not letting our fears or our worries rob us of the joy of today.  We have to make the conscious choice to step away, turn off the news sometime or change the channel of our hearts and life. There are days when I know and feel and rest in the promises of God for the life that each of us is given and there are days when I get on Wikipedia and start the worry spin cycle of why’s and what if’s and let me tell you – that path leads nowhere good, productive, or very positive.  That’s where that holding fast to God comes in.  Holding fast to that peace that transcends all understanding, holding fast to the hope and strength that only God can give, and holding fast to someone that can give us more comfort and love than anyone else.  We will hold fast to the promises of God. 

I’m not saying that we all walk around as Pollyanna’s because life is real and it hurts and it really is scary sometimes.  The key is going back to the Source of life – to the Creator that knows our hurts and the things that keep us up at night and even the things that we don’t want to say outloud.  May we in the coming days and weeks and times of uncertainty or chaos or stressed out to the max, find ways to ground ourselves in the power of the One who ignites, breathes and drenches us in new life and hope each and every day.

How will you choose life today?

Yes this is beyond cheesy in some ways and pretty old, but definitely goes with the text – Big Tent Revival’s “Choose Life”:

Frustrated but Humbled in a Good Way

Do you get frustrated when things don’t go the way you think they should?  Or even more than that, do you feel frustrated when people consistently don’t live up to expectations or react in ways that you feel are hurtful or uncaring or selfish or self-centered?  There’s such a balance in giving grace to people and loving them as who they are and holding people accountable and really encouraging growth.  Jesus gave us an awesome example with that, but wowzers is it hard to figure out how to live that.

When someone messes up it would be really easy just to ignore it or get over it or forget about what has happened, and of course there are times and places for that, but if we’re talking about Christian community – it is not okay to shut people down, to take things for granted, to not welcome folks, to constantly talk about inside jokes that keep people on the outside, to belittle and criticize in ways that are far from constructive and are much more destructive.  Negativity is so contagious.  And for some reason instead of the church being in sharp contrast to that, it seems that it’s easier for it to happen here than not.

At our district clergy meeting on Thursday we talked a bit about the challenges and hostile environment that some encounter.  In a conversation with a colleague about the church politics of the church kitchen, it amazed me how territorial, rude, and close-minded people can be when they’re the ones on the inside/part of the club and someone else is looking in.  And if you think that “we’ve never done it that way before” is a phrase just used in local churches and not campus ministries, I wish you were right – but sadly, it’s not the case.  I think back on my dad’s talking about what it takes to get to real community – the chaos and conflict involved – and I get that.  But can’t we be different?  Or at least can we try to not be as self-centered and hostile as the rest of the world?  How can we worship and have solid fellowship with someone on a church retreat or on Sunday mornings and then turn around and not speak to them in the aisle at the grocery store or the local Target?  It’s so unbelievingly frustrating.

Not that I’m the “are you being a good enough Christian” police?  Not by any means.  It actually usually make me  wonder if I have been a bad “shepherd.”  Do we as pastors really lead by example?  And what is that example?  Yep I know we are called to offer God’s love to everyone.  I get that.  But I also don’t remember Jesus talking to the Pharisees in a lot of flowery rainbows and butterflies language.  Sometimes it was harsh and hard to hear.  He was straight up with them.  This thing – this discipleship – is not just about insiders.  This is not just a club for you that have figured out how this things work – when to stand for the apostle’s creed or sit for the prayer or whatever.  This isn’t about who can complain and criticize and attack people the most because you think you have the inside track or power.  This isn’t about who has the most friends or knows the most gossip.  This isn’t even about the pastors, the singers, the musicians, the people in charge.  This is about something different.  Thank goodness!

Our theme verse for Wesley this year comes from 1 John 3:17-18 from The Message, “If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something abot it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love?  It disappears.  And you made it disappear.  My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love.”  I really like the text.  But it’s really scary to put that on all the Wesley shirts and the posters because if we put that out there and if people walk in and they’re not welcomed and people keep to themselves and are doing their own thing – it’s a bit of a contradiction, right?  A sort of significant one.

How do we practice real love?  How do we live that out?  As pastors or leaders in the church, how do we not take it personally when this is such a challenge in our congregation?  Are they “getting” anything that we are saying or are people tuning in and out and just not catching on?  Maybe.  Or maybe we’re lacking in our preaching and teaching.  Could be.  Do you at some point say forget numbers, forget statistics, forget all of the nit-picking – we are going to try to live out this love of Christ and the heck with the rest of it?

As you might read between the lines, it’s been a pretty frustrating week.  And discernment and reflection in the midst of being tired makes things all the more personal, hurtful, and accentuated.  But the scripture this morning from the Upper Room was a good word in terms of where we are,

“Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
                                                                                                                     -Isaiah 55:6-13 (NRSV)

You know what that tells me?  That sometimes we just don’t know.  It’s not about us or our ways or what we’re doing or not doing.  God’s purposes are being carried out.  God is sowing seeds all around us.  We can prepare the bread, but the yeast is what mysteriously makes it rise.  I don’t think that lets people off the hook in terms of how we are to be in the world if we claim to be disciples of Christ – not by any means.  But I do think that God says that God is bigger than all of that.  God will work, and is working in spite of all of us folks that mess it up.  It’s not about us – at least not all about us.  That is a relief.  Even if we’re expecting a bunch of thorns (and it sure feels like that sometimes in ministry), there will come a cypress.  A couple of those would be pretty awesome!

So yes things may be frustrating when they don’t move or grow or change or act according to what we may think is right.  True.  And I may expect a heck of a lot out of people when I may not have a right to – remember that whole plank in your own eye thing.  But before I throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Before we sit down and say all is lost – it’s good to know even when I don’t measure up or when I feel like I must be the most gigantic hypocritical mess of them all – God is in the mix – bringing beauty from ashes.  May we seek and know God and be challenged to live it out.  For real.  Not just kidding or just during small group or children’s sermon or Sunday school or Disciple group or on a retreat.  We are called to live out this love all the time – a la Wesley’s – “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

When you claim you’re a Christian whether saying it, wearing it, on your car, whatever – you’ve got to back it up.  We’re not all going to be “perfect” all the time but that beauty of sanctification is that we don’t have to constantly stay in the low pit of negative, critical, spin cycle of sin.  Change can happen.  And God still moves.  Even in the midst.