More to come…

                              Sermon Study Thoughts for 100216
Text: 2 Timothy 1:1-14;

Also: Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Luke 17:5-10

Even when things in our lives look bleak, we can trust that God is not finished with us.
There is yet a word from God for us and work yet for us to do.
Even a little faith in these promises can move mountains.

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It is easy to become discouraged. Life is hard. Bad things happen, even to good people. Bad people seem to get away. Justice is often left incomplete.

These are of course oversimplifications of complex situations, but the sentiments nonetheless ring true. Life is hard, and frustrations are sure to come. Whether at work, in our personal relationships, or with our community and society on a larger scale, things often don’t go as we think, feel and believe that they should. We imagine that if we were in charge things would be better. (Forgetting in the process the many times we have failed, fallen short, let ourselves and others down.)

On the landscape of our national consciousness several things loom particularly large right now. In particular, the presidential election process between two polarizing candidates, and the long-simmering and now growing and increasingly public tensions between “the police” and “the African-American community”. In both situations, it is easy to become discouraged, even fearful. It is easy to develop growing mistrust and cynicism toward “the other side”. Again, we think if only we were in charge we could make things better. But we are not, and feel that things may not get better.

First a reality check. Things are so much better in almost every conceivable measure of health, wealth and prosperity. The poorest of the poor in the USA enjoy more comforts than working class families of a century ago. Life expectancy has increased. Access to simple necessities and creature comforts has widened dramatically. Racism, oppression and related violence have decreased dramatically from a few generations ago. The conversation has shifted, but perhaps we’ve been lulled into complacency within the majority culture – absence of violence has been mistaken for peace and harmony.

God’s shalom is not simply a cease-fire. It is universal flourishing and a balance of wellbeing rooted in shared rhythms of work and rest. We are a long way from that, however far we have come. By many accounts we are disconnected from our own bodies, from one another, from the earth that provides our nourishment, and from the God who created us, sustains us, and redeems our sufferings.

So we have both reason to give thanks and reason to hope for more. If we focus too much on either our blessings or our challenges the result is a distorted view of reality undergirding ill-fitting and unproductive actions.

As Paul writes to his student Timothy, we do not know the full extent of the circumstances that have prompted the letter. Timothy has become discouraged by some series of events in his life and ministry. He’s gotten distracted perhaps by the headlines, or by the shiny things in the culture around him.

Paul comments Timothy toward several things that are also instructive for us:

  1. Remember the faith of your ancestors – the faith in which you were raised. This is similar to parents calling out toward their children who walk out the door for a night or weekend away, “Remember who you are and where you come from…!” Again, we lack specifics, but it was apparently enough for Timothy simply to recall the faith of his mother and grandmother.
  2. Remember the gifts of God that you have already received and expressed. God has already blessed you and worked through you to bless others. Whatever is going on right now is neither the beginning nor the end of your story. AND, you have the ability and responsibility to stir up that gift, to call it forth and put it to use – to exercise those muscles.
  3. Remember the power of God that was at work in Jesus Christ, that you have seen at work in me, and that is at work in you. The things which have been done are not by your strength alone. Yes, you are a participant, but not a solitary agent acting on the world. You are interdependent with God to fulfill the Gospel call.
  4. Remember that the hardest part is already done! Death has been conquered. There is nothing left to fear. There is nothing of which to be ashamed. No limitation that remains is greater than the love of God that is already at work in you.

Everything Paul suggests here is encapsulated within the brief text from Luke 17:5-10 in which Jesus invites us to exercise faith as small, humble and simple as a mustard seed, trusting that even this much true faith might move mountains in our life and world circumstances. The promise is not that all of our problems will evaporate immediately. “Every valley lifted and every hill made low” is a promise for a future time of kingdom fulfillment (Isaiah 40:4). What seems to be at work here is that “Yes, the struggle is real, but God’s power is greater. Strength and courage are available to you to persevere and overcome the obstacles before you for the sake of the Gospel – so that all people might live in the truth that “our Savior Christ Jesus, … abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel…” (2 Timothy 1:10).

In order for others to believe and receive this promise we ourselves must first live and walk in it. This means that we will no longer be held back by fear or shame. We will not cower before things that seem too difficult for us. Perhaps we have tried before and failed. The crucifixion looked like failure in the short term also. But God redeemed the suffering and life conquered death. The promise is that this same power is at work in us by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Whatever has been, and whatever now is, let us rest in the promise of God that there’s more to come.

Experiencing resurrection hope in times of struggle

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Believing in the resurrection seems easier on a beautiful Spring morning, when children and flowers are newly clothed in bright colors and fresh pastels. Less so when we are facing struggles and an uncertain future. The Christian community, with the help and encouragement of our consumer culture, wants to focus on Easter, and forget about the week of struggle that preceded it. In the Jewish story of the Exodus from Egypt, it is easy to focus on the moment of rescue, and then the final entry into the land of promise flowing with sweet blessings – and ignore the suffering and struggle that accompanied the departure and the journey from where they were to where they ultimately would rest.

Life is not all fresh flowers, laughing children, and abundant prosperity. I read an interesting observation recently – that dependency is our natural state. We begin and end life that way – unable to fully care for ourselves. We are all in some way “dis-abled”. The notion of being independent, autonomous, all self-sufficient persons is a myth and aberration, fleeting and ephemeral. This is not to suggest that life is bleak and hopeless. That too is a myth – the idea that dependency equals deficiency; that we are somehow less if we need others. In the life and ministry of Jesus we see one who makes himself vulnerable. Paul says is Philippians 2:5-11 that Jesus “emptied himself.” The Greek word for this is kenosis. In Christ God chose to experience the fullness of human limitation, and thereby blessed it as holy. Whether or not God NEEDED human help, God chose to enlist and even rely upon the help, support and agency of humans, who were and are limited. We are at one time marvelously able some ways, and dis-able in others. God entered fully into this dis-abled state. God knows the road we walk, because in Jesus he has walked it with us.

There is some comfort in knowing we are not alone in our struggle. Yet this does not end or even ease our struggle. The fact that you are also sick with the flu does not lessen my symptoms. In fact, if we share life together, things become more difficult if we are both down at the same time. Ideally when one is weak, another is strong, so that we can adequately share one another’s burdens and joys.

The book Tuesday’s With Morrie by Mitch Album offers a wonderfully poignant illustration of this idea. In this story Morrie, a retired professor living (dying from?) with ALS tells Mitch, his former student turned reluctant biographer, about his own transition back to dependency. Morrie reached a point in his disease process where he could no longer perform the tasks of personal hygiene and self-care – in other words he could no longer wipe his own bottom, clearly not a condition from which he would recover. Rather than fight the humiliation and shame that often accompany this situation, Morrie chose to interpret his experience as one in which he was receiving tender, loving and compassionate care as he had in the first years of life. Think about this. Many people long for intimacy and are starved for human touch. Here Morrie is forced to receive both under less than ideal circumstances. By grace his is able to shift his attitude and thinking to humility rather than humiliation. What needs to happen in us to experience that same freedom and release from pretension?

In Morrie we see both emotional and physical struggle. He makes a mental shift that helps him receive care with a new attitude and emotional experience. But does this lessen his physical distress? Perhaps not. Yet many scientists and psychologists have demonstrated a connection between the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical experiences of being human. A positive attitude actually does ease our experience of pain, and a discouraged countenance will reduce our tolerance to hardship.

As someone who proclaims hope in the resurrection, I want to believe that suffering does not have the last word in our lives. We want to think and believe that things will get better. But sometimes they don’t. So what do we do with our hope in the resurrection and its power in our lives when things go from bad to worse? The cancer patient and his family pray and hope for treatment to work and to hear the words “remission” or “cure”. The cardiac patient and her family likewise hope for a full recovery from surgery and return to a vibrant and active lifestyle. This is our hope and prayer. Yet we know that none of us gets out alive. We will all die someday, from something. Our hope is not to avoid dying so much as to live a long and full life, and to avoid prolonged suffering. We want 70 or 80 years or more, and then we want to go quietly in our sleep, not being a burden to others. According to the Centers for Disease Control three fourths of the US population will die following a prolonged illness or injury. The vast majority of us will not “go gently into that good night“.

When we have this conversation in a hospital or long-term care setting, we are not saying anything new. One might even ask at this moment, “Where is the word of hope?” Yes, that is precisely the point. At Easter of all times we want to hear, believe and proclaim a word of hope. Let me suggest several things that can help us experience and share resurrection HOPE even in times of struggle:

  1. Honesty: Be honest about what we are experiencing. We cannot find true hope until we honestly face our real struggles, fears and even despair. This is not easy, but it is essential.
  2. Openness: Share our awareness. You can do this by writing in a journal or letter. You can talk with a trusted friend, confessor, or professional. We need to BOTH feel/think it and externalize it somehow.

When we do these two things, we begin to get a handle on our struggle, and gain some power over our fear and despair. This is why many spiritual traditions call for confession – naming the struggle is a form of personal agency and gives us mental, emotional, spiritual and even physical power in it. In AA this is revealed in the 4th & 5th steps. We may discover that things are not as bleak as we first believed, and that we are not alone.

  1. Projection: Identify and name positive outcomes – project them into the future. Remember how Morrie reframed his experience from shame to blessing. Consider how a funeral may become a time of when people give and receive forgiveness, mercy and grace to heal old wounds. The Apostle Paul presumes to use pregnancy and the birthing process as a metaphor for struggle followed by blessing. The struggle is real, but so is the potential for positive and life-giving future. What inspiration can be found in those who face illness and death with courage, integrity and even joy?
  2. Expectation: Anticipate the good that can and will come. As we read in Hebrews 12:2 “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” This theme recurs in scripture, particularly regarding the experience of Jesus and his role as our example.

It may help us to also remember that no one believed in the resurrection until they personally experienced the risen Jesus. The Apostles and disciples had been repeatedly told, along with the rulers of the people and the crowds. It is hard to experience resurrection hope during our times of struggle, hard even to hope and believe. One great blessing of walking this road is that we are then in a position to offer real hope to others because of what we have seen and known. Everyone’s experience is unique, and yet we can draw strength and hope from each other. We proclaim the Easter resurrection of Jesus each year both to remind ourselves, and to tell the world, that we might all live in hope. (Acts 2:22-28; Psalm 16) There is always room for HOPE.

To explore these ideas further, please contact me: cell: 214-288-1663; email: Ken@SynchronousLife.com

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May you live a Synchronous Life of integrity, vitality and harmony.