There is a God. I’m not him.

The movie Rudy is about a young man who does everything in his power to be accepted into Notre Dame. He tries for years but is turned down time after time. Desperate, Rudy goes to church to see his mentor, Father Cavanaugh.

Father Cavanaugh says, “You did a helluva job, kid, chasing down your dream.” Rudy replies, “I don’t care what kind of a job I did. If it doesn’t produce results, it doesn’t mean anything. Father Cavanaugh replies, “I think you’ll discover that it will.”

Rudy said, “Maybe I haven’t prayed enough.”

The priest replied, “I’m sure that’s not the problem. Praying is something we do in our time. The answers come in God’s time.”

“Have I done everything I possibly can?” Rudy pleads. “Can you help me?”

Father Cavanaugh replies, “In 35 years of religious studies, I’ve come up with only two incontrovertible facts. There is a God, and I’m not him.”

For Lent I’m preaching through the short Old Testament prophecy of Habakkuk. Habakkuk is often overlooked, and I think I know why. We expect God to answer our prayers in our time and in a way that makes sense to us. Habakkuk saw violence and injustice all around. The “system” was broken from the top down.

Habakkuk discovered that answers come in God’s time.

If we could have a conversation with God, like Habakkuk did, we would ask the same questions he asks.

The first part of Habakkuk’s prophecy asks us, “If God never answers in our time, or in way that never makes sense to us, is it possible for us to be OK? Is it possible to be OK just knowing that God is God?”

Repent? Who, me?

A school district took away jump ropes. Kids could still jump rope, but without the rope. It seems that jumping rope was hard for some kids. Failing might damage their self-esteem.

For two decades, psychotherapy has been in decline, despite research that it really works to promote patients’ mental health. The reasons for the decline are complex, such as the increased use of medications, but here’s the thing: psychotherapy involves long, hard work facing our own issues. Most people blame others for their problems. Psychotherapists used to see patients who were unhappy and wanted to understand themselves. Now, more patients want someone else to change. Fewer people say, “I want to change myself.”

It would seem that Ash Wednesday and repentance are out of touch with the times. That’s too bad, because repentance allows you to face the evil that you’ve done without the guilt crushing you.

The classic case study in repentance is the parable of the prodigal son. A young son took his share of his father’s wealth, left home, and squandered his wealth in wild living. When his life had fallen totally apart, he resolved to go home and work his way back into his father’s good graces. That was the first part of repentance—turning from his old way of life and heading home.

While the son was still a long way off, his father ran to him and kissed him. Instead of giving him the punishment he deserved, he welcomed him back as his son. When the son experienced the radical love of his father, he fully repented. In that moment he had access to all the father’s love and riches.

Repentance is like a key which unlocks our own hearts and allows the love of the father to flow into us. True repentance isn’t about feeling guilty for what we’ve done; just the opposite. True repentance is about joy.

The father, who represents God in the parable, didn’t give his son what he deserved.  He transferred the son’s guilt and humiliation to himself. Real repentance is turning away from an old way of life and accepting God’s love.

Supernatural experience

This week is Transfiguration Sunday. Pastor Dan will be reflecting on an unusual event where Jesus led his inner circle of disciples up a mountain. There his glory was revealed in a supernatural way.

What constitutes a “supernatural” experience, anyway?

In my last assignment in the Air Force, I chaired the Leadership and Ethics Department at the Air War College, a school for senior military officers. One evening, Jana and I were hosting a dinner party for our department. Our guest was Otto Kroeger, a nationally-known expert on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The MBTI is a popular personality assessment tool. For 15 years, Otto had lectured at the War College helping senior leaders better understand themselves, their families, and each other.

Otto told me that I should become a pastor when I retired from the Air Force. I was shocked. It was the first time anyone had suggested that. I’d always assumed that pastors had to have some kind of “supernatural,” “burning bush,” experience.

In my case, Otto knew my personality “type.” I’d spent a week at his school learning about the MBTI. A lot of ministers have a similar type.

Supernatural?

Two years later, I started seminary.

Most pastors I know haven’t had a “supernatural” experience that led them to ministry, though some have. God leads some through a yearning they can’t ignore. For others, one career door closes and another opens.

The truth is, all of life is “supernatural.” God upholds everything, everywhere, every minute. God is at work in you and me right now.

But we don’t spend enough time in the scriptures, in prayer, or in church.

We’re not attuned to the “supernatural.”

Soul satisfying joy

One of the women who testified at the sentencing hearing of Larry Nassar, the US Women’s Gymnastics team doctor who abused dozens of young women, was former gymnast Rachel Denhollander. She was the first to bring the abuses to light, and her courage inspired others to come forward.

But in the midst of sharing her horrific story, Rachel shared her faith: Because God exists, there is right and wrong. Because God is just, we can recognize evil and stand against it.

Then Rachel said this to Nassar: “I have experienced the soul satisfying joy of a marriage built on sacrificial love and safety and tenderness and care. I have experienced true intimacy in its deepest joys, and it is beautiful and sacred and glorious. And that is a joy you have cut yourself off from, and I pity you for it.”

Amid the darkness of abuse and fear and pain, there is still light. There is a God of love, who is love, who made us for love; to love each other and to love him. And not just love. God created us to experience deep, soul-satisfying joy, tenderness, and care. And yes, even glory and ecstasy.

In the creation story, God put the man to sleep, pulled out a rib, and fashioned the woman. The woman was created from the man, but the man wasn’t complete until the woman was complete.

Do you see? God designed us to experience his love, joy, tenderness, care, ecstasy, and even his glory, through each other.

Love isn’t all you need

It’s been just over 50 years since the Beatles released their hit song, “All You Need is Love.” Countless movies, shows, and songs share the same theme: there’s someone out there who’s “just right” for you. All you need to do is find that person, fall head-over-heels in love, and you’ll live happily ever after.

Writers and filmmakers understand the power that this idea has over us. We’ve all bought into the idea that there is someone out there who’s just right for me, and if I have him or her, my problems will be over, and I’ll have everything.

The movies work because we’ve bought into the myth.

This theme also runs through Genesis 29. Jacob was on the run from his brother in a foreign land. God’s whole plan to redeem the world through his chosen people seemed to be in jeopardy. Jacob throws himself on the mercy of his Uncle Laban, who has no way of paying him. But, Laban does have two daughters. The younger one, Rachel, is beautiful. The older one, Leah, no one wants.

Jacob agrees to work for Laban for seven years if Rachel can be his wife. It was an outrageous price for a bride. But Jacob was so infatuated with Rachel that he would have done anything to get what he wanted.

Underneath Jacob’s infatuation is the brokenness of all his relationships. His father didn’t love him; his brother looked down on him; and his mother had helped him deceive his father. Now he had no one. So, when he saw Rachel, the “woman of his dreams,” he figured all his problems were solved.

But beneath all this brokenness was a broken relationship with God.

There was no Hollywood ending to this story, but God was at work, and God redeemed the mess Jacob had made of his life.

If you are feeling unloved, remember. Jesus saw the beauty in you. Jesus chose you. He said, if I have her, if I have him, I’ll have everything.

When helping hurts

I’m leading a study of the book When Helping Hurts. It’s a powerful read. It challenges us to reconsider the effectiveness of just giving money and things to the poor, or just telling them to “get a job.”

Authors Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett say the problem started with the fall. At the fall, our relationship with God was damaged, but so was our relationship with the rest of creation, with others, and with ourselves—our self-image. They say that helping the poor is ultimately about restoring relationships between God, creation, others, and ourselves. Everyone has gifts they were meant to use to bless others and help themselves.

Fikkert and Corbett tell of a church which operated a monthly food pantry. Guests were required to listen to a devotional, led by someone they didn’t know, before they could get their food. But then the church changed its approach. Instead of talking at their guests, they broke into small groups which were a mix of church members and guests. The small groups used an approach called “Appreciative Inquiry,” to discover the gifts and abilities of their guests. Instead of trying the “fix” their guests, they built relationships. Church members soon discovered their own poverty of spirit, and how much they needed the guests to help overcome it. Community started to grow. Members started picking up guests and bringing them to church, and began working with them on things like budgeting and finding jobs.

Best of all, they began enjoying one another as friends.

One lady said, “I no longer feel like I’m just a number in the crowd. Now I have a face.” Another asked, “Even if I don’t need groceries, can I still come?”

Guests starting regularly serving as volunteers and were delighted to do so. They said what set this food pantry apart was that they were treated with respect. They said it was as if the church actually enjoyed them.

Just sex?

A famous Hollywood producer is exposed for inappropriate behavior, leading to an avalanche of accusers coming forward.

A local police chief is caught soliciting an underage girl in a sting operation.

A high school teacher is jailed after violating the terms of her parole after being convicted for having a relationship with an underage student.

The wife of a prominent official falsely accuses her husband’s chief of staff of inappropriate advances, sending him to prison.

These stories sound like the news from the last few months. Every story is about sexual desire gone wrong. Every situation involves a person in a position of power using that position to attempt to satisfy an unhealthy desire. But the last one is actually the ancient story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph from Genesis 39.

What’s going on?

The idea that a Bible story, thousands of years old, could be so relevant to what’s happening today ought to give us a clue. As great as it is that victims are now finding the courage to come forward, the real problem will take more than a momentary catharsis to overcome.

Over the next few weeks, we’re going to try to address the deeper issues in our preaching. The answers don’t lend themselves to a blog entry, but I think the issue is something like this: We buy into the lie that “sex is just sex;” an appetite like any other to be satisfied. It’s not. Sex is actually a gift from God that leads a husband and wife into an intimate relationship, one that points to the relationship between human beings and God.

When we make sex an end in itself, it’s not a great leap to justify doing awful things to get what we want.

The whole story

In the book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey tells about a Jesuit missionary who went to China in the sixteenth century. He took samples of religious art to illustrate the story of Jesus. He discovered that the Chinese loved the pictures of the Virgin Mary holding her child, but were horrified by pictures of the crucifixion. They insisted on worshiping the Virgin Mary rather than the crucified Jesus.

Yancey says we do pretty much the same thing. Go through any stack of Christmas cards, and even the Christian-themed cards have been purged of any reminder of how the story that began in Bethlehem turned out at Calvary.

When Jesus was eight days old, Mary and Joseph took him to the temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised. They met a man named Simeon who told them wonderful things about what Jesus was to become. Then he told Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many…. The thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Over and over throughout his ministry, Jesus said the same things.

Imagine for a moment that you’re Mary. You followed your Son’s life and ministry with the interest that only a mother has. You saw how he revealed people’s hearts. You saw how the light came on as people believed, and then you saw the rejection and the trial.

And then you saw him hanging on the cross.

I wonder. As Mary stood helplessly in front of her son on the cross, did she think back to that day in the temple 33 years before? Did she think, “I always wondered what Simeon meant. This has got to be it. This is a sword through my soul. A sword through my body would be preferable to this.”

And so, Simeon’s warning has to be part of the Christmas story. We can’t just settle for the baby Jesus.

Jesus stepped into our world, knowing that he would divide people.

He knew that when he revealed their hearts, most would reject him, yet he willingly went to the cross for them.

He was pierced so that we could be healed.

 

Lauren’s toffee

Last week, a plain Tupperware container appeared in the office. The container’s appearance belied the unexpected delight to be found inside: an incredible combination of toffee, chocolate, and almonds. Melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. Everyone was raving about it. But who had shared such an incredible delight?

This was Lauren’s chocolate almond toffee.

Lauren politely accepted our thanks, but let everyone know that the batch was a failure. Something about the chocolate layer wasn’t right.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

It caused me to think about famous things that people use every day. Penicillin, pacemakers, and Post-It notes all started out as someone’s mistake. This wasn’t what those things were supposed to be.

And that made me think about the way God came at Christmas. God incarnate wrapped in swaddling clothes? This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Had God made a mistake? What good could come out of this?

Lauren says she has no plans to quit her job and go into the toffee business, but if she did, I would buy stock in that company. Love and delight go into everything she does, even her “mistakes.”

Receiving God’s gift of the incarnation is a bit like trying Lauren’s toffee. You just need to set aside expectations, and let the love and delight sink in.

Elegy

My dad would have turned 100 this week.

Dad passed away in 1981, but I can still remember the way he felt when he hugged me when I came home. When I had to leave, I will never forget the way he stood and watched until I had driven out of sight. Dad told me every day that he loved me. He was constantly after me to do my best. When I got my first job cutting the neighbors’ grass, he insisted that I do more than was expected. Even now, when I see someone cutting grass and allowing the clippings to blow in the street, I think of him. He would not have approved.

I’m reading a book called Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, who was born about 100 miles south of where I grew up in Ashland, Kentucky. Vance simply tells the story of his family, but it’s full of insights about poverty and brokenness. Its lessons reach way beyond the poor whites of Appalachia.

In the week ahead, our church will take part in National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day with a walk and vigil downtown. We’ll remember those who passed away without a home, and without loving, supportive relationships. We’ll also remind ourselves of our own blessings.

We like to think that we’re our own persons; that we control our own destinies; that we can be anything we want. It’s true, but it’s also true that our family, our friends, the places we grow up, and even our ancestors, influence us far more than we know. Homelessness can often be traced to the kinds of broken relationships that Vance describes in Hillbilly Elegy.

Dad was far from perfect. He could be moody and lose his temper. He never had a new car, and we lived in the same converted duplex until I left home. But he worked hard his whole life and was always there for us.

I’m older now than Dad was when he died, but he’s still the most influential person in my life.