Love Is A Verb

Have you ever heard of the seven stages of the married cold?[1]

In your 1st year of marriage, if your loving spouse gets sick, you would probably say with all sincerity – “Oh, sweetie pie, I’m really worried about those nasty sniffles you have! There’s no telling what that could turn into with all the strep that’s been going around. I’m going to take you right down to the hospital and have you admitted for a couple days of rest. I know the food is lousy there, so I’m going to bring you takeout from your favorite restaurant. I’ve already arranged it with the head nurse.”

In your 2nd year of marriage, if your spouse gets sick, you still show much loving concern – “Listen, honey, I don’t like the sound of that cough. I called the doc and he’s going to stop by here and take a look at you. Why don’t you just go on to bed and get the rest you need?”

In the 3rd year, you say – “Maybe you better go lie down, darling. When you feel lousy you need the rest. I’ll bring you something.  Do we have any canned soup around here?”

By the 4th year, you say with love – “No sense wearing yourself out when you’re under the weather. When you finish those dishes and the kids’ baths and get them to bed, you ought to go to bed yourself!”

5th year – “Why don’t you take a couple aspirin?

6th year – “You oughta go gargle or something, instead of sitting around barking like a dog!”

And by the 7th year, you turn to the love of your life and say – “For Pete’s sake, stop sneezing. Are you trying to give me pneumonia? You’d better pick up some tissues while you’re at the store.”

7 Stages of a Married Cold

If this isn’t you and your spouse, odds are you probably know someone just like this.  Most of us consider this to be the natural progression of a love relationship.  As we spend more and more time together, we tend to lose not only the fire and passion of our early days, but also that “other-centered” focus that is pretty typical at the beginning.  But have you ever wished that it wasn’t that way?  Have you ever wondered if you could rekindle that intimacy?  More time doesn’t have to equal less passion.  More time doesn’t have to equal less passion.   How we treat each other is a choice we make everyday.  It comes naturally at the beginning to be so “other-centered” because we are so busy trying to convince the other person to stay with us.  We are more sensitive, more thoughtful, more willing to compromise, but once we have been together for a while all those things seem to start to fade.  And when the relationship starts to get a little dull around the edges, when it isn’t so sparkly new and shining bright, we tend to dump it instead of work on it. In our disposable lifestyles, we tend to have disposable relationships.

Staying in Love

Why do you think that is? 

Why are we willing to dump something just because it isn’t working the way we expect it too?[2]  Obviously, if you decide to get married, you don’t sit there with the intention it’s going to end.  Most people think of marriage as a lifelong commitment otherwise why bother?  Yet somehow, we chuck it all out the window pretty quickly.  Like anything worthwhile, a love that lasts a lifetime takes work and time and effort.  It may not be that fiery, passionate love we had at the beginning, but a love that nourishes us and envelopes us with security and hope.  Andy Stanley put it pretty succinctly, “Falling in love requires a pulse, but staying in love requires a plan.”  Falling in love requires a pulse, but staying in love requires a plan. And guess what?  God has a plan.  If you’ve got your Bibles or a Bible app on your phones, please open them up to Philippians chapter 2 beginning with verse 1.  Philippians 2:1. In this letter to the church at Philippi, Paul is writing to them to give them encouragement to keep on growing in Christ.  Apparently, Paul had spent a lot of time in Philippi and now that he’s been thrown in prison, he’s worried that they’ll forget the lessons of Christ as they worry about what will happen to them so he’s writing this to bolster their confidence and to remind them of how Christ would have them behave toward one another.  This model of behavior isn’t just for churches, but for our everyday lives and in our marriages as well and this is where we pick up in our reading.

1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

 5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

 6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

1 part humility + 1 part concern for others = healthy relationship

This is God’s recipe for a healthy relationship.

Take equal parts humility and equal parts concern for others and mix it together and you have the perfect recipe for a healthy relationship.  Paul reminds us that even Jesus, Jesus who is by his nature God on Earth, even Jesus didn’t take advantage of who he was to make us bend to his will.  Instead, Jesus, the creator and most powerful person in the universe, took on the attitude of a servant because he wanted to model for us the kind of life we could live if we just listened to God.  God gives us these life lessons to make our lives better.  But it does take faith to do it.  Faith not only in God that what he says is true, but  faith in one another.  It also takes conscious effort.  It’s not something that comes naturally to us, so we have to actively do these things.  We have to actively act in humility, to think of our partner more than ourselves, to react not in haste but in kindness, to take the attitude of a servant.  To use another Andy quote, we have to learn to make love a verb.  We have to learn to make love a verb.  Love is a choice we make every day and if we ignore that choice we will see the seven stages of the married cold become a reality in our relationships.  But if we DO actively choose to love one another, to think of them before ourselves, we can have the healthy, loving relationship we so desire.

1 part humility + 1 part concern for others = healthy relationship-2

There is always a gap between our expectations and our reality.

It’s how we fill that gap that makes all the difference in the world.  The most successful couples, the ones who report the most happiness, are the ones who fill that gap with the best of expectations.[3]  They believe the best about their spouses, even when they are wrong.  They CHOOSE to believe the best even though it’s likely not to be true.  It’s that positive attitude that ends up inspiring their significant other to become the best partner they can be and in turn give them the relationship they always hoped for.  There’s a book I’ve read that has some great ideas how you can put your spouse or significant other above yourself.  It’s called The Love Dare.  Some of you may have heard of it.  It was a big deal about ten years ago, but the lessons and suggestions it has are still relevant today.  But you don’t even need a book to do this.  All you need is the willingness to put others’ needs before your own.  Think of how incredible of a world this would be if everyone thought of other people’s needs more than their own.  Challenge yourself this week to do something unexpected for those that you love.  Put their needs, their wants, and their desires above your own and see how that can brighten up their day.

 

[1] Found in different sermon illustrations and on the Internet.

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-single/201702/what-is-the-divorce-rate-really

[3] From Andy Stanley’s Staying In Love sermon series

Wired for Community

I am a self-made man.

Nobody has ever helped me.  Why just this morning, I cooked two eggs and bacon for breakfast from chickens that I raised and a pig that I butchered myself.  I cooked it in a pan that I made from steel that I forged on my own.  I put on shoes that I sewed together from the skin of that same pig I got the bacon from, and then I laced them up from cotton I grew in my backyard that I harvested and spun into thread.  I walked to the church on pavement that I put down myself and a sidewalk I formed by laying down concrete that I mixed on my own.  I did this because I taught myself everything I know without anyone ever helping me.  Yes, sir, I am a self-made man.

Everything in our lives is connected to the world in a greater way (from dreamstime.com)

We all know that isn’t true.

Nobody could do all those things without help from not just somebody but a whole bunch of somebodies.  How would I have been able to cook my own meals as a baby, let alone as a full-grown man without somebody somewhere helping me?  How often when we give thanks for our meal de we stop to think about the farmer who grew the vegetables on our plate or the rancher who raised the animals that provided the meat.   How often do we think of the people who package our food and the truck drivers who take it to market so we can buy it?  How often do we give thanks for the army of people who make it possible for our lives to keep moving forward every single day?  Probably not often.  Whenever we complain about life, we talk about “those people” who are ruining things for us.  Whether “those people” are Democrats or Republicans, Christians or Muslims, Dodgers fans and Giants fans – there always seems to be a “those people.”  But the truth is, there isn’t “those people.”  There’s just us.

We live in community because we are wired for community. Literally. 

Amy Banks, a doctor and an instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School said, “Neuroscience is confirming that our nervous systems want us to connect with other human beings.”[1]  was a study done on metastatic breast cancer patients back in 1989 where one group was placed in a supportive group environment and the other was given the standard care all patients received and what they found was that those placed in a supportive environment lived twice as long!  Twice! There are tangible benefits of being part of a community. There was a study done with monkeys where they placed two “substitute mothers” in with them.  One was a wire mother and one was a cloth mother.  The wire mother had a bottle to feed the monkeys and the cloth mother did not.  Yet the monkeys preferred spending time with the cloth mother despite the fact that the wire mother had food. Sadly, these monkeys – with no real mother to care for them – developed autistic tendencies just like the Romanian children did. There is more to life than just things like food, water, and air.  As important as those are, living in community is just as important as these studies keep showing us.

That’s because God wired us for community.

If you have your Bibles or a Bible app on your phone, would you please go to 1 Corinthians 12:12-20.  1 Corinthians 12:12-20.  Without community we cannot be the people God created us to be. But more than that, we need community because none of us are completely self-sufficient.  We need others to help us.  Not just with our physical needs, but our emotional and intellectual needs, too.  We provide pieces of the puzzle to life that no one of us has by ourselves.  And that’s how Paul described it in his letter to the church at Corinth.  He talked about us being the body of Christ together and despite our protests otherwise, we cannot ignore that fact.

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

Volton, Defender of the Universe – The Netflix version

The Body of Christ is like Voltron.

Together we are complete.  Apart, we’re not living up to our potential.  When I was growing up, there was a show on TV about the pilots of five giant robot lions.  These five lions had the ability to join together to form the giant robot named Voltron.  In virtually every episode, there was a bad guy who threatened humanity, and at first they would try to beat him with just the lions.  But ultimately, the only way to win was to form Voltron.  So they banded together and defeated the bad guy. I always wondered why they didn’t just form Voltron right at the beginning of every battle except it would make for a very short show.  But that’s the image that comes to mind for me when I read this passage.  That we are like Voltron.  Together we can do just about anything.  Apart, we are only as good as a hand or an eye or a foot.  Important, but only part of a whole.  Sometimes I wonder if we are the cause of many of our own problems because we choose not to work together, to find the value in each person’s gifts.

One of many different depictions of the Holy Trinity – one of the great mysteries of faith

It makes sense God created us for community.

After all we worship a God who is a community all by himself.  God the Father.  God the Son.  God the Holy Spirit.  Together but distinct.  We refer to the Holy Trinity as the 3-in-1.  And if we believe that we are formed in God’s image like it says in Genesis, it wouldn’t be a stretch to believe we are made to live in community like God.  God seems to reward being in community.  In our passage from Ecclesiastes, Solomon extols the virtues of supporting one another. Jesus told us that anytime two or three are gathered in his name he is there.  And the writer of Hebrews encourages us to come together regularly to build one another up and support each other in our faith.  But even if you didn’t believe a word of the Bible, the scientific evidence points the same way.  Community is our natural state.

Off the island of Crete

John Donne once penned a famous piece of writing called Meditation XVII.

He wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”[2]  Because we are all connected, when something happens to one of us, in a sense it happens to all of us.  When any of us are diminished, whether it be by death or loss or persecution, it takes away from all we could be.[3]  No man is an island.  We are all part of the main.  Or as we might say in the language of faith, we are all part of the body of Christ.  God made us that way.  All with different gifts, but united in the Spirit.  Watching the news, listening to the radio, reading articles on the Internet or in print, it has become obvious we are less and less willing to live in community.  In some bizarre way we are not willing to compromise.  We are not willing to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes.  Instead, we dig a trench.  We jump in.  And we refuse to budge.  But that is not how we were created.  We were not meant to be divided.  We are meant to find a way to live together in community so that we can make each other better people.  We are meant to find a way to live in community so we can learn and grow from each other.  We were not meant to be as divisive and divided as we have become.  And just as we would not be able to easily just cut off our hand or leg or any body part, we should also treat our brothers and sisters in Christ with honor and love and grace.  Instead of continuing to fracture ourselves based on our own personal likes and dislikes, interpretations and understandings, we should find ways to keep coming back to the table that represents what Christ gave for us all.

God wired humanity a specific way.

All of those impulses, all of those deep desires, all of those longings of the heart – for relationships, for love, for meaning, even for God – are because that’s how God made you. One of the most profound questions in life we all ask is “Who am I?”  And the answer is the person God made you to be.  Like it says in Psalm 139, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” But you are also shaped by your beliefs, your environment, and the people around you and that can change us both positively and negatively. Sometimes those things turn us away from seeing God or distracting us from a meaningful chance to know God.  And when that happens we are less than what God intended for us to be.  The world can be a harsh place.  Not because of God but because of us.  But these cravings of the human spirit were always meant to bring us back to him.  That’s why we linger on them so much.  That’s why we wonder about the meaning of life and if there is a purpose and if there is a God.  Because God created us in such a way that no matter how far away you are from him in your spiritual life, there will always be a door open for you to come back, if you decide to pursue it. If you already have a deep faith in Christ, then I hope you think more about the incredible way God put us together and give thanks to Him for loving us so much that he would think about these things long before we ever did.  And if you have doubts about God and where he is in your life, I hope you will decide to pursue it.  I hope you will take the time to find out if it was God who really made you this way.  I think you’ll be astonished by what you find.

 

[1] All of the examples in this section come from the article: http://www.theunlost.com/relationships/science-confirms-love-is-all-you-need-except-for-food-stuff/

[2] http://www.online-literature.com/donne/409/

[3] http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/for-whom-the-bell-tolls.html

Wired for Love

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

I know I’ve shared this photo before, but that’s Carey Covey in the blond ponytails

I was sure I finally found “the one.”

At the tender age of six years old, I thought I found her.  Her name was Carrie Covey. She had long blond hair that she wore in ponytails on either side of her head and I thought she was great.  When I was pencil monitor, I would save the newest, sharpest pencil for her.  When I was paper monitor, I would give her a piece of paper first and then go back and hand it out to everyone else.  It was pretty obvious how much I liked her.  The best thing was, I think she liked me too.  I invited her and a bunch of my classmates to my birthday party when I turned six and at some point during the party, she started to chase me all around the house.  I ended up trapped in my sister’s room and in front of all of my friends, Carrie kissed me full on the lips.  That was a great day!  But alas it was not meant to be.  That summer, Carrie moved away.  I didn’t even know until the beginning of the next school year when I couldn’t find her.  One of her neighbors said her parents moved to Utah.  I hope it wasn’t because of me.  But it was okay, because I fell in love many, many more times after that. And each time I fell in love, I was sure she was the one.

The idea of “the one” is everywhere – even in video games

When I was younger, I was worried about that.  Worried about finding “the one.”

I remember making the comment to my friend Lance, “What if my one lives in China and we never meet?  Or what if by the time we meet she’s already married because she couldn’t wait any longer?”  The idea that there is only one person out there who is your soul mate is everywhere in our culture.  It’s on TV, in movies, in books, in pretty much every storytelling medium there is.  Even in video games!  After all Mario had his Princess Peach, Pac Man had Ms. Pac Man.  And Space Ace had his Daphne.  This idea of “the one” is everywhere.  With just three words I think Tom Cruise ruined a generation of youth looking for love when he said to Renee Zellweger, “You complete me.”  Now, I’m as much a romantic as anybody and I loved the movie Jerry Maguire, but this idea that there is only one human being out there we are searching for who can make us whole just isn’t true.  The odds of anybody finding their “one” would be astronomical.  That idea of love is too restrictive and doesn’t give credit to all the different ways God created for us to experience and give love – the love of friends, the love of family, parental love, and even love of humanity.

We are wired for love. 

It is an essential part of who we are.  We literally NEED love in our lives.  That’s why we search so hard for it.  Love is essential for life.  Study after study has proven that. John Bowlby’s work on attachment theory[1], Rene Spitz’ work on maternal deprivation[2], and the awful condition of the children in Romanian orphanages gave ample evidence that love is an essential component of our lives.[3]  It is one of the saddest stories of our time.  Over 100,000 children were living in Romanian government institutions, the victims of a series of failed policies by the Romanian government who kept them in horrible conditions with poorly trained attendants.  Even after the atrocious conditions were uncovered Romanian orphans still received only 5 to 6 minutes of attention per day.[4]  Could you imagine a baby laying in his crib and only having human contact for 5 to 6 minutes a day?  The New York Times reported, “Attendants still loll in the corridors, smoking and drinking coffee, leaving the children to rock in their cots.”[5]  They estimated that 10% of all of these children will develop so poorly mentally and emotionally they will end their lives in a psychiatric institution.[6]  They found that it wasn’t a lack of food or healthcare that was stunting their development, it was a lack of attention.  A lack of love.  Medically speaking the lack of contact, the lack of interaction, the lack of comfort and security made these children mentally deficient.  Their brains were literally smaller than other children their age.  We are wired for love.

Interestingly, we are not only wired to be loved, but we are also wired TO love.

An article by Psychology Today stated our need TO love is as strong as our desire to BE loved.[7]  Dr. Raj Raghunathan wrote that being generous in our care and love for others does three things for us.[8]  One, it encourages others to be generous to us.  When we do nice things for people they often feel the desire and even the need to do something nice back.  Two, something called homophily happens.  Homophily is the propensity to attract like-minded people.  So if you are a generous person, you tend to attract generous people in your life which is far better than being surrounded by selfish, self-centered people. And three, when we are generous, we are subconsciously saying to ourselves we are fulfilled.  In fact, we have extra and our generosity stems from the overflow of our well-being.  When we are stingy, we tell ourselves we don’t have enough and we need more – whether or not that’s true.  We approach life from a “need” perspective and it not only colors our behavior but how we see ourselves. All of these reasons point to the idea that we are wired to love and be loved.

Wired

To fully love others, we need to know God’s love in our own lives.

It’s like those safety videos on an airplane where they tell you in case of an emergency to first put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on your child.  As a parent, your first instinct is to protect your child, but the truth is the best way to help your child is to help yourself first.  That way, you are clear-minded and in the best possible situation to make sure your child is okay.  In the same way, we can’t fully love others until we realize we are fully loved ourselves.  When we feel loved, when our love tank is full, it’s so much easier for us to love others in a way that fills them up too.  So if know in our hearts that there is a God who loves us, who has given so much for us, who loves us unconditionally and is constantly reaching out to us; when we internalize THAT and make that part of who we are, it frees us to be loving to others.  Like it says in verse 10-11, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us… since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”  God first loved us.  Not that we loved God first, but he first loved us and because he loved us he taught us how to love one another.  The key to a successful loving relationship is to first know and understand that you are loved and to know that God loves you abundantly.  When you realize that, when you know that you are loved by the God of all love, you can enter into a loving relationship with confidence ready to give love out of the excess of what God has given you.  But if you don’t feel that security of God’s love, if you enter into a relationship without the sureness of the love of God, you’re not able to fully give of yourself and you rob yourself of having the kind of love relationship God wants for you to have.  Not just with your significant other, but with all of those around you.

That doesn’t mean that people who don’t believe in God don’t experience love.

Of course they do.  Everyone has the capacity to experience love.  It’s not only the way God made us, but the primary way he reaches out to us.  God hopes that through love you will come to know him and believe in him.  But you can experience love and never know where it comes from.  It’s just that in that case, it’s going be like seeing a 3D movie and forgetting the glasses.  You can still see the movie, but it’s a little out of focus most of the time.  Not knowing or not believing that love comes from God robs you of the assurance that comes from his love.  There is a strength in knowing that no matter what happens, you are loved by someone tremendously and unconditionally. Knowing that frees us from the pitfalls of the Jerry Maguire Syndrome – always searching for someone to complete us.  Let’s face it, we can’t rely on other people to make us whole. We need to have that kind of self-assurance BEFORE we go out into the world so that we’re equipped to love someone else.  So we can love from our overflow.

I’m so grateful to have the family and friends in my life I do. Love is a gift we give and receive every day.

Don’t look to me as an expert.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes.  And I haven’t always come from a place of self-assurance.  Just ask Cassie.  I’m far from perfect in this category.  I struggle with doubts and when I’m hurting it’s not easy for me to remember I’m loved by God.  But I do know that God’s love has made me a stronger person.  God’s love has helped to see me through some pretty difficult times.  And knowing God loves me gives me the strength to love Cassie and Emma the way I hope they deserve to be loved.  I still make mistakes.  I still sometimes succumb to my own internal doubts and fears.  But having God in my life has helped me to overcome those doubts and fears and to be a stronger person.  I hope God will do that for you, too.  What I hope is that in your own doubts and fears, in those times when you feel distant from God or you resort to your own inner weaknesses, that you’ll remember these words and gain strength from them.  I hope that you’ll realize that you don’t need someone to “complete” you because God loves you completely already.  And that in your times of doubt, you’ll think about how you are made to love and be loved and that gift comes from God.

 

[1] http://www.simplypsychology.org/bowlby.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_Spitz

[3] http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/02/20/280237833/orphans-lonely-beginnings-reveal-how-parents-shape-a-childs-brain

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/1996/03/25/world/romanian-orphans-prisoners-of-their-cribs.html?_r=0

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sapient-nature/201401/the-need-love

[8] Each of these are found in the above article

Wired to Find Meaning In Life

What is the meaning of life?

It’s a question most of us have asked ourselves at one time or another. In fact, 75% of Americans believe that there is a higher purpose and meaning for their lives and nearly 70% believe that finding that deeper purpose is a high priority.[1]  This isn’t 75% of Christian-Americans or religious Americans, this is 75% of all Americans.  An even higher number believe “there is more to life than the physical world and society.”[2]  88%!  Even a surprising number of atheists ponder the meaning of life.  In a Pew Gallop poll, 35% said that they often think about the higher purpose of their life.[3]  Over a third of atheists OFTEN think about this!  That’s amazing!  They don’t believe in God or an afterlife, but they do believe there is a higher purpose for their life.  Why would they think that?  Why would people who don’t believe in God or an afterlife or divine providence hold on to this fiction that there is any meaning to life at all?  Unless it’s not.  Fiction that is.

Very young me

As a kid, I thought I had it all figured out.

When I was five years old, I had to have a tonsillectomy.  I don’t know what it was about my tonsils, but they would get infected seemingly every other week.  Dr. Thom and Dr. Crehan knew me very well.  One look down my throat and about 10 minutes later I was getting a shot in the rear.  The only good part was that afterward, my mom would take us to Tommy’s Hamburgers, the original one in downtown LA and I’d get a burger and a soda and eat it while sitting on the floor of our car.  I had a lot of Tommy’s Hamburgers.  But going to the doctor inspired me, even at five years old to want to do something to help other people and I decided I wanted to be a doctor.  I went through all of elementary school, junior high, and high school with the same goal in mind, but when I got to college that all changed.  I realized that being a doctor wasn’t going to be the path for me.  But I still felt this pull on my life and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was.  When I finally heard God’s call on my life to enter into ministry, I realized that earlier when I thought for sure I was going to be a doctor, it was really a call to find a way to help people.  My calling, my meaning in life was to help others in whatever way I could.

The only good thing about visiting the doctor so often – Tommy’s Hamburgers

Apparently, I’m not alone.

Teens who are notorious for drifting away from church and for feeling disheartened by traditional means of faith have a deep sense they were created for something more.  Eighty-seven percent report they believe there is an overall purpose to life.  87%!  When asked what they thought that purpose was, the two most common answers were to help people and to be a good Christian.[4]  Number three was to be a good person.  Nearly 50% of teens thought that one of these answers was the meaning to life.  Helping others.  Being good.  A 17-year old in Kentucky said, “I think that my purpose in life is to help people. I’ve gone through hard times myself, and I can’t even imagine the situations some kids are in — much worse even than the life that I’ve had growing up. I think that as long as I have the ability, and want to help people, that’s what I should do.”  A 17-year old from Utah said, “Everyone is here to fill in the holes in other people’s lives, whether little or big holes. Not everybody is the same, and we all need to share our talents and strengths to uplift other people.” And a 15-year old girl from CA said, “I am here to mourn with those that mourn, help those in need, comfort those who stand in need of comfort, and to stand as a witness to God at all times and in all things and in all places. I am here to stand for faith, divine nature, individual worth, knowledge, choice and accountability, good works, and integrity.”[5]  But what is it that inspires us to believe these things?  What is it we hold in common between believers and non-believers, in church-goers and non-church-goers, in young and old that tells us we are made for a purpose?  It’s God.  God created us to search for meaning. We are wired to find the meaning of life. 

Whether or not you believe in God, you are wired to search for the meaning of life.

There is something within us that compels us to search for life’s meaning.  There’s something within us that craves to know why we are here, what purpose we are meant to serve.  And God gives us that deeper purpose.  With God we understand what Jesus tells the Pharisee when he’s asked about the Greatest Commandment.  Jesus tells him, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  It’s this idea of loving God and loving others that helps us to better understand why we are here and it’s fulfilling this commandment that gives us meaning.  There are so many ways to show your love of others.  It could be with your cooking or your singing or your writing or your gardening or your teaching.  It could be how your talents make life easier or better or more meaningful for others.  There isn’t just one way to love your neighbor.  There are as many ways to help others as there are talents in the world.  More actually.  And it’s in the process of loving others and helping them that we have meaning in our lives.

But you don’t have to take my word for it, or even God’s.

From a purely scientific point of view, helping others gives us a sense of purpose. Researchers have studied this and have found that helping others gives us a sense of free will, it helps us to feel like we are good people, and it strengthens our relationships to others both in a specific and a general sense.[6]  But it also gives us a general sense of purpose.  Helping others makes us feel that life has meaning.[7]  And if you’re a Christian that all makes sense.  Most of what the prophets and the disciples record for us tells us to help others and to build one another up.  Whether it’s in the New Testament or Old Testament.  It doesn’t matter. The prophet Micah tells us we are “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8).”  Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Galatia, “…do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Galatians 5:13-14).’”  And God himself tells us in Leviticus, “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”  Helping is a part of who we are and who were created to be.  And here’s why.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

We are meant to be a city on a hill.

We are meant to point the way to God.  As Christians we understand God has already done so much for us that we are compelled to do good things for others.  We know Christ sacrificed everything so that we might have eternal life and so we dedicate ourselves to helping others receive God into their lives too.  We join together in God’s quest to bring as many as possible to him.  So for us, doing good, helping others is not only what we feel compelled to do to love our neighbor, but is our way of honoring what God has done for us.  Anybody can do good, but knowing why we do good and where this drive comes from gives us a sense of peace and wholeness that comes from nowhere else.

But there’s more to it than that.

Knowing God is at the heart of all things and believing he is are two different ideas altogether.  Finding that peace in your life doesn’t come from the head but from the heart.  And most people don’t spend enough time thinking about God for it to really sink in to their heart even if they do a bunch of good stuff. When asked how often they think about the deeper meaning of their lives, 38% of people barely think about it if at all.  When asked if they thought about going to heaven the results were worse.  Only 11% thought about it yearly and a whopping 46% never thought about it at all.  And it gets worse still.  When asked if they “think often about what I must do to experience peace in the afterlife,” 50% of people said they didn’t.[8]  As a society, we pay lip service to knowing God and finding the meaning of life, but too often we don’t think about it much at all.  Part of that is the hectic nature of life.  But part of it is that we just don’t make it a priority.

If there is an afterlife and God is a part of that, this really is the single biggest question of our lives.

We owe it to God and we owe it to ourselves to work on this and to make it a part of who we are.  So if you are a Christian and you do believe in God, I want to ask you to do two things.  One, think about this way more than once a year.  And two, make it a priority to know God better.  I promise that if you do, you’ll be even more at peace than you already are and you’ll feel more fulfilled than you already do.  Help others with the mindset that we do so to honor God and to light the way for him.  And if you don’t believe in God or you have doubts, please at least consider that this desire you have to find the meaning of life might just perhaps really come from God.  That this deep longing you have to figure out they “whys” and “wherefores” of life have to do with something beyond this world.  And then open your heart to the possibility of more.

 

[1] http://www.lifeway.com/Article/Research-Ultimate-purpose-and-meaning

[2] Ibid

[3] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/01/10-facts-about-atheists/

[4] Data about teens comes from http://www.gallup.com/poll/11215/how-many-teens-see-purpose-life.aspx

[5] http://www.gallup.com/poll/11215/how-many-teens-see-purpose-life.aspx

[6] http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/can_helping_others_help_you_find_meaning_in_life

[7] Ibid.

[8] All data in this section comes from http://www.lifeway.com/Article/Research-Ultimate-purpose-and-meaning

Wired to Search For God

Why are people sending us “good thoughts?”

I know it’s meant with the best of intentions, but what does that mean?  I see this a lot on Facebook, mostly from non-religious friends but occasionally from religious ones, too.  Usually it’s in response to a friend going through a hard time.  Whether it’s a health situation or the loss of someone close to them or getting fired from a job, if you scroll down the comments you’ll usually find someone who will say, “Sending you good thoughts” or “My thoughts are with you.”  At first, I thought this was nice, a way for people to invoke solidarity with someone they care about, but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like an empty platitude.  “Sending you good thoughts.”  What does that mean?  Are they facing the general direction of the person when they are sending these good thoughts?  What is the person on the other end supposed to be doing with these good thoughts?  It would be better to send money.  After all thoughts are only worth a penny.

People mean it in only the best way, but what does “sending good thoughts” really mean?

When people make these comments, I know it’s only meant in the best way.

But without God what does it really mean.  When people are offering their prayers, they are offering something tangible.  You might be thinking that prayers are about as tangible as good thoughts, but when we offer a prayer for people, we are offering our commitment.  We’re offering our time, we’re offering our reputation by appealing to God on behalf of someone else, we’re offering our humility by bowing before God and asking him if not downright begging him for some kind of intervention.  We are putting ourselves in front of the Creator of the Universe and saying, “Pay attention!  This person is worthy of your help.”  And people understand that idea.  Whether they are religious or not, people appreciate your prayers.  Because even if they don’t believe, there’s a part of them that understands the commitment you are making on their behalf.  But here’s the thing.  I think, deep down, most people believe in God.  I don’t think there are as many atheists as we commonly believe.  They might not believe in God the way we understand God, but most people have this inclination to something higher than themselves.  And that’s why they say things like “sending good thoughts.”  They may not believe in God, they may not believe in the power of prayer, but they believe there is something out there they can appeal to even if they don’t know what that something is.

That’s because we are wired to search for God.

When God created humanity, he put within us this longing to search for him.  We want to know God.  We might refer to God in different ways, we might understand God in different ways, but we are all pointed in our lives toward God.  Does that mean every religion is true?  No.  Does that mean we all believe in the same God?  No.  But it does mean that people encounter the Holy Spirit whether or not they believe in it or call it by that name.  It means that God is constantly revealing himself to us in and through the world around us.  But our hearts have become hardened.  Like the callous at the bottom of your big toe or on your writing hand.  Remember that?  When people used to write for a living and they would develop a callous on whatever hand they used for writing?  We don’t have that anymore because of computers.  Now, I’m sure we’ll get something else.  But like that callous that naturally forms over time by being constantly rubbed the wrong way, our hearts get hardened too and it makes it more difficult for us to see God.  That’s why Jesus told the disciples that Isaiah’s prophecy has come true.  We have eyes to see and ears to hear, but can’t seem to do either.  But despite this callousness of life, despite our own hard-heartedness, despite all of that, we can’t help but seek God.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’[b] As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’[c]

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” – Acts 17:24-31

God created us and gave us life and in doing so hoped we would one day seek him and find him.

It’s simply part of who we are.  It’s built into our DNA.  If there was ever a way to dissect the spiritual part of our lives, we would find that God put us together in a certain way and that this desire to know him and to seek him is built into every strand within us. God isn’t something you leave behind at church.  Instead God is always with us.  That’s why Luke wrote in this book that God does not live in temples built by human hands.  Because God lives within us!  We are just very good at ignoring him.  Instead we turn to other things to fill that part of our lives.  We turn to other gods and other goals and other desires to fulfill this basic need to search for the divine.  It’s so much a part of us that we don’t even realize how it bleeds into how we act and behave.  That’s where phrases like “sending good thoughts” or “my thoughts are with you” enter into our vocabulary.  There’s a part of us that wants to pray, to communicate with God, but we just don’t know it or understand it.  Maybe we’re just flat out opposed to it.  Maybe all your life you were told that if you prayed and believed, God would answer and he just flat out didn’t.  And so you gave up on prayer.  But there’s a part of you that yearns to communicate again.  There’s a part of you that wants to appeal to something greater than ourselves either individually or collectively to do something.  But we just can’t bring ourselves to do it.

I love that my friends and family (and wife) are multiethnic! Can’t believe there are still some pastors who would say this is an “abomination” before God.

I have found that most people are not truly atheists.

They may not believe in God the way we talk about God in church, but they are not truly atheists.  To be sure there are some out there, but most people object to God not because the thought of God is stupid or childish or immature.  But because they have found fault with him.  God wasn’t there for them in their moment of crisis.  God didn’t keep his promises.  God allows evil to exist in the world.  The God in the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament don’t add up to the same God.  And if our understanding of God crashes head long into our experiences in life, God often is the victim.  If God can’t uphold his end of the bargain, then he must not be real.  But those objections are more about religion than the existence of God.  Most people’s objections to faith are more about religion than God.  They are more about our understanding of God rather than if he exists.  I’ve heard horror stories about people who have a deep misunderstanding of God who are self-professed Christians and sometimes even pastors and church leaders, and if they were my experience with the God of Christianity, I wouldn’t believe in him either.  My friend Jon from when we lived in Atlanta was so turned off by the church because of the hypocrisy and outright racism he found there.  His friend and her fiancé went to her pastor to be married…and the pastor refused.  She was white and was in love with an African-American man and the minister refused to do the ceremony because he said it was unbiblical.  I don’t know where he got that from, but I know for a fact it doesn’t say that anywhere in the Bible, but he used the Bible as a defense to justify his own racism.  If that was your experience with religion, maybe you wouldn’t believe either.  I had a friend who used to be a pastor.  He was consoling a grieving mother whose son had committed suicide.  They were talking after the memorial service when one of his parishioners came up and told this bereaved woman that her son was going to hell for what he did.  By the way, also not in the Bible.  These are simply outdated untruths that a few ignorant people never bothered to question.  And if that were typical of your experience with God, you probably wouldn’t believe in him either.

Instead people turn elsewhere to connect with God.

They turn to other religions or to other philosophies like Buddhism.  They turn to material things like money.  They put their faith instead in science.  Because people are yearning to connect with SOMETHING even if they can’t put their finger on it.  People everywhere are searching for answers.  They are searching for meaning in life.  They are hoping to find the answer to the eternal question, “Why am I here?”  And if they really didn’t believe in something more, if they really didn’t believe in God, they would stop searching because without God there is no meaning.  Without God, life simply is.  There is no good and evil.  Those are just constructs of the human mind.  There is no love.  That is just a chemical reaction within the body responding to external and internal stimuli.  There is no soul or inner self.  It’s all just an illusion.  And most people just can’t go that far.  They believe in love.  They believe in the soul or something like a soul that defines who they are.  They believe in good and evil.  So their objection isn’t to the possibility of God but in how we’ve come to understand him.  But this search.  This search for answers.  This search for meaning.  These are things that God put within the DNA of our soul to make us curious so that even the most jaded people amongst us might be tempted to seek him out.

I was watching The Big Bang Theory the other day.

And there was this episode where the guys are trying to buy tickets to the new Star Wars movie.  Leonard finds out that tickets went on sale but when they try to buy them, they are all locked out.  They try refreshing their screens, they try different websites, but nothing is working so Sheldon – a self-proclaimed atheist – announces that “desperate times call for desperate measures” and he drops to his knees to pray.  “Lord, this is Sheldon Cooper.  You’re good friends with my mom.  I know I’ve spent my whole life denying that you exist.”  Suddenly Wolowitz shouts out, “Got it!” And Sheldon concludes, “And I will continue to do so!”  There is something in us that believes in something more, even if we are only willing to believe for the moment. There is something in us that hopes for something more.  If you’ve never fully explored what that something is; if you’ve felt that pull in your life but haven’t really done much about it, I want to consider that maybe, just maybe God did wire you this way.  That he has been tugging at your thoughts because he wants you to be connected to him.  And I ask that you simply open up your heart to the possibility of God in your life.  I’m going to ask you to take some time to really think about God and to actively search for him in everything you do.  I’m hoping you will develop that desire to have eyes that see and ears that hear because I know God wants you to be a part of what he has in store for you.  If you’ve already made that choice to open up to God, I challenge you to open your life to him even more.  To allow him access to those areas you have always been resistant to, and only you and he know what those areas are.  God made you to be naturally curious about life because he wants you to find him.  But I won’t be sending any good thoughts your way.  Instead, I’ll be saying a prayer.

The Year of Jubilee

Extraordinary kindness.

Love.  Generosity.  There are people in your life who go above and beyond what’s expected.  People who impact you in an extraordinary way.  I feel blessed to have more than my fair share of people like that in my life.  My friend Lyn is one of those people.  We worked at Disneyland together and would hang out often.  She was one of the sweetest and nicest people I’ve met and her good nature really stood out one day while I was up at UCLA during my undergraduate days.  There was a girl I had a serious crush on at school and things weren’t going so well.  I called Lyn up and just poured out my heart to her and as she listened to my frustration and sadness, she told me everything was going to be okay and then said, “Don’t go anywhere.  I’ll be right there.”  I waited in my room when there was a knock at the door about an hour or two later.  I opened it up to see Lyn there, holding this Pooh Bear she bought just for me.  She gave me a hug, said “I thought you could use a friend,” and just sat with me for a while before heading back home.  That one act of kindness has stuck with me ever since.  That was about 30 years ago now and it still feels fresh in my mind.  Who does that?  Not only did she make the long drive up from Anaheim to UCLA (no small feat in itself), but she made time to stop at Disneyland, get me a big Pooh Bear, brave the traffic, and find parking on a campus notorious for little to no parking.  Not to mention we were both college students on a budget.  Still she did all of that just for me.

My Pooh Bear from Lyn…a reminder that life will be okay

In times of need, it’s good to know you have friends you can count on.

Back when I was in seminary, I had the extraordinary opportunity to attend a seminar in France about Methodism in Europe.  We were going to stay for a week at a Christian retreat center in the small city of Sete on the French coast and would meet up with fellow pastors from all over Europe.  To go would cost quite a bit of money and Cassie and I were not as well off then as we are now.  It was a struggle just to send me to seminary.  Even now, it would still have been a stretch to pay for it, but Cassie agreed this was too good of an opportunity to pass up so we committed to figuring out the finances along the way.  As part of the curriculum, the school had us send out ten letters to friends and family to ask for their help in deferring the cost.  I did it to fulfill my obligation to the class, but I didn’t want to.  I didn’t want to be a burden to family and friends or make them think I was abusing our relationship to get something out of it, so I also sent a separate note to everyone to explain all of that and let them know we weren’t expecting anything.  But one of my friends did.  My buddy Lance gave me $500.  I was flabbergasted.  Up to that point, I don’t think Cassie and I had given $500 in one lump sum to anyone or anything so to receive that gift was extraordinary. And it’s not like Lance was rich.  He didn’t own a mansion.  He was just making a living like everyone else so $500 was a very significant amount of money.  But he said he wanted to help and knew this was important.  It was.  To this day, the things we saw and talked about during that week have impacted my life and my ministry.  It was the first time ever I had the chance to travel abroad.  It was the first time I had the chance to experience God in a different country through different eyes.  It really was life changing and I have been so grateful for that opportunity.

When people show extraordinary love, it changes your life.

And you don’t have to travel across the world for it to have that kind of effect on you.  If you have your Bibles or a Bible app on your phones, I want you to find the book of Leviticus 25:8-10.  Leviticus 25:8-10.  Think back to a time when someone in your life did something like that for you.  Think of a time when someone was there for you just when you needed them.  Maybe they were there to comfort you when you were feeling like the world was coming to an end.  Maybe they took care of you at the hospital and came to visit when you were scared or lonely.  Maybe you were in need and someone reached out with a helping hand.  That is humanity at its best, when we behave like the people God is hoping we will be.  And when we do that, we can change the world.  Lance helped me out about 15 years ago and Lyn came to my side almost 30 years ago and I still remember both like they happened yesterday.  When people show extraordinary love, you can’t help but have it affect you.  It influences you.  It changes you.  And that’s exactly the way God planned it.  God WANTS us to be extraordinary givers of compassion and kindness.  God WANTS us to overwhelm people with our love and generosity. Because that’s how we are going to change the world.

“‘Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years.Then have the trumpet sounded everywhere on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement sound the trumpet throughout your land. 10 Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. – Leviticus 25:8-10 

Every fiftieth year was proclaimed by God to be a Year of Jubilee!

It is a time of extraordinary forgiveness, compassion and kindness. God tells the Israelites, “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” But these aren’t just words.  God tells the Israelites to set his people free.  If someone was in debt, their debt was to be forgiven.  If someone had to sell their land, their land was given back.  If someone was a servant, they were released from service.  It was complete freedom and forgiveness.  God wanted his people to be free to serve only God.  He knows when we are bound to someone else and could not take care of our basic needs, we could not truly devote ourselves to him.  So just as we observe the Sabbath once a week to free ourselves for worship and rest, God wants us as a society to be restored and renewed.  Restoration is important to God and thus it should be important to us.  At the end of the chapter, God proclaims, “‘Even if someone is not redeemed in any of these ways, they and their children are to be released in the Year of Jubilee, 55 for the Israelites belong to me as servants. They are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”  We are his people and we cannot be free to serve God when we are obliged to serve others.  The key to free us to be God’s people is this form of radical forgiveness, compassion, and kindness.

We’ve been talking about basic needs for the past month.

And how vital it is to have those needs met.  We’ve talked primarily about physiological needs so far – food, water, shelter, clothing – but we’ve moved beyond those into what Maslow would refer to as higher needs.  The need for security, the need for love, the need for kindness and acceptance.  These are important needs also, every bit as important as the physical ones.  Because like our physiological needs, when they aren’t filled we are inhibited from being the people God created us to be.  And that’s why God demanded we celebrate this “Year of Jubilee,” to free us from whatever might be holding us back in this life.  This idea of the Year of Jubilee is found embodied in the life of Christ.  Christ came to liberate us from our sins, to free us from the shackles of rulers and teachers who stressed form and function over love and acceptance.  Christ came not to tear down the law, but to free us from the yoke it had become and to help us realize the law was there to help us become our best selves.  It wasn’t meant to be a tool of oppression as it had become.  The Pharisees would use the law as a bludgeoning tool instead of a guide to right living.  And we see that same attitude in our world today.  People use the law to get what they want, to hurt those who aren’t like themselves, and justify their actions with “the law.”  But they are not using the law as it was intended.  Instead they are abusing the law for their own desires.  Look at the immigration detention centers across the country.  Horrific stories of abusive conditions have been reported and the governments only response is “they shouldn’t break the law.”  Does that give us the right to treat them with cruelty and abusive behavior?  Does that make it okay to separate siblings and only allow them to see one another once a week?[1]  Does that mean it’s alright to give them rotting food and broken bathrooms?  The kind of behavior we would not find acceptable among our own citizens we somehow find acceptable for those who are not?  Many of our leaders like to proclaim we are a Christian nation.  Then how can we blatantly ignore God’s call on us to care for the alien in our midst?  How can we ignore God’s call on us to take care of the poor and those in need and still say we are God’s children?

The next Year of Jubilee is in 2025.

The Catholic Church celebrates it every 25 years instead of 50.  In fact, when needed, the Pope calls for special Jubilee years like in 2015 when Pope Francis declared the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy.  But why wait?  Why wait for the Catholic Church or for the Jewish calendar to align with the values behind the year of Jubilee?  Why not instead take steps to live our lives in such extraordinary ways that we make an impact on the world around us constantly?  Especially during the Christmas season as we are reminded of the great gift God bestowed upon the world through his son, Jesus, let us remind the world that Christianity is founded on the ideas of forgiveness, mercy, and redemption and act accordingly.  Do one extraordinary act this year.  Just one.  Ponder upon the ways you can do something to impact the life of another.  It doesn’t have to be with money.  Look at how my friend Lyn was there for me with her presence and her thoughtfulness and what a long-lasting impact that had on my life.  You can do the same.  You can offer to let someone stay in your home.  You can forgive a debt someone owes you.  You can forgive someone for something they did to you when you have every right to be upset.  There are lots of ways to be an extraordinary person.  Sometimes it’s in doing the little things without complaint and with a smile day after day.  The idea that God loves a cheerful giver does not just mean with money, but with everything we do.  Let’s make this year and every year a chance to show the extraordinary love of God.

[1] https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2019/06/20/immigrant-detention-centers-us-mexico-border

The Rice of Life

What does Jesus look like to you?

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine Jesus was sitting next to you in the pews.  What would he look like?  Think about the color of his eyes, the color of his hair, the color of his skin.  In your image, is Jesus wearing a robe or is he dressed in something more modern?  Try to picture how tall he is, the size of his foot, the sandals on his feet.  Take that in for a moment and then open your eyes.  If each of us had a sketch artist sitting with us and brought those pictures of Jesus up to the front, there would likely be many different versions to see.  That’s because each of us pictures Jesus in our own way.  Sometimes those images are remarkably similar, sometimes wildly different, but all with our own unique perspective.  I went to a conference on multi-cultural ministry and the pastor asked us a great question, “If we hung up a picture of Jesus in the church, what would Jesus look like?”  I hadn’t thought of that before.  I guess in my mind, I thought of the same white robe, brown hair, brown-eyed, bearded Jesus most of us have seen.  But he noted when you asked different people from different cultural backgrounds about how they picture Jesus, they often saw Jesus as black or Asian or Hispanic and that in his church they celebrated that diversity by having lots of different images of Christ so people could find images they relate to.  It reminds me of a story I heard when I took Alpha Course for the first time.  A Japanese woman was explaining the difference between European culture and Japanese culture.  She told the man she was talking to, “What most people don’t understand is that rice is central to the Japanese way of life.  Japanese people have two stomachs – one for rice and one for regular food.  Even if you filled the one with regular food all the way, a Japanese person would still be hungry if they didn’t have any rice.”  She said, “If Jesus had come to the Japanese people first, I’m convinced he wouldn’t have said, ‘I am the Bread of Life.’  He would have said, ‘I am the Rice of Life.’”

From the Metzger Collection at Columbia Bible College in British Columbia

It is important to understand that Jesus enters into our lives in different ways.

The way I’ve encountered Jesus won’t be the same as the way you encountered Jesus or even the same way your kids encountered Jesus. God seeks us out wherever we are in life.  He reaches out to us through the people, places, and things that surround us and for everyone that’s different.  One of the great rewards of being a pastor is getting the opportunity to hear how Christ has changed the lives of each person, how God has worked in and through that person’s life.  I can’t tell you the number of different stories I’ve heard and yet how similar each one is.  One man who came to Christ told me it was because of the time he spent with his grandmother driving around in her van.  She used to pick him up from school as a child to help out his parents, and when she did, she would often be playing Christian music on the radio or talking to him about things happening at her church.  Something about her, about the life she led, made him curious about who Jesus was and how he could be dead for thousands of years and still have this impact on her life.  That curiosity stuck with him all of his life until he decided to give it a try and dedicate his life to Christ.  Then there was the man who wandered away from God most of his life.  His mother prayed for him every day, but he pretty much ignored the pull on his life.  Different people would bring up God during the decades he wandered away, and it would intrigue him that Jesus kept coming back into his life.  Finally, a friend convinced him to pick up a Bible and caused him to ask some real questions about life for the first time.  It led him down a road where he finally decided it was time to come back and accept Jesus into his heart and just weeks before his mother died, he was baptized.  He was so glad his mother had lived long enough to know he made that choice for himself.  For me, I think I’ve told you, but it was because God surrounded me with people who kept funneling me towards him.  They kept giving me glimpses, kept nudging me gently.  My mom, my friends like Mark and Steve, my girlfriend/fiancée/wife Cassie were all people God used to reach out to me.  And even though I knew God and prayed since I was a kid, it wasn’t until my 30’s that I really felt God working deep inside me and lighting a fire in me that has stayed going ever since.  Another friend named Steve who was in our men’s group back in Alpharetta gave me some wise advice.  He said that in his darkest moments God was always there, but that he didn’t always see him when he was going through it.  But knowing that would help sustain him through the next one.  He would simply look back on his life and all the times God showed up and it would give him strength.

 

I am convinced that more than anything this world needs God.

When you think about all of the violence, the mass shootings, the terrorists, and every sort of evil happening all over the globe and in our own backyard, I can’t help but wonder if these things would have happened if people really and truly knew God.  And I don’t mean religious nuts who claim to be Christian and then commit acts of rage.  I mean if we had the peace in our hearts that only God can provide.  This passage goes to the heart of what people are truly craving in the world today.  Despite all of the rhetoric, diatribe, and posturing, people are looking for purpose, hope, and meaning in the world – the kind that can only be given by God.  We might substitute other things in place of it, but only in Jesus do we find the authentic source of what we need the most.

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” – John 6:35-40

When we think of hunger, we think of food.

But food isn’t the only thing we are hungry for.  Sometimes we are hungry for attention.  Sometimes we are hungry for knowledge.  Sometimes we are hungry for affection.  There was a study done by Harvard University testing the theory that parents should let their babies cry and they found that doing so has long-lasting traumatic effects on the baby’s life.  It influences how they socialize and how they are able to build loving relationships in the future.  Americans in particular tend to dismiss these medical findings because society has told us for so long that letting a baby cry was the right method to create independent, self-reliant children, but it ends up having the opposite effect.  On the other extreme, Rene Spitz studied infants raised in hospital institutions compared to those raised by mothers who were imprisoned and the difference was shocking.  More than a third of the babies in the hospital died while none in prison passed away.  Another study showed that babies raised in orphanages compared to foster homes were 30% more likely to develop mental illness, had IQs nine points lower on average, and were less happy than their counterparts.[1]  Food isn’t the only thing we are hungry for.

Jesus addresses that in this passage.

When he declares “I am the bread of life” he is telling us that he is as important to our health and well-being as any amount of food we consume.  Just as we are hungry for food, we also have a spiritual hunger that simply cannot be fully satisfied in any other way than with Jesus in our lives.  He promises that all who seek him will always be able to find him and will no longer suffer from spiritual hunger.  And so many people in the world today seem to be starving for both.  The World Food Programme estimates there are about 1 in 9 people who “go to bed on an empty stomach” and about 1 in 3 that are malnourished.[2]  UNICEF estimates that nearly half of all deaths of children under 5 are caused by malnutrition.[3]  Those numbers are astounding 1 in 9 people don’t have enough food and nearly half of child deaths under 5 are from undernutrition. Do any of us really think any child should die from malnutrition?  Should any person die from lack of food?  If we want people to come to Christ it has to start by helping provide for the world’s needs.  As we talked about last week, no one can achieve their full potential when they are suffering from a lack of basic needs.  I can’t help but think of that passage from Matthew where Jesus tells the disciples, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!”  Ask yourself, what are you doing to help meet these basic needs?  Just because you are not withholding food from babies who are dying doesn’t mean that you don’t have some part to play in their deaths.  It’s not a comfortable thing to think about, but it’s something we need to place in our minds to remind us of both our blessings and our obligations.

Remember the story of the Good Samaritan?

Luke shares with us the story Jesus told to his disciples of these three people who saw this man lying by the side of the road.  He had been robbed and stripped of everything.  The priest walks by and does nothing.  The Levite (who also does priestly work) does nothing.  And it’s only the Samaritan who is often cast out by society that does something for the man.  Jesus asks the expert in the law, “Who was the neighbor?” and the expert says, “The one who had mercy on him.”  Jesus tells him, “Go and do the same.”  So which one are you?  Are you the priest and the Levite in the story, or are you the neighbor who does something for those in need?  We have to do more than simply talk about Jesus.  A man cannot hear you when the grumbling from his stomach drowns out your words. A man cannot hear you when the grumbling from his stomach drowns out your words. We must all do whatever we can to meet the needs of others so they might have the opportunity to see and hear from Jesus.

Spam musubi – the Hawaiian rice of life

The point is YOU are the rice of life.

YOU are the rice of life.  Or the cookie of life.  Or the King’s Hawaiian Bread of life.  Or whatever metaphor works for you.  The point is that God is calling upon you to meet the needs of his people.  Like he told Peter to feed his sheep, God is telling us all to feed his sheep.  You might be exactly what that person needs at just the right time.  God might be using you to reach someone for Christ and you never know how that might happen.  We just continually have to be vigilant in doing as Christ commands and when we do, we can be the bread of life for someone else.  I wouldn’t know Christ if it wasn’t for the many people in my life who made it easier for me to see him.  Will you be one of those people for someone too?

 

 

[1] http://www.forbes.com/2010/04/20/russia-orphanage-adopt-children-opinions-columnists-medialand.html

[2] https://www.wfp.org/zero-hunger

[3] https://data.unicef.org/topic/nutrition/malnutrition/