Sunday, May 30, 2010

What are you afraid of?

Earlier this month I was hospitalized for 3 ½ days for severe inflammation in my legs and feet. While I was in the triage portion of the ER experience that first afternoon, at least two nurses and an EMT trainee poked me with a lot of needles in a lot of places, trying to draw blood and place an IV, all without success. When it was finally my turn to be seen by a doctor, I was “needled” more times – unsuccessfully – until finally a viable vein was found ... in the neck. It was not a pleasant procedure.

During the first six hours or so after I was actually admitted into the hospital it seemed that every time I opened my eyes there was a new person looking back at me, wanting to poke or probe or do something to me that I didn't want to have done. When it got to about the fourth person I remember looking at a young woman and thinking, I don't know you, but you scare me, because you want to do something to hurt me. Now, that statement had no foundation of truth, but the fear was real. I don't “hate” needles. I'm not “afraid” of them either. However, if you are out for my blood and I don't have complete confidence and trust that you can get it from me on the first stick, well, let's just say we won't be the best of friends.

I had fear when the lab tech walked in, not because I feared the procedure but because I lacked confidence in her skills. But the next person who woke me when he entered the room was someone who I had no fear of whatsoever, despite the fact I had never met him. I somehow instinctively knew that this was someone who had a great deal of authority and control over the situation. I could place my trust in this doctor, because I knew that he had the answer to what would defeat what was holding my health hostage.

Since this week's Topical Blogfest topic is about fear, I decided to look in Webster's to see what it says on the concept:

A painful emotion or passion excited by an expectation of evil, or the apprehension of impending danger.

Fear is accompanied with a desire to avoid or ward off the expected evil. Fear is an uneasiness of mind, upon the thought of future evil likely to befall us.

Fear is the passion of our nature which excites us to provide for our security, on the approach of evil.
(Allow me to clarify: Medical professionals go into their respective fields from a desire to help people. Without their daily tireless efforts to save lives and stamp out disease, we would be one sad, sorry, sick society. These men and women are not “evil”. The “evil” in the above story was the expectation of feeling pain.)

According to these statements, fear is essentially our reaction to the expectation of evil. By definition, evil is bad. But in and of itself, fear is not a bad thing. We should never allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear. When properly acted upon, it can actually be proactive. Fear of disasters can cause us to take precautions such as preparing disaster kits, with food, water, etc. to sustain an individual for three to seven days. Fear of losing everything we've earned can be turned to a positive by diversifying investments so that we don't have “all of our eggs in one basket.” Fear of speaking to a group of people can be overcome by becoming confident in the subject matter or learning about our intended audience.

But often we find ourselves in fearful situations where it's a little too late to prepare ourselves for the expectation of evil. For example, being in an auto accident on a remote highway with no cell phone. Maybe a loved one's safety has an immediate threat and you cannot get to him. Or maybe you are facing a medical diagnosis where your life may be on the line. What do you then?

Well, that depends on where you place your confidence. If you place your trust in your own ability, you're pretty much at the end of your rope, with very little to hold on to. If you are not careful, this could lead you to panic, which can make your situation worse.

Or you can try another option.

There is an ancient book called Proverbs, written by a man of great wisdom. It's tucked just to the right of the center of a larger library of books, collectively called the Bible. Perhaps you've heard of it? Anyway, among the valuable nuggets of wisdom in Proverbs is one particular nugget that says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”

“Trust in the Lord.” That may sound trite when your world is falling apart. But if we think we know everything about our circumstances we would also know with absolute certainty what would happen next, as though we had an infallible crystal ball that could see the future. We'd choose the options in the present moment that would bring a favorable outcome five minutes from now, and we'd have no need for an omniscient, omnipotent God. But, alas, I have no knowledge of where to obtain such an object. Which means we do have need of a God who holds control of the future.

Let's recap what we have so far. My personal hospital experience doesn't quite measure up to the leel of fear I'm referring to, so I'll use a recent experience of one of my Julie friends. (There are six “Julie”s in my cell phone, plus several others I know that don't have speed-dial privileges, so I figure this is anonymous enough.)

Julie was recently diagnosed with cancer, and it was not in an early stage. This meant that she would have some radical surgery, and a nasty course of chemo to follow. Life-changing stuff, and she was afraid. I had the opportunity to talk with her before the surgery, and knew that she believed that God is ultimately in control of her life. We talked about how 80% of what we fear doesn't happen, but these were circumstances where the 20% of what could is pretty bad. To help her trust in the Lord, to lean on His ability instead of what she feared, I shared with her an observation that I had made many years ago:

It's really hard to be afraid when you sing praise songs.

And the song doesn't have to be complicated – the children's song “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so...” is perfect.  Julie tried it, and it works! She sings it whenever she feels anxious about her treatment or prognosis.

Singing is only one way to call upon the Lord when we are faced with “impossible” situations. Prayer, either alone or asking others to pray with you and for you, is effective. So is memorizing Scripture, such as the verse Proverbs 3:5 above, Jeremiah 29:11 ('For I know the plans I have for you” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future), or Matthew 28:20, where Jesus promises, “I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”

Fear is our reaction to the expectation of evil. No one overcomes evil better than Jesus can. He did for us on the cross, and he'll do it again, whenever we place our trust in him.

Monday, May 24, 2010

How will they know?

A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin, age 5, and Ryan, age 3. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson about love. She told the boys, “If Jesus were sitting here, he would say ‘Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.’” It only took Kevin a split second to catch on. So Kevin turned to his younger brother and said, “Ryan, you be Jesus.”

This morning's Scripture passage is from the Gospel of John, chapter 13, verses 34-35. It takes place on the night of the Last Supper. After Jesus had washed the feet of his disciples and shared the Passover meal with the Twelve, and after Jesus had identified the one who would betray him, he gives this command to the remaining eleven. “Love one another. As I have loved you, love one another. By this all men will know you are my disciples.”

In the days of Jesus' ministry to b a disciple meant that you were someone who studied with a particular teacher, or followed a certain religion or philosophy. And disciples were not limited only to Jesus. The Bible mentions that John the Baptist, the Pharisees, Moses, even the ancient kings and pharaohs all had their own following of disciples. A disciple committed himself to learn the ways of his instructor or master. This was accomplished through a process of regular meeting times, questions and answers, whether it was the student asking the teacher or vice-versa, repetition and memorization. Over time, the disciple would become increasingly devoted to the master's teaching and loyal to the master himself. Eventually the pupil would become the teacher and the traditions and doctrines he learned from his master and now held to so dearly would be passed along to a disciple of his own.

We try to teach our children to be choosy about who their friends are. Why? Because you become like those you associate with, right? A good example is to look at a teenage girl and her bestie. For those of you who haven't been around teens for some time, a bestie is a best friend. They dress similarly, often sharing each other's clothes; like the same foods, use similar words; share the same experiences, either by spending time together or by telling each other EVERYTHING by phone, i/m, texting. If you want to know the likes and dislikes of a teenage girl, you can learn a lot without asking her a single question. All you have to do is just closely observe her bestie. In the same way, you could tell who a teacher's disciples were by close observation. There were tell-tale signs. Some were obvious, perhaps a wardrobe item such as specific jewelry or a particular head covering. Others may not be so noticeable at first glance but are still there. It might be a dietary regulation like not eating red meat, or the use, or absence, of certain words or phrases in his regular vocabulary, or their attitude toward others different from themselves. Whatever it is, that same traits would be common among the teacher's group of followers.

That night in the Upper Room Jesus makes it clear to his disciples what trait should stand out that will identify them to him. He gives the eleven men with him a new command: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so must you love one another.”

Loving your neighbor is nothing new; it is a command that was mentioned in the book of Leviticus, back in the days of Moses. When Jesus gave his Sermon on the Mount he tells us, “Love your enemies.” Loving neighbors and enemies – people who often were outside of the direct influence of Jesus, people on the fringes of society – is noble and good. But what is it about “Love one another” that makes this a “new” command?

Jesus knew that if we as his disciples, the ones who follow him, do not live a lifestyle of brotherly love for each other, any love outside of our fellowship would lose its meaning. Jealousy, revenge and retaliation are common in the world around us. This command to Love One Another is a call to transcend our sinful tendencies and to live with love being the mutual debt owed one to another.

Jesus also knew that if we failed in this command, well, let's face it – why would an “outsider” want to be a part of a group where people don't get along? He knew He was about to give his closest followers a commission: To make disciples of all nations. He also knew that if we did not practice love for one another, this Great Commission would be in vain, and the church would die before it would have a chance to get started.

Not only does Jesus tell us the trait that should identify the disciple to the Master, He gives a standard of what it should look like: “As I have loved you.” It doesn't take much imagination to see how Jesus loved his disciples. First of all, Jesus chose them. Most disciples chose their teachers; here the Teacher chose the pupil. While under his instruction, Jesus, spoke kindly to them, was concerned for them and their welfare. He prayed with them and for them, even publicly owned them, considering them to be dearer to him than his mother, sister or brother. He rebuked them when they needed it, yet compassionately put up with their failings. Just prior to giving this command he washed their feet, and would later demonstrate the greatest act of love: He would lay down His life by dying on the cross for them, and for you and me.

Jesus knew the disciples would have to have outstanding love for one another in order for the early church to grow. But he knew they could not do it on their own. That is why He promised another Counselor, the Holy Spirit, to dwell within them, to guide them, and empower them to carry out what Jesus had called them to do. You can see evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter 2, when the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles at Pentecost. It is a familiar passage, so I won't read the text of it. But to remind you of the account, Jesus had already descended to heaven. Before doing so, he instructed his disciples to remain in Jerusalem, because they would soon receive power from the Holy Spirit, just as had been promised.

The day of Pentecost, also called the Festival of Weeks or Festival of First-fruits, was one of three important observances in the year where all Jewish men were expected to make sacrifices in the sanctuary. The other two observances were Passover, held 50 days earlier, and the Day of Atonement to be held in Autumn. That is why on the Day of Pentecost there was such a crowd of Jews from 15 or more nations gathered in Jerusalem.

As the account goes, the disciples were gathered in an upper room, when suddenly a “sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. And they all started to speak in different languages, as the Spirit enabled them.”

Remember the crowd of people outside? They heard that sound like the blowing of a violent wind too. They started gathering, and were amazed to hear these Galileean men talking in languages they had never spoken in, languages of the homelands of the men in the crowds. OK, not all of them were amazed. There were some scattered groups that insisted the disciples had too much to drink.

At that point Peter stood up and addressed the crowd, telling of Jesus the Messiah, who lived, was crucified, died and buried, and was resurrected on the third day, as prophesied by the prophet Joel and by King David. Peter went on and called the men gathered that day in Jerusalem to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, and they too would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. And that day about 3,000 men were added to the followers of Jesus. Chapter 2 of Acts goes on to tell how the Believers had a sense of community about themselves, meeting together, taking care of each others' needs. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

If we are to love each other the same way that Jesus loves us, what would that look like? Recently I conducted an informal internet poll via Facebook, and here are some answers:

Through hugs, warm embraces, smiles, small touches OR helping them plant a garden, paint a room, roof a house, build a fence, share a meal...find the key to their office, help a lost child find their mommy, asking little ones in public washrooms "Did you flush?" "Do you need help washing your hands"...

Through listening and simply being there.

I greet the God within you.

Unconditionally. To love someone without limits. This doesn't mean you can't be angry, upset or frustrated with them but to love them regardless of circumstances.

In our “tiny mighty” congregation here at 64th and Orange, loving one another is demonstrated by our embraces during our greeting time. It is taking flowers or home communion to one of our shut-in members, or maybe Mariners and Youth going together to a Manor service. Learning enough Spanish to welcome someone in the Hispanic ministry, or knowing how to greet our youth with a fist-bump. It's a phone call or e-mail saying, not “where have you been?” but rather, “We've missed your smile.” It's one of our long-time members telling our high school students, “I'm proud of you,” or one of our youth asking a long-time member, “What was it like 20, 30, 40 years ago?”

Last fall the Session chose our 2010 stewardship theme to be “Building Community.” Loving one another is how we Build Community, a community where outsiders can look at us and see something different about us, something that identifies us as disciples of Jesus who happen to worship at this little corner. It doesn't happen by itself; it takes crossing the cultural and generational lines that we often stand behind and extending grace and compassion to others who may not be like us.

In 2002 the (then) Anaheim Angels and San Francisco Giants played against each other in the World Series. The Giants had all-star batter Barry Bonds, the Major League Player of the Year from the previous season on their team. But the Angels still won the series, even though they did not have one single superstar in their line-up and a rookie starting pitcher to boot. They won the championship because they had an outstanding team. But outstanding teams do not naturally happen on their own. To have an outstanding team is to have great coaching and an outstanding team manager.

A community such as ours cannot grow in the knowledge and grace of our Lord and Savior on its own either. Hopefully we each have a “coach,” someone who helps us to pattern our life after Jesus, whether it is a parent or grandparent, a Sunday school teacher, Pastor Chris, a former pastor, or someone else who takes us under his or her wing, helping to bring out the best in us, encouraging us to reach our full potential. Expressing our love for one another in this way is called “discipleship.” However, our full potential can never be truly realized without the empowerment of our Spiritual Manager, and that Spiritual Manager is the Holy Spirit, who dwells within each and every believer.

Discipleship ought not be a single generation, from parent to child or teacher to pupil either. The apostle Paul tells his young pupil Timothy, “You have heard me teach things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Now teach these truths to other trustworthy people who will be able to pass them on to others.” Allow me to give an example:

When I was in my early 20's I was invited to my bestie's house for a small dinner party. It was her first apartment, and she was excited about cooking for guests, and all that. She decided to cook Roast Beef for her guests. As I was helping her prepare the meal, something about the way she did the roast caught my attention. I asked her, “Aren’t you supposed to cut the ends off ?”

“What?” she asked.

I repeated the question. “Aren’t you supposed to cut the ends off the roast beef? My mom always does.”

“Why would she do that?” she asked. Since I've never really been a kitchen person I did not have an answer to that, and just let her continue what she was doing.

The next time my mom cooked a roast, I asked her why she cuts the ends off when she prepares it. “Well, that’s the way your Nana did it. I learned it from her.”

A few minutes later my grandmother comes shuffling into the room with her walker. “Nana, when you used to cook roast beef, why did you always cut the ends off? Was it to make it more tender, or to cook more evenly?”

She put her frail hand on top of mine and smiled at me. “Honey, it’s because the pan wasn’t big enough!”

Discipleship is, by design, a never-ending process. The disciple becomes the teacher, thereby bringing a new pupil into a community governed by the command to Love One Another. And the new pupil, in time, becomes the teacher to the next generation. The teacher/pupil is not determined by age; the teacher does not need to be older than the one being taught. And just because you are discipling or mentoring someone else, do not think for a minute that you do not need a teacher yourself. We should always be seeking to grow and strengthen our relationship with the Lord. Therefore, I want to challenge you this day, if you seek to walk more closely with God, to seek out someone who can instruct, coach and encourage you to do so, whether it is Pastor Chris, myself, or someone else who is willing to do so. And if you are already walking in Jesus' footsteps, ask the Holy Spirit to bring a disciple into your life, and bring them into the community of believers who are known for their love one for another. Amen.