Thursday, July 10, 2008

Creeping Along

I have never been one to live in the past. It is not that I had a bad childhood or young adult life, but I have always tended to be far more interested in the present and curious about the future than attracted to memory lane. Alas, I am stuck in the past. And it is the oddest mixture of sweetness and pain. It is not as though I live in a fantasy land where all is right in the world. While I fully expect to be reunited with Linda in a place where life will be realized at its fullest capacity, I have no illusions about the particular life we shared together being over.

Even as I sit, this morning, at the kitchen table around which we shared so many wonderful moments together, I remember my lover. But, to my dismay, I remember the days of sickness more than the days before. I will be so glad when the sick days fade from my memory and thoughts of the salad days come flooding back. Even so, reflecting on the times we shared this last year bring fond and sweet memories, such as thinking about the pleasure Linda received looking out the window watching the birds dancing on the rail of our back deck.

All in all, it is OK in this place. Even though I recognize the enormity of my loss – well, it is good to know the loss was so great, isn’t it? I look back at how good life was with my bride, how she made me SO much a better man and I give thanks to the Lord. And, I cry. I know the pain will ease and I imagine life will take on its more pleasant hues once more, but that day is in the future.

I met with Linda’s parents last week. Linda’s mother said “I want to get past this pain and I don’t want to get past it.” I know exactly what she means. It is not that it would be a betrayal of a loved one to laugh freely again, but you want to hang onto those memories, and indeed, memories consume a disproportionate part of my day. It is especially out of balance since it is my day (b/c of the way I am natured).

I suppose the most difficult aspect of my current state is that life is slowly creeping along. Life has always moved at a rather quick pace for me. On my side of the hill, in fact, life can really roll! But, it came to a screeching halt a little over four months ago. Everyone else moves on, and though I can see you and I can interact with you so that you think I am keeping pace, in reality I am rather stuck. Once again, it’s OK.

As children of the Enlightenment we tend to want life tied up into neat packages that can be fully comprehended and explained. Since God will never be confined in the manner we desire, we construct new explanations for the circumstances that do not fit in our neat and tidy world. We say things like, “God sometimes does His most important work in our lives when we sense His presence the least, when we are in our darkest moments.” I agree! Sometimes it seems, though, that we love to hear the stories of those who have learned this truth – in the past. We are not as good at allowing people to go through such times – in the present. I suppose our reluctance is due to the reality that such a place constitutes an ugly package under the tree in our pristine world.

PLEASE do not think this is my situation. My brothers and sisters at Grace Community Church and all over the world are very patient with me as I walk through this long valley. But, there may be some in your world that is in another valley that looks a good bit like the one I am presently traversing. If so, please be patient. Also, walk with them for a bit. Even though you cannot experience the level of pain they feel, you can ask the kind of questions that allows them to process their experiences and helps you to understand their struggles at a deeper level – if so, everyone benefits! This topic is fodder for a future post – but in the meantime, ask the tough questions. People want to talk about their loss more than you might think they would.

So, time creeps along. There are moments when I think that I am coming out of the valley only to discover my ascent was only a small hill along the way and I have far to go, yet. It is not the way I want it to be, but there are blessings all along the way. I am confident the old “Footsteps” poem is in play! So, if God wants this time to creep, let it creep. Thank you for slowing down long enough to enter my world for a spell.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Peace That Doesn't Make Sense

Thank you for coming to this spot. I will be posting something new in the next few days. For the meantime, I wanted to publish the sermon I preached earlier today. The truths found in this particular text have been a significant help to me these last several days. God bless!

Peace That Doesn’t Make Sense!
Philippians 4:4-9

Have you ever needed to be in two places at once? Of course you have! There was your child’s sixth birthday, but there was also a business commitment or opportunity that was almost unavoidable. Or, you couldn’t decide whether to go with your friends to the beach for the weekend or go to the concert of the year at Walnut Creek. I could go on, but you get the picture.

Well, I need to be at two places this morning. First, I need to be preaching this message. I have studied and prepared and our text today is a great one – this is good stuff. At the same time, I need to be sitting with you – I need to hear what I am going to say this morning.

I suppose the most prominent emotion or state of being that I find myself engaging during this period of grief is lethargy. I wrote on the blog several weeks ago about The Many Faces of Grief, and I will not review what I said there, but I still feel pretty much the same way I did when I posted my thoughts then. I am still lethargic. It is like I am seeing black and white in an HD world. What is it going to take to get beyond this joyless place in my life? Two things, I think.

The first is time. As much as I would like to cast off my sorrow and move on, it just takes time to get over such an incalculable loss. In spite of all that I know and believe about God’s promises, it takes time for the pain to ease when a loved one is lost. We do not grieve as the world grieves, but we grieve, nonetheless.

The second portion of the remedy for grief is Scripture. Just because God’s promises do not eliminate the sorrow of losing the one with whom God fashioned you as one flesh, they do mitigate the pain, when believed, and God’s Word certainly brings eternity into focus. Our text this morning, Philippians 4:4-9, speaks of a peace that surpasses all understanding, or a peace that doesn’t make sense. God is, of course, the one Who provides such peace. If you are familiar with this text, you may tend to think of prayer as the only vehicle of consequence in securing God’s peace. The verses surrounding verses 6 and 7 have their place in the process, though, and if you are willing to apply what you see in Scripture this morning, I can assure you that this will be a good day for you! We will not be breaking a great deal of new ground, but the truth that we already know will take us to a place of peace. Would you please stand as we read Philippians 4:4-9 together?

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand;
6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

In this letter to the Philippians, over and over the Apostle Paul emphasizes the importance of unity for the sake of the gospel. In the familiar verses we will examine today, our hearts and minds immediately go to one’s personal relationship with Jesus. While that is certainly a primary focus of the text, even here Paul ties his teaching to our relationship with one another. We will, though, concentrate primarily on the way we relate to the Lord as individuals. There is a threefold formula that allows us to receive this divine gift of perfect peace. We are, first of all, called to:

I. Rejoice in Jesus’ blessings

Well, it makes sense right away, doesn’t it, that rejoicing in the blessings we receive from Jesus will improve our state of mind? Paul says right at the beginning of his new thought, “Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice.” This verse does begin our new section – but, it also completes the section we have just finished that began in Philippians 3:1. You will recall that Paul started that section the same way he concludes it: “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord.” If there is a theme of Philippians 3:1-4:4 it is JESUS! It is to the Savior we first look as we consider the peace that doesn’t make sense and that is promised in verse 7.

When Paul uses the term “Lord,” he is almost always referring to Jesus. So, we are being told, here, to rejoice in Jesus. And why wouldn’t Paul say that? He had staked everything on his relationship with Jesus. As we have read in our previous section, the blessing of salvation comes through a relationship with Jesus. The blessing of intimacy with the Divine comes through Jesus. The blessing of purpose in this life comes through Jesus. The blessing of a future that not only brings an eternity with Jesus, but also brings complete and permanent deliverance from the sin to which these lowly and fleshly bodies subject us, comes from Jesus. The blessing of unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ come through Jesus. So we should rejoice, right?

Well, that depends on whether you understand the practice of rejoicing from a biblical perspective or from a worldly one. Most people tend to think of rejoicing in the same way they think of love – as a feeling. But, like love, God’s Word teaches us that rejoicing in Jesus is a commitment and an attitude that does not depend on circumstances, but rather is our response to God’s promises, which inform us of all the blessings that are ours because of our relationship with Jesus.

The Philippians were going to need to rejoice in spite of circumstances because they were facing persecution. In verse 5, Paul tells them to let their reasonableness – or, gentleness – be known to everyone. Much of the bulk of Paul’s letter has been to encourage the Philippian Christ-followers to get along with one another in Jesus. Now he says for these Christians to make sure that the on-looking world sees a gentle response to the mocks and taunts that are unloaded on them. How can one rejoice in the midst of persecution? On the basis of the knowledge that “the Lord is at hand.”

The Lord is at hand, or the Lord is near – does that mean that Jesus’ presence is near or that His return is near? It appears that Paul has both meanings in mind! He intentionally uses this double entendre as a transition from one thought to another. In the first place, we can endure persecution because the Lord’s return is near. Believers have expected Jesus’ return for two millennia, beginning with the members of the first churches in Jerusalem and around the Roman Empire. Since Jesus has not yet returned, should we look for Him only half-heartedly? Absolutely not! A heart that expects Jesus to return at any moment is a heart that has an eternal focus, thus enabling one to look beyond the painful present to the hope of eternity with Jesus. That’s what it means that the Lord is at hand. But, it means more, as we will find in our second point in which you will be encouraged to:

II. Give your troubles to the Father

On the one hand, we are to look for Jesus’ return when our hope will be realized and we will live with Him for eternity. But when Paul says that the Lord is near, he also means that the Lord is quite near in heart and presence to our current difficulties and will respond to our prayers for help. What a comforting encouraging promise we find in verses 6 and 7:

6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

“Do not be anxious about anything.” That’s a tall order, isn’t it? I mean, just look at the economy and the price of gas. That’s enough to keep you awake at night and those concerns are not nearly as troubling as some of the issues in your life. Everyone is worried about something. But, not everyone has a relationship with God. Those who do are invited to bring their troubles to Him.

Notice that Paul switches from “Lord” to “God.” He moves from focusing on God the Son to a focus on God the Father. Does it surprise you to learn that the NT almost always directs us to pray to the Father rather than to Jesus or to the Spirit? We pray in Jesus’ name and the Holy Spirit helps us in our weaknesses as we pray, but we direct our petitions to God the Father. We will look more specifically about how our prayers are directed when we get to our study about the Trinity.

Paul uses three different terms that essentially mean the same thing – prayer, supplication, requests. He is not trying to be clever or to be precise about different aspects of prayer, he is simply telling us to bring our troubles to the Father. To pray is to acknowledge our absolute dependence on the Lord. But we should not come moaning and groaning. We are to bring thankful hearts. Thankfulness is an element that is often missing in our prayers. Oh, we may express our gratitude for God’s provisions, but our words are often more obligatory than heart-felt.

When we pray with a thankful spirit, we look back on all of God’s blessings, expressing our appreciation for being a part of His family. That is very much the way it is for the Christ-follower. When we understand what a privilege it is to be God’s child and a part of His family, it automatically causes us to see our troubles in a different light. Since Paul always has the community in mind, that is part of the truth, here.

When we are willing to bring our troubles to the Father, He, in turn, gives us a peace in our hearts that does not make sense. It is a peace that the world can never understand, but one of which the world takes notice and leans ever closer to believing in a God they cannot see. Even though they cannot see this God, they see evidence of Him in the lives of those whose hearts are focused on Him and who have peace when they should not, according to a secular mindset. In fact, the hearts and minds of those who pray in this manner are guarded, protected by the peace of God.

It is clear that this peace first blesses the hearts of individuals, but it is doubtful that Paul was ignoring peace within the community. Paul often wrote about the peace of God, or about the peace of Christ, or about the God of peace, as we will see in verse 9. We will not take the time to look at the different places, but trust me when I say that whenever he used those terms, unrest in the church was not far from Paul’s readers. It certainly fits here since Paul had just finished admonishing Euodia and Syntyche to get along and to quit disrupting the unity of the church with their bickering – let peace prevail, Paul said. But, it would not be a humanly engineered peace; it would be from the Father.

I know that you would be grateful for a peace that passes understanding. God has promised it when you rejoice in Jesus’ blessings, when you are willing to give your troubles to the Father, and last of all, when you:

III. Yield your mind to the Spirit

Now, granted, our text this morning does not specifically mention the Spirit of God, but the NT clearly indicates that if are going to think in a biblical manner, then our minds will have to be controlled by the Holy Spirit. There is no way we can think, love, and live as we should if we seek to do it in our own strength. Verse 8 reads like a list of the fruit of the Spirit. It was actually, interestingly enough, a list of moral qualities held in the highest esteem in Greek and Roman cultures. The end of verse 8 and all of verse 9 tell us that Paul viewed these qualities in light of the cross. You will remember that when Paul told the Philippians to imitate him, he meant that in addition to following his behavioral patterns, they should also believe and promote the doctrine he preached, and in that, the cross was the center of everything. Look at verses 8-9:

8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Whatever is true – not from a humanistic, secular understanding, but from a biblical worldview. There is no question that a biblical worldview helps bring peace to the heart and mind because we learn that God is sovereign, in control, and that what we see is not all there is.

Whatever is honorable – that which is of a noble character and worthy of respect. Christ followers should aspire to such a lifestyle.

Whatever is just – or that which is right according to God’s standards. We do not think and act based on how the world operates, but according to what God has designated as just.

Whatever is pure – not just sexual purity, but all areas of moral purity in thought, speech, and action.

Whatever is lovely – not just moral loveliness, but also that which is aesthetically beautiful, from a beautiful sunset to a symphony to caring for the needy.

Whatever is commendable – the kind of conduct that brings the deserved admiration of others.

To conclude Paul’s admonition for right thinking, he moves the command from a cultural mandate to a biblical worldview when he says if there is any excellence, if anything worthy of praise – to God, of course – then, think about these things. A mind controlled by the Holy Spirit will help to guard our hearts and minds with a peace that is beyond comprehension.

Paul concludes his remarks on this subject, and for all practical purposes, he concludes his remarks in the body of the letter in verse 9. Once again, he calls for the Philippians to imitate him. Paul is challenging the Philippians to live out their faith. Why? Because Christianity in theory only was not something that Paul could support. Instead, Paul wanted them to practice truth, honorableness, justice, purity, loveliness, and that which is commendable – and then, he promised, “the God of peace will be with you.” There is as much about living as there is thinking in these verses.I think all followers of Jesus long for that – for the God of peace to be with them. That’s what you want, isn’t it? That is certainly what I want! It will happen when we rejoice in Jesus’ blessings, bring our troubles to the Father, and yield our minds to the Holy Spirit.