Monday, October 13, 2014

Praise. Pray. Peace. Repeat. (Philippians 4:4-13)

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

10 I was very glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.) 11 I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. 12 I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. 13 I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.


Be glad in the Lord, always.  Don’t be anxious about anything.  I must admit that at the beginning of the week, when I opened my Bible and read the first lines of our passage for today, I wondered if we were being punked.  Be glad always?  Don’t be anxious about anything?  Nice try, God, but do you have any idea what we’ve been through lately?  Do you know how much death and tragedy we have faced as a congregation in the last six weeks?  Do you know how many are facing difficulties – medically, in their families, in their relationships, their jobs, their finances?  Islamic State, Ebola, the economy, the election.  Our church – our relationships, our mission, our budget, our resources, our future – friends, there is plenty to be worried and anxious about!


And yet the Scripture says, “Do not be anxious about anything.”  I used to regard that as good advice, maybe even a command: sort of self-improvement slogan; a personal, spiritual pep-rally. I would read it and try to psyche myself up. "Let's do this! No anxiety! Who needs it? I am a competent adult. I just need to breathe deeper, summon more faith, and I can achieve this anxiety-free life Paul talks about. Let's do this!"


There are a lot of things we can do ourselves. Home Depot, Lowe's, and other companies specialize in selling products to people who want to do their projects themselves. Their slogans seek to inspire confidence in people that they can do it themselves!


Lowe's was "Let's Build Something Together," which gave way in 2012 to "Never Stop Improving."   Home Depot, until recently, was "You can do it, we can help."


We are a society built on self-improvement, do-it-yourself, can-do-ability.  We believe that the ability for each of us to do and be whatever we want is somewhere inside of us, and the key to success is to look and dig deep enough to find it.


And, truth be told, there’s an awful lot of good that we can accomplish ourselves.  There is satisfaction in tackling a difficult project and completing it.  Small children delight in being able to master some new skill without any help and proudly announcing to the world, “I do it myself!”  Goals of independence and self-sufficiency are common both to our growing children and our aging parents.


All the self-help gurus will tell you that the keys to peace and contentment and joy are found within ourselves, as well, but I’ve got news for them – I’ve looked, and it’s not there.  That need that we have for deep peace and joy and contentment is a real need.  We go looking for it where we’re told to look for everything else that gives us meaning – within ourselves.  And true enough, that need is inside of us, but the solution isn’t.


So, if it’s not within us, it must be around us.  Maybe we find joy in our circumstances, our surroundings, our jobs, our wealth, our status, our possessions.


Over the winter, I had been hinting for months that I wanted a new television.  My birthday rolled around in April, and low and behold, I came home from a trip to Kansas City and there in my family room was a new flat-screen television more than twice as big as the clunky old TV we had been watching.


The old TV worked just fine – it was just, old.  I am grateful to my wife for getting it.  Season Five of The Walking Dead begins tonight, and I’m glad to have a nice, big, clear screen to watch it on.  But, after a few weeks, the excitement of having it wore off because I was used to it.  And then, they started advertising for those new curved-screen TVs, and I was thinking, “Oh man, here I am watching this outdated flat-screen; we should have waited and gotten the curved-screen!”


Or, you buy a car, new or used, and you’re excited to get it because it’s so much nicer or newer or more reliable or whatever than your old car, and you show it off to all your friends, but then after a few weeks, you’re used to it.


You see how quickly that excitement and euphoria of a new thing can wear off?  Often the build-up and anticipation of having those things brings more actual pleasure than the thing itself.  So, no, true peace and joy and contentment aren’t found outside of ourselves, either.


So if not inside of ourselves, and not outside of ourselves, where do we find it? Well, for one thing, maybe each of us needs to take our “self” out of the picture.  If I may, we are far too impressed with ourselves, and far too obsessed with ourselves.  If you bought a Coke over the summer, be honest, did you dig through the cooler on more than one occasion seeing if they had a bottle with your name on it?  I know I did!  Why was that campaign so successful?  Because it capitalized on our unhealthy obsession with ourselves.


I can psyche myself up in other areas of life. So why do I struggle with actualizing peace of mind in my own soul?  Well, when it comes to finding lasting and peace and contentment and joy, we are not clever enough, creative enough, smart enough, good enough, spiritual enough, deep enough.


Peace and contentment and joy are not found in us, they are not found around us, because they’re not about us.  They’re found in God, because it’s about God.


The need for them is inside of us, but the solution isn’t.  True joy comes from God.


It may be stating the obvious, but the joy Paul has in mind is not superficial; there is a difference between something funny or happy and deep joy, which has a lasting effect and the power to change us.


Specifically, this joy is not the same as “happy,” and following Jesus is certainly not always “happy.” The Apostle Paul, who wrote these words to “be glad and be joyful, always” is the same Apostle Paul who was persecuted, beaten, and imprisoned. In the end, his faith cost him his life, as it did for many who believed in Jesus. The faith is not always happy.


At the same time, it need not be overly somber, either.  Sometimes we are our own greatest barrier to knowing God’s joy and peace.  Sometimes we Christians just take ourselves too seriously.  We can get so focused on duty and obligation, and rules and regulations that we miss the invitation to walk with Christ in newness of life.  Steve Brown says, "Religion has made us obsessive almost beyond endurance. Jesus invited us to a dance...and we've turned it into a march of soldiers, always checking to see if we're doing it right and are in step and in line with the other soldiers. We know a dance would be more fun, but we believe we must go through hell to get to heaven, so we keep marching."


Sometimes we focus on the negative rather than the positive, or the shortcomings, failures, and annoyances of others, caught up in meaningless disagreements and petty arguments.  I’ve seen more church folks lose sight of the big picture because everyone was more concerned with the color of the carpet, the music selections, the “right” way to make the hot dogs and the setting of the thermostat than they were with being a community of praise and prayer that sought God’s will over each of their own.  I’ve seen more church folks major in the minors, thereby destroying rather than building any semblance of God’s peace.


We are too often focused on sin instead of celebrating that we are forgiven. We complain too often about the lack of righteousness instead of remembering we are beloved children of God. We are too often frustrated by feelings of weakness instead of being delighted about the strength of the Holy Spirit working in us. Yes, we too, probably need a periodic reminder to “rejoice in the Lord.”


You may know that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a missionary from England to the colony of Georgia for about 18 months in the 1730s.  Despite what the folks in Savannah tell you, his time in America was a colossal failure.


One famous story from that time was on the ship to Georgia.  A violent storm came up that had most of the passengers screaming for their lives, except for a group of Moravian Christians – the same Moravians in Winston-Salem – who calmly prayed, read Psalms, and sang hymns.  That incident left an impression on Wesley – the maturity of their faith, and by comparison, the lack of maturity of his own.


What Wesley saw was truly “the peace of God that passes all human understanding.”  They found a joy and contentment that was not within themselves, not circumstantial, but from God.


Now, in theory, we all know this.  We all know that God’s will is ever-directed to his children’s good, that God is the Lord and giver of life who came that we would have life and have it abundantly, and whatever forces are at work in our world to steal and kill and destroy, those things are that are robbing us of abundant life and taking away our joy are clearly not from God, in theory, we all know that in our heads, but it’s easy to let the troublesome circumstances of life cloud out that reality.


Yes, we too, need instruction to focus our thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.  The life of praise and prayer is the path to peace and joy.  If you are looking for that in your life, commit to being a person of praise and prayer; you’ll find a joy and a peace that transcends all human understanding.


This joy does not overlook or diminish the real pain and difficulty we go through in life, but it keeps the long view in mind that our struggles and grief are both temporary and counter to God’s will for us.


Where that gets muddled, our passage from Philippians is like hiring a personal trainer who isn’t going to drop any new knowledge on us, but just tell us and remind us and encourage us in what we already know:  that we, as the people of God, are called to a life of joy and contentment and peace in God, even when the storms of life rage within us and around us.


So what is there to rejoice? Real and lasting joy comes from the confidence that, no matter what happens, we are inseparably connected to God and saved – saved from sin, and saved for abundant life. It has to do with where the focus of one’s life is or, to employ a famous phrase by Paul Tillich, with one’s “ultimate concern.”  True joy is seated in an unwavering faith that no matter what comes, God will win in the end.  Good will triumph over evil, hope will prevail over fear, love will always win over hate.


When anxiety and stress and fear and pain and worry and grief are weighing us down, we are invited to rejoice, because ultimately our identity is found in God, not in our circumstances.  We rejoice, not because we are holding it all together, but because God is holding us, not because we are having fun but because God is faithful, not because we are happy but because God is holy.

We rejoice, not because life is good or we are good but because God is good.

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