January 16, 2011

Make Them Count

We live today in a society that is not all that reflective.  We are generally not encouraged to spend much or any time just thinking.  Instead we are driven relentlessly to keep ourselves occupied by the next and greatest thing.  We are programmed to keep our environments flush with media all the time and if we can’t have that we get bored quickly.  With that said, there are still times and places which cause us to pause and reflect.  They may not come all that often, but they are there all the same.  The beginning of the new year is one of these times.  Most folks take at least some time and think back over the last year.  They think about who they were when it started and who they are now that it’s over.  They examine their lives and think through places which seem to be in need of improvement and also which are worth continuing into the new year.  This process often generates some number of resolutions.  I resolve to eat better.  I resolve to exercise more.  I resolve to be more patient.  I resolve to not intentionally try and irritate my sister (I’m sure I made that one sometime).  Usually these resolutions are pretty bland (again, we don’t want to think too critically) and most of them aren’t kept anyway (because, let’s face, if we really weren’t content with the current state of things we would have already changed them).  Be honest now, how many of you made at least one New Year’s Resolution?  Who’s already broken a resolution?  Just curious.

There is another season of life that invites more genuine introspection and reflection.  This season is different for each and every one of us, though.  This is the season which comes shortly before our time on this terrestrial ball expires.  When people knowingly draw near to their physical death because of an illness of some kind or even simply old age, they tend to get reflective.  They think back over, not merely the last year, but their entire lives.  In this time, in spite of the fact that no two people have the same set of life circumstances, there are some laments common to most people in this situation.  People wish they had spent more time working and earning enough money to have all the things in life they really wanted.  They wish they hadn’t ignored all the times they really wanted something for themselves in favor of putting the needs of others first.  Now hold on a minute, that doesn’t sound right.  Oh that’s right, it’s just exactly the opposite.  When people draw near the end of their lives and reflect on the person they’ve become, if they aren’t totally happy they express a desire to have spent more of their time on becoming the me they wanted to be and developing the relationships which would have helped them in the process.  Time and people.  Two of the great gifts we have in this life.  And yet, they are two of the most mishandled.  We spend countless hours pursuing activities which create an endless maze of tangles to trip us up and on this journey largely ignore the people who could have help move us further on down the road.  We give much lip-service, but never really seem to grasp that the journey is always better with clear roads and good friends.  If we had just invested more time in becoming more fully the me we want to be, we would be a lot happier.

Well, by some strange twist of fate, we’ve been talking about this very thing now for the past two weeks.  It’s amazing how God works things out like this.  As we began this journey a couple of weeks ago we talked at length about the fact that if we want to grow, we’ve got to know.  If we want to grow into this person we desire to be at the deepest level of our being and which corresponds with God’s vision for us, then we have to know a few important things.  We have to know to get into the flow of the Spirit because we won’t move at all without Him.  We also have to know how God designed us to grow and interact with Him and connect with the world around us because if we try pursuing those in some other way we will spend life forever frustrated at our lack of progress.  I gave you some homework that week that I hope you have or will yet take time to work through for your own benefit.  Once we are in the flow of the Spirit, however, the real work begins with the renewal of our minds.  Our minds are the starting point for everything we do.  If there is brokenness there then we’re not going to be able to grow until we get that on the right path. The simple reason for this is that where our minds go, so go our hearts.  We talked about three strategies to accomplish this: letting our desires lead us to God, thinking great thoughts, and filling our minds with excellence.  Yet once we have accomplished all of this, we still will have not arrived.  You see this is a lifetime journey and without seeing the two great gifts of time and people transformed by the Spirit’s power and used to their fullest potential, we will have a rough road.   Let us, then, see how we can do this because the journey is always better with clear roads and good friends.

Let’s play a quick version of “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader.”  How many hours are there in a day?  Okay that was an easy one: 24.  How about how many minutes are there in a day?  Hmm.  Well, if you’re at all like me, have been completely ruined by the wonder that is the calculator, and this goes way beyond fingers and toes on both feet, this is a bit trickier.  Any quick math whizzes already have the answer?  It’s 1,440.  Okay, one more for you: how many seconds are there in a day?  I’ll save you the pain here.  There are 86,400 seconds in every single day (which makes 31,536,000 in a year if you were curious and wanted that ace in the hole for your next Trivial Pursuit game).  Have you thought about how much time passes in a second?  How much can happen and change in a second?  Look at your watch and feel the full weight of a second some time.  Try creating silence for a full ten seconds.  A second is a lot of time.  And we have 86,400 to use every single day.  Even if you figure on spending eight hours every day sleeping that still leaves us with 57,600 at our discretion.  How do you use those?  For most of us, a systematic approach is helpful.  We divide our seconds among work, our families, ourselves, and God.  There may be a few other categories in there, but these are the major ones for most of the folks in this room.  When you think about it, the seconds dedicated to work are pretty well fixed unless you are retired so really we deal with three categories.  Now, if we’re honest, we would prefer to use most of the remain seconds on ourselves, but family is a pretty demanding “should” so we end up giving the lion’s share of what remains after sleep and work to family.  That means we only have a few disposable seconds to divvy up between ourselves and God.  Well, I don’t know about you, but I get kind of grouchy if I don’t get a certain amount of time each day to do the things I want to do, so even though I might (or not) feel badly about it, when no one’s looking, I’m going to use most of those seconds on myself.  Anybody else go here with me?  Ever feel bad about that?  Ever feel the weight of a “should” pushing you to give more of those disposable seconds to God?  We learn somewhere along the line that a certain number of those seconds belong to God and if we don’t give them then not only are we not going to grow spiritually like we should, but He’s going to be unhappy with us too.  And yet, as we talked about last week, we resist and resent the presence of “shoulds” like this in our lives.  This does not, however, lessen the impact of their weight.  As a result most of us go through this life feeling like we need to redeem our time, but not ever being really sure what we mean by that or exactly how to do it.  This creates a maze of snags and hang-ups on our path to become the me we want to be.   So what do we do about this?

Well, we need to redeem our time to get the absolute maximum value out of it.  We need to use each of the 86,400 seconds we have every day to their fullest potential.  Simply saying that we should redeem our time, however, isn’t enough.  As we have heard from Ortberg before, “should simply does not have the power to get [us] there.” (81) We need greater clarity and a clear pathway.  Well, thinking more about redemption, there are a couple of different senses to it.  We can be redeemed from something as when Christ redeems us from our sins.  That’s the sense that comes to mind for most of us.  But, we can also redeem to or for something as when I redeemed my coupon for a free Chick-Fil-A handspun cookies and cream milkshake the other day.  When thinking about redeeming our time, both of these are necessary.  Alright, so let’s do both.  We need to redeem our time from temptation hang-ups that pull us out of the flow of the Spirit and for relating to God in all 86,400 of our seconds.  After all, the journey is always better with clear roads.

So let me get really direct here with you for a bit.  One of the strategies I offered last week for renewing our minds is to let our desires lead us to God.  That approach is really good for helping us connect with God in ways and at times we perhaps have never considered before.  But, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  Someone intent on falling into temptation—and we all have those moments—could use that approach to justify sinful behavior.  You know how it would go: Well, the Preacher said I should use my desires to get to God.  This doesn’t seem like the greatest of desires and the timing doesn’t feel right, but let me just explore it a little bit to see if God isn’t in it.  Ortberg reveals the deal with this pretty straightforwardly: “God will never lead us to manage a desire in a sinful way.  If I want to walk down the wrong road, I must begin by silencing God’s divine voice within me.  I must be careful not to pray about this desire with a submitted spirit.  I must make sure I don’t talk about this desire with wise friends who will hold me accountable.  I must make sure I don’t look carefully at passages of Scripture on the subject and reflect on them.  I must do all these things without recognizing I am doing them.  I must keep myself in a state of spiritual and mental vagueness where God is concerned.” (139) Do you see what a colossal waste of time this is?  We could be spending those few disposable second we have becoming more like the me we want to be and instead we are going through mental gymnastics to justify activities which lead us directly away from that person and which clutter up our road with all kinds of obstacles and trash.  Friends, the journey is always better with clear roads.

Here’s what we need to do, we need to learn to recognize what Ortberg calls our “primary flow-blocker.”  This is the sin that tends to trip us up more than any other.  This is why your “Get Into the Flow” worksheet prodded you to define your characteristic sin.  This sin is often connected to our God-given design.  Ortberg describes this really well: “Just as home-run hitters also strike out a lot, the areas of our gifts and passions will also indicate our areas of vulnerability.  Extroverts who can inspire and encourage can also be prone to gossip.  People who love to learn will be tempted to feel superior and talk down to others.  Those who are spontaneous and have a great appetite for life will struggle with impulse control.  Good listeners may become passive enablers.  Optimists wander toward denial.  Tell me your gifts, and I’ll tell you your sins.” (148) Once we have this recognition in place, then we can put in place the measures necessary to stop the accumulation of junk in our path before it starts.  I’ll offer you a couple of specific ways to do this in just a bit.

Yet simply redeeming our time from the temptation hangs-up that pull us off course is not enough.  Once our road is clear we need to take the steps necessary to keep it that way.  We need to redeem our time for relating more deeply with God.  One day Jesus was warning a crowd to be vigilant in opposing the work of evil spirits in their lives.  In Matthew 12:44-45 He said that after a spirit wanders for a time away from its original host “it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’  And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order.  Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first.”  Once we have recognized our primary flow-blockers and have taken the appropriate steps to subvert their influence in our lives, thus redeeming our time from temptation, we must fill that time.  It is not merely clear roads that make the journey better.  We need good friends along the way.

Well, given that the God we serve is imminently likeable, He is the best friend we could take with us on this journey to become the me we want to be.   So then, if we are going to redeem our time by deepening our relationship with God, how do we do this?  Perhaps the key resource at our disposal here is prayer.  Yet even as I say this I immediately recognize there is a problem.  Building on part of our conversation from last week, prayer, like Scripture reading, falls squarely in the churchy desires camp.  In fact of all the shoulds of spiritual growth, the biggest and most burdensome should is the one prominently affixed to prayer.  The problem here is that most of us have such a holy and sanitized understanding of prayer that we don’t do it because we don’t ever feel like we are worthy enough actually talk to the Great Creator God.  Yet as Ortberg so helpfully points out for us, “The goal of prayer is not to get good at praying, as many people think.  The goal of prayer is not to try and set new records for how much time we spend praying.  The goal of prayer is to live all of my life and speak all of my words in the joyful awareness of the presence of God.” (134) We think: If I don’t pray in the right way then God may not accept it.  What on earth is the “right” way to pray?  Okay, yes, we should probably not pray in ways that are dishonoring of God, but what are even those?  Let me read for you some prayers the Bible includes among its pages: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?”  “In you our Father’s trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them…but I am a worn and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.”  “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!…Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?  And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?  I count them my enemies.  Search me, O God, and know my heart!…And see if there be any grievous way in me.”  “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us!  Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”  “I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.  I will say to God, Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me.”  “Why did you bring me out from the womb?  Would that I had died before any eye had seen me and were as though I had not been, carried from the womb to the grave.”  Do those seem like the kinds of “holy” and “righteous” prayers we have in mind when we think about praying today?  They don’t in my mind.

So what do we do with these?  How should these shape our understanding of prayer?  The shaping lies here: prayer is not some activity reserved for the super-holy to get special messages from God that the rest of us poor saps don’t have access to.   Prayer is simply the word given to our attempts to communicate with God.  It doesn’t require anything other than a heart that actually desires to communicate with Him.  Think about it like this: do you communicate with your friends?  And how does that communication work?  You talk, they listen.  They talk, you listen.  Pretty simple.  You express your thoughts, desires, hopes, dreams, wishes, and heart to them and they do the same for you.  If you talk to them, but your heart really isn’t in it and you’re not really paying attention, how much actual communication is going to take place?  Not much.  But I you want to really build a relationship what do you do?  You share all of yourself with them.  You share with them the things you don’t tell anyone else.  We can do this kind of thing with God.  We can do it anytime and anywhere.  We can do it whether we are in the “proper” praying position (whatever that means) or not.  Sometimes when we talk to our friends the conversation is more formal, other times it’s more relaxed and spontaneous.  The same goes with God.  How many in here are willing to admit that you talk to yourself?  What if we started viewing even those times as prayer.  Another author named Richard Foster whom Ortberg quotes said that “countless people…have such a ‘stained-glass’ image of prayer that they fail to recognize what they are experiencing as prayer and so condemn themselves for not praying.” (132)  Yet when we relax our “stained-glass” images of prayer and embrace the truth that prayer doesn’t have any real guidelines for what counts and what doesn’t, we will find ourselves able to develop a real friendship with God.  The kind of intimate friendship, in fact, that He desires to have with us and which will lead inexorably to our traveling further down the road to becoming the me we want to be.  Indeed, the journey is always better with clear roads and good friends.

Yet friendship with God is not the only one that we need.  I’ve been using human friendships as an analogy to the kind of relationship we can (and want…not merely should) have with God, but how many of us really have that kind of relationship with any of the people in our life?  One of this country’s founding values was a rugged individualism.  We didn’t need any other nation in the world to help us make our way.  We did not need to be a vassal to anyone (namely England).  As our nation has grown and matured, however, this rugged individualism has gradually morphed into a destructive isolationism.  People in this culture are isolated from each other in a way in which no other people in the history of the world have been.  We may be more electronically connected than ever before, but Facebook and Twitter and MySpace are no substitute for real relationships.  Such media make it far easier to hide who we really are behind a wall of 1s and 0s organized in such a way as to put forth the image we think will be most appealing to the people who we allow to see us—like window dressings in a storefront display. These are just one of the many ways we hide ourselves from the world.  The reason we hide is simple: we are sinners and sin causes shame which prompts us to hide.  This was the first thing Adam and Eve did after they sinned.  We try and hide from God (which is a little like Noah covering up his eyes and “hiding” from Lisa and me), but this is fruitless because He created us and can see us more fully than even we see ourselves.  We hide from other people, however, very effectively because they can’t see any more than we let them.  In doing all this, though, we set ourselves up for a long, hard road.  The journey is always better with clear roads and good friends.

You see, the problem in terms of our ability to form deep, meaningful, life-giving, intimate relationships with other people in our lives is not that we sin.  We’re all broken by sin.  No, the problem here is that we don’t want to talk about it.  We pretend nothing is wrong when in fact everything is wrong.  We don’t want real transparency from other people because if they are as broken as we are, this reveals the extent of our own brokenness which we don’t want to face.  And so we put some people up on pedestals even though they don’t deserve to be there and react in shock and horror when they prove it because we want the hope that we can escape from the depths of our brokenness and to create buffers between ourselves and the world in order to hide more effectively.  To other people we permanently affix a scarlet letter for the same two reasons.  And then we sit back and wonder why the Clinical Handbook of Psychological Disorders keeps getting longer every year.  As Ortberg rightly notes: “Emotionally, isolated people are more prone to depression, anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, substance abuse, sexual addiction, and difficulties with eating and sleeping.” (185) To cite another example: a former classmate of Jared Loughner tweeted that she lost contact with him a couple of years ago when he became very reclusive and anti-social.  But we are not the only ones who bear the burden of isolation.  At the same time we are struggling through the world without the support we need from other people, they are struggling as well because God designed us to meet their needs and we are cheating them out of this if we isolate ourselves.  Solomon was right in Ecclesiastes 4 when he observed that “two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow.  But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!  Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?  And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”  Folks, I can’t make this any clearer: the journey is always better with clear roads and good friends.

So here’s what we need to do.  We need to embrace the fact that we’re human.  We need to drop the delusion that either ourselves or anyone else around us is, has been, or ever will be perfect and stop expecting it.  We need to surround ourselves with close friends and confidants who can hold us accountable and be safeguards for us in the battle with our characteristic sins.  These kinds of accountability relationships can help stop the accumulation of junk in our path before it starts.  We need to stop living in the darkness of isolation where we can hide from the world and make half-hearted efforts at dealing with the junk in our path by ourselves.  And yes, we can hide in the darkness even when we are surrounded by people.  We need to step out into the openness of grace-centered relationships that fully acknowledge the limits of our humanness while calling us forward to embrace the full potential of our humanity.  We need to stop wasting time with fruitless pursuits of fleshly desire that open the door to all kinds of temptations and learn to view every single one of the 86,400 seconds we have each day as ripe with the potential to engage with the great creator God who loves us without any hesitation or condition.  We can engage with Him regardless of the specific category into which a certain second falls.  We can in fact live now in such a way that when our end draws near we are celebrating the deep relationships that have sustained us through the journey of this life and the time we have spent becoming fully the me we want to be.  Now, make no mistake: there will be times when we get off the path and out of the flow of the Spirit.  When these times comes, they need not be debilitating for us.  When these times come, they need not disqualify us from the pursuit of Christ.  When these times come we need only get back on the path and start traveling again.  And taking what we have talked about this morning, if our time has been spent keeping the path clear and cultivating deep, genuine relationships, then getting back on track will not be hard.  We need not make any complex, detailed resolutions.  All we will have to do is take back up the good habits we’ve been cultivating and lean on the friends who are helping sustain us.  The journey is always better with clear roads and good friends.