Saturday, September 24, 2011

Changing Your Mind - Sermon on Matthew 21:23-32

What we think has a powerful effect on what we do.  Here is a mind-blowing example:    How you see isn't just about how good your eyes are - it's also about your mindset, according to a study published in Psychological Science. For example, in one experiment, if someone was told that exercise would improve their vision, they saw better after doing an athletic activity - jumping jacks - than an unathletic activity with the same effect on heart rate.

What we think influences our behavior.  In our scripture this morning, Jesus tells a story and then gives a lesson from it.  Both point to the necessity of changing one’s mind and therefore behaving differently in order to realize the blessing of God.

So, being the practical preacher that I am.  This month.  I thought - OK.  What’s the practical application here?  What do people need to know?  How to change our minds was the obvious answer.  Of course, in order for that to be a helpful topic, we’d have to have some change that we wished to make, or thought we OUGHT to make in order to live better lives.  We’d have to want to change.  Which reminds me of the lightbulb joke:  How many psychaitrists does it take to change a light bulb?  Only one.  But the lightbulb has to really want to change.  Or of a hat a certain pastor acquaintance had that read, “Let’s CHANGE - - - You go first” 

In general, most of the time, change is not something people want to do.  I get that.  And nothing I can say can make you want to change.  But I can remind you of something you already know:  If you want the world to change - if you want something in your world to change - if you want a situation to change - the only thing you CAN change is yourself.  So maybe if you don’t want to change yourself - your behavior, your ideas, your life in any way, you will just hear me out and file these ideas in the back of your mind in case you ever DO find that you want to change something.  Because here’s something Jesus says is possible - even blessed - you can do:  You can change your mind. 

One way to change is to think yourself into a new way of acting.  This works like the experiment with the eyes that I talked about before.  You convince yourself that a new course of action is possible, and you gradually live into that possibility.  Let’s take something mundane.  Like controlling your tongue.  Or being organized.  Or exercising regularly.  If those things are aren’t problems for you, then think of something that you do struggle with, that limits your life in some way - being isolated.  not saving money. Failing in school.  Hating your job.
Let’s work with controlling our tongues, since that is a Biblical mandate.  The book of James says, “Watch your mouth, for the tongue is a raging fire.”  So that’s a behavior that we need to repent.
The first step in changing your life by changing your mind is to become aware of all the times and all the ways you think negative things about that.  
I say things without thinking. 
I am not tactful.
I say things that hurt people.  Maybe I say things TO hurt people.  I gossip about folks.
I don’t think before I speak. 
You write those things down on a piece of paper.  With your hand.  Not the computer.  (I’ don’t know why that matters, but apparently it does.)  Then you fold the paper in half and on the other side, you write positive statements that correspond:
I think before I speak.
I am becoming more tactful (you don’t say “I’m trying” to be more tactful, cause trying focuses on the effort, not the success.  In the immortal words of Yoda, “There is no try!  There is only do or not do.”)
My words foster better relationships.
I consider the impact of my words befre I say them.
And you put those affirmative statements where you will be reminded of them often.  Every time you see them, you say them.
Every time you notice thinking the negative thing, stop it and think the positive one instead.  You don’t have to believe it in any deep way.  You just say it to yourself.

And then, you will start to notice that instances in which the positive things are acted out.  You notice when you think before you speak.  You notice when instead of cussing you remain polite.  You notice when you say the right thing - the thing that makes a situation better instead of worse. 

And it will happen more and more.  If you do this, it will change your mind and change your actions.  Your words will become like a healing balm - that turn away wrath and sooth the soul - both yours and others.  This is true. 

You have thought your way into a new way of acting. A way that is more full of the grace and mercy of Jesus. 

The other way of changing your mind is to act your way into a new way of thinking.  Let’s say you have fallen out of love with your spouse.  Or your church.  Or Jesus.  You just aren’t feeling it.  Let’s say it is your best friend. 
To change the relationship, you change some actions on your part. 

You compliment your friend on some aspect of their character that you appreciate.
You choose to spend time with them.
You call them up just to ask about their day.
You tell them a joke they’ll like, or send them a song or an article they’ll enjoy. 

Two weeks of this behavior and voila!  Your relationship takes on a different, more joyful tone.  A month - you look forward to hearing from them and you no longer have to pretend that they enrich your life.  It will be true.   

You have acted yourself into a new way of thinking and felling about them.

These techniques work in mundane matters, and in spiritual matters as well.  When they are spiritual, we call them “repentance”.  Changing one’s mind is one way of understanding repentence - which does not mean felling sorry.  It means to change one’s direction.  And to change the direction of thinking also changes our ability to do the right thing  - to answer God’s call, to live the life that God has invited us to share in Christ.

Jesus told this great story about the two sons - both asked to go and work for their Father (God) and both of whom changed their minds between the answer and the action. They repented. 

In one case the change was for the good.  In the other, not so much.

What’s interesting when you look at the Greek is that the change here is not quite the same as just changing one’s mind - which is what is translated as “repentance” elsewhere in the New Testament.  Here Jesus uses a slightly different word that means changing how we feel, or changing our Heart, not just our mind. 

What scientists are beginning to discover is the physiological truth behind Jesus’ choice of words.  For there is now research on-going which has discovered what Jesus already knew - that the heart has a mind of its own.  There are actually a rather large group of nuerological cells in the heart, which both react to messages from the brain and the rest of the body AND send messages to the brain and the rest of the body through electrical and chemical pathways.  So it is quite literally true that the heart sometimes knows and communicates truths that the mind doesn’t. 

How to change your mind is only half of the story.  What we really need is a change of heart.  And the good news is that we can change our hearts - train our hearts - in a way that makes it possible for us to be more Christ-like.  One heart training technique is called Freeze framing.  But that’s because scientists named it.  If theologians named it, they would call it something different.  Like prayer.  Here’s how it goes - when confronted by anger or frustration, which the heart recognizes even if the mind doesn’t, for instance if someone asks you to do something that you don’t want to do and you feel that tight feeling in your chest, quickly put your hand on your heart (literally at first - when you get good at it you can do it without the hand) and pray, “Christ have mercy. Open my heart to feel compassion for this person who has asked for my help.”  Feel your heart opening to the other person and let God’s love govern your response. This doesn’t mean that you will have to always say “yes” to the request.  But you will be able to respond in a way that is in concert with the divine Yes we have heard in Jesus Christ.   You will act with the wisdom of an open and loving heart.

You can change by acting your way to a new way of thinking
You can change by thinking your way to a new way of acting.
But this scripture also points out that the changing that God desires from us and for us is not just about changing our heads but changing our hearts.

No matter how we have answered in the past - whether we have said yes or no - to God’s will for our lives, 

God has gifted us with the possibility that we can change our minds, and if we allow him to, he can change our hearts. 


Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Right Time to Forgive

When to Forgive
Matthew 18:21-35
Sept 11, 2011
Rally Day

    This week we start “Feasting on the Word” and the word for the day is “forgiveness”  It may not appear to be the best appetizer -  because when we have been injured, insulted, messed with / messed up, lied to or laid into - maybe the first thing we think of is not “Oh.  I bet a little bit of forgiveness would be good right now.” 
We we’ve been hurt or pained by the deed of another, what’s the dish we want to feast upon?  Revenge!  The dish best served cold. . . . 
    So my hope this morning is that I can give you just a little taste of how sweet forgiveness can be.  That when you leave here this morning, you will be inclined to order it up off your life’s menu and make it part of the feast we share in God’s Word.
    So when is the right time to try forgiveness?
    When is a bad time to forgive?  When all you want is the way things used to be.  Evil changes things.  As our nation observes the 10th anniversary of the devestating attack of 9/11, we acknowlege that our world has changed.  Americans don’t feel invulnerable, like we did before.  We know our lives, our peace, our economy our place in the world is fragile.  There isn’t always a happy ending to heroic stories.  The first responders who headed up the stairs and into the fire on that life changing day gave their lives for others taught us a hard lesson that takes time for us to digest.  Things have changed.  America has had a rough ten years growing into a new understanding of our new place in the world.  It doesn’t happen overnight.  But I am hopeful that we are strong and resiliant and that we care about each other enough to make the adjustments we need to once again lead the world toward a brighter future.

The trespasses and debts we owe each other also change our relationships and change us.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean going back and believing in the fairy tale even stronger.  It means letting ourselves and our lives be transformed by God so that we can see and deal with what is - not what we wish was. 

    When is a bad time to forgive?  When you misunderstand the nature of forgiveness and think it means you have to continue being abused.  God doesn’t want you to be crushed, for your spirit to be broken, for your body to be injured.  And if you think that forgiveness means you have to continue in a relationship that hurts you or someone else, then don’t forgive until you figure out that forgiveness means doing things differently.  . . .  Forgiving someone doesn’t mean letting them hurt you.  It means loving them and loving yourself enough to hold them accountable and quit being part of abuse. 
    When it a bad time for forgiveness?
        when you haven’t ever accepted forgiveness  
            if you are carrying around a load of guilt and shame and the mistakes that you have made seem to close off your future.  When you can’t imagine that anyone, especially God, could love and cherish you because of all your shortcomings, faults and failures. 
    If you have never accepted the grace of God, and allowed God to open up new possibilities, new hope and promise in your life,  If you have never woken up in the morning and prayed, “Thank you God.  Another chance to live a better life.”  Then maybe it isn’t the right time for you to forgive.  Maybe it is the right time for you to go to God and accept the grace and love and second/third/forth seventy seventh chance holds out to you though Jesus Christ his Son.  If it is the time to be forgiven - to say “Yes” to the cross which redeems the failures of the past and makes possible a beautiful future - then do that first.  Get the guilt gone.  Believe in your own forgiveness. 
THEN you will be able to forgive others.

So when IS a good time to forgive? 
    When you are ready to let go of the pain of the past, while holding on to what it can teach you.   Forgiveness means giving up any thought that someday the person who owes you is going to pay you back.  Forgiveness mean the books are never going to be balanced.  Forgiveness means never getting even.   Because better than getting even is getting free.

    When you are ready to get healthy in your body and soul.  It's been documented in many a medical journal as to the ill effects that arise when forgiveness is withheld, how when people decide to stew and wallow in bitterness and anger their blood pressure is negatively affected as is the lining of their stomach and their entire cardiovascular system.   (sermon by Richard Zajac at
    To be forgiven by God is to become a new creation.  Jesus is pretty clear, and the whole of scripture is pretty clear, that you can’t get transformed with out letting go of what ever ties and bonds keep you hooked into old behavior, old patterns, old life.  Be new!

Latest Newsweek magazine, as part of its coverage of Sept 11 Anniversary, featured an article by a 17 year old named Nicholas Lanza, who, as a seven year old, watched the TV in horror as the Twin Towers, where his mother worked, collapsed.   In the days after the tragedy, he was the subject of a documentary film called “Telling Nicholas” about how the family finally broke the news to the boy that his mother was dead.  Nicholas’ world fell apart that day.  He became withdrawn, angry, depressed.  For years he struggled with the horrible pain of his loss and the aftermath. 
    " . . . .The summer before high school, I went to a church camp. It turns out that it was the greatest thing that has ever happened to me. You see, I was still carrying thing that was wearing me down and leaving me broken.
During one service, one of my good preacher friends and a few other ministers gathered around me, and they began to pray for me. My preacher friend told me that it was time to let everything go. Throw it all away. For a moment, I didn’t know what was going on; all I could see was this blinding white light. A voice began to say, “You belong to me, my child. You shall no longer be burdened with these chains that you wear about you. You are free.”
    It was then that I realized I was in my own prison, bound with the thick iron chains of depression, wrath, unforgiveness, and—the thickest and strongest of all chains—my own mother. I can recall being deathly quiet for several moments. Then words came into my head. They weren’t really spoken, but it was as though they were there all this time: I love you. Now go and tell 5others the same.
After I was redeemed at the church camp, I had a new desire. I wanted to be able to tell bin Laden that I forgave him for the hideous crime he committed against me. When I heard that he had been killed in the spring of 2011, I was crushed, because that dream would never come true. Forgiveness is essential to really moving on from any tragic happening. I came to learn this through studying the word of God, prayer, and real-life experience.
Looking back, I see just how hate-driven and how mentally distorted I was. Is this what everyone else affected by 9/11 feels? I couldn’t tell you. Do they need to be that way? Absolutely not."
When is the right time to forgive? 
When you have accepted God’s forgiveness and are ready to live anew. 
When you need to let go of the pain that holding a grudge causes you. 
When you are ready to get healthy in body and soul.  
This is the time to taste forgiveness.  My prayer is that as a nation, as a church, and as individual members of the body of Christ we may come to Feast on the Word of forgiveness.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sermon Notes for "When Love Gets Tough"

These are the preaching notes for the sermon on Matthew 18: 15-20 & Romans 13:8-14.

So the fresh faced young thing is visiting her granny and says, “Granny, have you ever heard of Tough Love?”  And Granny says, “Baby, there isn’t any other kind.”

Relationships are tough.  They are what make life worth living - our relationships with friends, parents, members of the opposite sex, folks at work, on our teams, our children, even our brothers and sisters in Christ.  These relationships make us who we are, connect us with God’s purpose for our life, give us satisfaction and pleasure.  And sometimes drive us crazy.  How do we handle relationships when they get tough?

There’s something very comforting in just knowing that our Lord and Savior - who was all about love - recognized and acknowledged that relationships get tough.  In Matthew, Jesus gives the disciples and us a way to resolve conflicts between people who love each other and are bound together in Christ.

Lots of churches, including the Presbyterian ones, use this framework in their foundational documents as the right way to handle conflict:  Step One - Go to the person you are having trouble with and try to resolve it.  Step Two  - take some people with you to help witness the process.  Step Three - get the church involved.  These are good, healthy steps.  But I love that even Jesus acknowleges that they don’t always provide a satisfactory conclusion.  If those steps don’t work, he says, then there is a fourth one - Treat the person like a tax collector or a Gentile.  I think lots of organizations misuse this step, badly.  Sometimes it is justification for shunning the person and ending the relationship with them.

But think for a minute about how Jesus treated tax collectors and Gentiles!  Over and over in his life and ministry he forgave them, invited them to new life, healed them, included them, and generally continued to love them to pieces!  We are reading this passage in a Gospel written by a tax collector - Matthew - who was called out of his tax booth and became one of Jesus’ closest friends.  Jesus opponents shun tax collectors and Gentiles.   But Jesus and his followers are called to a higher standard in relationships.  Even relationships that get tough tough tough.  That standard is love.

How does love act when the relationship gets tough?  How do we say what we have to say to people we love in a way that heals and grows the relationship, instead of breaking it to pieces?  How do we avoid doing more harm than good when we disagree amongst ourselves.

I have found the work of marriage and relationship specialist John Gottman to be very helpful in thinking about this.*  He’s studied hundred and thousands of couples trying to resolve difficulties and  he has come up with what he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” which applies not just to couples, but to any time love of any kind gets tough.

He says that there are four things that can happen when people disagree - these are the four horsemen  - and that if they characterize the disagreement, then the end is near.  It toally connects with Paul’s linking the end times with the law of love.  It totally connects with Jesus’ putting this conflict resolution talk in the context of eternal salvation.  Love and how we handle its tough parts has important consequences in this world and the next.

OK.  When two people who love each other fight, they want to avoid riding any of these horses:

1 ) Criticism:
Attacking your partner’s personality or character.
Generalizations: “you always...” “you never...” 

2 )Contempt:
 - Hostile humor, sarcasm or mockery - Body language & tone of voice: sneering, rolling your eyes, curling your upper lip

3 )  Defensiveness:
Seeing self as the victim,
- Making excuses (e.g., external circumstances beyond your control forced you to act in a certain way) “It’s not my fault...”, “I didn’t...”
- Cross-complaining:  “That’s not true, you’re the one who ...” “I did this because you did that...”
Yes-butting: start off agreeing but end up disagreeing -  Whining “It’s not fair.”

4 )  Stonewalling:
Withdrawing from the relationship as a way to avoid conflict. People need time to cool off, but this is more than a cooling off period.  It is consistent cooling off.  stonewalling conveys disapproval, icy distance, - Stony silence - Changing the subject - Removing yourself physically - Silent Treatment

These strategies for being in conflict within relationships will get you and the relationship into more and more trouble.  They are the horsemen of the apocalypse!  Don’t ride them!

Love finds another way:
Instead of criticism - love finds the way of “gentle complaint” - of making specific and personal observations.  “When X happened, I felt Y”  Instead of “You are a lazy no good jerk” say, “I want some help with picking up the living room each night.”

Instead of contempt - love makes the effort to express appreciation for the partner.  It lets the other person know that we value them and value the relationship.  Love respects a partner and never dismisses them.

Instead of defensiveness - Love claims responsibility. It asks, “What can I learn from this?”  and “What can I do about it?”  It listens to the complaint to try to understand what is underneath the words instead of instantly refuting them.

Instead of stonewalling, Love makes the effort to remain engaged, even if the terms of engagement shift - Jesus said, “Treat them like a tax collector or a Gentile.”  Don’t be expecting brotherly or sisterly treatment from them.  But you remember that they are related to you in love.

None of these strategies are easy.  None of them can happen when our hearts are in turmoil and full of fear.  Relationships are so important that when love gets tough, and we are hurting, we sometimes panic.  It is fear that motivates us, instead of love.  We feel so threatened that in our hurry to protect ourselves, we get on the apocalyptic horses and ride, ride, ride!

But love casts out fear.  Jesus gives us a huge gift when he reminds us, in the context of talking about conflict, disagreement and relationships in trouble:  “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them.”  Jesus’ very real presence can help to calm and soothe us when love gets tough.

In just a few minutes we are going to come to the table of our Lord and receive the gift of his real presence that abides with us always.  There is a place in scripture that says, “if you are on your way to the alter and you remember that your relationship with your brother or sister isn’t right, then go and fix the relationship and then come to the alter.”

But in actual fact, the times when love is tough may be the most important time for us to first come and receive the assurance offered here that Jesus himself is with us.  His love and presence is the calming and soothing gift we need in order to then go and deal with the relationships that need fixing.  I invite you to examine your life for those relationships where love is tough, and then come to the table praying that Christ’s presence will strengthen and nourish you to address them.   When love gets tough, it is imperative that we remember Jesus’ promise:  Whereever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am in the midst of them.

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, by John Gottman.  1994

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Say them over again to me - Wonderful Words of Life!

Peacebang said this in a conversation about ceremony and ritual on her blog:
I find it incredibly brilliant.  Read the whole thing.  But this is, IMHO, the best part: 
Church is not a product that one chooses and then purchases, and worship is not an event that one attends as a spectator and then reviews as one would a movie or play. We need to preach covenantal theology, a theology that proclaims that we have been called by the Spirit out of the self-absorbed shallows of the consumer culture to become a people, God’s people, if you will. The covenant tradition teaches us that it is not we who choose to attend worship services based on the program, but we who are chosen by God to embody and incarnate the shalom, wholeness, peace, and mutual love. In Humanist terms, we might say that it is life’s longing for itself that draws us out out of our separate dwellings to take strength, solace and inspiration from gathering around the common hearth fire. In this covenantal framework, people do not merely tolerate the readings, hymns, dances, and rituals that constitute one week’s worship and wait impatiently for their favorite flavor or worship to appear back on the menu, they consider each Sunday a sacred hour of spiritual expression to which they obligated to bring their most generous heart and mind.