Monday, November 25, 2013

November 24, 2013 From Our Heart to God's: Psalm 23 - A Blessed Life

Psalm 23

A friend of mind has a story that is an incredibly powerful reminder of the blessing of life.  She works for IBM, and one day she was preparing for a business trip.  She was booking her flight when her boss asked her to cancel the trip.  She argued that it was an important trip to take but her boss was insistent that she cancel the trip, as IBM had decided to place a freeze on business travel.  She reluctantly canceled the trip.  The flight she was booking flew on September 11, 2001, and turned out to be the second flight that hit the World Trade Center.

It would be impossible not to think of life as incredibly blessed after such an experience.  To awaken every day, knowing that because your trip had been canceled, you are alive.  You are alive and get to enjoy many more years with your spouse.  You are alive and get to watch your children grow up.  You awaken every day with the knowledge that life could have ended far too early.  I believe that experience must be a blessing that would prevent one from ever taking life for granted.

As we conclude our series of messages on the psalms, this morning we come to the final words of the 23rd psalm – my cup runneth over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

I like the image of an overflowing cup, as it represents the blessedness of life, so let’s talk about A Blessed Life.

1.  Bless the lives of others. 
Faith is too often seen as completely personal and somewhat of a weak force in life.  But faith is not just personal; it has a very public side as well, and it is certainly not weak.  We are called to help fill the cup of others, so their cup too might overflow, and entering into the lives and the suffering of others is not for the weak or the faint of heart.

One of the great examples of this type of faith, to me, is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor in who was in our country, where he could have safely remained, but he returned to Germany to be with his people and to oppose Hitler and his regime.  Though he was forbidden to preach, write, or teach, he did so anyway, which led to his arrest in 1943.  He wrote from prison that he had no regrets about returning, even though it led to his arrest.  While in prison he was most likely aware of his coming fate, which was execution by hanging in the final days of World War II. 

Bonhoeffer composed a poem titled Powers of Good, and there is much power in his words, because of his experience.  Here is a portion of that poem, which is now included in some school textbooks and is sung as a hymn in some churches –

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
Even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
We will not falter, thankfully receiving
All that is given by thy loving hand.

But should it be they will once more to release us
To life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
That which we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us,
And all our life be dedicate as thine.

Today, let candles shed their radiant greeting;
Lo, on our darkness are they not thy light
Leading us, haply, to our longed-for meeting?
Thou canst illumine even our darkest night.

While all the powers of good aid and attend us,
Boldly we’ll face the future, come what it may.
At even and at morn God will befriend us,
And, oh, most surely on each newborn day!

2.  Learn from adversity.
It’s by design that this is one of the great themes of Scripture.  One of history’s great works, St. Augustine’s City of God, reminds us time and again that faith is not forged and made strong by prosperity, but by adversity.  I saw this great quote the other day – some of the best bread is baked in the oven of adversity.

Adversity is, as strange as it may sound, one of life’s gifts, because without adversity we could never truly appreciate the depths of love or gratitude.

George Matheson was a Scottish minister who lived in the 19th century.  As a young man, when he was engaged to be married, his eyesight began to falter and his doctor told him he would quickly lose all of his vision.  When he told his fianc√© of his oncoming blindness she immediately handed back to him her engagement ring, saying she did now want to marry one who would soon be so dependent upon her.  It was a crushing experience for him, but out of that experience he wrote the hymn O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go

O love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in Thee;
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in Thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
(The Taste of Joy, Calvin Miller, p. 89)

3.  Keep the faith.
Ernest Gordon was the longtime Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University.  I referred to him some months ago in a message.  He wrote the book Through the Valley of the Kwai, which was the basis for the movie Bridge Over the River Kwai.  As a prisoner of war during World War II, Gordon and his fellow soldiers suffered unimaginable difficulty, but it was in those difficult conditions that Gordon himself came to faith.  Of his experience he wrote, faith thrives when there is no hope but God.  It is luxury and success that makes men greedy (The Good Life, Peter J. Gomes, p. 262)

Skeptics will say that faith is a genetic predisposition, a weakness of the intellect, a desire to control others, or that it’s born out of a fear of death.

People place faith in a great many things, but faith in God is, I believe, a foundational need in life. 

Luke 5:17-26 contains one of my favorite stories in the gospels.  It is the story of the paralyzed man, who was healed by Jesus.  What I like about the story is that the paralyzed man is not the focus of the story; his friends are.  These friends carried the paralyzed man on a mat to a house where Jesus was teaching.  They believed that Jesus could heal their friend, but when they arrived at the house there were so many people gathered it was impossible to get their friend close to Jesus.  Did they give up?  No.  They climbed to the roof of the home, dug a hole in the roof, and lowered their friend through the hole and placed him right in front of Jesus.  Wouldn’t you like to have some friends like that?  They were some great friends.

Faith is a communal activity, not just one that is solitary.  Think of how the faith of those friends must have strengthened the man who was paralyzed.  Imagine his reaction when they said they were taking him to Jesus.  Imagine his reaction upon discovering they couldn’t get to Jesus because of the crowd.  Imagine his reaction when his friends haul him up to the roof and start digging their way through the roof.  Imagine his reaction to suddenly find himself at the feet of Jesus.  They weren’t about to give up and lose faith.

My favorite part of the passage is what Luke says – when Jesus saw their faith.  It was not the faith of the paralyzed man that Jesus saw, but the faith of his friends.  It was the faith of his friends that brought about his healing.

I don’t believe I could do faith on my own.  I haven’t done faith on my own.  I have faith because of my parents, who first instilled it within me.  I have grown in faith because of teachers and mentors and role models who helped me understand faith in a more powerful way.  I continue in faith because of friends and loved ones, who have encouraged me and reminded me that faith never gives up, and never quits.

Remember how you got to where you are in life, because you did not get there on your own.  We so need to remember, because it is too easy to forget.

We live in such a forgetful, disposable culture.  Use it for a short time and then throw it away.  Forget it.  When the Recycled Teenagers went last Wednesday to Nonesuch, to Irish Acres Antiques, located in an old school building, I was looking at a piece made between the late 1800s and about 1910.  Deanie Logan was explaining it to me, and made the interesting comment about the quality and endurance of things made during earlier eras.  Technology has just about finished off any such idea.  A phone lasts until the next, cooler version comes out.  In my previous congregation, we had a rotary dial telephone that remained mounted on the wall.  One day, one of the kids asked if they could use the phone, and then stood there staring at it.  I asked, what was the matter?  He had never seen a rotary dial phone and didn’t know how to use it.  But it worked when the power went off, and it worked when the cellular network was down.  People laughed at it, but it was more reliable than the smartphone in their pocket.

Some people treat faith as though it is something from a bygone, forgotten age.  They want us to believe that the age of faith has come and gone, and that it is foolish to continue to cling to faith in our modern age.

Keep the faith.  It has served humanity well for thousands of years, and will do so until the end of time.

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