Monday, August 25, 2014

August 24, 2014 The Gift of Marriage: From This Day Forward - Growing Through the Seasons of Life

Genesis 29:10-20

How many of you have a special song with your spouse or someone you dated?  If your era was the 40’s your song was probably by Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby or Tony Bennett.  If it was the 50’s it might be someone like Pat Boone or Elvis.  If the 60’s, perhaps the Beatles.  In the 70’s – the golden age of music, there were so many artists from which to choose.  If your era was the 80’s, I feel for you.  The 80’s had Men Without Hats and Flock of Seagulls, but perhaps it was something by Bon Jovi, like Living On A Prayer. 

Who will tell us your song?  Do you want to know the song Tanya and I had as our special song?  I wasn’t a disco person but it came from a very popular soundtrack to the disco age – can anybody guess?  Saturday Night Fever, and the song was How Deep Is Your Love, by – The Bee Gees.  You’re the light in my deepest, darkest night.  I should have kept my white disco suit!

This morning, we continue our series on marriage, and today we come to this phrase of the wedding vows – from this day forward.  This morning we will study the topic of Growing Through the Seasons of Life.  Just as we live through various seasons historically, we live through season of marriage as well.  I want to speak this morning about some qualities that should be a part of your marriage that will enable you and your spouse to grow together through each stage of life.

Those of you who have been married a while know at least some, or perhaps all, of the seasons of a married life.  There are the early years, of learning one another’s expectations and adapting to sharing your life with another person; there are the years of babies and young children, and the stresses that come from trying to balance time and work and the demands of a growing family; there are the teenage years, when your children are beginning to establish some independence from you and believe you to be the most clueless person on the face of the earth; there is the empty nest time, when the children are gone and in some ways you reestablish your relationship as just the two of you; there are the years of enjoying grandchildren and adjusting to retirement; there is the stage of caring for a spouse who may be in declining health; and finally, there is the stage of learning to adjust to life after your spouse is gone.

At every one of those stages it is of critical importance to have a foundation to your marriage that will carry you through the unique challenges that arrive at each stage.  And I should mention that I am assuming in each of these messages that the spiritual foundation to marriage will be present.  I see that as an essential foundation to a healthy marriage and family life.

I’ve had the blessing to know couples who were married for over 70 years.  Seventy years!  For a marriage to survive over seventy years requires the understanding of some important qualities.

We are looking to the marriage – or marriages I should say – of Jacob to learn our lessons this morning.  There are a number of issues and questions that arise from this passage. We could talk about Jacob as the deceiver, who stole his brother’s birthright; Jacob the deceiver who was deceived by Laban, his father-in-law; we could talk about the practice of polygamy that is common in the Old Testament; we could talk about Laban trading away his daughter’s in order to secure Jacob’s services as a worker.  These are some of the questions and issues that arise out of this passage, questions and issues that highlight that this story takes place in a very different culture, but those are for another time, today, we are going to examine some of those that are more directly related to the qualities that are necessary for a healthy marriage to exist throughout all the stages of married life. 

There are some very important qualities demonstrated in this passage that teach us about how we can assure that our love for our spouse will grow through all of the stages and seasons of life.

1.  Patience.
When Tanya and I had been dating a while, some of our friends who had dated for a shorter time were getting married.  They asked us why we were waiting and told us we should get married and how great it was.  I couldn’t help but notice that some of them stopped talking about how great it was after some months had passed.  We dated for six years and three months before we married, and I think that was a big factor in providing a solid foundation for our marriage.  After that amount of time, we knew each other very well and it made the first year a very easy adjustment.  I would not say that every couple should wait that long to get married; in fact, I have known some who waited a long time and the marriage was not strengthened or even successful, and I have known couples who dated a very short time and enjoy very strong, happy marriages.

But patience is so important because marriage should never be rushed.  I believe patience will increase the duration of a marriage.  I try to communicate to younger couples who are planning their marriages to be patient, and I tell them the rest of your life is a long time, hopefully, and there is no need to be in a rush.  Patience now may save a lot of heartache later.  But, interestingly, almost no one seeks counseling before marriage, because we know everything before we get married, don’t we? 

This is an opportune moment for me to tell you how I determine what marriages I will perform.  In past years, I used to officiate many, many weddings, accepting almost every request I received.  Some years ago I decided to change my policy, and it has reduced the number of weddings I officiate.  If I know one or both of the couple, I do not require pre-marital counseling, but I am happy to provide it.  If, however, I do not know either of the couple I will schedule a time when we can talk about what expect not just in terms of terms of their wedding, but of marriage.  I want to hear about the type of wedding they want, and how they view marriage, and then I tell them what I consider to be important in a wedding.  If we are in agreement about the wedding itself, I require them to meet with me for several sessions so we can talk about marriage.  Most couples decline to do so, which limits the number of weddings I officiate.

Let’s turn now to Jacob.  He agrees to work for Laban for seven years if Laban will allow him to marry his daughter Rachel.  After the seven years have passed Laban deceives Jacob by giving him his older daughter, Leah (which is an interesting story in and of itself as to what it says about marriage in the Old Testament), but Jacob agrees to work another seven years to be able to marry Rachel.  He does not have to wait another seven years before he can marry her; he actually marries her a week after he marries Leah, but he does agree to stay and work for Laban seven more years, being patient about his own independence from Laban.

Patience is born out of love; it’s the first descriptive word Paul uses in I Corinthians 13 as he defines love’s qualities.  Patience includes understanding that God created your spouse a unique individual that may need a few changes, but they don’t always need a complete makeover as a person.  Sometimes, people desire to create such a sameness in personality and how they think that it squeezes the uniqueness out of their relationship.  It’s not a sin to be different.  Be patient with your spouse; they may not be all you want them to be, and that’s all right.  Celebrate the uniqueness that God has created in your spouse.

2.  Healthy Family Relationships.
Tanya, Nick, Tyler and I have no relatives near us; the closest relatives are 350 miles away.  I often tell people there is a disadvantage and advantage to living away from your families.  The disadvantage is, you are away from your family.  Do you know the advantage?  You are away from your family.

If you live near parents, grandparents, siblings, and extended family, understand what a blessing this is, especially when you are raising children.  To be able to pick up the phone in the middle of the night and call a parent, grandparent, or sibling and ask for help is a great blessing.  Don’t take that blessing for granted.

But I will say again this week, when you marry someone, you also marry their family, and that brings not only a blessing, but some difficulties as well, as different perspectives and attitudes are blending together, and not always successfully.

Jacob does not step into the best of situations as his future father-in-law deceives him from the very beginning.  He fails to tell Jacob something very important – that it was the custom for the older child marry first.  It’s not as though Laban didn’t have the opportunity to tell Jacob this important fact; Jacob had already agreed to work for seven years in order to marry Rachel, the younger daughter.  Someone should have seen this situation coming and mentioned it, but no one did, and Jacob marries the wrong woman.  How do you marry that wrong person? (that’s a discussion that is better in a setting other than morning worship, as it’s a PG-13 story.  You can read it for yourself).  Jacob continues to have a very conflicted family situation, and if you want all the details, read chapter 30 and you’ll find a soap opera of tangled relationships.

In chapter 31 of Genesis we see the relationships in Jacob’s extended family deteriorating to the point that one night he slips out of town to head off for Canaan.  Part of the reason Jacob left was because he was building his flocks at Laban’s expense through some treachery and Laban’s sons were not very happy when they discovered what Jacob was doing.  God eventually gets involved and even warns Jacob that it’s time to leave, so Jacob slips off one night.  The situation is a very complicated web of deceit and suspicion and jealousy – you need to read these chapters, they will make you feel better about your family.

I have listened to too many heartbreaking stories of broken family relationships, and this brokenness can place a tremendous strain on a marriage.  And so I would offer this advice – parents, when your children are married they have established their own family.  Be careful how you step into that family; they are still your children but they are now responsible for their family, which at times may be very hard for you; love and support them even when you disagree with them.  For those of you who are married and your parents are still surviving, understand that your parents are acting out of love, and listen to their advice, even if you don’t always take it; they are the voice of experience that can be very valuable.

3.  You Must Have A Deep and Abiding Love.
Laban asks Jacob an interesting question in verse 15, Tell me, what shall your wages be?  What a great question!  I wish my Dad would have asked me how much I wanted to be paid before sending me out into the hay field, but I don’t remember any pay actually being discussed.  Imagine being allowed to name your wages!  And Jacob doesn’t begin his negotiation in a manner that works to his advantage.  Jacob doesn’t think of money, or flocks or herds; he makes the offer to give seven years of his life to be able to marry Rachel.  It’s a touching scene of Jacob’s love.

But there’s more to the story.  There’s Leah, Jacob’s other wife.  Leah is the person in this story who really has my sympathies.  Listen to how Rachel is described in verse 17 – Rachel was beautiful of form and face.  Now listen to the description of Leah – and Leah’s eyes were weak.  That’s the Biblical equivalent of saying she has a nice personality.  This description will last for all of recorded history, so it’s hard not to feel for Leah.  It’s obvious from that moment what is going to happen – Leah will never compare to Rachel in the eyes of Jacob, and perhaps that’s what he gets for having two wives.

It seems so obvious to say that marriage must be based on a deep and abiding love, but there are people who go into marriage with less than that level of love.  Jacob had no real love for Leah, and immediately the problems began in his life as he found himself married to a person he did not really love.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to be married and not feel the depth of love that makes you want to stay with that person for a lifetime.  It is absolutely essential to enter a marriage believing that you cannot imagine living without that other person, because if you don’t, when the challenges come and the years roll on, you’re going to have regrets and that is not healthy for any marriage.

After thirty years, I am still happy to see Tanya at the end of a day; I enjoy being with her now more than I did when we first married.

Love has to come before money, it has to come before career, and it has to come before other people – love for our spouse must be at the very foundation of our lives.  Only when a deep and abiding love exists will a marriage last a lifetime.

10 When Jacob saw Rachel daughter of his uncle Laban, and Laban’s sheep, he went over and rolled the stone away from the mouth of the well and watered his uncle’s sheep.
11 Then Jacob kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud.
12 He had told Rachel that he was a relative of her father and a son of Rebekah.  So she ran and told her father.
13 As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister’s son, he hurried to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his home, and there Jacob told him all these things. 14 Then Laban said to him, “You are my own flesh and blood.”  After Jacob had stayed with him for a whole month,
15 Laban said to him, “Just because you are a relative of mine, should you work for me for nothing? Tell me what your wages should be.”
16 Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.
17 Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel had a lovely figure and was beautiful.
18 Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.”
19 Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.”
20 So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

August 17, 2014 The Gift of Marriage: To Have and To Hold - Love or Control?

August 17, 2014
I Corinthians 13:4-7

Last week I began a series of messages based on the responses I received from the three questions I asked you throughout the summer, and I began with a series of messages on marriage.

To begin this week, I need to speak a pastoral word about marriage.  A good deal of the material in this series of messages is material that sets out ideals on marriage.  I don’t know anyone whose marriage represents the ideal.  All of us live in a reality of the ups and downs of life and we do not always rise to the ideal in any facet of our lives.

This morning, as we continue this series, we come to the second phrase in the marriage vows – to have and to hold.  What does it mean to have and to hold?  There is a dual meaning, as to some, it means to cherish the person that God has brought into their life; to others, it means something different, specifically it becomes about control.  To have and to hold means to love someone, to thank God for that person, but the words have and hold can also represent the context of power and control that is found in some marriages.

I believe that of all the issues that cause conflict and heartache in a marriage, this is the culprit that is most commonly the root cause – control.  A couple may have a conflict about money or many other issues, but the root cause is most likely to be a question of control.  Some people, knowingly or unknowingly, have a strong desire to always be in control.  They want to control all aspects of their lives, and especially relationships.  But when you bring control into a marriage relationship, you will be courting disaster.  Control is one of a group of what I would call marriage killers – those issues that, if they remain unresolved, will kill the joy and love in a marriage.

A marriage relationship is one that is not based upon control.  It’s not about who controls the schedule or the checkbook or who controls any particular aspect of a marriage – the issue really is, will a marriage be based on love or control?  So this morning, as we continue our marriage series, we’ll look at some of the dangers of seeking to control a person rather than loving them.

1.  A Desire To Control Will Kill Love.
I thought about which word I should use in that sentence; I could have used smothered, damage or others. Instead, I chose kill because a controlling attitude can ultimately bring about the death of a relationship.  While that word may seem extreme to describe a relationship, it describes what happens to a relationship if control is allowed to prevail over love.

The Bible speaks of love as a mutual self-giving, respecting love that leaves no room for exerting power and control over another person.  Genesis 2:24, which we read last week, speaks of becoming as one flesh, as one person, and that is impossible in a controlling environment.  Paul, in Ephesians, writes of a love that is one free of control and power and is instead built upon a self-sacrificial love, the kind of love demonstrated in the self-giving nature of Jesus.  In Philippians chapter 2 Paul writes very eloquently about such a love.

I am convinced that power and control cannot coexist with love in a marriage relationship, and some of the greatest devastation I have seen in marriages comes because one person was seeking to control the other person, and control took over to the point that love was either in the process of dying or was already dead.

A couple doesn’t have to be married very long to discover that becoming one flesh is not a particularly easy process.  Even the most compatible of couples find issues, both large and small, where it is difficult to find common ground.  Tanya and I have been married for 30 years but we cannot agree on how to get toothpaste out of a toothpaste tube.  She just squeezes that tube anywhere, and I think it is very logical to always squeeze from the bottom of the tube.  Don’t you think that makes sense?  But thankfully, we have managed to overcome that tremendous challenge to our marriage by getting separate tubes of toothpaste.

God has made each person in a marriage a unique and special individual, and becoming as one doesn’t mean those unique characteristics have to be flattened out so each person becomes a carbon copy of the other.  Celebrate those differences.  Some of the things I most enjoy about Tanya as a person are those qualities about her that are very different from whom I am as a person.  Different cannot only be good; it can be beautiful.

But differences threaten some people, and the insecurity that comes with being threatened drives them to seek to control and manage the other person, which will kill love.

2.  Control Destroys Communication.
Here’s the interesting thing about controllers – the person who seeks to control generally doesn’t recognize they are controlling.  We develop our basic behaviors based upon family patterns when we are young, and if we grow up in a controlling household we may model that in our own marriage without even being aware of it.  Tanya and I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with each other’s family before we were married, so we knew the families into which we were marrying into crazy.  It is essential to observe your future spouse’s family very closely before you get married.  You need to see how they relate and what their patterns are, because those are going to be a part of your life.  You don’t just marry your spouse – you marry their family as well (some of you are grimacing). 

Controllers don’t know they are controlling, they simply seek to control because they are repeating a pattern, or they are reacting out of fear or insecurity.  If you have ever confronted your spouse about how they were being controlling in a particular area they were probably shocked.  What do you mean I’m controlling?  I’m not controlling?  By the way, when I want your opinion about something I’ll give it to you!

In their mind, a controller is being helpful.  For instance, their view may be if I don’t watch the money my spouse will spend every penny.  That may be true; the other person may have a difficult time managing money, but that particular issue can be handled in a way that does not mean one person is making all the decisions and exerting control over every penny of the household budget.  There is a great deal of difference between allowing the person with financial acumen to handle the family budget and controlling the other person by limiting their access to the family finances.

One of the observations I have made about communication in marriage is how over time, couples begin to mark off certain issues as no/trespassing/no discussion zones.  Generally, this is because it keeps peace in a relationship, as some issues never really get resolved and they become constant sources of conflict, so in some ways it’s just easier to mark them off as a no trespassing/no discussion zone.

Controllers understand subconsciously that this can be used to their advantage.  Because people generally learn to stay away from issues that generate conflict, controllers will act very defensively as a way of controlling how issues will be dealt with in a marriage; their defensiveness makes it difficult to have a discussion about whatever issue is creating a problem.  So what happens in a marriage is somewhat like what happens to a computer hard drive over time.  A computer hard drive has to go through a process called “defrag,” or defragmenting.  This is a process that cleans up all the unusable parts of a hard drive and makes it function more efficiently.  A marriage relationship is very similar, because issues that generate conflict are segmented and ignored and over time a couple can develop any number of these issues that must always be avoided, and so you end up with a large number of issues about which there is no communication.  And those issues do not heal themselves; instead, they remain, and they break down communication and they break down love and they break down intimacy and they prey upon a relationship and make it unhealthy.  So those no trespassing/no discussion zones become like a house in which a couple live.  One room – representing a difficult topic – is closed off and never entered.  Then another room – representing another difficult topic – is closed off and never entered.  And soon, though there is a large house of a marriage, a couple is living in only a few rooms – just a small portion of the space – because they have closed so many rooms because of the conflict they cause.

Is there an issue where you feel you can’t communicate with your spouse?  Have you tried to talk to them and they react in a way that tells you to just leave it alone?  Or, do you push your spouse away because a particular issue scares you, or troubles you to the point that you just want it to be ignored?  If you pursue either of those pathways, you are taking a pathway that will destroy the communication in your marriage, and if you destroy the communication in your marriage, you risk the danger of eventually destroying your marriage.

3.  Love is about the giving of ourselves.
I was in the food court at one of the malls some time ago.  In line in front of me was a young couple, and I looked – as inconspicuously as I could – to see if they were wearing wedding bands.  They were, and I assumed they were newly married.  He was evidently going to leave his wife to walk across the food court to get something at one of the other restaurants.  It appeared to me that he was preparing to leave the country for ten years without her.  They were gazing into each other’s eyes and saying I’ll miss you; I’ll miss you, come back soon.  I wanted to step between them and say excuse me, but you’re walking 50 feet across the food court, not going to sea for five years.  So how about we both go over there and I’ll buy you a really big, cold drink so you can cool down.  But I just stood there and rolled my eyes.

But we love the idea of love, don’t we? Even though people struggle with their relationships and marriages struggle, we love the idea of a deep and abiding love.  But while romance and passion are a part of love, they are not all there is to love.  To really love, you have to give up the idea of power and control over another person, and to find out how you do that you have to have an example of that kind of love.

This is what provides the power to Paul’s words in I Corinthians.  Listen to what he says; this is explosive; it’s so powerful – Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

I must ask myself are those qualities that I demonstrate in my life to Tanya?  If I am truly demonstrating love, this is the standard to which I must aspire.  Are these qualities you demonstrate in your marriage?  This is the standard to which you must aspire.

Control is ultimately a form of self-love; it means you love yourself more than your spouse.  You cannot exhibit the qualities Paul mentions and love yourself more than your spouse.

FCC Shelbyville | August 10, 2014 Sermon

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

August 10, 2014 The Gift of Marriage: I Take You...Love Is A Choice

I am continuing to receive responses to the three questions I have asked in recent weeks.  Many of the responses are very moving to read, as they contain personal reflections on life and share some difficult circumstances.  I thank you for sharing your answers with me. 

Today I begin my first part of the new series of messages, based on your responses.  The first part of the series is a series within a series as I talk about marriage, using the traditional wedding vows as an outline.  Though not everyone in our congregation is married, obviously, the topic of marriage is always important and timely.  At some point in life, we all encounter someone who is going through marriage difficulties, so perhaps these messages allow you to someone who asks you for advice.

Allow me to make a couple of disclaimers at the outset.  First, no, I do not practice everything I preach when it comes to marriage.  I just know that someone is going to run up to Tanya to ask her if I live up to all that I say, so I’m going to tell you from the beginning that I don’t.  Second, the examples I will use will not be specifically from anyone here; they will mostly be composites or general observations.  And third, I do not consider myself a marriage counselor, although marriage counseling makes up a good deal of the counseling I do for people, and I have learned a few things over the years and I will share those lessons with you throughout this series.
I will also add that I believe that the love shared by two people is one of the great evidences for the existence of God.  If God does not exist, I don’t believe love can truly exist.  If we were to take the purely scientific, materialistic view of the universe and of creation, I don’t think we could “test” love in a laboratory.  The most we could say about love, if God does not exist, is that two people can come together and be bound together by shared biological urges or common neurosis.  Love, like God, is not something that can be tested and measured in a lab or with a science experiment.

I don’t know how many weddings I have performed over the years, and I don’t remember all of them, but some I certainly do.  The first wedding I officiated was in the summer of 1979.  One of my best friends from childhood asked me to officiate at his wedding and I was pleased to do so.  The wedding was in a park in western Pennsylvania, in a beautiful setting.  When I go to the vows I turned to his fiancĂ© and said, do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife?  She stood there and looked at me with a strange look, which I didn’t understand, because I hadn’t realized what I had said.  I wondered why she wouldn’t respond and she was muttering something under her breath.  I eventually realized she was saying it’s husband, I’m the wife!

There is nothing quite like love and marriage.  I can think of few things that bring so much joy, or, so much pain.  And yet for all the importance of marriage, for something that is at the very foundation of life, very little preparation is provided to people.  Most people learn about marriage by observing the marriage of their parents.  Think about that for a moment; your children will enter into marriage with a set of expectations and behaviors based upon what they have observed in your marriage.  How you treat your spouse may well be how they treat their spouse; how you handle conflict may well be how they deal with conflict; how you demonstrate love may well be how they express love.

How does that make you feel?  Does it make you hopeful or nervous?  And add to that the potential that your child may possibly marry a person whose observation of their parent’s marriage may lead them to hopes, expectations and behaviors that may be very different, even contradictory.

The first phrase of the marriage vows forms the basis of today’s message – I take you…to be my wedded….  I have titled this message Love Is A Choice.  Love is certainly an emotion, but love is very much a choice.  Every day we make a choice, either subconsciously or consciously to love; to love our spouse, our family, our work, our community – we choose to love any number of things.

1.  Make That Choice Every Day.
Tanya and I are not plant people; we don’t have plants in the house because we neglect them and they always die.  We have two big plant pots on our sun porch – and they’ve been there for months – with dead plants in them.  For anything to flourish – be it a plant or a relationship – it takes time and nurturing.

A relationship doesn’t end after the wedding.  You can’t assume love will continue to grow and blossom totally on its own after the wedding; love needs nurturing and time and care or it will wither and die.

Too many times in marriages, people stop nurturing their relationship.  Before you get married you take the time to be together, but after the wedding we get caught up in so many other responsibilities and obligations that we don’t even notice that we are gradually allowing neglect to settle in.

Make the choice every day that you are going to love your spouse, and show that love in some concrete way.  You cannot assume the other person knows; they need to hear it said and demonstrated.

2.  Honor That Choice Every Day.
A while back I was in a store and in front of me in the check-out line were two young guys talking to the girl working at the register.  Since they were taking up so much of my time I decided to listen in on their conversation. 

One of the guys was just totally going down in flames as he tried to impress this girl, and his friend was just shaking his head.  It turns out this guy went out with her a couple of times, but he couldn’t remember that they had gone out.  She had to remind him they had gone on a few dates.
She was a really cute girl, and I’m thinking two things; how could you forget going out with her, and what was she doing going out with you?  He should have stopped talking but he kept going on and on.  His friend stood there shaking his head and finally said dude, just give it up.  He just kept digging his hole deeper until the young lady looked at him and said, well, you’ve certainly made me feel special.

We honor our choice to love someone by making sure they know how special they are, by telling them how lucky we are to have them in our life and that we thank God for them.  I am not totally foolish; I am well aware of how lucky I am that Tanya married me, but I can’t keep that to myself, I need to tell her that, she needs to hear it from me.  Once again, we must say it; God gives us a gift in our spouse and we honor the gift of that relationship by saying how much we appreciate and love the other person.
Everyday life will absolutely wear down a marriage relationship.  If you have the opportunity, watch a newly married couple and a couple that have been married a while.  When you’re out to eat take a look around the restaurant and you can usually tell the difference between the newly married and those who have been married a long time.  Those who are newly married seem to be very engaged in their conversation and their excitement is obvious, while those who have been married a while may be sitting and saying very little.  Now, I’m not saying this is always true, and that your conversation always has to be exciting, but life can wear down the excitement and enjoyment of a relationship, and you have to choose every day to work at your marriage.

You also honor the choice to love by accepting the person God has given you as a spouse.  Here’s the mistake that women often make as they approach marriage – I’ll change him after we get married.  And here is the mistake men make as they are preparing for marriage – after that wedding is over I can quit trying to impress her and just be myself.

I think we should always be working hard at becoming better people, and part of that effort is to communicate to our spouses that we love them and accept them as the person God created them.

3.  Protect That Choice Every Day.
One of the biggest misconceptions one can make about love is that it is primarily an emotional state of being, but it is primarily a choice.

There are so many things that attack the choice we make to love another person.  Our society is not kind to committed relationships and honoring the love between married couples.  We are preyed upon from all corners with images that will distort love and reality.  Advertisers and pornographers manipulate and profit handsomely by exploitation.  Questionable ideas of romance and love.

Protect your choice to love.  Be very careful about the images you allow into your mind.  Not just physical images but also images of love and marriage.  Don’t fall for the illusion that you are a failure if things aren’t always perfect.  Living with another person and sharing your life with them sometimes generates conflict, that’s just reality, it doesn’t mean you love has failed.

Protect your choice from the threat of other relationships.  Let me say something very important here – never allow yourself to linger where you should not be.  Never linger physically, mentally or emotionally.  Watch not only your eyes, but your minds and your hearts as well.

The nature of modern life means there are times you may be around other people more often than your spouse.  This is especially if you have young children and are working a lot.  Sometimes you will find you are relating to other people more than to your spouse.  Be very careful, because that is a fire just waiting to explode into disaster.

Most relationships begin the path of dissolving because of lingering where you should not linger.  It may be looking at someone when you shouldn’t, it may be allowing yourself to become emotionally attached to someone and it leads down the path of greater disaster.  You don’t get from point A to point Z in one step, and you don’t get back in one step.

Protect your choice to love your spouse every day.  There may be days you don’t feel a lot of love, but you make that choice every day and honor that choice.  The alternative is heartbreak.

18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky.  He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.
20 So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.  But for Adam no suitable helper was found.
21 So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh.
22 Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man.
23 The man said, “This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.”
24 That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

August 3, 2014

I Corinthians 12:12-14

Next Sunday I will begin my new series of messages, which are based on the answers I received to the three questions I had been asking in recent weeks. 

I was surprised at the most common answer I received.  It was not a question about the Bible.  It was not a question about a social issue.  It was not a theological question.  It was a very personal statement – my children and grandchildren don’t attend church and I don’t know what to do.  We’ll deal with that in some measure during the series, although there is no simple solution to that dilemma, as I’m sure you know. 

Many of the responses related, in fact, to family.  Next week I will begin a “series within a series,” as we study marriage, and we’ll do so through the phrases of the traditional vows.  One of the other family issues we’ll deal with is that of addiction.  We don’t talk much about addiction in churches, but we need to.  Some of the Biblical/theological questions we’ll address in messages but also in a Bible study format.  One of the ways we’ll do that will be in a study this fall about how we got the Bible.  Why do we have the Bible in its present format?  How did we arrive at 66 books?  What about other books, books of which you may have heard?

This morning’s message is a reworking of an older message of mine and serves as a transition to the new series as I answer the question of why I go to church.

One of my predecessors here at First Christian – Jim Collins – was here to speak a few years ago.  You may remember that he had copies of his book, Always A Wedding.  Jim had, at that time, officiated at about 2,500 weddings over the course of his ministry.  That’s an incredible number of weddings.

I think I will call my book Always A Meeting.  I spend a lot of times in meetings.  A meeting I attended a while back was interesting for a question that arose.  It was a meeting of some clergy, and as we talked about church and the challenges facing churches today, one person said do we give people a compelling reason to come to church?  Do we tell them why it’s important, or do we just assume they’ll continue to show up even as they wonder why it’s important to do so?

Those are interesting questions.  And they are important questions.  Do we give people a compelling reason to come to church?  Do we simply assume they will continue to show up in worship without being given a reason to do so?  Perhaps there are people who come to church looking for a reason why they should attend.

When I am thinking about a message, certain things capture my attention.  I guess because a certain topic is on my mind I will notice something I might not otherwise notice.  As an example, as I was thinking about this message I happened to notice a copy of the Atlantic magazine.  I noticed it because of an article written by Larry Taunton.  The title of the article is Listening to Young Atheists:  Lessons for A Stronger Christianity (you can read the article here - 

To be honest, I’m kind of tired of reading articles about the rise of unbelief, but this one was really fascinating.  What Larry and his organization – the Fixed Point Foundation – did was talk to college age atheists from around the country.  They simply wanted to hear their stories to see what moved people to give up their faith.  While almost all of them referred to the process of making a decision based on rationality and reason, Taunton and his group found there was almost always a deeper, more emotional reason for their choice.  Sadly, the choice was often related to the churches in which they were raised.  Some of them were not given a compelling reason to be a part of the church, or they never saw a good reason.

I begin with the assumption that a person who is a follower of Jesus is a part of the church.  I know that not all are active or attend, and I don’t condemn them when they are not.  I understand why people give up on the church, because there have been times when I’ve considered it myself.  There have been a few times when I really thought about it (does it surprise you to hear a minister say such a thing?)  I got a pretty good lesson in the kinds of things that can go on with churches as I was growing up.  I listened as my mom and dad complained and would practically grind their teeth after a difficult board meeting or contentious gathering at church.  I saw how people could act in very non-Christ like ways.  I’ve been in churches where there seemed to be little connection to the ministry of Jesus.  I’ve been in churches that seemed to be on their deathbed.

But in spite of all the negatives I’ve seen and experienced, and despite the fact that some people see today’s church as outdated, outmoded, and irrelevant, I’m not going anywhere, and I’d like to give you a few reasons why –

1.  I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God, and the church is his body to which I am called.
I received a call recently from a friend who was looking for a church recommendation.  They knew someone new to Shelby County and told me the family’s denominational background and asked for suggestions.  I naturally thought, how about ours?  My friend said, well, do you think your church would be too liberal for them?  Is your church liberal or conservative?  Is it formal or informal?  Is it traditional worship or contemporary?  Are we expressive or reserved?  I said yes.

Are we liberal?  Yes.  Are we conservative?  Yes.  Are we in the middle?  Yes.  Are we outgoing?  Yes.  Are we restrained?  Yes.  We’re all these things, and more, because we are a combination of all those things, and that, I believe is a good thing.  You see, church is not about finding a group of people who represent the same exact slice of society with whom you relate, but being a part of the body of Christ, which reflects all the facets of humanity, and we wrap it all under the banner of the great confession of faith made by Peter when Jesus asked who do you say that I am? 

As Disciples, we are very familiar with Peter’s great confession of faith – You are the Christ, the son of the living God (Matthew 16:13, Mark 8:27 and Luke 9:18).

Paul, in today’s Scripture reading, writes about the body of Christ, to which we are called.  To me, there is something greatly compelling about being part of something that is eternal, something that is beyond our own lives, something that existed long before us, and will long outlive us.

There is nothing else like the church, and for all its faults and shortcomings, I believe we are called to be part of this great, universal, and timeless body because means we are part of Jesus, and that really, really does mean something.

2.  Faith is not practiced in isolation.
We live in a highly individualistic society, but faith is not something that works in isolation.  By its very nature, faith compels us to be involved in the lives of other people, both in offering support and receiving support.  The foundation of the Christian faith – love – is not something that can be practiced apart from other people.  Jesus commands that we are not only to love God, but that we are to love others as well (Matthew 22:37-40).  Such a command is a reminder that we are created to be in community with others.

You can, certainly, find community elsewhere, but not like the church, I believe, because in the church you get the next reason –

3.  Where else do you hear the message of the Gospel?
Well, you can hear it on the radio, TV, and the internet, but that’s not quite the same as experiencing it in person.  Simply put, where else are you going to hear the message of loving your enemies?  I don’t hear that message outside of church.  Do you?  The gospel challenges me in ways that no other person, organization, or place will challenge me, and that tells me something very important about the church – I need to be here for that challenge.

The truth is that the church has a very unique message, and we are in need of hearing it on a regular basis.

C. S. Lewis wrote, When I first became a Christian, about fourteen years ago, I thought that I could do it on my own, by retiring to my rooms and reading theology, and I wouldn’t go to the churches and Gospel Halls; . . . I disliked very much their hymns, which I considered to be fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music. But as I went on I saw the great merit of it. I came up against different people of quite different outlooks and different education, and then gradually my conceit just began peeling off. I realized that the hymns (which were just sixth-rate music) were, nevertheless, being sung with devotion and benefit by an old saint in elastic-side boots in the opposite pew, and then you realize that you aren’t fit to clean those boots. It gets you out of your solitary conceit. (
That reminds me that –

4.  I can’t do faith on my own.
I’ve spent some time on golf courses and lakes and have felt close to God there.  Well, perhaps on the lake but not on the golf course; God seems to abandon me there.  What I mostly feel in those places is an appreciation for God and his creation, which is important, but not the same as worship.  It’s also not likely that anyone at the lake or the golf course will tell you what you need to hear, except that maybe you should give up golf.

In the summer of 1978 my older brother was in Israel on an archeological dig.  At the time he owned an MG convertible.  Since he was gone the entire summer he left it in my care.  I was living in northeast Tennessee that summer, near the campus of the college I was attending.  It was a great car to drive in the summer.  A little convertible with a stick shift on the floor, it was a lot of fun.

The gas gauge on the car did not work, but I would set the odometer and watch it closely.  Most of the time.  A friend and I, on a great summer day, were riding in the car up a mountain road when I suddenly heard a loud ticking.  I remembered my brother telling me that just before the car ran out of gas the fuel pump would tick loudly.  We quickly sputtered to a halt.

Fortunately, the car did not have power steering or power brakes, so we could coast.  It was very easy to turn the car around and start coasting back down the mountain.  We coasted a long way, and with the top down and the breeze blowing it was a good ride.

As we coasted to the bottom of the mountain there was a little gas station at the bottom.  We coasted into the gravel parking lot and right up to the gas pumps.  I hopped out of the car and went in to pay for some gas.  Sitting outside the door was one of the locals, leaning back in a chair with his hat pulled down low.  As I walked by he looked up and said, I believe that’s the quietest running car I’ve ever heard.  I didn’t want to admit to running out of gas so I said, yes sir, she sure does run quiet!  

The reality is that it’s easy to coast through life.  We want to minimize our stressors, our expectations, our responsibilities – church is one place where you cannot cruise, because the Spirit of God will move in us and push us beyond our own comfort.  If I try to do faith on my own I always run out of gas, so to speak.

I have to admit there are times when I wish I could just live in my own little world and worry only about myself, but that is not an option when we are followers of Jesus.  The trinity of our world has become me, myself, and I, and it is easy to want to cruise along and worry only about ourselves.  Except that there is no cruise control.  There is no “my own world.”

And that is why I go to church.