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In It to Win It

(a sermon for February 4, 2018, the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 and Mark 1:40-45)

Here’s something that I’m sure will come as a huge shock to all of you:  I am not much of an athlete.

And by “not much of,” I mean “not at all.”

I don’t know; I just have never had the ability or coordination it takes to do sports, or for that matter, the real desire.  Even as a kid, gym class was for me basically something to be gotten through and if at all possible, avoided!  And besides, back in school I was always the one in band and chorus, doing drama club and working on the yearbook; that was my thing!  So back then being any kind of star athlete (or even a benchwarmer) was never going to happen; and obviously, in all the years that have followed, nothing about that has changed!

Which is not to say, however, I don’t appreciate athleticism in others; in fact, I have to say that the older I get, the more I admire those who have shown forth not only their God-given ability, but also the drive, discipline and perseverance it takes to succeed on the field of athletic competition.  Whether we’re talking about tonight’s Super Bowl, the upcoming Winter Olympic Games, or simply high school kids running up and down the basketball court at tournament time there is beauty and grace to be found in those who do these things very, very well; who have trained and practiced, struggled, endured and pushed themselves to the limit – sometimes over the course of an entire lifetime (!) – all for the sake of running that race, of winning that game… of being the absolute best that one can be.

And ideally, friends, I’m here to tell you that it can be a spiritual thing as well. I actually came across a quote this week from, of all people, Pope John Paul II, from back in 1987.  He said that “Sport… is an activity that involves more than the movement of the body; it demands the use of intelligence and the developing of the will.  It reveals… the wonderful structure of the human person created by God, as a spiritual being, a unity of body and spirit.  Athletic activity,” John Paul went on to say, “can help every man and woman to recall the moment when God the Creator gave origin to the human person, the masterpiece of his creative work.”

I like that.  Granted, in an age where sports is big business and things like politics, drug abuse and (as we have seen illustrated so horribly as of late) all manner of assault have too often plagued the whole endeavor, it’s increasingly difficult to see the ideal made real; but when it happens – be it a perfect touchdown pass or a ski jump that seems to defy gravity – when we can bear witness to the wonder of body, mind and spirit working together toward a singular goal, even to this most decidedly non-athletic person, it’s a beautiful thing.  At the heart of it all, you see, is this very clear desire, this relentless drive, this passion, if you will, to be “in it to win it.”

And isn’t it interesting how when Paul wants to speak in our text this morning about the spiritual life and what it means to be a child of God it’s precisely that same kind of passion to which he refers as making all the difference.  “Do you not know,” he writes to the Christians in Corinth, “that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize?  Run in such a way that you may win it.”

Now at first read, it might well seem a bit odd to hear that kind of a sports metaphor coming from the pen of an apostle; but in truth there are several instances throughout the epistles where Paul uses what might be called “the language of athletics” in order to make a point about the Christian life.  In fact, in our passage today, Paul makes reference to an actual athletic event:  the Isthmian Games, which were a series of Olympic-styled athletic contests that took place every two years just outside of Corinth, and which included boxing events, wrestling and all different kinds of footraces.  The competition was great and intense, and as a sign of their victory the winners of each event would be given a wreath to wear on their heads; fashioned, believe it or not, out of a garland of dry and withered celery!  Think of it: all that work, all that effort and all the winner has to show for it is the lousy leftover part of a summer salad!  Or, to put this much more biblically, “Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one.”  And that’s the point, isn’t it?  If these Isthmian athletes do what they do for the passing glory of such a small and fading reward, how much more might we do as followers of Jesus Christ for the “imperishable” wreath, that is, the gift of eternity with God?

By the way, these verses from 1 Corinthians get translated in a variety of ways: the NIV talks about how those athletes do what they do “to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever;”  and, of course, The Message brings it a little closer to home, especially about now, in referring to a “gold medal that tarnishes and fades” as opposed to the one “that’s gold eternally.”  But regardless of the translation the point is the same: to quote Kenneth Kovacs here, “the point is that the goal, the prize that we strive after and strain for as Christians is better than any athletic prize or any other prize given in this world subject to rust and decay and corruption.”

So given all this, the question for us, I suppose, is that where a life of faith and true discipleship is concerned… are we “in it to win it,” or not?

Of course we need to understand, and Paul also makes this clear, that winning the race isn’t about “run[ning] aimlessly,” any more than a boxing match is about flailing about and “beating the air.”  Moreover, this race of which Paul calls us to run is no hundred-yard dash where it’s a quick sprint run to get the prize; it’s more like an intense spiritual marathon that extends over the course of a lifetime and which requires every bit of our attention and energy.

That’s where so many people make a mistake about the nature of faith; they assume that to be a Christian is simply to be a nice person, to show some empathy, and maybe employ some common sense along the way.  But to actually follow Jesus and to become his disciple is something much more than that: it’s about truly loving our neighbor as ourselves; it’s about forgiving our enemies not just once or twice or even three times, but seventy times seven times; it’s about denying ourselves, and then there’s that matter of taking up our own crosses so that in our own lives we might follow Jesus where he goes… and that’s just the beginning.  It’s no accident that the Greek word Paul uses here for competing in a race is “agonizomai,” which is where we get our word “agony,” because in this particular race, it takes an agonizingly tremendous effort to win.  If you’re going to last for very long, it’s going to take discipline and self-control… and good training!

I love the story that William Willimon tells about his time as Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, and how a well-meaning student came to him and said, “You know, I just don’t get much out of the Bible.”  “Oh,” replied Willimon, with just a hint of sarcasm, “and when was it you last did time in a Bible study group?”   Well, the student said, “I just thought you could pick it up for yourself and sort of like, get the point.”  To which Willimon answered, “Try that with lacrosse stick and see how far you get.”

You see, for you and me to run our race of faithful living means we need to be trained and grounded in this Christian faith we espouse.  There needs to be a commitment to study God’s word; there needs to be a discipline of prayer; and there has to be, I believe, a real participation with kindred hearts in a community of faith.  In other words, it matters that we’re the church together and that we’re running this race together as God’s people; because without that kind of love and support, we’re bound to get winded and discouraged at the first sign of struggle. And make no mistake: at every turn along the way, we are going to need to call upon every resource that our God has to give, so that we might be the vessels by which the gospel is proclaimed and love is brought forth; because, friends, in this broken and hurting world that is the race we’re running.

Our gospel reading for this morning is Mark’s story of how a leper came to Jesus begging to be healed, and “moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him,” and how immediately, the leprosy left him.  One of the interesting parts of this passage for me is how the leper actually says to Jesus, “If you choose, you can make me clean,” and in the act of healing, Jesus responds by saying, “I do choose.”  So not only does this story talk about the grace of God’s healing love extended to those whom the world would consider to be hideous or dangerous or somehow morally deficient – because remember, leprosy was considered at the time to be a disease that was the result of the victim’s sinful actions – it’s also a story about how Jesus “chooses” in that moment to make him clean in a profound and divine sense of compassion to which you and I are also called as his disciples.

Yes… I’ll say it again: we are his disciples; we choose to be so! We are called to be beacons of light in a dark world; and we choose to be bringers of love and compassion, purveyors of healing and a higher good.  We are God’s people, and as such, we are a people with eyes upon the prize, always that of Christ and his kingdom.  And it is a sacred endeavor that’s every bit as strenuous as a Super Bowl or an Olympic event; even more so.  But it’s a race that needs to be run; and might I add here, it’s also a race that when it all comes together, is a beautiful thing to behold.

I had a friend back in high school who as a young man trained to run in the Boston Marathon.  All through school he’d been a star member of our cross-country team, and had won any number of races; but this was different, something much bigger, something that stretched every part of his ability, and he trained for months so he’d qualify; no easy feat as he sprinted through the snow covered streets of our town!  But he was determined, and when he finally got to Boston – looking back on it, he must have been just about as young as you can be to run the marathon – we were all rooting for him.  And God love him, he finished the race; well behind the pack, as I recall, but he finished, and that was something!

I remember afterward asking him about the race, and I remember this because my friend actually had very little good to say about the experience: he was tired, and sore, the course was impossible, his shoes weren’t right, and on and on and on. And so I asked him, given all that and so much more why he didn’t just stop, and for that matter, why he chose to run this race in the first place.  But then he smiled, and said simply, “because when you finish, there’s no feeling like it in the world.”

When you and I seek to live as our Lord Jesus would have us live it will most certainly not be easy, and there will be moments when we’ll wonder if the effort’s been worth it and if what we’ve done has mattered in the scheme of things; but if we are in it to truly win it, beloved, by God’s good grace it becomes an experience unlike anything else in life, and one that makes all the difference out these doors and into the world.

So let us run the race before us, and let us do in such a way that says we want to win it, for the sake of Jesus Christ. And as the race goes on, let us to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14)

Thanks be to God who sets the course before us.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on February 4, 2018 in Epiphany, Faith, Family Stories, Life, Paul, Sermon

 

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A Different Kind of Authority

dad

My father, Keith Lowry, circa sometime in the 1970’s

(a sermon for January 28, 2018, the 4th Sunday after Epiphany, based on Mark 1:21-28)

I think I’ve shared with you before that my father, who passed away some years ago now, was for many, many years a high school math and science teacher.  The majority of that time was spent teaching at the same local high school in the small town in Maine where I grew up; which means that he was also my high school math and science teacher!

That’s right; over the course of my junior and senior years, I had my own father for geometry, trigonometry and advanced math, which was quite an experience and at the start of it, at least, a bit awkward as well.  Oh, we got along alright; but Dad, for his part, was very concerned that he not show me any kind of favoritism, and me, I didn’t even know what I supposed to call him (I mean, I couldn’t very well be in class and call him Dad, and I wasn’t going to,and refused to refer to him as Mister Lowry)!  But we got through it, and I’ll tell you something else: in those two years I found out that he was a very good teacher!

I’ve been thinking about this lately because recently I was invited to be a part of an online group that’s focused on sharing memories of growing up in that town; and in fact one of the threads of conversation has been reminiscing about my father as a teacher “back in the day.”  It’s really been something to read, and it’s done my heart good; and I know that Dad would have been delighted about the positive impact he had on so many students over the years.  I will say, however, there was one memory that kept coming up in the comments section that made me shake my head.  You see, my father was also a man of many interests; history, for one, and in particular, about the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.  He knew just about everything about that event, and loved, loved talking about it; and over the years, his students came to discover that if they ever wanted to distract Mr. Lowry, get him off topic and get out of having to do a lot in class on any particular day, all they had to do was ask him a question about the Titanic… and he was off and running!

Let me tell you that as a kid, hearing about that and seeing it happen used to drive me crazy!   I’d be thinking, “Can you not see that those kids are playing you?”  I could not believe that my father was so oblivious to what was going on!  But it was only years later after I’d long since graduated and Dad had retired from teaching before I finally asked him about it.  And I’ll never forget his response; he just smiled and said, “Yeah, they always thought that they pulled one over on me… but you’ll remember, they also always ended up working all the harder the next day.  You see,” he explained, “I figured if they really needed a break that badly, I could give them a day off now and then… because it would always pay off in the end… they thought they were getting away with something, but they were better students because of it.”

Judging from the positive memories those students were sharing of being in my father’s classroom so many years ago, I’d say he was right about that; because you see, sometimes true authority takes a different kind of form, doesn’t it?  That which at one time I’d been too quick to dismiss as some kind of shortcoming on my father’s part turned out to be one of his greatest strengths as a teacher: that he could read his students, and based on that he could create a good atmosphere for learning.  Oh, he could have been tough about it – and in retrospect, his standards were very high as a teacher; trust me, you earned your grades in his class – but at the end of the day his authority had more to do with who he was and how he related to his students; everything else flowed from that!

In our gospel reading for this morning, Mark tells of how early on in his ministry, Jesus was teaching at the synagogue in Capernaum, and how everyone who was present to hear Jesus speak was “astounded at his teaching,” and how Jesus “taught them with authority,” and not as the regular leaders and teachers of that temple; that is, the scribes.  Understand that as Mark tells the story, we don’t really have any sense at all of what it was that Jesus actually said that day that was so astonishing or so compelling that it would supersede the authority of the scribes. After all, in the hierarchy of the temple, the scribes were the ultimate authority of religious tradition, and by extension the interpretation of the law and prophets.  But now here’s Rabbi Jesus, fresh off the path from the backwater town of Nazareth, and the moment he opens his mouth it’s compelling, it’s authentic, and it’s… filled with truth!

Maybe it was in the presentation; perhaps what Jesus was offering about the Word of God was so fresh and vibrant and alive that the scribe’s regular teaching seemed bland and boring in comparison. Or maybe it’s as the Rev. Dr. Charles Qualls has written in his own sermon on this passage, “that so deep [was the people’s] longing for something new, something better in which they could place their hope, that God simply ripped the heavens apart and showed us Jesus.”  Whatever the teaching happened to be on that Sabbath day in Capernaum, what’s clear is that suddenly Jesus was the one teaching with authority, not the scribes.

But just as clearly, it was a different kind of authority; and we know this because of what happened next.

We’re told that in the synagogue, presumably as the time of teaching is still going on, there’s “a man with an unclean spirit” who disrupts everything and cries out to Jesus, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?”  Now I understand that given our modern sensibilities we’re not at all sure what to do with the idea of someone with an unclean spirit; and indeed, the translations of scripture vary here: the NIV, for instance, refers to one “possessed by an impure spirit” which definitely points to something supernatural, while The Message speaks of a man who was “deeply disturbed.”  And yes, if we’re being honest here, over the centuries there have been those who have erroneously connected this with any and all varieties of mental illness.  But that said, we don’t know for sure what was this man’s story; actually I like something I read from David Lose this week: that the most important thing for us to remember about this this man of an “unclean spirit” was that he was one who was held captive to that which “robs him, his family and his community of life;” that God is ever and always opposed “to anything and everything that robs them of abundant life… lives of joy, meaning and purpose;” and that God was about to do battle with that particular unclean spirit in the person of Jesus!

And Jesus does just that:  confronting the unclean spirit by saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!”  And immediately we’re told that the spirit, “crying with a loud voice,” came out of him.  And now the people in the temple are really amazed, and they are buzzing about it:  “What is this,” they ask.  “A new teaching – with authority?”  And let me add this from The Message:  “What’s going on here… he shuts up defiling, demonic spirits and sends them packing!”  It’s a great and miraculous act; a sign for all to see of God’s kingdom coming:  a teacher with true authority; but once again, it’s a different kind of authority.

What strikes me about this story is how many different ways it could have gone.  For instance, the resident scribes could have simply ushered the man with the unclean spirit out of the temple so that they didn’t have to deal with him at all; or else they could have started spouting the finer points of the law, just to see how many charges could be brought against him for the sake of what they saw as spiritual judgment.  Maybe they would just torment him, using their words as weapons that would create wounds that would never fully heal. Or, maybe worst of all, they could have chosen to ignore him completely; labeled him as hopeless and made sure that he was completely ostracized from society.  Understand, friends; more often than not, this was how it was for those in Jesus’ time who were of “unclean spirits.”  This was, at least partly, the very nature of religious authority!

But Jesus’ authority was different.  In amidst the distress, the anguish, the fear and the utter hopelessness of this man’s situation, the very first thing Jesus does in response is “to free this man from the hold of his unclean spirit and restore him to himself, his loved ones, and his community.  The very first thing.” (David Lose)  And it would be the first of many authoritative actions on Jesus’ part; authority that values persons over rules, inclusion rather than exclusion, healing over endless hurt, love over hatred… life – life abundant and eternal – over death.  It was, and continues to be, a different kind of authority; and then and continuing even now, it’s what has made all the difference in the world and in our lives.

And moreover, it’s the example we are called to emulate as followers of Jesus Christ.  Truly, Jesus’ authority is what compels you and me to re-examine the authority by which we live; understanding, of course, that speaking, or acting, out of authority is not about being perfect.  It’s like wisdom.  Eugene Peterson, who was the translator of the The Message, has written in a book entitled “Living the Message” that to be “wise refers to skill in living.  It does not mean, primarily, [that here’s] the person who know the right answers to things, but [here’s] one who has developed the right relationships to persons and to God.”  Peterson goes on to say, “ The wise understand how the world works; [they] know about patience and love, listening and grace, adoration and beauty; and they know that other people are awesome creatures to be respected and befriended.”

It probably goes without saying that you and I are living in a time and place where the “authority” of the Christian church and of Christians is rarely recognized, much less assumed.  But I wonder how much of that might be, at least in part, our own fault; and how often we have missed the opportunity in our times and places to speak and act with the authority of Jesus:  times when we could have looked into the hearts of those around us and offered up an alternative to the hatred fueled and pain-filled “unclean spirits” that have taken hold and seek to diminish the abundant life that Jesus came to bring each and every one of us.  Because I think you’ll agree with me when I say that there are a great many varieties of “unclean spirits” infesting this world and destroying all those that it would possess; in addiction, poverty, sexual assault… I could go on and on. I wonder how many times we’ve had the chance to reach out to those crying out for hope, courage, insight and love; but then walked away, for fear of upsetting the status quo.  And by the same token I wonder just how different our lives, and indeed this crazy, convoluted and oh-so divided world might be if would let ourselves to be led into the same truth that guided Jesus into his ministry.

I pray this week that you might be wondering about these things as well, and that we go from this place… and be bold! You know, in a prior church, there was an older woman in the congregation who every Sunday used to give me a hug and greet me with the words, “You be bold, pastor… you go out there and be bold!”  Every Sunday… and I always appreciated the affirmation, but I must confess that I always kind of wondered exactly what she meant by that;  that maybe she was suggesting that my sermons be a bit more of the “hellfire and brimstone” variety, which in my late 20’s I’m not sure I could have ever pulled off!  But I came to understand that her prayer for me was as a preacher, but most of all as a believer, that I listen the truth of God’s word for all of our lives and have the courage to be bold enough to speak that word with authority, and letting everything else flow from that.  A good prayer for all of us, I’d say.

It’s a different kind of authority than what the world assumes; it’s the authority that comes in the presence and power of God in Jesus Christ, and it will make all the difference.

So so go and be bold, beloved… just be bold!  And may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on January 28, 2018 in Sermon

 

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A Question of Attitude

(a sermon for January 21, 2018, the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, based on Philippians 4:4-9)

I should begin here by confessing to you that the moment I sat down this week to begin writing this sermon, this very next sentence immediately caused me to “flash back” to a time when my children were much younger than they are now:

“I want to have a talk with you this morning about your attitude!” 

Believe me, I know how that sounds!  Granted, like most parents, I did have that conversation with my children back in the day; with the boys at some point when they were teenagers, and with my daughter, actually, when she was about five years old and imitating some obnoxious character from a cartoon show!  But I don’t want to give the impression that I’m giving you that kind of a lecture, because I’m really not; and besides, I don’t want you to be “rolling your eyes” at me the way my kids sometimes did back then!

That understood, however, I would like to talk with you this morning about… our attitude!  Because certainly attitude is a crucial issue for every one of us, most especially as adults; and moreover, because attitude plays into just about every aspect of our lives.  Health care workers, for instance, tell us again and again that whether we’re dealing with something as serious as a catastrophic illness or recovering from surgery or whether it’s something relatively simple as trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle, having a poor attitude about these things can only make a difficult situation that much worse; while a more positive attitude might well contribute mightily to faster healing and making things better overall!  And we’re not just talking physical health, either:  a good attitude cannot help but have a positive effect on your day, your week, your work productivity, your family atmosphere and the state of your relationships with others.  By the same token a negative, “gloom and doom” attitude has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy; in other words, expect the worst in things, or in people, and that’s pretty much what you’re going to get!  Simply put, a proper attitude is of utmost importance!

Chuck Swindoll actually expresses this very well: he says that “the longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life.  Attitude,” he says, “is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, [or] than what other people think or say I do… we cannot change the past.  We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way.  We cannot change the inevitable.  The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced,” Swindoll goes on to say, “that life is 10% of what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.”

I like that; and believe me, friends, when I say to you this morning that this is especially true as it applies to the spiritual life.  For you see, there are a whole lot of spiritual people out there who seem to be far more negative in their attitudes than positive!  These are people – ostensibly people of faith, mind you – who are more about what’s wrong with the world and people than what’s right; who are more willing to talk about everything they’re against and can’t approve of, than what it is (and who it is) that they truly stand for; whose very words and actions would just seem to betray that which they come and sing about every Sunday morning at church!

Truth be told, there’s a real cynicism that can be seen in a great many Christians today.  Now, I don’t know if it’s world-weariness, the by-product of  all the conflict and divisive rhetoric that surrounds us these days; if it’s about the kind of worldly culture that has long sought to pull us away from Christianity; or if it’s just what happens when you begin to feel like you’ve been living your own life in some constant state of fear and anxiety: but there are those who have let themselves get so caught up in an attitude of negativity that I have to wonder if they can even hear what Paul has proclaimed in scripture reading this morning, much less receive it:  Rejoice, he says.  “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again I will say, Rejoice.”

That particular verse from Philippians stands among the most upbeat, positive affirmations in the Epistles, if not all of scripture; certainly one of the most familiar to our ears.  It’s also, by the way, one of those verses that’s pointed to by those who would make the claim that faith in general and the Bible in particular have no real basis in reality! But I would suggest to you that such an attitude (there’s that word again!) represents a major misunderstanding of scripture, and one proof of this comes from Paul himself.

You see, by the time he wrote this letter to the church in Philippi, Paul had been in prison, probably in Rome and in miserable conditions, for upwards of two years; and, by the way, quite literally shackled to an endless series of Roman palace guards, waiting at some point to “stand trial” before Nero (in fact, here’s a not-so-fun fact: such was the cruelty of this imprisonment that the Romans would change guards every four hours, so that no one guard could ever begin to sympathize with Paul and perhaps be inclined to show him mercy).

So here’s Paul, facing a dismal future that would almost certainly include his execution at the hands of Nero himself; and yet, still, Paul is able to say “I rejoice in the Lord greatly;” (4:10) and what’s more, he’s able to say these Philippian Christians, and to you and me, you also rejoice!  “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.”  As The Message translates this, “Don’t fret or worry.  Instead of worrying, pray.  Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns.  [And] before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down.  It’s wonderful,” Paul concludes, “what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”  It seems incredible that Paul could maintain such a positive attitude and rejoice in the midst of all of that he was suffering, but in the end, you see, it was not a shallow idealism that was guiding him; it was optimism fueled by his relationship with God in Jesus Christ.

Of course, we need to understand here that there is a huge difference between idealism and optimism.  To be filled with idealism is to live unto the notion that everything is wonderful in life, that things will always go well, and that nothing in the world can ever truly be wrong; you know, “all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”  And don’t get me wrong, idealism is fine to a certain extent; it’s idealism that inspires hope and dreams, and it’s what moves people to higher vistas in their lives; but ultimately, idealism can also be unrealistic, given the world as it is.  The truth is that those who live wholly unto idealism and who carry on as though everything is always sweetness and light are bound to come crashing down to life’s harsh realities; and that cannot help but do damage to the spiritual life.  The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said it well: “Idealism is a greater threat to faith than [even] despair.”  It’s no coincidence that some of the most negative people you’ll ever meet in this life are “burned out” idealists.

Optimism, however, is something different: optimism, at least as it is understood biblically, is ultimate hope.  An optimist knows that life is going to be rough; understands that stuff can be bad and that sometimes we’re going to get hurt, but also knows that good things can and will come through in the end.  A good analogy, I think, is to say that an optimist is something like a marathon runner:  he or she knows that the race is hard, that running may well tax every bit of residual strength they have, and wait… just when you think the race is over, “Heartbreak Hill” is dead ahead!  But the optimist’s attitude is, it’s going to hurt, yes, but I will win this race!

By the same token, Biblical optimism is the attitude of accepting difficulty, but expecting victory.  It is to be looking for God’s hand at work in every situation – the good, the bad and the ugly – and to know that God’s strength and hope pervades any suffering and struggle we face; it is to live expectantly unto what God will be doing in and through our lives; and it is to purposefully live with a positive attitude in a negative world, facing the day with the kind of confidence that comes in knowing that whatever else comes down, we will be able to find the wherewithal to do as Christ himself inspires and leads, including rejoicing in the darkness of a prison cell!

And no, in times such as these, it’s neither an automatic nor easy process to adopt that kind of an attitude, but it’s within such a positive, spiritual stance that we are able to truly embrace the kind of unending hope and redeeming joy that each one of us longs for in this life. Rene Schlaepfer, a pastor and writer out of California, makes the point that while many in the world view positive people as naïve and shallow, “as someone has said, ‘cynicism is just intellectual laziness.’  It doesn’t take any character to be negative,” he says; “it doesn’t take creativity to be negative about [the things] you see… it doesn’t take any deep spiritual maturity to be upset [about everything]… it takes perspective to be positive; it takes wisdom to be positive; you have to be spirit-filled to be positive.”  It takes work, friends; but in the good news that is ours in Jesus, and “in the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,” by grace we are given that which we need to weather the storms and challenges of this life; so that we might truly “rejoice in the Lord always” as we do.

And I don’t know about you, friends, but I want to rejoice in the Lord, and in life… I need to rejoice in it! I do not believe that life should be something that is merely endured and trodden through; I believe that life, most especially as a Christian, is to be an exciting and joyous experience; that every moment of it, be that moment joyful or sorrowful, should be filled with dynamic power.  Beloved, as believers, we are being called to live lives that are thrilling to behold, exciting to watch, ennobling, enkindling, enabling, and enthusiastic. Because of faith, who we are and what we do in life ought to have a vibrancy about it that’s unmistakable; and let me also say that it can, and it will, make a difference in the world!

But how that happens, and if that happens… in many ways, it’s a question of attitude; yours and mine.

The late Mike Yaconelli, in his book, Dangerous Wonder, writes beautifully of how the Christian life can accurately be compared to a roller coaster ride; but not one of the newer rollercoasters where they strap you in and but bars around your shoulders; rather one of the old fashioned ones where you sat on a bench with only one skinny metal pipe in front of you!  In other words, “suddenly you are strapped in and you think, I’m going to die!  Then you begin the long climb up the track of [spiritual] growth… and you think, Hey, no problem, I can follow Jesus anywhere, and then – ZOOOOOOM (!) – you crash into the twists and turns of life, jerking left then right, up then down, and fifty, sixty years go by and – WHAM! – you’re dead.”   But, writes Yaconelli, “if I died right now, even though I would love to live longer, I could say from the depth of my soul, ‘What a ride!’”

The Christian life, he says, “is the breathtaking, thrill-filled, bone-rattling ride of a lifetime where every moment matters and all you can do is hang on for life dear… most people believe that following Jesus is all about living right. Not true.  Following Jesus is all about living fully.”  And to live fully means to take the ride… and to do it with joy, and spirit, and optimism along every turn.

I think that’s what Paul was saying to the Philippians, and us, when he said, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable… think about these things,” and, most importantly, keep doing those things.

It’s all a question of attitude, you know.  May our life’s faithfulness be of such an attitude that one day, we also might be able to say with great satisfaction, “what a ride that was!”  What a ride!

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2018 in Epiphany, Epistles, Faith, Life, Paul, Sermon

 

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