(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on August 21, 2016)
Sometimes you get yourself in precarious situations, where you are holding on for dear life. I mean, all you want is to grab a little snack, and then you are barely holding on…
What are the things that cause you to lose your grip, emotionally or spiritually?
Sometimes even when we have a solid grip on something, it doesn’t help. It all crashes in. We had this great climbing tree at one of the houses we lived in growing up. It had perfect climbing branches, and better than that, there was this wooden bench that surrounded it. I could stand on the bench, reach up, grab a branch, walk my feet up the trunk and climb from there.
Once in first or second grade, I was climbing like I usually did…but the branch broke. And remember, I said there was a bench around the tree. I hit my back on the bench, and got the wind knocked out of me worse than about any other time in my life. Have you ever had that? Just this long, long gasp that you cannot stop! My dad came running out, carried me in the house, and I remember saying: “That’s…never…happened…before!!”
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be adapting and sharing the messages I gave out at Surfside, our camp for high schoolers. We focused as a leadership team on sharing how we have found hope in Christ, about holding on to what we have found to be lasting, permanent, worthwhile.
One of the main reasons I decided to bring these messages here is because the first message I shared at Surfside is so appropriate with the shock we are all feeling with the tragedy in our church family this week. These are the types of horrible experiences that make us feel like we are losing our grip, that we’re about ready to fall.
As Christians, we believe we have hope.
We believe with all our heart that God has us in God’s grip, that God has taken us by the hand. We want to encourage everyone to walk hand in hand with God for your entire life.
But we aren’t blind, and we aren’t asking you to be blind either. We know there are so many things in life that make it feel like either God isn’t real, or that God has abandoned you. So much in life doesn’t seem right or fair. So many times, we try so hard to do the right thing, but it just doesn’t seem to matter, doesn’t seem to pay off.
I’m hoping you have already, and will continue as I speak, to write or draw about the things that cause you to lose your grip. Personal tragedy can do it. Or the news in this world, with shootings and terrorist bombs. Perhaps it’s the hatred that people have for people like those of you who feel marginalized and on the outside. Or when people you love and trust who have let you down, wounded you, hurt you.
Today is a bit of a difficult focus, looking at the things that make us feel like we are an inch from just giving it all up. But I promise you: we will not stay in this scary place. We’ve found God to be faithful! We believe you are valuable; you are loved by God; that God has already reached out a hand of rescue! Even with the challenges in life that can make us feel we are losing our grip, we invite everyone to walk hand in hand with Jesus.
I’ve spent time recently thinking about the different things that have caused me to struggle or question.
One of my high school friends was someone who made me start to lose my grip. I started high school not going to church; I returned when invited by friends, and that’s when I first realized life with God was more than just asking Jesus to save me from hell and take me to heaven. I realized Jesus wanted to help me live differently and better, that Jesus wanted to be in charge of my life.
So I tried really hard to change my lifestyle, to be a good person. In some ways, it wasn’t so hard-I was kinda born with the “good boy” genes. Even before I started going back to church, when I was a freshman on the baseball team, all the upperclassmen made me carry their chewing tobacco for them to practice because they knew coach would never check me for it. But it was hard to serve other people, to do things that helped others and not want to get something out of it.
My friend didn’t believe in God at all, but he was just a great guy. And as time went by, that really started to bother me. Why did he seem to be able to serve people naturally, without God in his life at all…but me, who supposedly had Jesus living in me, why did I have so much struggle to be a good person?
This was one of those things that caused me to start losing my grip. But there are others.
Money not always a big thing for me (it can’t really be when you choose the pastor life), but kids in college is something that requires money. Our daughter Hayley is going to St. Andrews in Scotland in a few weeks, which was a hard decision because it is expensive. I remember driving in the car in the spring, and hearing about some young kid who just got drafted and earned a multi-million dollar signing bonus. I slammed the radio off, punched the dashboard, and started crying. I realized how much I would love to have that money to send Hayley to school, to just write a check and let her pursue her dream. Why, God? I’ve given my life to you, let you be in charge of my job…yet other people are far more rewarded without seeming to care about you at all.
The reality is, life with God isn’t a bargain, isn’t a deal, isn’t a contract…though deep down we often think that’s how it should be.
We think sometimes that if we do the right thing and obey God and serve other people and work for justice…well, then, we’ll get rewarded. Things will work out for us, God will bless us. We think life with God is about working hard to be good. And when we think that, seeing others succeed…others who DON’T look like they are trying to obey God at all…when we see others succeed, it can mess with our heads and cause us to lose our grip.
Listen to part of Psalm 73, the psalm we’ll be using through this series to guide us into wisdom, truth and trust. I’m going to read verses 3 through 7, using The Message, which a man named Eugene Peterson worked on to put the bible into more modern English.
I was looking the other way,
looking up to the people
At the top,
envying the wicked who have it made,
Who have nothing to worry about,
not a care in the whole wide world.
Pretentious with arrogance,
they wear the latest fashions in violence,
Pampered and overfed,
decked out in silk bows of silliness. (Psalm 73:3-7, The Message)
The hard news here is, walking hand in hand with God does not necessarily mean you and I will be successful, wealthy, famous or fashionable.
God’s not our magic wand to the life we’ve always wanted. The reality is, you and I might do everything right in God’s eyes, and then look around and see arrogant, selfish people succeed far more than you or I. That’s the hard part. That’s the reality the Psalmist captures here; we can look around and feel envious of others and frustrated with God that all our hard work to be obedient and good doesn’t matter at all.
But here’s the good news: life with God is not about trying harder, working harder to try and be good. This will be for later in the series, but the truth is Jesus has already done the hard work for us! Sometimes when we are losing our grip, the reminder God wants to bring is this: don’t chase the wrong things. Don’t be envious of the things that don’t last and aren’t essential. Don’t keep looking at and measuring yourself against other people.
But other people getting famous or rich are not the only reasons we lose our grip.
There are lots of more serious reasons. Let’s keep going in Psalm 73 and see some of them:
They jeer, using words to kill;
they bully their way with words.
They’re full of hot air,
loudmouths disturbing the peace.
People actually listen to them—can you believe it?
Like thirsty puppies, they lap up their words.
What’s going on here? Is God out to lunch?
Nobody’s tending the store.
The wicked get by with everything;
they have it made, piling up riches
I’ve been stupid to play by the rules;
what has it gotten me? (Psalm 73:8-13, The Message)
I know some of you sitting here often feel the sting of others bullying you and killing you with cruel words. I know some of you sitting here deal with more than hot air and loudmouths; you experience physical hurt and abuse. Sometimes we lose our grip because we truly are being crushed, wounded, rejected and hurt by others. Sometimes even the ones who should love us the most.
I’ve spent a couple decades as a pastor, and because I’ve walked with many people through really difficult things, I know everyone has a story of pain. This past year, our church has had so many people struggle with cancer, with death, with horrible things that just aren’t fair. It’s made me realize how many people are carrying things behind a smile, things that no one else knows about. I’m so sorry for that.
I totally get, after listening to the pain that some go though, I totally get why people would join with the psalmist and say, “I’ve been stupid to play by the rules; what has it gotten me?” Maybe you’re here today, and your last finger that’s been holding your grip is ready to slip off. If so…I’m glad we get to share with you God’s good news that may have been buried or warped by the bad things done to you.
And of course some of us start losing our grip over things bigger than our personal experience.
Maybe you’ve started to realize that the history of our country and our world have these dark places of injustice; whether we talk about genocide, or race relations, or the slave trade that is still going on today. Maybe you’ve started to see how rape and terror and all kinds of things show a world that is just not fair. History does not seem to give much hope that we can escape the fact that the powerful ones seem to win over the “right” ones again and again and again.
Like I said, today is a difficult message. I don’t bring all this stuff up in order to give you reasons to question God. It’s quite the opposite, actually. I bring it up to make sure we all see that faith doesn’t mean losing our vision of reality. Like the writer of Psalm 73 does, I want to be honest about the hard things of life that I know are present for many in this room. There’s nothing worse than when something you’ve really cared about, something that’s crushed you happens, and a friend just sort of pats you on the head and says: “Oh there there, it’s ok, God loves you and you’ll be fine.”
I DO think God loves you!! But I don’t want to just push that on you, make you wear these happy glasses that turn everything into rainbows and sunshine. I want you to know that many of us here at Newberg Friends are real. We understand life can crush us sometimes, seem unfair, unjust. Sometimes I feel like I’m barely hanging on! But even with that…maybe even because of how hard the world is…we exist as a church to share the transforming power of God’s sacrificing love for everyone on the planet.
God’s hope and promise are God’s presence with us, walking hand in hand.
Just a hint of it comes today, in verse 17, which is the first turning point of the Psalm. It’s just one phrase, “Until I entered the sanctuary of God.” It isn’t just Sunday morning worship when we enter the sanctuary of God; God’s presence is always there, wherever we are, waiting for us to live in it and pay attention.
Next week, we’ll continue in Psalm 73, and for the next several weeks. Next week, we’ll try to learn to stop grasping and wait for God’s presence. The following week, we’ll celebrate that God has always reached out a hand to us first. Then on September 11, at our outdoor service, we’ll recognize that we each must choose to walk hand in hand with God, and will give an opportunity for us to take a tangible choice to do that.
This church is a community where Jesus is the center. I know you each carry hard things, I know some feel like you are at the end of your rope.
But even in this week of tragedy…even with all the things you’ve written and drawn and thought about that cause fear and doubt…even so, we are a community who will stand firm and proclaim there is life, there is hope in the presence of Jesus Christ! He is the true hope that sustains us in our pain.