Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Time to Get Some Rest

How would you define "too busy"? It used to be that people were too busy if they didn’t have time to stop by the house; then it was if they didn’t have time to write, then it was if they didn’t have time to call. What could be easier then sending an email...or updating your Facebook page...and yet there are many who don't have time for that either. Have you tried twitter…it's another social networking site that asks you to briefly respond to the question “What are you doing right now?” a thousand times a day for the benefit of all your friends who care to know. No thanks.

The odd thing about our addiction to busyness is that we actually have more time off than any generation in recent history. In 1880 the typical household provider had about 1.8 hours of leisure per day over the course of a year. But between 1830 and 1995 the length of the work week fell from 70 hours to 40 hours and leisure time tripled. Now the question is, with all this discretionary time, why are we still so tired? Is our exhaustion real or imagined? In his book, Ordering Your Private World, Gordon MacDonald suggests that our fatigue may be evidence that we have forgotten how to genuinely rest. I believe that it's our Heavenly Father who teaches us the true purpose of rest and how to experience its greatest blessings….

Did you know that God was the first rester? That's right, the idea of getting some rest is a biblical concept. In this country, it was devout Christians and Jews who first pushed for time off on Saturdays and Sundays to worship. And though it was Henry Ford who instituted the five day work week in 1926, it was Jesus who said, “Come away by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” Actually, the idea of rest goes back even further…for, according to Scripture, the need for “rest” is built in to the very fabric of creation. Turning to Genesis 2:2 we read that “On the seventh [or 'Sabbath'] day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.” Does God, the all-powerful creator, need to rest? It seems unlikely. A few weeks ago, my family visited the Huntington Gardens and saw the Titan Arum, or “Corpse” Fower, a 7 foot plant that blooms every 10 years. That’s because it takes that long for it to store up the energy to produce its stinky flower blossom. All living things must store up energy to expend energy, and rest to work. God submitted the whole creation to this cycle and then observed it himself as an example to follow!

Think with me a moment about the necessity of Sabbath rest (not just leisure). Today we tend to look at rest as a luxury…when God intended it to be a necessity – the very purpose for which he created the cosmos. And because we’ve failed to understand the necessity of Sabbath rest we have substituted it with the luxury of leisure. Don’t misunderstand me; there is nothing wrong with leisure…with recreation and ball games and sightseeing and amusement parks, or hanging out with friends. As Gordon MacDonald points out, these things are good; but they do not by themselves feed the soul like sabbath rest. The sixth commandment is to “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy….” (Ex. 20: 8). What we are supposed to do on the sabbath should be possible in all our daily activities…especially our leisure activities. Family vacations, time with family and friends become holy when we invite God to be part of those times. Sadly, the holiness of sabbath rest has often been replaced with leisure activities that are decidedly unholy, fruitless, and degrading....

Men, we need to beware of “Miller time” when it becomes “wasted time.” God calls us to self-control in all things. If you are tempted to self-medicate when you are under the stress of work, loneliness, or family conflict, get some help! We need to beware of so-called “adult entertainment” and internet sites that make a wasteland of our souls. This kind of “entertainment” is destroying marriages; and our example as fathers. As fathers we are not only investing in the degradation of someone else’s daughter, but our own....

Leisure has become synonymous with doing whatever feels good at the moment, regardless of the cost. I know a pastor who recently told his church that he was leaving his wife of many years…and for what? In order to pursue a same sex relationship. Was scratching this itch really worth the end of his marriage or his fellowship with God? I grieve for him and especially for his family. If the luxury of our leisure time is inconsistent with the necessity of sabbath rest; if we would be embarrassed for God to be the silent witness of our discretionary time (which he is)…then we must turn and flee from it, but having said that…we need to understand what we are fleeing toward…and positively define what is meant by the practice of sabbath rest…

Let's briefly consider four practices associated with Sabbath rest. First, genuine Sabbath rest sets aside time for reflection. When God rested from the work of creation...we’re told that he looked around and “saw everything that he had made,” and then reflected on its meaning and value. The conclusion: “It was very good” (Genesis 1:31). When God paused from his work to appreciate it and to reflect on its meaning and value; he was teaching us to reflect not simply on our work…but on God’s work, and to give him praise and thanks.

Every Friday night, observant Jews recite a prayer that goes like this: “You made the Seventh Day Holy for Your Name, it being the very purpose of the Making of Heaven and Earth ….” The whole purpose of creating this universe was that one holy day the creation itself (you & me) would look up and worship the Creator. Genuine sabbath rest is a time to ponder the true purpose of our work and God’s work… to glorify him, and consider how to shine our light before others.

Another aspect of genuine Sabbath rest is that it establishes a rhythm for our week: 6 + 1. For “God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Gen. 2:2) Without God’s call to this rhythm of work and rest…our labor would be never-ending. I don’t believe there is any legitimate activity in our lives that would not benefit from a day off each week…whether we’re talking about work, exercise, checking our email, watching TV, eating, shopping, driving, talking on the phone, etc. An intentional fast from these things has the potential of readying our hearts to receive more of God’s love, his word, and have more time for the people we love.

Sunday worship is one of the most important ways that we re-establish this rhythm and become re-centered in who God is and who we are. Last Spring, Lisa and I and our girls spent a few days in the mountains at the cabin of one of her friends. The cabin was built almost 100 years ago…and because of the extreme weather changes…nails continually work themselves loose. I spent a good amount of time one day…pounding those nails back into the front deck. Gordon MacDonald observes that on the Sabbath, after a week of extremes, and the push and pull of our daily responsibilities, we are actually setting aside time to “repound the nails of our convictions and commitments.” With every hymn or praise song…with every prayer…and with every sermon, our drifting spirit is being re-grounded; and the foundation of our faith is being reaffirmed and restored.

A third quality of genuine Sabbath rest is freedom… with responsibility. How important is it to observe the sabbath? We should begin by saying that Christians don’t technically observe the sabbath (or seventh) day of the week to rest and worship. We rest on the first ordinary day of the week, like the first Jewish believers, in celebration of the day Jesus rose from the dead. That in itself reminds us that every ordinary day is holy before God. When it comes to observing sabbath rest, Jesus teaches us freedom + responsibility. As he was walking through the fields one Saturday afternoon, his disciples were picking grain; an activity considered to be “work” by the Pharisees and therefore forbidden (see Mark 2: 24-28). Responding to his critics, Jesus says that “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2: 27)! The sabbath was meant to be a gift, not a legalistic burden.

But if the Sabbath is to be observed with freedom, it is also to be observed with responsibility - a time in which we are encouraged to do good, to worship God, spend time with family, and serve others. One day Jesus was criticized for healing on the Sabbath since this too was considered by some to be “work.” He asks his accusers rhetorically: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. (Mark 2: 27, 3:4) As the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus makes it clear that we can work on the sabbath; but that this work should not be the usual, daily kind of work for which we receive a paycheck. Rather, it should be a time in which we do those things that bless our neighbor and all other living creatures, and honor God. As a pastor, my day of “rest” is Sunday (my day of worship) but it is also Monday, because this is the day I rest from my work, reflect on God’s call upon my life apart from my role as pastor, and invest in my family and other relationships.

The fourth quality of genuine sabbath rest is spiritual renewal. Jesus said, “Come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest” (Matt.11:28). And again,“Come away by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:30). Jesus invites us to find rest in him by imitating his habit of taking time for solitude and silence. What do these badly needed spiritual exercises look like today? An early morning discipline of 5-10 minutes alone with God in prayer…an evening walk in which you meditate on God’s promises and speak to him in the quietness of your heart. For many of us, these may seem impractical and needlessly time consuming….

MacDonald points us to a man like William Wilberforce, a member of the English parliament who worked to end slavery in England over the course of twenty years. Where did he get the spiritual strength and moral courage to persevere for those many years without giving up? At one point he was offered a cabinet post under the new prime minister but found that this “rising ambition” – said one biographer -- was consuming his energy and crippling his soul (Garth Lean, God’s Politician). But “Sunday brought the cure,” Lean writes. It was that discipline of sabbath rest that re-centered him in his true calling and purpose – to serve God by working for abolition. Wilberforce writes, “Blessed be to God for the day of rested and religious occupation wherein earthly things assume their true size. Ambition is stunted.” (MacDonald, 162). What if Wilberforce did not know the blessing of sabbath rest? Could it have derailed his mission to end slavery? No doubt! This world needs Christians who are being renewed by the discipline of sabbath rest.

My eldest daughter Corynn recently culminated from elementary school. It was such a joy as a father to watch her crossing this first milestone in her education. On her last day of school, I was helping Lisa with a party just outside her classroom. At one point, I came into the room where the children were taking pictures and signing yearbooks. I sat down on a chair trying to keep a respectable distance so that my daughter didn’t feel too overcrowded by her dad’s presence …and then, to my surprise, Corynn walked over and sat in my lap. I thought to myself, "Wew! She's still not too old to sit in my lap!"

Jesus, we are told, ascended to heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God the Father. Friends, a day is coming when we too shall graduate from this world… and begin the real adventure; beginning with that moment that we sit down in our Heavenly Father’s lap; receive a hug from his Son, and rest deeply in his love. For this life is only preparation for the true rest, the holiday (or 'holy' day) that awaits all those who trust in Christ…the day of worship and service to God that will be our endlessly creative assignment in God’s full world.

The writer of Hebrews describes it well: “A sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his. Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest…” (Heb. 4: 9-11)! And so in anticipation of that future holiday...may I humbly suggest on behalf of the Savior that it's time for you to get some rest.

Monday, July 6, 2009

God Bless Our 'Drop in the Bucket'

“Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket and are accounted as dust on the scales; see, he takes up the isles like fine dust” (Isaiah 40:15).

National pride is a universal experience. The World Cup or the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games is proof enough of that. I love my country as much as anyone; despite our mistakes and shortcomings. Saturday night my family and I were enjoying the fireworks display at the Culver City High School athletic field, singing along with a huge crowd. It was the best fireworks display I've seen in years as we sat there with friends from our church and from our community. It brought to mind the line used by a popular radio talk-show host about the United States being “the greatest nation on God’s green earth.” As I sat there watching that display, and listening to the moving patriotic music it was easy to think of all the reasons why I love this country. But with all that said (and all that singing)…how do we reconcile national pride with Isaiah 40:15? Can America seriously call itself “the greatest nation on God’s green earth” or are we in fact just “a drop in the bucket” ? I want to let God’s word answer that question with three propositions…

Proposition #1 America is a great nation; and we should bless & pray for her. I will not presume to call America "the greatest" nation (that's for God alone to judge) but I believe I have good cause both historically and biblically to say she is a "great nation." There is much that is great about America; but here is my short list.

  • I love the genius of our founding fathers who formed a democratic republic based on the intrinsic value of every human being.
  • I love the four freedoms that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke of : the freedom of worship, the freedom of speech, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear.
  • I love President Reagan’s line about America being 'a shining city on a hill' and that we should aspire to be an example to follow.
  • I love the natural beauty of our country – 'from the mountains to the prairies to the oceans white with foam.'
  • I love our judicial system; where one is presumed innocent until proven guilty.
  • I love our respect for science, especially as applied to the treatment of disease, the alleviation of suffering and the expansion of human knowledge.
  • I love our entrepreneurial spirit, that you can do anything, be anything if you are willing to try.
  • I love the fact that long before anyone dreamed up the Declaration of Independence, our national identity was forged in The Great Awakening - a mighty spiritual revival that swept the eastern seaboard and quickened the heart and soul of the colonies; a full of God moment when spiritual leaders like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield and William Tennant, were household names a full three decades before anyone had heard of Jefferson, Franklin, or Washington. That's what I love most about America.

Is it wrong to think of our nation as “great”? Consider the fact that Abraham and Sarah were told that God would make of them “a great nation” (Genesis 12: 2). And if Israel was called “great” by God; surely there is nothing wrong with desiring to be a great nation in God’s eyes. When the people of Israel were exiled to foreign lands, they were not told to curse, but to bless and pray for the cities where they found themselves! “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” says Jeremiah 29:7. The very first thing we must do is to pray that our nation might be truly great in God’s eyes. But that qualifying statement brings us back to Isaiah’s sobering perspective on greatness; for like any nation….

Proposition #2 America is 'a drop in the bucket' when compared to the immensity and power of God. For again, “Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket and are accounted as dust on the scales; see, he takes up the isles like fine dust” (Isaiah 40:15). Isaiah literally says, “Behold,” or “pay attention,” “listen up”—the nations are like drops and dust when compared to the immense power of God. I still remember the day my fourth grade teacher pulled down her big world map and pointed out the two major superpowers in the world; the United States and the USSR. Wow, I thought to myself, my nation is a superpower! At times we as Americans have felt a kind of "childish" sense of invincibility because of our super military power, our technology, our worth ethic, or our determination. At other times, we have felt genuinely fearful of other nations: in the late 1930s and 40s, we feared a re-armed Germany; during the Cold War, it was the Soviets; and today, a nuclear armed Iran or North Korea (who, by the way, is supposed to be launching another Taepodong – 2 missile between July 4-8).

God however is neither impressed nor intimidated by even the most “super” power on earth. We’re like a drop of water in a bucket to the Creator! If you are carrying a bucket of water and a single drop is lost over the side; you’re not likely to lose any sleep. If a checker at the supermarket puts your vegetables on a scale to weigh them, he doesn’t get out a feather duster to wipe out the particles of dust. The scale is simply not affected by particles of dust. And so, Isaiah says that all the nations of the world, put together, are like a single drop of water or a speck of dust when compared to the Creator God. They no more affect God and his plans than dust affects your weight on a scale.

But if we are only a drop of water, does this mean we are irrelevant to God? By no means! Because a single drop of water…is also one of God’s greatest miracles! Scientists have spent billions trying to find a single drop of liquid water on the moon, or other planets in our solar system. So far, earth is the only planet we know of with liquid water on its surface. There are over 5 sextillion (a 5 followed by 21 zeroes) atoms in every drop of water (a universe on a pinhead); and when combined with other water droplets, it’s one of the reasons that life exists at all on our planet. Einstein once said, “A single drop of water helps to swell the ocean.” Every drop of water is a gift, and so are the nations in which we live. Isaiah’s comparison should not make us feel irrelevant…but awed & grateful. But if America is both right to aspire to greatness, and rightly humbled before God's ultimate greatness then we must go on to say this...

Proposition #3 America’s future depends upon its willingness to be a humble servant of God among the nations. A few weeks ago, I considered the saying that “Pride Comes Before the Fall.” Nowhere is that more true than among nations. The choice is always before us…pride or humility; arrogance or meekness. One of the great sins we can commit is to substitute nationalism for the worship of God. No ruler, no earthly authority, no government, no political party, has the right to take God’s place in our hearts. One of the reasons that the Bible is an outlawed book in many countries is that the God described therein claims a higher authority in our lives than any earthly ruler and our ultimate allegiance. It has been duly noted and proven by history that without God as our Lord, we will have mere humans as our masters.

Therefore, God says for our benefit, “You shall worship the Lord God, and him only shall you serve,” and “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). In 1863 President Lincoln did just that when he set aside April 30th as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer. Read these words:

"It is the duty of nations, as well as of men, who owe their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by a history that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord…. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has grown, but we have forgotten God."

Friends, it is one of our jobs as Jesus’ followers, to help our own nation to remember the One whom they dare not forget. Once again, ancient Israel is our model here. For the destiny of Israel, from the perspective of Genesis 12:1-2 was to bless other nations and all the peoples of the earth. In other words, the greatness of Israel lay in its calling to help other nations become great for God. French writer Alexis de Tocqueville (tok-veel) after visiting America in 1831, said, "America is great because America is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great!" Echoing that sentiment, I'm remembering the words inscribed over the entrance of Los Angeles City Hall: “Righteousness exalteth a nation” -- a citation from Proverbs 14:34. The full citation is "Righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people." I believe those words will either lift us up, or be our epitaph, as a nation.

How then does a drop of water become great, and not reproachable? Here are three suggestions using that drop of water as a metphor. First, we need to practice Humility. As a nation, America must continue to realize that it is but one atom in that miraculous drop of water…and that our critical leadership role is not as pontificators -- but co-operators; not one over, but one among the company of nations.

Second, we must exercise Responsibility. H20 responds to its environment by changing…from liquid to solid to gas. Responsibility, that is "the ability to respond redemptively in critical moments of historical signficance" is critical in every age and no less in ours. The world needs a nation that is able to respond to the great challenges of our time…upholding the rule of law among nations, using the power of the sword to restrain evil when absolutely necessary, addressing global poverty and disease and threats to the environment, facing humanitarian and natural disasters through international cooperation and the sharing of knowledge and resources for the greater good.

Finally, our age demands Moral Clarity from us. The world needs “clear” water that is free of contaminants and pollutants. The world also needs nations that have a clear and consistent moral vision -- not compromising when it is convenient or beneficial to ourselves to do so. I believe that our constitution, and the godly principles on which it is based, is a gift to the world – if only we will live up to it.

I want to close by telling you an American story; a story about a woman who won the lottery in Kenya in order to come to America with her young son. Although winning the lottery sounds wonderful, to travel here she had to sell practically everything she owned…just to buy the plane tickets and had $5000 left over to start her life again in a new country. Even if she had wanted to go back…she couldn't have; but her faith matched the immense challenge. Even though she had a college education from her home country and had employed a maid in her African home, she found herself working long hours as a security guard. Eventually, she got a job as a teacher’s assistant in Beverly Hills; then worked in the home of one of our church members while putting herself through a degree program at Santa Monica City College. Again, throughout these years she was raising a son by herself (brilliantly I might add), in a strange country, far from home. She finally went on to attend Cal State LA where she enrolled in a masters program in social work (Remember that she already had a college education in Kenya). When a recent illness began to severely affect her vision, our deacons arranged for a church member to drive her to school everyday. Imagine the celebration when just weeks ago she was awarded her Masters in Social Work!

I will not print her name here...but we rejoice with her, not just because hers is a quintessential American story or a heroic Kenyan story…but more importantly because it is part of God’s story…the God who humbled himself in human flesh; who became nothing more than a speck of dust in the universe, less than a drop of water in the womb of his mother; and we confess that it is this God who died for our sins on the cross, and defeated the powers of death on the third day. Why? So that he might give us overflowing bucketfulls of living water that shall well up to eternal life! I'm blessed to be a citizen of this great nation; I'm blessed to be even one part of that drop which is the nations of the earth; and I'm convicted by the fact that God has called us to be more than great -- but a humble servant of the God who alone is greatest.