In ten days, America will vote for the future of our country. Some of you are nervous about who will win and what that will mean. Others have given up caring because they believe no matter who wins nothing will really change. Whatever happens on November 3rd Paul letter reminds us that we don’t have to let that steal our joy which God has given to us in Christ Jesus.
It’s not been easy for Paul to know Christ and live out the power of his resurrection. He has been beaten more times than he can count, he’s been arrested, ridiculed, shipwrecked, and now he sits in prison awaiting what will be his death sentence. In spite of all this, Paul presses on. “Forgetting what is behind him and straining towards what is ahead…the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” This is similar to the “running a race” analogy that Paul used in another letter to encourage the Christians in Corinth to “Run in such a way as to take the prize.” (1 Cor. 9:24)
I’m not saying that I have this all together, that I have it made. But I am well on my way, reaching out for Christ, who has so wondrously reached out for me. Friends, don’t get me wrong: By no means do I count myself an expert in all of this, but I’ve got my eye on the goal, where God is beckoning us onward—to Jesus. I’m off and running, and I’m not turning back. ~ Philippians 3:12-14 (MSG)
As a kid I used to run sprints, which meant I ran at full speed for just a short distance. I was pretty good, and won a lot of blue ribbons to show off. If you’ve ever run like this, you know that going at a breakneck speed will only take you so far. You run out of track as quickly as you run out of gas.
I believe Paul is telling us that we need to train for the long haul. Like a marathon runner who pushes through the pain by visualizing and staying focused on finish line. As Christ followers, this doesn’t mean we look only towards the rewards of heaven when we die.
Running is an active sport that requires us to be very present in the moment. If you run on the street, you have to be mindful of the traffic. If you run on trail there is the uneven ground, rocks and other obstacles to look out for. Faith is the same. We live it here, in the present where there are many challenges to face. Christ has called us to be mindful in the world if we are to live out the gospel in such a way that people get a glimpse of God in their lives.
We also need to be faithfully present because this is where God meets us to strengthen and encourage us beyond the sprint - to go the distance to where the fullness of God’s glory is reveal to us.
After a 35 year hiatus I took up running again. Only this time with a slower pace and a more purposeful goal of going longer distances. Although I never run as far as I’d like, I still I press on...pushing myself to reach smaller goals I’ve set for myself.
There are days when it’s hard to breathe or too easy for my legs give out. I have a choice, I can allow myself to stop (which sometimes I do) or I summon the strength to press onward. On those days when I have to stop and walk home the joy is sucked right out of me. But on those days I push on, when I come running down the alley, panting and sweating in full stride, I fully rejoice because I made it home alive.
Through his struggles, the pain and anguish that Paul endured, he kept his eye focused on the goal; running a spiritual race totally committed to winning the prize. Paul could have given up, dismayed that he hasn’t yet reached his goal. But he knew that this isn’t a foot race or a presidential race. It’s a holy race. One where God is always a step ahead leading the way to the finish line.
As the psalmist once said, “The signposts of GOD are clear and point out the right road. The life-maps of GOD are right, showing the way to joy.”
Paul has a reason to rejoice. There’s holiness in his dissatisfaction because, as Tom Holliday pointed out, “God is making stuff happen... even in our times of wait.”
While Jesus was in a tomb for three days, God was busy changing the order of the entire world through his mysterious resurrection. Leaning into the power of Christ’s resurrection, Paul rejoiced knowing God was working on the signs that will point him to the finish line.
Whatever trials we are facing we can rejoice too by looking forward to the goal Christ has set before us. Take a moment to think about what has God placed in front of you to help you push our faith onward and upward towards Christ. Maybe it’s a person you’re angry with or don’t see eye-to-eye. Maybe it’s a situation that is difficult too handle. In those moments, you must never lose sight of what God is working out in and through you. God is always one step ahead.
Now, when I run I look for certain visual markers, like traffic lights and streets, that let me know how far I’ve gone or how much further I need to go. For example, the last mile of my run is often on a beautiful tree lined street. No matter on how far I’ve gone that day, I always narrow my focus on this small beige square in the distance - the wall of an apartment complex near my house. When my breathing becomes harder, and my legs throw a temper tantrum, I focus on that square, knowing the bigger it becomes the closer I am to ending the pain and suffering that I have imposed on myself.
Paul encourages his friends in Philippi to keep their eyes set on something – the everlasting joy of being forever with Christ. With Christ in our sights, we can keep living out the gospel knowing it only brings us closer and closer to our goal. The more Paul remained focused on that prize the easier it was for him to find joy and rejoice...even in his own pain and suffering.
The same is true for us. In the most difficult of circumstances, Paul committed to the race by committing to Christ. So should we. These three verses provide us with a good reminder of why we are running this race in the first place.
If we choose to follow Christ with heaven as our prize, then we have commit to live a heavenly life here and now...one that mirrors Christ. We must be committed to the race of ... giving people a glimpse of good living and the living God.
Yet we have to also remain very present in this moment where the world has its sights set on knocking us down, leaving us to feel dismayed and dissatisfied.
Think about how hard you strive to do the right thing while constantly battling pushback from others. It can be frustrating and make you want to give up. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to quit and walk away. But we can’t. We have to keep running the race.
Maybe you feel unsatisfied with your faith journey because you feel like you’re doing nothing more than running on hamster wheel, going nowhere. You struggle to live into your Christ-likeness, and yet still heaven feels so far away.
No matter how hard you work for peace and justice and equality, people continue to hate and harm one another. No matter how much time you give at the food pantry, how many bags of groceries you put together or how much money you raise, people are still going hungry in your community. Yet, we have to keep running the race.
Remember what I said at the beginning of this sermon series...when life kicks the joy out of you, God kicks it back in. God is working for our victory. So let us not to lose hope, but instead rejoice knowing this is a spiritual journey, a holy marathon. It’s a divine race where God is one step ahead of us being victorious with and in and through you.
By allowing God to be present in us, we receive God’s trophy, the prize of Christ. And so we have to keep running the race. Because we’re not running for our glory but so that the glory of God may be seen in us.
Paul had a heart to honor God’s glory, it was the goal he focused on. A goal so great that not even imprisonment or death would stop his commitment to running that race and moving closer to Christ. Thus, Paul rejoiced constantly.
Tom Holliday wrote, “Paul pressed on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called him. He had a visionary commitment and the vision wasn’t based on what he could do. Paul’s commitment was based on the understanding of Christ’s vision for his life.”
I believe God has a specific purpose for your life. So keep running the race. I believe you’ve been called for something greater. But you have to keep running for it to be constantly revealed to you. You may not see it yet, and you may not believe you’re experiencing it right now, but never forget that God is one step ahead preparing the way for your victory.
Stay focused on the goal. Stay committed to it like Paul did. If only because God is focused on and committed to you.
One last thing for us to remember. Joy is not automatic. It is a discipline, a daily choice we must make faithfully. We have practice it and exercise it so we can build up the spiritual muscles and endurance we need to find joy in all circumstances .
This is especially true at the end of life’s race when we lean in and bust through the tape at the finish line - completing the race and claiming our prize of our divine belovedness in Christ.
Right out of the gate, Paul tells us we need to get to work. You got to keep on doing what you’ve been doing…living in obedience…be energetic…but have reverence…no bickering, no second-guessing. No matter where we are employed, the goal of our labor should always be as Paul puts it to “provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God.”
What does that job look like to you? Showing up to church on Sundays? Being kind and getting along with everyone? Or being generous with your time and money? Volunteering or going out of your way to help someone in need?
For Paul, this meant getting up every day to live his life in accordance to God’s will; mirroring his life on that of Christ so others can come to know God’s glory. This is what it means to be faithful – to act on your faith that you have in Christ. This also means we can’t sleep in or take an early retirement. We have to get up every day and punch the clock for Christ.
The gospels only give us a small glimpse into the life of Jesus. What we know about his ministry is that he didn’t spend a lot of time sitting around quibbling over who was the greatest shooting guard in NBA history. He knew it’s Kobe. Whenever Jesus tried to rest or even retire for the night, people would come begging for help. And every time he saw them, Jesus had compassion for them.
Jesus spent his time living out the gospel – loving, healing, feeding, caring for God’s children so God’s glory could be seen, and God’s grace be given.
A couple of days ago I was talking with my mom about Medicare and Social Security. She said she didn’t get a lot because she only worked for a year or so. I told her that was not actually true. She worked tirelessly to keep our home and family running. Yet she still had time to run for public office, volunteer for numerous political campaigns, cheer at our sporting events and so much more.
Although my mother brought her own flavor to a conversation, it was always seasoned with the gospel. She knew her job wasn’t just a housewife or mother. She was also a beloved child of God who still shares the good news by living the gospel as best as she can be.
This reminds of me of a story in John’s gospel when Jesus is walking in the temple and a group approached him and said, “Tell us plainly, are you the Messiah?” This is a title given to God’s anointed savior. Jesus answered the men, “I’ve told you already, and yet you don’t believe. The works that I do in God’s name reveal who I am.”
What does this say about us? How does our work describe who we are?
Jesus worked out the gospel by bringing the good news to others in the way he lived out his faith and faithfulness to doing God’s will. This tells me that if we want to have real joy in our lives, we have to take the gospel, the very gift of our salvation, and put it into productive use. When we live short of all that God has given to us our joy is short lived.
Kobe Bryant took his gift to create multiple championships. He worked out constantly to keep his body in optimal health, and to stay at the top of his game. As students of Christ, we must constantly work on our spiritual health and wellbeing. We have to work out, what God has worked in us.
I think this is what Paul meant when he wrote, “Carry the light-giving message into the night so I’ll have good cause to be proud of you on the day that Christ returns. You’ll be living proof that I didn’t go to all this work for nothing.”
Paul worked out his salvation by mirroring Christ. So did all the Apostles, and all the saints before us. What they all showed us is that this job is what Henri Nouwen described “a daily work out of our salvation…to make our own lives available to others as sources of new life and joy.”
Just as Jesus pointed out to the men in the temple, our true identity cannot be reduced to a job title. I couldn’t say Kobe is the greatest basketball player of all time if he never played the game. Likewise, the gospel has to be lived out, it has to be experienced.
Salvation is not just a theory or religious concept. It’s a reality we live in and live out daily. The early church grew exponentially because they experienced Jesus firsthand through the works and words of the Apostles. This experience was passed down through the generations. To this day, people will continue to experience the everlasting joy of Christ through us.
That’s the church’s job. And by your faith in Christ, you are a part of his church. It’s in our living out the gospel that people will come to know who we are, and what we stand for or believe in. We need to get up and work out the Christ in us everyday. We need to let Christ’s joy be felt in the way we love God, love others, and serve both.
That’s the mission of New Church Sherman Oaks. We chose it because we believe Jesus meant it when he said, “They will know you are mine by the way you love one another.”
As the church we carry on Jesus’ legacy. We become the visible presence of his love; the very place where joy is born. We invite you to join us in this mission, and to be a part of this good news.
Like Erma Bombeck once said, “When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me’”. Will you be able to say that?
Lebron, Anthony Davis, and the LA Lakers bench did this last Sunday. They used all that they had. And now they rejoice. Kobe used everything God gave him, every time he stepped on a basketball court...or a boardroom. And of course, Jesus left every last bit of himself on the hard wood of that old rugged cross.
Today it’s our turn. God has employed us to be more like Jesus, who through his righteous works of love was raised up and became one with God.
Like Jesus, we too will find our truest joy being one with God allowing God to work through us. And when God works through us life's most difficult challenges can be overcome. Joy can be had. Like Paul realized and shared with us, in Christ God has given to us all the abundance of life so we can pour out our life generously for others with great joy.
Whether you’re retired, unemployed, or overworked this is the goal. You might be student or in the midst of changing careers, but Christ is still calling you because there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Whether you are facing difficult challenges and overwhelming uncertainty – the work you do in Christ’s name is never done in vain. But done in glory of the One has given us everlasting joy through our glorious salvation.
The one who is the greatest boss, employing us for the greatest of jobs. Now, let's get to work.
This is a revised version of a sermon previously given on April 17, 2016.
Bible. Philippians 2:12-18; John 10:22-30 (The Message).
Cook, John, ed. The Book of Positive Quotations: 2nd Edition. Minneapolis: Fairview Press, 1993.
Holladay, Tom. Philippians: The Eight Places Joy Is Won or Lost. El Toro: Saddleback Church, 2014.
Mahan, Michael. "How to find more meaning at work." Relevant, Jan-Feb 2016: 38-39.
Miles, Sara. Jesus Freak: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.
Nouwin, Henri. Bread of Life. New York: Harper-Collins, 2007.
In an article written on Paul’s letter to the churches in Philippi, Mark Driscoll described like I often see Jesus - as “a rebel, an outlaws, a renegade, and sanctified troublemaker.” This could easily define Jesus as well. But how odd is it that is not the image we have of him. Promoting people to be rebellious against the system isn’t what most of today’s churches like to be about. We don’t like to define trouble-making as a holy act. But there’s no doubt in my mind that Jesus did.
There are other similarities between Paul and Jesus. Both were single, homeless, lived on the welfare and charity of others, and yes each one was hated and rejected by his own religious contemporaries. In the book of Acts, we learn how Paul was run out of nearly every town he visited, and often took a good beating with him.
Again, this isn’t what ministers like to preach about. We like to focus on the kindness and the goodness, and of course the love. But believe it or not, in the first century, that was the stuff rulers considered to be seditious and subversive.
With all that Paul endured to share the gospel of Christ, he did so knowing God could not be beaten or defeated – the cross of Christ was his proof. When most of us would have thrown in the towel and walked away from God and our faith, Paul stood firm in his. He wrote this letter to his friends so they would do the same. He encouraged them to complete his joy by sharing in the Spirit of compassion and sympathy for one another.
Take a moment to think about all the vitriol and anger, the false narratives and deceit we encounter every day just on social media. How does it make you feel? Not very happy I’m sure. But happiness wasn’t Paul’s goal, was it? He didn’t confuse joy with happiness. Instead equated joy with Christ Jesus.
In the beloved comic strip Peanuts, Charles Schultz wrote, “Happiness is a warm puppy.” Many of us know what that kind of happiness feels like. However, this is not joy. Joy is not something that chews up your favorite pair of shoes. Or digs holes in your backyard.
In the 80’s Bobby McFerrin penned the catchy song, “Don’t worry…Be Happy.” If only joy were that easy. Simply because Paul equates joy with Christ that alone should give us all something to worry about. Living out the gospel is not easy, but necessary in order for our joy to be complete.
Not to bash on the church too much, but for decades ministers have watered down the bible's definition of true joy; reducing it nothing more than a warm-and-fuzzy feeling, or a carefree attitude of delight. The problem with that is people realized they don’t need the church to find that warm puppy feeling. And when they fall short of not worrying and being happy in the world...the church often gets the blame.
Joy is more than happiness, just as happiness is more than pleasure. Pleasure is in the body. Happiness is in the mind. But joy is deep within the heart, in the very essence of our being. It is a longing and a treasure that God buried deep within us. And Jesus is the key to unlocking it.
In his spiritual biography aptly entitled “Surprised by Joy,” C.S. Lewis described joy as “an experience no one would ever exchange for all the happiness in the world.” And for good reason. Like I said last week, joy doesn’t come from power or possessions but from a person: Jesus Christ.
We may not have him physically here with us today, but we do have his Spirit in us and with us every day. You see, joy doesn't just come from having Jesus over to the house for dinner. We unlock our joy by being united to him; sharing the same Spirit.
Because of this, Paul can sit in a prison awaiting what will be his death sentence, and find joy knowing he is connected to his friends in Christ by “being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord.”
What does this say to us today? It tells me that we need to push ourselves beyond the current political climate and the media madness to be reunited in Christ and reaffirm our Christian commitment to one another; by seeking to bring God's justice and reconciliation and peace to the world by being little Christ’s in our communities.
True joy is found not just in believing in Christ Jesus, but also when you live as he lived; love as he loved; sharing the same Spirit, showing the same compassion and sympathy for others. Thus, Paul tells us to “Do nothing out of selfishness but in humility count others as better than you.”
When asked in an interview what kept her humble, the late comedian Phyllis Diller sharply quipped, “Mirrors!” Oh, the uncomfortable truth in her statement. Mirrors don’t lie. Especially as we grow older.
In maturing our faith, Paul calls us to mirror Christ – to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus so that others can come to see God’s glory and find their joy.
When you look in a mirror, what do you see? Do you see the same faith, the same righteousness, the same love as God’s most beloved child?
Do you see a rebel or troublemaker who turns the ways of the world upside down by putting the interest of others before your own?
Imagine what our country might be like if our leaders looked in the mirror and saw Christ. Imagine if just once they adopted the mind of Jesus, “who emptied himself, taking the form of a servant; humbling himself to the point of death.”
Imagine what your world, your life, you joy would be like if you made others more important than yourself. Not equal, but more important. It might be easy for me to give up my place in line at the store or let someone take the last donut from the box.
Yet I know how much harder it is for to allow someone’s opinion to be above my own when it comes to discussing politics or religious ideology. But that’s what we are called to do. Jesus wants us to make other people’s health and wellbeing more important than our own. Even when our beliefs are vastly different, we are called to be like Christ who said “I did not come to be served but to serve.”
That’s what Joy is all about. And why it can be hard to find. It doesn’t mean we will be happy all the time, but we will have reason to rejoice because we are doing the will of God for the glory of God.
I want to leave you with something I learned in Sunday school as a kid that I think help you to mirror Christ. It’s an acronym for the word J-O-Y.
J stands for Jesus. Jesus is first because Jesus is the most important person in this equation. He is the one we are shaping our lives to be like.
O is for others. As in Jesus made other people more important. So that’s why we should too.
We share the gospel with others by living the gospel like Jesus did.
Lastly, Y is for you. You are also important. You are the one bringing joy into the world. But here’s the hard truth.
Joy can seem elusive these days because we like to put ourselves first. We go for what we want, often at the expense of others. That kind of joy is short lived. Self-centered people are eventually abandoned or voted off the island, because they suck the joy out of everyone else.
As you leave here today, remember that Joy is Jesus. Joy is living for others, serving and caring for them as Jesus did. Joy is about you and what you can do and what you achieve when you initiate Christ’s love in the world.
Living in the likeness of Christ, we become something greater than ourselves. We become the face of hope, the heart of love, and the hands of generosity.
We become the true Spirit of God’s grace bringing tenderness, compassion, and sympathy to others in the world. We become a church of rebels, outlaws, and trouble makers sanctified by Christ and made holy before God who exalts us to our rightful place as beloved children united in Divine glory.
This is a revised version of a sermon previously given on April 10, 2016.
Bible. Philippians 2:1-11 (NRSV).
Driscoll, Mark. Preach it, Teach it. Nov. 4, 2007. http://www.preachitteachit.org/fileadmin/SiteFiles/LegacyUploads/20071104_the-rebels-guide-to-joy-in-humility_en_transcript.pdf (accessed April 6, 2016).
Holladay, Tom. Philippians: The Eight Places Joy Is Won or Lost. El Toro: Saddleback Church, 2014.
Sproul, R.C. Can I have Joy in my Life: Crucial Questions Series No. 42. Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2012.
To his friends, Paul is praying for them with joy in his heart knowing that they share the gospel - the redemptive love of God - just like we do. Even though we are not together in the physical sense, we are always together in Christ. Because we have Christ, we always have a reason to rejoice with one another.
Having only three letters, ‘Joy’ is a pretty big word. It’s the catalyst to countless loves songs and poems. It’s the one emotion that drives us to work harder, encourages us to love better, and motivates us to look beyond ourselves. Many of you find joy being with your kids or grandkids. Or spending a sunny day at the beach. Or curling up in bed with a good book.
For me, it’s hearing the laughter of my children playing together; enjoying a delicious meal with good friends; and of course, cranking up my guitar amp and stomping on the distortion pedal until the walls of our house shutter and shake.
The problem with finding joy in earthly things is while they might make us feel good, the effect is often temporary. I know my kids will find something to fight about. That good meal will come to end and we’ll have to say goodbye to our friends. Like a good book or a perfect day, we want our joys to last. But no matter how good we have it, or how badly we want it life always seems to find a way to kick the joy out of us.
Paul knew this well. As we heard from our reading, he wrote this intimate letter, not from a tropical beach or a private golf resort, but from dark and dank prison. I’ve watched enough episodes of Game of Thrones and Orange Is the New Black to know how hard it is to find joy behind bars. But if the Apostle Paul can find it in a dreary cell, then what’s stopping us from finding it in our own pit of despair?
Unlike happiness, joy is not contingent upon our circumstances. Regardless of our situation, Paul reminds us that we can rejoice. Yes, when we receive bad news, we can find joy in it. When things don’t turn out the way you intended them to, you can still rejoice.
Long before the U.S. government eased travel restrictions to Cuba, I snuck into Havana for a few days. There I saw first hand how badly the embargo had hurt the people. Buildings were crumbling and cars cobbled together with whatever parts they could find. Food was scarce. And yet, despite their severe poverty there was a sense of richness among them; a Spirit of joy filled them.
I could feel it in the air, and see it on their faces as it flowed out of them through music, laughter, and dancing. They had nothing, but yet had everything they needed to rejoice. Like Paul, they focused on what was good in their lives and what brought them true joy.
Henri Nouwen said, “Joy doesn’t simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it everyday.” We have to wake up every morning and choose to live as God has called us to live – as little Christs in the world – rejoicing in the glory of God’s love and grace in all that we do.
Paul tells the Philippians that true joy is not found in earthly things. Nor is it found in power, or prestige or having many possessions. True joy, the kind that never fades or leaves you, is found in a person. Can you guess who that is? Jesus Christ.
In Christ, God's abundant joy is made manifest for us. It’s how we see and feel God’s glory even when the world seems grim and gloomy. As the ancient psalmist wrote, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy…” (Ps. 16:11). You see, we don’t find joy because life is happy and good, we find joy because God is great – meeting us where we are to heal us, and comfort us, and to love and care for us no matter what.
In Christ, God’s greatest joy is given freely to us. This joy was not born in a palace of plenty, but in a dirty stable to poor family in need. This joy was not always revered but often rejected, even to the point of death. But as it was revealed to us on that first Easter morning, this is what we know. God’s joy is eternal. It does not die. It faces the most dire situation and comes out victorious.
We must never forget that whatever difficult situation we’re facing nothing is too difficult for God. And no matter how tough our circumstances may be God is tougher. As the pandemic and unrest in our country wear us down, the joy of Christ Jesus fills us back up. When everyday life kicks the joy out of us, God kicks it back in. Sometimes its hard to see this while we’re suffering the aches and pains of life.
Thus, Jesus tells not to give up. To keep doing what we are called to do. In John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples: “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have have kept my father’s commandments and remain in his love. I tell you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
Given the uncertainty we’re facing these days, it’s imperative that everyone who take the name of Christ must remain faithful to the mission of Christ. We must remain obedient to our call to love God and each other. If we do that, Jesus said our joy will be complete. And not just our joy, but the joy for the world around us.
If you’ve ever been in a room full of giggling kids, you know how contagious laughter can be. The same is true with joy. So this is what I hope you will do today. Rejoice. Share your love and joy. Maybe it’s a little bit, or a whole heck of a lot, but let it be seen. Let it be felt. Share it.
Jesus taught us that when we give of ourselves to others, to ensure that no one is without, our joy will be complete. Whenever we seek justice, promote peace, walk humbly – sharing the gospel with our words and deeds, we can rejoice because this is God’s joy in us overflowing upon the world. When we share our joy with others, those feelings grow and expand across time and space.
This is the power God has given to us through Christ, God’s greatest joy. When we come together, as one people and one body, to break bread and share in this holy meal we find our joy knowing that God is with us and in us and all around us.
Therefore let us rejoice, with all the saints before us, knowing what God has done for us through Christ Jesus. In remembrance of him, and for the sacrifice made on our behalf, it is my great joy to welcome you to the table of God’s blessing.
Together, with the churches all around the world, we gather to celebrate and rejoice in remembrance of all that is good and holy. Whether you are filled with faith or with doubt, you are invited to share this meal with us. This is God’s table, and no one will be turned away.
All we ask is that you to come with an open heart and open hands to receive God’s blessing through the One whom all blessings flow.
A revised version of a sermon previously given on April 3, 2016.
Bible. Philippians 1:1-11 (NRSV).
Holladay, Tom. Philippians: The Eight Places Joy Is Won or Lost. El Toro: Saddleback Church, 2014.
Stop praying. What I want you to do is go out into the world and enjoy your life. I want you to sing, have fun and enjoy everything I've made for you.
Stop going into those dark, cold temples that you built yourself and saying they are my house. My house is in the mountains, in the woods, rivers, lakes, beaches. That's where I live and there I express my love for you.
Stop blaming me for your miserable life; I never told you there was anything wrong with you or that you were a sinner, or that your sexuality was a bad thing. Sex is a gift I have given you and with which you can express your love, your ecstasy, your joy. So don't blame me for everything they made you believe.
Stop reading alleged sacred scriptures that have nothing to do with me. If you can't read me in a sunrise, in a landscape, in the look of your friends, in your son's eyes... you will find me in no book!
Stop asking me "will you tell me how to do my job?" Stop being so scared of me. I do not judge you or criticize you, nor get angry, or bothered. I am pure love.
Stop asking for forgiveness, there's nothing to forgive. If I made you. I filled you with passions, limitations, pleasures, feelings, needs, inconsistencies... free will. How can I blame you if you respond to something I put in you? How can I punish you for being the way you are, if I'm the one who made you? Do you think I could create a place to burn all my children who behave badly for the rest of eternity? What kind of god would do that? Respect your peers and don't do what you don't want for yourself. All I ask is that you pay attention in your life, that alertness is your guide.
My beloved, this life is not a test, not a step on the way, not a rehearsal, nor a prelude to paradise. This life is the only thing here and now and it is all you need. I have set you absolutely free, no prizes or punishments, no sins or virtues, no one carries a marker, no one keeps a record. You are absolutely free to create in your life. Heaven or hell. I can't tell you if there's anything after this life but I can give you a tip. Live as if there is not. As if this is your only chance to enjoy, to love, to exist.
So, if there's nothing after, then you will have enjoyed the opportunity I gave you. And if there is, rest assured that I won't ask if you behaved right or wrong, I'll ask. Did you like it? Did you have fun? What did you enjoy the most? What did you learn? Stop believing in me; believing is assuming, guessing, imagining. I don't want you to believe in me, I want you to believe in you. I want you to feel me in you when you kiss your beloved, when you tuck in your little girl, when you caress your dog, when you bathe in the sea.
Stop praising me, what kind of egomaniac God do you think I am? I'm bored being praised. I'm tired of being thanked. Feeling grateful? Prove it by taking care of yourself, your health, your relationships, the world. Express your joy! That's the way to praise me. Stop complicating things and repeating as a parakeet what you've been taught about me.
What do you need more miracles for? So many explanations? The only thing for sure is that you are here, that you are alive, that this world is full of wonders.
I was first introduced to Thich Nhat Hanh by my mentor Fr. Harold Anderson, an Episcopal priest and gentle soul. He told me to read his book Living Buddha, Living Christ an outstanding literary work of art that speaks to the legacy these two great teachers have left to society to practice a way to peace. That way, it seems, is through being mindful of the world around you and the world in you.
Today, I learned that this great teacher passed away at the age 93 in his homeland of Viet Nam. Eliza Barclay wrote on Vox last September, "Thich Nhat Hanh has done more than perhaps any Buddhist alive today to articulate and disseminate the core Buddhist teachings of mindfulness, kindness, and compassion to a broad global audience." Read her article here.
In Living Buddha, Living Christ he wrote, "The true body of Jesus [which I was taught is the Church] is His teachings. The only way to touch Him is to practice His teaching. The teaching of Jesus is His living body, and this living body of Christ manifests itself whenever and wherever His teaching is practiced."
For me, a traditional Protestant Christian, this taught me that it wasn't simply enough to "believe." There was more to this thing called Christianity that was being overlooked by many of my church leaders and teachers. Faith is important. But faith is a practice, a verb not a noun. This simple, yet profound realization made the gospel come alive for me. I mean COME ALIVE. I had read it, I had studied it and even taught it, but I had never really lived it. I have never, as Thich suggests, "Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet."
Up this point I had never truly practiced seeing people in a way that Jesus would. I was still having trouble meeting people where they were - in their poverty and pain. Up until this point, I was a "my faith saves me and I'm all good" kind of guy. Completely ignoring all that Jesus not only taught but practiced on a daily basis. Thich realized this. And embraced Jesus, not as a Christian or even a Buddhist but as a human being doing what we are all called to do. If one believed this Palestinian Jew was the Christ, the Anointed Messiah, then why wouldn't we do everything exactly as he taught? [That's another blog for another time.]
But here's the thing, Jesus' teachings are not far from what the Buddha taught some 500 years before. It's not hard for his teachings to have been passed on, and reached that part of the world over that amount of time. And it's not a stretch for me to also believe that God gave that wisdom to both men. Why wouldn't a God of life use all life to reveal God's self to the world? See what St. Paul had to say about this in Romans. In many christian circles just writing this would get me excommunicated or at least thrown out of the party. And yet, Thich welcomed me to explore these thoughts deeper until I found true meaning of God, and what it meant to dwell in God and have God dwell inside me.
There are differences between "us" and "them" for sure. But there are lessons from both that have been passed down throughout the generations that we cannot ignore. And the way to do that is to be in dialogue with one another, learning from each person you meet because we have all been passed wisdom down from the ages before us. And we all must also pass it on ourselves.
This is just one of the ways that this great contemplative monk has shaped my theology and life. He has also inspired some of my favorite authors and friends. He passed on his wisdom to his and my generations. And encouraged and inspired us to do the same. This is exactly what Jesus left us to do. To pass the stability, the peace, the joy, understanding and love to one another. Not just in words, but in our deeds. The way we practice his teachings as if we really believed he meant what he said. If a Buddhist monk can do it, what's stopping us?
“I’d rather live my life with the peace of knowing that everything I do leads me closer to my death than spend another second fearing ways to hold on to life that I forget how to live.“
Nouwen taught me that “Once we have come to the deep inner knowledge—a knowledge more of the heart than of the mind—that we are born out of love and will die into love, that every part of our being is deeply rooted in love, and that this love is our true Father and Mother, then all forms of evil, illness, and death lose their final power over us and become painful but hopeful reminders of our true divine childhood.”
The apostle Paul expressed this experience of the complete freedom of the children of God when he wrote, “I am certain of this: neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nothing already in existence and nothing still to come, nor any power, nor the heights nor the depths, nor any created thing whatever, will be able to come between us and the love of God, known to us in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:38–39).
Will this top me from fearing heights or snakes or death? I certainly hope so. I’d rather live my life with the peace of knowing that everything I do leads me closer to my death than spend another second fearing ways to hold on to life that I forget how to live. The same, I believe, can be said about love. Don’t be afraid. Give life a try.
Text excerpts taken from "You are the Beloved" by Henri J.M. Nouwen. Convergent Books, 2017.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”