Monday, June 4, 2012

letting go

Yesterday, I had the privilege of speaking at Evangel Baptist Church in Wheaton. I served as a youth pastor at Evangel while I was in grad school back in 1992 thru 1994. When we moved to Spain, Evangel committed to support our work financially. The relationships at Evangel have been a blessing to us time and time again over the years.

The subject of my talk was derived from Luke 18:9-34. This passage contains several stories:
  • the juxtaposition of a self-righteous Pharisee with a humble tax collector,
  • the little children come to Jesus
  • the rich young ruler and Jesus
  • Jesus predicts his death
I titled my talk "Letting Go" because I saw in each story a lesson about letting go of the old to embrace something new.  At the beginning and end of my talk, I pulled out a beach ball and literally played catch with random members of the congregation. It was a lot of fun! Thankfully, they didn't banish me from the sanctuary for my irreverence...

Here's the text of my teaching. I hope it can enable others to let go of something old so they may embrace something new and refreshing.


(throwing the ball) 

So much is possible if we just let go. Like sermons. Normally, I would say it’s not a good idea to start a sermon with a game of catch. But if I shut the idea down as soon as I think it, I close myself off to so many possibilities. So, I decided to give it a try. What’s the worst that could happen? People would be engaged. Maybe they’d remember something. Maybe they’d remember: so much is possible if we just let go. Maybe they’d remember: Don’t be like the rich young ruler. Don’t be like the Pharisee. Let go. Be like the tax collector who let go of his pride. Be like the little children. Be like Jesus: he let go of his divine rights and his very life. See: So much is possible. Let go.

(okay, enough goofing around now!)

God has such wonderful things in store for us, his people. But we won’t discover what he wants to give us if we don’t let go of certain things.

In the passages we read, you’ll notice how those on the edge of death are those who hold on. The rich young ruler held on to his possessions while the Pharisee held on to himself. In many Bibles the text reads that the Pharisee prayed to God “about himself”. But, in fact, it is justifiable to render the Greek text as “the Pharisee prayed to himself” when he prayed. That word “about” is better translated as “to.” See: the Pharisee was so full of himself, he became his own god.

We all have different things God asks us to let go of. What is God asking you to let go of?

If this question doesn’t make us a little uncomfortable, something’s wrong. Notice how Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler seems over-the-top. Jesus does not simply ask him to give some of his money to the poor. He asks him to give it all! How unreasonable!

If Jesus were me I would have said to the rich young ruler: “Okay, let’s figure out what you need to live, just the basics. We’ll come up with a budget and from there we’ll figure out how much you should give away.” But Jesus asks the rich young ruler to do something that requires trust.

This runs counter to how I often live. I like to keep my life manageable. I value comfort over risk. I have a family to take care of, bills to pay. I’ve got to be realistic. That’s not bad.

But when we look at this from God’s perspective we have to admit: we structure our lives so we don’t have to trust God.  We are more like the rich young ruler than we care to admit. We want our lives, our churches, manageable. But Jesus comes along and says, “No, I want you to trust me. I’m going to ask you to do something unreasonable so you’ll have to depend on me.”  

See, he puts us in messy situations to build our faith. The paradox is: Jesus isn’t our Rock if we don’t let him trouble our waters.

These messy situations could also be called “liminal experiences”. You’ve heard of the word “subliminal”. It means “under the surface” or “below the threshold of consciousness”. Well, a liminal space is a threshold place. Puberty is a liminal experience. It involves crossing a threshold. It is an enlarging of one’s world.

In spiritual and emotional terms, a liminal space comes in the form of an ordeal or a challenge--like Jesus’ challenge to the rich young ruler. Think of it as a doorway calling you from inside your comfortable home to the big, wild outside world filled with adventure. Jesus says, “You are familiar with fishing. Now you will fish for men.” He says to Noah: build an ark. He says to Abraham: sacrifice your only son. He says to Moses: lead a nation. And Jesus says to us: take up your cross and follow me. It’s a liminal experience, a crisis we face.

But we cannot stay where we are and go where he is calling us at the same time. If we stay where we are, we will be comfortable. If we go where he asks, we will be uncomfortable--but comforted by him.

The American culture has grown accustomed to too much comfort. We orient our life around the avoidance or elimination of discomfort. Because of this, the American church already has two strikes against it. Sadly, we have adopted the habits of comfort and ease. In fact, ease is the Christian’s single greatest enemy these days. It is the chief tool the devil uses to lull us to apathy.

The persecuted church in different times and places knows this well. The early church faced no fewer than ten organized persecutions. Yet the church grew from just thousands in the middle of the first century to millions by the early fourth century. Liminality fostered vitality. The church in China also knows this well. They face daily persecution, yet they have grown exponentially.

The church in America, on the other hand, is failing to win the younger generations to Christ. We are on a slippery slope. Part of the reason for this is because we are reluctant to sacrifice our comfortable way of living and doing church for the sake of the lost.

Like the rich young ruler, we are resistant to change. We somehow want to follow Jesus into the future yet keep our life the same.

In some ways, this resistance to change is not our fault because this is how the world functions, even physically. Scientists call this preference for sameness in a system “homeostasis.”

For example, biological systems tend to be homeostatic systems. They prefer stability. So…if one part of a biological system changes another part changes to return the system to a stable condition. If our bodies develop an infection from a virus, our body temperature increases to kill the virus so we can be well again. The fever is a homeostatic response to an undesirable change in the system.

See, we prefer stability. And God does not want us to be unstable. But nor does he want us to be stagnant. There’s a difference. Think of stagnation as a closed system but stability as an open system. In a closed system there is either no in or no out. It’s the Dead Sea; it’s dead because there is no river flowing out of it, only in.

You’ll notice that the stable system is a system that is always in motion, constantly in flux. We often think of stability in terms of no change, but it’s more accurate to speak of stability in terms of continuous change. Paradoxically, stability involves the ongoing navigation of instability. This is one reason Jesus says we must be like little children. When we are children, we are perpetually learning, growing and changing.  

Speaking of children, in today’s text we get two pictures as to how we respond to change. The child embraces it enthusiastically: they move towards Jesus. But the rich young ruler’s response involves sadness and a moving away from Jesus. Letting go of the old often involves a grieving process. This is natural. When we lose someone dear or something treasured, we grieve. The change is unwelcome. But, notice what happens: if we stick with it, we move into a period of uncertainty and then, somehow, God moves us into a new season of embracing new life.

Keep in mind, there are two kinds of change. The first is the change in which we have no say. It is something that happens to us, something that is chosen for us. If my daughter suddenly died today, this would be an example of that kind of change.

But the second kind of change is one that we choose willingly. When Jesus asks the rich young ruler to sell everything, he is asking him to choose this willingly.

In either case, the change is one thing but the getting there is another. This is what transition is all about and it is different than change. Transition is the internal process we go through to embrace change with joy. It is a process that involves letting go of something old so you can receive something new.

If a group of people like a church entered into this kind of change and transition process willingly, they’d need to identify together what it is that Jesus is calling them to…that’s the change. But then they’d need to ask themselves about the emotional process involved in embracing the change. They’d need to ask, “Who stands to gain the most from this change? And who stands to lose the most?” because those who stand to lose the most will experience the change as a grieving, a letting go (like the rich young ruler). The change would be something uncomfortable, something hard to navigate.

Those who stand to gain the most, however, would experience the change like the little children in today’s text. Since children were of no account in Jesus’ day, the emergence of a new kind of rabbi in Israel came as a welcome change to the children.

Now, when change involves a group of people, the key is for the two groups to listen to one another and be mindful of each other in the midst of it. The problem is: the church doesn’t do this very well. We often operate like a homeostatic system. When there’s a change in one part of the system, the other part subconsciously responds to restore the system to its previous state.

The way out of this deadlock is the way of Jesus. And the Jesus of Scripture says to his holy nation, “Leave your country and go to the place I will show you. Together. Step courageously over that threshold and venture into the world outside.”

See, God calls us to new territory because he loves us and has good things in store for us. He wants us to perpetually learn and grow and change, like children.

Because of this, let’s make some observations about what it means to be childlike. Why does Jesus say we must become like little children? We’ve already noted: Jesus wants us to live in a perpetual state of growth. But, keep in mind: children grow via continuous learning and they learn best by playing. (Yes, they learn through other means, too, but in essence all learning boils down to a form of play, since play is more a disposition than a behavior. I call it “ideological play”.)

If we are to embrace change, we must embrace play. Playful family systems are healthy family systems. We often say, “The family that prays together stays together. “ I would add: “The family that plays together stays together.” Play is good for us because it guarantees engagement. It encourages relationship. It also requires curiosity, imagination and improvisation. Notice: playful orientations are all forms of letting go. They say, “What if things weren’t this way anymore? What if we could do it a new way?”  In play, letting go of the old is not perceived as a threat; it is embraced as an opportunity.

But we can’t let go if we think we’ve learned all there is to learn. If we have this attitude, we become like the Pharisee. We close ourselves off and think, “I’ve discovered the right way to do this.” This attitude cuts off relationship because suddenly anyone who disagrees with how it should be done is “out”.

The problem is: as we get older we have learned truths about life. That’s nice. But we always need to learn new things and learning requires an ongoing openness to change.

So, to confront us in our resistance to change, to call us to let go of our Pharisaic self-sufficiency, Jesus comes to us like the rich young ruler and asks us to do something hard. This is his way of shocking us into being dependent, growing, learning children again. That’s why it’s significant these texts are placed side by side in the gospel narrative.

So, what if Jesus walked into your church today and asked all of you to do something hard? What if he said to you: “I want you to buy some beds and use this church building to provide shelter for battered women. In fact, you’ll have such a demand for this that you’ll have to sacrifice your sanctuary space to make it happen. So, plan on taking out these pews so you can turn this space into four suites to house more women.”

“But, what will we do about our services?” we’d reply. “Where will we have them?”

“Where won’t you have them?” Jesus would say.  “Don’t worry about your church services. If you do what I’m asking you to do, exuberant worship will spring up spontaneously in the middle of lunch served downstairs in your kitchen. Oh, by the way, that’s another thing I want you to give me.”

“Our kitchen?”

“Yes, your kitchen. Feed the hungry every day with it.”

“Every day? But, think of the expense. Every day?”

“Look, I know this sounds unreasonable to you. That’s why I’m asking you to do it.  I want you to trust me. Don’t worry, I’ll provide.”

“But I already gave you my time, money and talents.”

“That’s true, you did. But I want you to keep giving it to me. See, we’re playing a game of catch here. I throw the ball to you and you throw the ball back to me. If you ever think you’re done throwing, you’re wrong. It’s always give and receive. That’s why it’s called eternal life.”  

“But, I thought I had eternal life. And I like this church just the way it is. I don’t want it to change.”

“I know. It’s hard. But, trust me. Like a child. I’m able to take care of you.”

Jesus came to bring new life. And, though we’ve received eternal life, his work of renewal is not over.  Remember: he is making all things new. It’s a continuous action--and there is no such thing as making something new without letting go of something old.

So, what is it he’s asking you to give up? What is it he’s asking your church to give up? There is no catching without throwing. So much is possible if we just let go. Amen.

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