Remembering Castanza

April 26, 2007 by · Leave a Comment 

You remember George Castanza, right? Jerry Seinfeld’s neurotic friend. I think about George a lot– mainly because he is a wonderful character who constantly gets into all kinds of trouble.

One of the things I remember about George, is the time he discovered that everything he always did was wrong. Any time he made a choice, he chose wrong. Remember that? So George, with his unique reasoning, hit upon an incredible idea. He decided that in every situation he would figure out what he thought he should do and then just do the opposite.

Instead of trying to impress a girl with suave behavior and classy clothes, he did the opposite. He was coarse and unshaven, blunt and honest about his shortcomings. And in the show, the girl is impressed. In other words, when George does the opposite things start working for him.

Well, I think George is on to something… And I’ve found myself resonating with the philosophy of doing the opposite. I’m not talking about being mean when I should be nice or wearing a bathing suit to a wedding. Actually, I’m talking about my relationship to Jesus. Sounds like quite a leap, huh? George Castanza to Jesus?!?

I think not. If you really think about what Jesus said when he was teaching his followers, much of it seems like he’s saying do the opposite. Want an example? How about the Sermon on the Mount? Jesus begins his opposite theology by combining things we don’t think fit together at all…

Matthew 5:3-10

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

[4] Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.

[5] Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.

[6] Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.

[7] Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.

[8] Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.

[9] Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.

[10] Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

He continues to say more opposite sounding things like: if someone hits you on the right check, turn and offer the other… If someone wants to take your shirt, give him your jacket as well… If you want to live, you have to die.

These seem a little strange to us. Almost unbelievable… But I think that’s because much of God’s truth is opposite to the world’s. Much of God’s truth is seen as foolishness. We don’t like to be seen as “foolish”– in fact we work very hard not to be.

Some of you are probably nodding your head right now. You agree. The world’s truth is at odds with God’s truth. Amen brother! (Boo world; yea God!) But here’s the problem: my truth is too often the same as the world’s truth. Even though I’m a Christian, I still have a warped sense of truth because I live in this world. The first step to really grasping God’s truth is recognizing the fact that I am often blinded by my truth.

See, the most challenging opposite for me to really, truly, whole-heartedly grasp is that I CAN TRUST GOD IN AND FOR EVERYTHING… THAT HE REALLY DOES LOVE ME AND WILL TAKE CARE OF ME… THAT I DON’T NEED TO PERFORM FOR HIS APPROVAL… I’M NOT MEASURED BY WHAT I DO… THAT HE WILL–REALLY–WORK OUT ALL THINGS FOR MY GOOD… THAT MY EFFORTS IN MY POWER ARE WORTH NOTHING… THAT JESUS DIED FOR MY SINS… THAT I AM FORGIVEN… THAT MY SINS ARE PAID FOR AND THERE’S NOTHING MORE I NEED TO DO TO MAKE MYSELF MORE ACCEPTABLE TO GOD…

So I have been thinking about George a lot lately… And I’ve caught myself often heading down a path of self-effort or self-righteousness or self-aggrandizement or self-sufficiency only to think I’m going to try to do the opposite here– I’m going to take God at his Word and believe that he will handle it instead of relying on myself.

It’s not as easy as it might seem. I’ve been orchestrating and posturing a long time (and I’m pretty darn good at it)– but God is a wonderfully gentle teacher. And he is faithful. And he likes me… And I’m finding that I’m thinking about him a lot more these days; and I’m experiencing joy and peace, and laughter a lot more; and things don’t seem as overwhelming; and God is more of a reality.

Thanks George… Who would have thunk you could provide a spiritual lesson?!?

What’s God Doing In Your Life?

April 13, 2007 by · Leave a Comment 

This is an interesting question, isn’t it? Do you have an answer?

Instead of giving a sermon/message this week, I’m going to ask the folks in our house church this question and listen to their answers. In the past, I may have tried to pass this off in an effort to “take the week off” after Easter (not a bad idea, actually…) But really, I believe it’s a question we should ask more in church. After all, I can speak for hours (and sometimes do, according to my kids), but if we don’t see God working in our lives– what’s the point?!?

It’s a good “church” question– “So Doug, what’s God doing in you life these days?”. It’s one I’ve been asked hundreds (probably thousands) of times in my 15 years of ministry (because that is a good spiritual way to lead into a conversation– and we usually don’t know what to ask each other anyway). In the past, I’ve always answered by talking about the programs, classes, groups, missions, outreach and studies that I was participating in, organizing, leading, or promoting at the time.

But I have discovered that I wasn’t really answering the question. My answer was about me or my ministry or my church or even about what I saw God doing in someone else’s life. It was rarely personal.

The hard truth is that I often didn’t have an answer. I was so busy working for God, I couldn’t see the work God was doing in me. Some of you know what I’m talking about (and you may be shocked I’m admitting it).

It’s really a question of focus. When I focus on me I see very little of what God is doing in my life. When I focus on God— well, let’s just say it’s amazing what he’s doing all the time.

A few years ago, Rick Warren wrote a great book that really captured the hearts and minds of a lot of people. It’s called The Purpose Driven Life… You’ve probably read it. I love the first words of the book– do you remember them?

It’s not about you.

A tiny little sentence with an incredible amount of truth. It’s not about you. It’s about God. History is Hisstory and everything– EVERYTHING– is about him. That’s right! That’s what I have to remember! That’s my problem. That’s why I get so tired and frustrated and angry and hopeless. I’ve been thinking this is about me and it’s not– it’s about God!

And so I tore into the book… And like a lot of other people, I think I did something that Rick Warren never intended: I looked at the rest of the book as a step-by-step manual on what I should do to make life about God and not me.

Maybe you read that last line too quickly, so I’ll say it again with some emphasis:

I looked at the rest of the book as a step-by-step manual on what I should do to make life about God and not me.

Did you catch it?

If it’s not about me, why would I develop a plan to make it not about me? Does that make sense?

The struggle we all have is that I like it to be about me. But when it is, I seem to always fall short. I mean, it’s okay— but rarely great. God has a much bigger plan for us than what we can do on our own talent, merit, strength, and abilities. He wants to do amazing things. He wants to do incredible things. He wants to do impossible things. He wants to do eternal things.

And he just wants us to let him do them in and through us. For that to happen we need to trust him. For that to happen we need to believe him . When we do, we start to see that God is a lot more active than we might have recognized in the past. We begin to see that he really is interested and in all the details of life. He is present and near.

We begin to see that HE IS GOD.

And when we see God… we experience awe and wonder and joy and peace…

So, what’s God doing in your life?

An Easter Story

April 4, 2007 by · Leave a Comment 

As I get older, I sometimes surprise myself with what I find enjoyable. When I was a kid, I loved to play sports, eat bologna sandwiches with ketchup, play Strato-Matic-Baseball (the greatest board game ever invented), and dive on the ground a lot (usually trying to catch some sort of ball or some kind of wrestling). Now, I like to watch sports, I haven’t eaten bologna in who knows how many years, I play Madden NFL 2007 on my son’s Game Cube, and I occasionally fall on the ground (but this is never on purpose… and it takes me longer to get up… and I feel the pain a lot longer).

I also find that I enjoy sitting more than I ever did as a kid. I remember family gatherings when I couldn’t understand how the parents could just sit and talk for hours. In my mind these times were made for whiffle ball, kick the can and flashlight tag. Why would anyone pass up these endeavors to sit… and… talk? I’ll never do that, I thought.

Now I find myself telling my kids, Dad will play in a little while, he just needs to sit for a minute. And that’s what I do. I sit.

I say all that to tell you this Easter story. It came to me as I was doing another thing I never understood as a kid– or participated in: I was looking at the flowers. More specifically, I was looking at the budding and blossoming trees of south east Virgina. Two weekends ago it happened. The trees burst forth in incredible splendor. Flowering pears, dogwoods, cherry, some delicate purple tree, forsithias ( I may not even know the correct names– but the fact that I sound like I do is amazing in itself). White, yellow, purple, pink– and varying shades of each of these. Vibrant, soft, beautiful, alive.

After living in Florida for over 25 years, I had forgotten the beauty and freshness of spring. And this year– for some reason– it is as if I am seeing it for the first time.

As I was running this morning (sounds really impressive– but it’s more like “a labored lumbering” than “running), I was really taking in all the natural beauty around me and I began thinking of the spiritual significance of this week. It’s called Holy Week in the church calendar, and it culminates in the celebration of Easter– the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This weekend churches all over the world will remember the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. They will read the stories from the gospel accounts. They will reverently remember and celebrate.

It’s good and right to read the scripture of these accounts. But this morning I was reminded that God communicates in more ways than just His Word.

Paul said this in Romans 1:

“…since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities– his eternal power and divine nature– have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)

Basically Paul is saying that everyone knows that God exists because they see his creation. For a long time I have kinda rushed by this verse because I already believe in God, so this is not an issue for me. But this morning, I began to wonder about what God is saying to me in the beauty that captures my heart and mind and soul as I ponder his creation.

Here are a few musings that I came up with:

1) God is pretty darn creative. The variety of colors and textures and sizes and smells in blossoming trees is magnificent. Running down a country road is a multi-sensory worship extravaganza!

2) God is delightful. He didn’t have to make trees work like they do. But he decided that he would allow them to get there leaves through blossoms. It’s as if he wanted to give us a couple of weeks to shrug off the bleakness of winter and burst into warmth and fullness of spring.

3) God is generous. He does this for us. He did this for me. For my run this morning, God created a gallery of art for my viewing pleasure. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to. Why? Because he loves us. It’s that simple.

4) God is in the details. There is something kinda cool about the fact that these trees look this way for only a couple of weeks (the flowering pear trees are already almost “turned”). To God the moment of splendor is just as important as an eternity of splendor.

5) God is not just a master artist, he is also a master storyteller. The beauty of creation doesn’t just say “THERE IS A GOD”; it also tells us about who he is.

Here’s what I mean… Last month, I left Virginia Beach at 9:00 am on Friday, March 23 and attended a Men’s Retreat an hour and a half up the Eastern Shore. When I returned on Sunday, March 25 at about 1:30 pm, the trees had blossomed. The change was so dramatic I actually noticed it. It was like my neighborhood had undergone a “Complete Make-Over: Divine Edition”. When I left the trees were lifeless and barren. When I returned, they had been transformed– they were vibrant and alive. In just three days…

Three days… That’s all it took for something dead to be made alive (I understand that the trees weren’t actually dead— but hang with the imagery… I believe God really likes imagery when telling his story). Three days for the cold, dark, hopeless winter to change into a warm, bright, hopefilled spring… Three days.

Sound familiar? Ring a bell? Could it be that we see God’s redemption story played out in his creation every year (Spring) at about the same time we remember our redemption from sin and death (Easter)? Could it be that every dogwood, flowering pear, and cherry tree is actually blossoming and blooming out an eternal message of God’s great love and forgiveness and faithfulness?

Jesus is Lord! Blessed is the King! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!

I think so. And the reason I do is because Jesus said so. When he entered Jerusalem on what we call “Palm Sunday” the crowds welcomed him with praise and worship. They hailed their king… But the religious leaders didn’t like that very much and they asked Jesus to tell them to settle down. Here’s what Jesus said:

I tell you, if they keep quiet the stones will cry out.

Praise for the risen Jesus rings out every day… Stones, trees, flowers, grass… The Easter Story is played out all around us.

Look at a dogwood and join the celebration.

Grace and peace,

Doug

PS– Some may argue that the Easter holiday coincides with Spring because the early church borrowed from pagan harvest rituals that pre-dated Christianity and Judaism. I guess my response to that is this: God pre-dates the pagans who made harvest rituals that were based on God’s design anyway. It’s HIS STORY regardless.