4/17/2016 Sermon: Staying Positive #2 – “I’m Grateful”

This month, we are thinking about staying positive.  I think everybody understand that there are huge benefits to living with a positive mindset and nurturing a positive attitude. Last week, we focused on encouraging others.  The more you encourage a positive attitude in others, the more you have one yourself, and God will help you do this.

This week, I’d like to talk about a personal lifestyle of gratefulness as an important part of staying positive.

Gratitude can be like medicine for healing, both physical and spiritual healing, and that’s where our scripture will take us today.  Gratefulness can give you a completely different way to see life.

Paul wrote these words to the church in Philippi in northern Greece toward the end of his life;  he wrote from a prison cell in Rome, when many of us would think he had no reason for positive thinking…

Philippians 4:4  Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 

11Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 

“Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be known to everyone…. I have learned to be content with whatever I have…”  Not only does Paul not have much to look forward to in Rome, these probably are not the words you’d expect if you knew about Paul’s first experience in Philippi years before.  He was with his friend Silas when…

The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.23After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. 24Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.  (Acts 16:22-24)

A couple of years ago, I did a study of the Book of Acts, which ends up being the story of Paul’s travels around the Mediterranean telling people about Jesus and starting churches.  And that was often how it went: Paul is beaten and thrown in jail.  What’s remarkable is that he never complains about that.  He just goes on to the next destination, and eventually, he is writing, “Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.”

I would say that the key words in the passage are these:

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:13)

I used to see that verse printed on t-shirts, usually connected to some athletic event, maybe a fund-raising marathon.  I’ve also seen it used on shirts for mission teams when they know they would be headed out on a project that would be physically demanding.

But Paul has something much harder, much deeper, in mind. Forgiveness when forgiveness seems impossible.  Contentedness when everything seems empty.  Gratefulness when it seems like there is nothing to be grateful for.  How is that possible?   Why should it be possible?  Because God knows we are more complete people when forgiveness, contentedness, and gratefulness happen in us in the fullest way.

About two weeks ago, a man named Moreese Bickham died in California; that name might mean nothing to you.  He was 98.  For thirty-seven years of his life, he was on death row in Mississippi, and was released twenty years ago (1996) when it was determined that he had been wrongly convicted.  While he was in prison, he became Rev. Bickham and on his release, he was quoted as saying, “I don’t have one minute’s regret. It was a glorious experience.”  [http://www.nytimes.com/1996/01/11/us/after-37-years-in-prison-inmate-tastes-freedom.html?pagewanted=all]

Not what you would expect him to say, right?  We would say that his life was not a happy one, but that’s not what he would say.

Not long ago, researchers at the University of Georgia published a study on the importance of gratitude in a marriage, and I would say, in all relationships.  Gratefulness has a very practical side.

After interviewing 468 married individuals on relationship satisfaction, covering everything from communication habits to finances, they found that the “most consistent significant predictor” of happy marriages was whether one’s spouse expressed gratitude. “Feeling appreciated and believing that your spouse values you directly influences how you feel about your marriage, how committed you are to it, and your belief that it will last,” (says study co-author Ted Futris).

And that goes for good times but perhaps especially bad ones—when couples experience stress and their communication devolves into what the researchers call a demand/withdraw cycle – i.e., one partner demands or criticizes; the other tries to avoid a confrontation. Gratitude can disrupt this, and act as a buffer.

“What distinguishes the marriages that last from those that don’t is not how often they argue, but how they argue and how they treat each other on a daily basis,” says Futris. (Adds lead author Allen Barton,) the study “goes to show the power of ‘thank you'” and suggests a “practical way couples can help strengthen their marriage.”

And while expressing thanks has been shown to boost one’s health, (reports the Huffington Post,) this shows how doing so can positively impact someone else, too.

[http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/pere.12094/full]

What does God want from us as we travel through life?  Faith!  Trust.  Gratefulness.  When bad times come along, we go to God for help, for inner strength, for peace, for healing.  And that’s what God gives.  Then we forget.  Gratefulness has much to do with being thankful for the past with strong hope for the future.  When we are grateful, we show God that we didn’t forget.

Someone here is taking a step of faith toward healing; it might be a healing that no one else can see.  Others are thinking about how God has made a difference in their lives.  Today is the perfect day to take a moment and thank God.  To be grateful.  It’s also a perfect day to express gratefulness to the people in your life who don’t get enough thanks.  Finding ways to be grateful can change your perspective on so many things.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 4:7)

Another Bible phrase that I often hear taken out of context is “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding…”  I don’t know about you, but I want that peace.  I really do.  What is it that leads to that peace?

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication (prayerfully asking God for something) with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 4:6-7)

(This is is a widely used story…)  I was parked in front of the mall, wiping off my car. I had just come from the car wash and was waiting for my wife to get out of work. Coming my way from across the parking lot was what society would consider a bum. From the looks of him, he had no car, no home, no clean clothes and no money.

There are times when you feel generous, and then there are other times when you just don’t want to be bothered. This was one of those “don’t want to be bothered” times. “I hope he doesn’t ask me for any money,” I thought to myself.

He didn’t.

He came and sat on the curb in front of the bus stop, but he didn’t look like he could have enough money to even ride the bus. After a few minutes he spoke. “That’s a very pretty car,” he said. He was ragged, but he had an air of dignity around him.

I said, “Thanks,” and continued wiping off my car.

He sat there quietly as I worked. The expected plea for money never came. As the silence between us widened, something inside me said, “Ask him if he needs any help.” I was sure that he would say, “Yes.”

“Do you need any help?” I asked.

He answered in three simple words that I shall never forget. We often look for wisdom in great men and women. We expect it from those of higher learning and accomplishments. I expected nothing from this man but an outstretched, grimy hand. His answer took me completely by surprise. “Don’t we all?” he said.

I was feeling high and mighty, successful and important, above a bum in the street, until those three words shook me to the core. “Don’t we all?”

I needed help. Maybe not for bus fare or a place to sleep, but I needed help. I reached in my wallet and gave him not only enough for bus fare, but enough to get a warm meal and shelter for the day. Those three little words rang in my ear.

No matter how much you have, no matter how much you have accomplished, you still need help, too. And no matter how little you have, no matter how weighed down you are with problems, even without money or a place to sleep, you can give help. Even if it’s just a compliment, you can give that. You never know when you may see someone who appears to have it all. He may be waiting on you to give him something he desperately needs, a different perspective on life, a glimpse of something beautiful.  [And that can come from your personal store of gratefulness]

Maybe that man was just a homeless stranger, or maybe he was more than that. Maybe he was a messenger sent by God to minister to a soul who was too comfortable in himself.

Whoever he was, I am grateful.

Prayer

O God, we feel so hopeless sometimes, so alone, so untouchable, needing to be healed by you.  And you stand by us, waiting for us to turn to you, waiting for us to believe.  All along, we know that the ups and downs, the good times and bad times along the road, all these things have been leading us to you.  You are the destination; you are the one we have been looking for.  Within ourselves, we know you hold the key to the peace and fulfillment we know we need and only you can give.  Forgive our lack of courage in turning to you.  Forgive us for being so preoccupied with ourselves that we ignore you when you call.  But now we open the door of our lives to you.  We thank you for all the circumstances and people you’ve given us; we thank you for our church, for all the ways you’ve brought us to yourself.  With faith in your living son Jesus, we each give ourselves to you.  Only you can make us clean.  Through your Spirit, transform us into the kind of people who are known for their faith in a loving God, people who bring your peace to a hurting world.  Amen.

4/10/2016 Sermon – Staying Positive: “I’m Encouraging”

First, I’d like to say how much I regret not being able to worship with everybody on Easter (hospitalized with a serious case of the flu).  That was a first for me.

Before those most recent health issues came up, I’d decided on a theme for a sermon series in April:  Staying Positive.  Appropriate, right?

At the time, it wasn’t just about keeping a positive attitude for myself; it was a reaction to so many things I’d been hearing about in the news, in our country and in the world.  I don’t know about you, but besides all the things we’ve got to worry about, and there are a lot of them, on top of all that, I’ve grown tired of people saying nasty things to each other that don’t have to be said.  Discouraging things. For the next few minutes, I’d like to think about the encouragement God calls us to give each other.

This reading from Hebrews is about the good news we have in Christ, especially what he did on the cross for us.  It was his sacrifice that washed away our sin and brings us to God.  He cleared the path to that relationship.

Hebrews 10:16-25.  16 ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them
after those days, says the Lord:
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds’,
17he also adds,
‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’
18Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.

19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

It’s an amazing thing: Christ is both the one who brings the sacrifice and the sacrifice itself.  When we believe in him, God lives in us and changes us.  We “provoke one another to love and good deeds.”  One of the results of worshiping together is that we encourage one another.  I want to be a part of a group that does that.  Why do we meet?  To worship the God who is saving us and to encourage one another.

Encouragement can come in all sorts of forms.  Do you remember a time that somebody encouraged you?  Maybe it was a parent or teacher.  They gave you the gift of encouragement.  You can look back and wonder to yourself, “Wow, look at where I am now.  What if he/she had not said that to me right then?  The words they said, that thing they did, sent me down this path.”  Name somebody who encouraged you in a huge way.

In the Book of Romans (12:8), encouragement is a spiritual gift (some versions of the bible call it exhortation). Some people can just do this and the church needs them.  They can see the positive when no one else can.  I suspect some of you can name the encouragers in our church.

These are the people who can see the gifts in others and build those gifts up.  They help us see the positive.

Here’s an example:

Two men were seriously ill. They shared the same room in the hospital. One of them was lying in the bed near the only window in their room. Every day he was allowed to spend some time sitting up in his bed to help draining the fluid from lungs. The other man was forced to spend all his days flat on his back.

They talked a lot about their life, families, jobs, vacations. Every time, when the first man was sitting by the window, he described in details all that he saw outside the window. His roommate always looked for those moments, when his world was broadened and brightened up by the world outside.

river cityAmazing views of a park with a beautiful lake could be seen from the window of their room. Children happily played among ducks and swans. Couples walked arm in arm among colorful flowers. Also the stunning city skyline could be seen.

When the man by the window had been thoroughly describing all that was happening outside the window, his roommate would close his eyes and imagine all the beautiful scenes of life that were told to him.

One night the man, whose bed was near the window, died peacefully during sleep and of course, his roommate was very sad.

After some time, when the nurse came to visit him, he asked if he could be moved next to the window. The nurse agreed and kindly made the switch. When she left, the man slowly and painfully propped himself up on one elbow and took the first look at the world outside. He was stunned. The window faced a blank wall.hospital window - wall

When the nurse came to visit him the next time, he told her about beautiful things outside the window that his roommate described him. The nurse replied that his roommate was a blind man. She said, “Probably he just tried to encourage you.”    [if you know the source for the that story, let me know:  revjcn@gmail.com]

You may have heard that story before; it’s been around for a while.  I think that if it had been me seeing the blank wall, I’m not sure that I would have been encouraged in that moment.

But think about the blind man seeing the beautiful things (not to read too deeply into this!).  He had found a way to encourage himself.  Sometimes, that’s the only way encouragement will come.  Sometimes, the only way to stay positive is to allow God help you tap into that source of encouragement in you.  If you are a believer in Jesus, that is a resource living in you through the Holy Spirit, planted in you when you first believed.  Today, it might seem like you are staring at a blank wall.  But that’s not the view God will give you tomorrow.

In the 30th chapter of the Book of 1 Samuel, David is in a tough spot.  When David and his army were away fighting, an enemy came and kidnapped their families.  The people were questioning his leadership.  He may have been doubting his own ability to lead.

David was in great danger; for the people spoke of stoning him, because all the people were bitter in spirit…

When people are talking about stoning you, it’s a sign that you are not having a good day.

…but David strengthened himself in the Lord his God. (1 Samuel 30:6)

The end of that story is that all the families were recovered unharmed, but the point is that David found a way to be encouraged when no one but God was there to give him encouragement.  Sometimes, the Spirit of God working in you is going to be your only source of encouragement.  It’s up to you to put one foot in front of the other.  David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.  He did not give up when things went badly.  Those who encourage others need to able to encourage themselves first.

Another old story about the art of self-encouragement…

Jerry is the kind of guy you love to hate. He is always in a good mood and always has something positive to say. When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would reply, “If I were any better, I would be twins!” He was a unique [restaurant] manager because he had several waiters who had followed him around from restaurant to restaurant. The reason the waiters followed Jerry was because of his attitude. He was a natural motivator. If an employee was having a bad day, Jerry was there telling the employee how to look on the positive side of the situation.

Seeing this style really made me curious, so one day I went up to Jerry and asked him, I don’t get it! You can’t be a positive person all of the time. How do you do it?”

Jerry replied, “Each morning I wake up and say to myself, Jerry, you have two choices today. You can choose to be in a good mood or you can choose to be in a bad mood. I choose to be in a good mood. Each time something bad happens, I can choose to be a victim or I can choose to learn from it. I choose to learn from it.

Every time someone comes to me complaining, I can choose to accept their complaining or I can point out the positive side of life. I choose the positive side of life.

“Yeah, right, it’s not that easy,” I protested.

“Yes it is,” Jerry said. “Life is all about choices. When you cut away all the junk, every situation is a choice. You choose how you react to situations. You choose how people will affect your mood. You choose to be in a good mood or bad mood. The bottom line: It’s your choice how you live life.”

I reflected on what Jerry said. Soon thereafter, I left the restaurant industry to start my own business. We lost touch, but I often thought about him when I made a choice about life instead of reacting to it.

Several years later, I heard that Jerry did something you are never supposed to do in a restaurant business: he left the back door open one morning and was held up at gunpoint by three armed robbers. While trying to open the safe, his hand, shaking from nervousness, slipped off the combination. The robbers panicked and shot him.

Luckily, Jerry was found relatively quickly and rushed to the local trauma center.

After 18 hours of surgery and weeks of intensive care, Jerry was released from the hospital with fragments of the bullets still in his body.

I saw Jerry about six months after the accident. When I asked him how he was, he replied, “If I were any better, I’d be twins. Wanna see my scars?”

I declined to see his wounds, but did ask him what had gone through his mind as the robbery took place. “the first thing that went through my mind was that I should have locked the back door,” Jerry replied. “Then, as I lay on the floor, I remembered that I had two choices: I could choose to live or I could choose to die. I chose to live.”

“Weren’t you scared? Did you lose consciousness?” I asked.

Jerry continued, “the paramedics were great. They kept telling me I was going to be fine. But when they wheeled me into the ER and I saw the expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses, I got really scared.

In their eyes, I read ‘he’s a dead man’. I knew I needed to take action.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“Well, there was a big burly nurse shouting questions at me,” said Jerry. “She asked if I was allergic to anything. ‘Yes’ I replied. The doctors and nurses stopped working as they waited for my reply. I took a deep breath and yelled, ‘Bullets!’ Over their laughter, I told them, ‘I am choosing to live. Operate on me as if I am alive, not dead’.”

Jerry lived thanks to the skill of his doctors, but also because of his amazing attitude. I learned from him that every day we have the choice to live fully. Attitude, after all, is everything.  [if you know the source for the that story, let me know:  revjcn@gmail.com]

God gives us opportunities every day to encourage someone else, and that encouragement could huge, especially to a young person.  And the source of encouragement we have through our relationship with God, when we give ourselves to him, is endless.

Prayer

God, sometimes our lives seem overwhelming.  Each day leaves us fearful of the things that might happen.  And there are the problems of everyday life that threaten to consume us.

But you care about each of us; you sent your Son to the human race, to heal and to save. So we know we are not alone.  In your church, we can be strong, and through your Spirit, we can reach out.  We can make a difference.  We can encourage each other in real ways.  With your vision and wisdom, we can lift up the good we see happening, especially in our community and in our church.

Help us remember that the end of this story is already written, and through you, we’ve already won.  Help us live with the kind of confidence that points our families and friends toward you.  Help us be encouragers.  Amen.