Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Love That Lasts

"Love That Lasts" is based off the teachings of Rev. Adam Hamilton and his work "Love to Stay." This sermon uses his teachings as a framework, working my own stories into the mix. I'm grateful for Rev. Hamilton's work and hope you are as blessed as I am with this series. 

A Love That Lasts       May 27/28, 2016
Scripture: Colossians 3: 14-17, Matthew 22: 34-40

Reader’s Digest tells the story of a man and woman who celebrated 60 years of marriage with no secrets between them, except for one: The woman kept a shoebox in her closet and forbade her husband to ever open it. But while she was on her deathbed, and with her blessing, the husband opened the box and discovered a crocheted doll and $95,000 in cash. “My mother told me that the secret to a happy marriage was to never argue,” she explained. “Instead, I should keep quiet and crochet a doll.” Her husband was touched. Only one doll was in the box—that meant she’d been angry with him only once in 60 years. “But what about all this money?” he asked. “Oh,” she said, “that’s the money I made from selling the dolls.” [1]

If only the secret to relational success was to keep quiet and crochet dolls! For the past few weeks we’ve been talking marriage and relationships and building a love that lasts and, quite simply, the only secret is no secret at all- this is hard, messy work! And as helpful as strategies and tips can be, it all really boils down to one word: commitment. Building a love that lasts really is a choice we make. More than a feeling and more than a piece, marriage is really about dedicating myself to another person- and sticking by that commitment.

Like everything else, every marriage and relationship will experience different seasons. What has been so interesting about this series is that we have people all over the map when it comes to marriage. Some are just beginning their journey, some our figuring out how to keep going and others are remembering their own marriages and, I hope, preparing to pass down your years of wisdom to others. Every relationship is represented here.

The initial season of every relationship is a time of bliss. When you see your spouse, you get butterflies in your stomach and drop whatever you’re doing just to be with them. It’s the honeymoon stage where everything seems perfect. You write notes, leave little hints of your love all over the house, and make surprise dinner and movie plans. But those initial seasons are often interrupted by life, which introduces us to stressful seasons. These can begin to take a toll on the health of our relationships. Kids enter the picture, jobs get stressful, paying down our mortgage or taking a second job to pay off our student loans. We can’t escape these stressful times, and it’s just a smart idea to acknowledge that they’ll happen. But then there are stormy seasons. And stormy seasons have the potential to wear us down. These are the times when feel as if we’ve “lost our first love.” We don’t know how it happened, but over time we discover that we feel different about our spouse. We might even find ourselves saying things like, “I don’t I love him anymore” or “She’s like a complete stranger to me.” Jesus reminds us that losing our first love is a very real possibility. In Rev. 2: 4-5, he tells the church in Ephesus, “You’ve forsaken your first love. Repent and do the things you did at first.” That’s good advice. When we find ourselves in stormy seasons, it’s best to go back to the beginning and do the things we did when we first started.

There’s an old legend that pops up on Facebook every now and then that drives this point home. It’s a story about a couple on the verge of losing their marriage. The husband had allowed his heart to be stolen by another woman and one night told his wife he wanted a divorce. With hurt in her eyes, she asked softly, “Why?” but he avoided the question. Quietly he drafted a divorce agreement, stating that she could have the car, his house and 30% stake in his company. With tears she tore up the paper and the next morning provided her own draft. She wanted nothing, except for as much normalcy as possible for one month- just one month- because their son had exams. But she also had one final request: She also asked me to recall how I had carried her into out bridal room on our wedding day, and requested that I now carry her out of our bedroom to the front door every morning for the month’s duration. I thought she was going crazy, but to make our last days together bearable, I accepted her odd request.

We were both pretty clumsy about it when I carried her out on the first day, but our son was joyfully clapping his hands behind us, singing, “Daddy is holding mommy in his arms!” His words triggered a sense of pain in me. I carried her from the bedroom to the living room, and then to the door. She closed her eyes and softly said, “Don’t tell our son about the divorce.” I nodded and put her down outside the door. We weren’t as clumsy on the second day. She leaned on my chest, and I could smell the fragrance of her blouse. I realized that I hadn’t really looked at this woman for a long time. She was not young anymore. There were fine wrinkles on her face, and her hair was graying! Our marriage had taken its toll on her. For a minute I wondered what I had done to her. On the fourth day, when I lifted her up, I felt a sense of intimacy returning. This was the woman who had given ten years of her life to me. On the fifth and sixth day, I realized that our sense of intimacy was growing again. It became easier to carry her as the month slipped by, and I suddenly realized that she was getting very thin.

One morning it hit me how she was burying so much pain and bitterness in her heart, and without really thinking about it, I reached out and touched her head. Our son came in at that moment and said, “Dad, it’s time to carry mom out!” To him, seeing his father carry his mother out had become an essential part of every morning. My wife gestured to our son to come closer, and hugged him tightly. I turned my face away because I was afraid I might start changing my mind. I carried her in my arms, and her hand naturally wrapped around my neck. I held her body tightly, just like on our wedding day

On the last day, when I held her in my arms, I could hardly move a step. I knew what I had to do. I drove to Jane’s place, walked upstairs and said, “I’m sorry, Jane, but I do not want to divorce my wife anymore”. It all became very clear to me. I had carried my wife into our home on our wedding day, and I am to hold her “until death do us apart”. I bought a bouquet of flowers for my wife on my way home, and when the salesgirl asked me what to write on the card, I smiled and said, “I’ll carry you out every morning until death do us apart.”[2]

I wish this story were true, because it’s just so powerful. And maybe it’s just too good to be true. But I guess it really doesn’t matter. What matters is whether or not we hear what the story is trying to tell us.  The story is trying to tell us to do love until you feel love. We’ve said that love is not a feeling, but an action. It’s a verb. In this story, as the man did loving acts, that emotional love that he lost started coming back. But in reality, he really didn’t lose it. He stopped trying. This is why Jesus doesn’t just tell us how to love, he shows us how to do it. John Wesley was once told by a mentor to “preach faith until you have it.” Sometimes we need to show love until we have it, until we know it in the depths of our beings again.

This story is also trying to tell us to hang on! Don’t give up in those stormy seasons because they don’t last forever. If you commit to working hard, things will get better! The best is yet to come. One way to do this is to go back to the mission of marriage. Remember, this is not primarily about meeting your needs, but acting as a partner or helper to another person. That’s why God has given you to someone else! Sometimes that means we carry our spouse in times of trouble. Sometimes we sacrifice our cravings and our needs to bless the other. This is your mission.

Finally, this story wants us to remember that every relationship is ultimately a gift from God. What this means is that you are not alone in the world. Whether it’s a marriage or a friendship, God has given you a precious gift. And when you recognize your spouse or friend as a gift from God, he or she is pretty hard to neglect or ignore. Instead, you’ll find gratitude taking over your heart. You can’t take for granted what you’re grateful for. We need to learn to say thank you. Over and over again. Those are some of the most important words we can pray and proclaim. Thank you! And if all else fails, we need to go back to the source of the gift and fall back in love with God. Loving God helps us love our neighbor, and as we love God, whose love never fails, we will find ourselves building a love that endures, a love that perseveres and a love that lasts. Amen. 

[1] http://www.rd.com/jokes/married-life/
[2] http://livelifehappy.com/stories/30-days-of-carrying-my-wife/

Monday, May 22, 2017

Love That Lasts: Clothe, Bear With, Forgive

"Love That Lasts" is based off the teachings of Rev. Adam Hamilton and his work "Love to Stay." This sermon uses his teachings as a framework, working my own stories into the mix. I'm grateful for Rev. Hamilton's work and hope you are as blessed as I am with this series. 

Clothe, Bear With, Forgive      May 20/21, 2017
Scripture: Colossians 3: 12-13

Today we are continuing our sermon series on marriage and relationships called “A Love That Lasts.” So far we’ve looked at God’s desire to place us in community, with partners that build each other up and encourage each other to fulfill God’s dreams for each of us. We’ve also looked at the differences between men and women and asked the question, “How can I be the person he or she needs me to be?” Last week we delved into some difficult topics as we considered habits that hurt and habits that heal. Today we’re going to look at perseverance and how we can stick to our commitments when the going gets tough.

I was scrolling through Facebook Thursday morning when I came across a post from one of my former campers at church camp. In big bold letters (and with a few expletives), he asked: WHY IS EVERYONE I LOVE GETTING DIVORCED??? I didn’t pursue a conversation with him, but I could sense his mixed range of emotions: fear and anger, disbelief and confusion, pain and abandonment. And although we might not ask the question in the same way, we still ask the questions. Why isn’t this easier? Why are there so many struggles? Is this what marriage really looks like? Why can’t I fix this?  And like my young camper’s parents, these questions seem so daunting that at times it feels easier to just walk away than to travel the much more challenging road of perseverance. But if we want to build a love that lasts, we will need to learn the art of perseverance.

One of the questions I like to ask my pre-marital couples on the night before their big day is this: What do you think will go wrong tomorrow? They spend so much time planning their big day and making sure everything is perfect that they never give much consideration to what could go wrong. But something will go wrong. Something that was not planned will happen, and it always does. And understanding this ahead of time ensures that the couple will be prepared and not caught off guard. The night before our wedding, our worship leader lost his voice, and we were left with a new singer whom we had never met, let alone heard. It was nerve-wracking, to say the least. I’ve done weddings where the unplanned events have been a crying baby, a technical difficulty, a forgotten line and a malfunctioning air conditioner. Regardless, at the end of the day, a new relationship had formed and I still had the privilege of saying, “I now present to you Mr. and Mrs…”. Every wedding I’ve ever done has been beautiful, but never perfect.

I don’t ever anticipate a wedding without a hiccup or two, and that’s ok because no marriage is without its hiccups. Sometimes we get fooled by classic tv relationships like the Brady’s and the Walton’s, but the truth is that there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. We don’t always see eye to eye and we’ll usually find ways to annoy each other. And when we bring our unique traits and habits into a relationship, fighting and disagreements are bound to happen. In our recent only survey, 40% of you said you have conflicts at least once a week with your significant other, but 75% of you indicated that your conflicts are mostly minor. Healthy relationships are not conflict-free relationships, but instead are relationships committed to two things: understanding why you’re fighting (and usually we don’t have to look to hard to find these reasons: money, communication, expectations, being close-minded and judgmental, etc.) and figuring out strategies to reconcile when fights happen. Thankfully, we don’t have to do this on our own.

God’s Word is rich treasury of strategies that help us persevere thorough relational difficulties and tough times. In our reading from today, written by the Apostle Paul to his congregation at Colossae, we hear these words: “12 Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

The first word of advice Paul gives us is to clothe ourselves as God’s people. I most cases, there is nothing we can do to change another person. Only God can transform a person from the inside out. But we can play a role in determining the type of people we will be. It’s not unlike choosing the type of clothes we wear. Sometimes we spend a lot of brain power thinking about our clothes and shoes, especially if we think our clothes will express who we are and how we want to be known. But what about our character? Even more than our clothes, our character speaks volumes about our identity, and the type of character we cultivate will transform the way we handle challenges and conflicts. Paul leaves no stone unturned when he calls forth the identity of a Jesus-follwor. You are God’s people. And as God’s people, we should clothe ourselves with traits such as compassion, kindness, humility and patience. Another Scripture puts it this way: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. This isn’t saying you have be Jesus, but rather it’s an invitation to allow God to grow in you life-giving habits, behaviors and new ways of thinking, being and doing. What type of person do you want to be? Do you want be compassionate? Humble? Kind? Those are traits necessary to build a love that last.

The second word of advice we see from this passage is the phrase “bear with.” This has in mind words like patient and longsuffering. When we take our vows and say, “For better or worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health,” this is commitment we are making. We are committing ourselves to another person who is unfinished product, just like you and are incomplete products. My daughter Reagan pulled a shirt out of her drawer the other day that says, “perfectly imperfect,” and I think that’s an appropriate way to describe each of us. We are wholly imperfect people, and as partners and spouses, we have to recognize those imperfections and remember that God is not done with us, nor is God done with him or her. Besides that, we are constantly changing. And the world is constantly changing, which means our love has to be flexible enough and strong enough to weather all the changes we anticipate and those we don’t. Most of us have prayed something like this in our lives, “God, please give me patience.” It’s really a prayer after God’s own heart (and one God doesn’t mind answering) because God is forever patient with us. Patient with our shortcomings, with our failures, with our habits. Scripture says that God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Yet despite our infuriating and frustrating choices and behavior, God loves us through them. That’s what we’re called to imitate. If you were to ask long-married couples the secret to their relational success, I’m positive cultivating patience would be at the top of the list. Maybe this is an area of your relationship where you struggle. If that’s the case, ask God to help you see your friend or your spouse the way he does and to give you a heart that desires to bless, lift up and encourage.

The third and final piece of advice for building a love that lasts is cultivating a habit of forgiveness. At some point in your relationship, you will either be hurt by your partner or cause your partner to experience hurt, but that doesn’t have to be the end of it. There is real healing power in the act of forgiveness. When we acknowledge that we’ve created hurt in someone and when we forgive and release someone from his or her guilt, something truly beautiful takes place. There is real power in saying the words “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you,” and most of us could stand to say them a bit more. It’s often said that forgiveness sets two people free: the one who has caused hurt and the one who can’t move on because of that hurt.  Guilt and resentment are like large boulders that weigh us down, and they can turn relationships into prisons. Both need to be set free and forgiveness is the way to do that.

One such couple that practiced forgiveness were the Fishers. Herbert and Zelmyra Fisher were married for 86 years, and in 2010 the Guinness Book of World Records acknowledged them as the world’s longest living couple. In their 86 years together, they saw a lot of ups and a lot of downs, even though they tried to love God and love each other as much as possible. But their downs were never allowed to last too long. In 2010, the Fishers answered questions on Twitter about the success of their marriage. Here’s what they said: “Remember, marriage is not a contest. Never keep a score. God has put the two of you together on the same team to win. Learn to bend---not break.[1] That sounds a lot like the words of 1 Corinthians 13, the gold standard of love and every couples hope-filled intentions: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast. It is not self-seeking and keeps no record or wrongs.” That’s a vision for a love that lasts. Are you carrying around bitterness and resentment that needs to be let go? Have you done something that requires forgiveness? When you repent and extend forgiveness (how I interpret the Fishers’ advice of bending but not breaking), you will begin to experience the healing power and love of Jesus.

We’ve been saying all along that marriage is hard work. Learning to bend, which requires a certain level of humility, vulnerability and compassion, is certainly harder than breaking. But it’s possible through God’s grace. You might be asking, “How can I do this? How can I become a person who loves in spite of his habits? How can I get over her choices and behaviors? How can I learn to forgive? We do this through a life-long process called sanctification, where the Holy Spirit works in us and forms in us spiritual fruit and godly characteristics. By asking God to give us strength and desire, and allowing God’s Spirit to make us new, we can learn to clothe ourselves with compassion and kindness, bear with our spouses through the tough times and forgive one another when we are hurt. And in doing so, we will build a love that lasts. Amen.  

[1] http://www.crosswalk.com/family/marriage/relationships/how-forgiveness-can-restore-romance-in-your-marriage.html

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Love to Stay: Habits That Hurt, Habits That Heal

"Love That Lasts" is based off the teachings of Rev. Adam Hamilton and his work "Love to Stay." This sermon uses his teachings as a framework, working my own stories into the mix. I'm grateful for Rev. Hamilton's work and hope you are as blessed as I am with this series. 

Habits That Hurt, Habits That Heal    May 13/14, 2016
Scripture: Ephesians 4: 29-32, 1 Thess. 4: 1-7

There’s a story I once read about a wife who desperately tried to get her husband to fix the broken lawn mower, but every time she asked, he always had something more important to do. Whether it was making his next tee time or working on his sports car, he never seemed to get around to fixing the mower. Finally, the wife had enough. When her husband got home from work the next day, he found her slowly cutting each blade of grass with a small pair of scissors. After watching silently for a few moments, he ran into the house and grabbed a toothbrush. Handing it to his wife, he said, “After you’re done mowing the lawn, you might as well sweep off the driveway.” He thinks, after the surgeon is done, that he’ll one day walk again.

We’re in the midst of a sermon series on marriage and relationships called “A Love That Lasts.” And we’ve been learning that relationships are one of God’s greatest gifts to us. We’ve been created to live in community, to bless, build up and encourage. When these elements are present, relationships are strong and healthy. Making a commitment to blessing the other can go along way to building a love that lasts. Yet even the strongest of relationships have their challenges. Conflicts, disagreements and differences of opinion are normal. They’ll happen. Most of these are small, like forgetting to put the toilet seat down or leaving the car on “E.” And healthy relationships find a way to laugh and work through their conflicts so that small things don’t grow into big problems. Every relationship has small problems. That’s normal. But occasionally there are bigger issues and conflicts that can lead to broken hearts and broken lives. This is where we’re going to spend our time today.

I don’t think anyone ever enters a relationship intending to hurt another person, but sometimes we cause each other pain with our decisions and actions. In our survey, you listed a number of items that cause conflict in your relationships, ranging from communication and money to not fulfilling household responsibilities and battling addictions. Those are very real threats to the health of relationships, and if you sense that these are beginning to drive a wedge between you and your spouse, it’s best to act now and seek help. But today I want to highlight two very serious issues. Several of our respondents indicated they’ve lived through failed marriages and they listed two primary reasons for their divorces that are consistent with statistics across our country: abuse and adultery. We’re going to learn about these threats and offer ways to either avoid them or work through them.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 20 people experience physically abuse by intimate partners every minute. This equates to more than 10 million men and women each year. On average, 1 in 3 women and 1 and 4 men have been abused in their lifetimes.[1] This is a sobering trend. When I think of the meaning and mission God has for our relationships, to bless, lift up and encourage, it’s easy to see that something has gone terribly wrong. These stats are the opposite of building and lifting up. And it doesn’t stop with physical violence. The Alice Paul House, which promotes awareness of domestic violence in Indiana County, suggests that abuse also comes in emotional, mental and sexual forms, such as name-calling, withholding money and keeping partners from seeing friends and family.[2] Abuse comes in many shapes and forms and destroys lives, personal dignity and relationships. And it isn’t right.

When you look at your relationship, do you bless, lift up and encourage? Are you doing these things? Because that’s what God intends from you. Or do you belittle and demean, criticize and put down? The apostle Paul, who in understanding our ability to harm others, describes for us in Ephesians God’s intentions for holy living: Do not let any evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen…Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger…along with every form of malice. And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. As Paul suggests, evil talk and action come out of our mouths and hands, but they don’t begin there. They begin in the heart. Often these actions point to something that’s going on inside of us. Abuse rarely begins with physical violence. It’s usually a reaction to things left unchecked, like small problems that were never properly handled and became large problems. There is no excuse for abuse, but there might be ways you can begin to understand why you do the things you do. If you are willing to say, “There’s something wrong” and “I want to change,” then there are ways to make that happen. But you have to be willing to reach out for help. It might not repair the relationship, but it might calm the personal storms within you.

If you are in an abusive relationship, I want you to know that God weeps with you. Sometimes we do a grave injustice when saying things like, “God hates divorce.” Even though it pains God when relationships end, the thing God hates even more is witnessing his children hurt and harmed. If you feel your mental, emotional and physical wellbeing are in jeopardy, please don’t pretend it’s not happening or try to sweep it under the rug. I would encourage you to reach out and talk with one of your pastors or one of our Christian Counseling Associates. We are here to help you and get you healthy again.

Some of you responded that abuse led to the destruction of your marriage, but the number one reason you indicated your marriage failed was adultery. And this is no surprise. Infidelity is the leading cause of divorce in America today, and it’s an age-old human problem. There’s a reason it made God’s list of the ten important commandments: Thou shalt not commit adultery. Again, I don’t think we take our marriage vows expecting to renege on them. When we stand at the altar and proclaim Yes! to the question, Will you forsake all others? we usually mean it! We fully believe that we will honor our commitment to saying “no” to others for the rest of our lives. So if that’s the case, how does adultery happen?

First off, let’s get something straight. Attraction is not the problem. That’s human. It’s normal to notice the positive characteristics in another person. People have good, attractive qualities about them, and the only way we could avoid these is to walk around with our eyes closed all the time. Being attracted to others, even making connections with others, is simply a fact of life. The problem begins when we allow those attractions to occupy more and more of our thoughts. And the more we think about something, the more likely we are to act. And when you couple wandering thoughts with unmet needs, temptation becomes a reality.

During one of my first years of ministry, I had a knock on my door. For the next hour, I listened to a man sob and confide in me that he had cheated on his wife. He felt horrible. He hadn’t meant for it to happen, but he made an emotional connection with a co-worker, a connection that he had seemingly lost with his wife. That should’ve been a red flag. He spent more time at the office than he did at home, and his conversations at work seemed to be deeper than the ones at home.  Soon, one thing led to another: A listening ear became a hug, a hug turned into an embrace, and embrace led to sex. And now this man was asking me how he could save his marriage. He pledged to do anything. When adultery occurs, I believe healing can happen, but not without the hard work forgiveness and years of building back broken trust. The only surefire way to prevent adultery is to create the type of relationship where affairs are undesirable.

One great place to start is worship. Before I agree to do perform a wedding ceremony, I ask my pre-marital couples to commit to worship together on a weekly basis. This is an important habit that draws us together, but even more importantly, worship gives Jesus space to fill the deepest yearnings of our soul. No spouse or partner will ever truly fulfill our deepest needs. Only Christ can do that. Only Jesus can feed our deep spiritual needs, remind us who we are and give us strength to overcome weaknesses and moments of vulnerability. We need Jesus to be at the center of our lives and relationships, which is why weekly worship is so important.

In addition to worship there are other strategies you can use to protect your relationship against infidelity. One such strategy are the “5 R’s,” offered by fellow UMC pastor Adam Hamilton. Whenever you have those lingering thoughts of someone other than your spouse, here are 5 things you can do:

First, Remember who you are. Your identity is not in a momentary feeling. You are a child of God, a disciple of Jesus Christ, a husband or wife and a mom or dad. Is what you are feeling or about to do consistent with you who are?
Second, Recognize the consequences. Have you really taken the time to think through the repercussions? What will you be feeling, thinking and regretting ten minutes from now?
Thirdly, Rededicate yourself to God. Remember what Jesus did when tempted in the desert? He relied on God’s strength. Take time to pray, to read Scripture and ask God for grace and strength.
            Fourth, Reveal your struggles to a trusted friend. It’s harder to act when we know a trusted friend will hold us accountable. Find someone you can tell.
            Fifth, Remove yourself from the temptation. If your marriage or relationship is important to you, then you might need to make some pretty drastic choices and changes. Creating distance between you and the temptation is vital, even if it means cutting off a friendship, leaving a job or moving. These might seem like extreme measures, but these things might happen any way if you continue down a road of infidelity.[3]

I realize that we’ve covered some tough topics today, but the gift of relationship must be nurtured and protected. As challenging as relationships can be, it is possible to establish lasting love. And it’s possible to move beyond habits that hurt and create new habits that heal. Our world is filled with stories of people who were done and couldn’t’ take it any more, but by God’s grace, the rips in their lives were mended and made new. How does this happen? It happens by reaching out and asking God for help! God is in the business of making all things new and he’s been there. He knows our temptations and our struggles, our weaknesses and our challenges. And he is willing to forgive, give us grace to heal, and offer us a chance at a new beginning. Maybe today is a new beginning for you. Wherever you find yourself on your relational journey, God can give you a new beginning today. Amen.  

[1] http://ncadv.org/learn-more/statistics
[2] http://www.alicepaulhouse.org/learn.html
[3] Love to Stay; Adam Hamilton