July disappeared for me in Nicaragua. When I look back at the happenings of July in the life of my family, I’m in awe of the uniqueness of time: moments that stand still like the permanency of a polaroid picture and others that seemed to vanish quickly like deleting a non-keeper photo on your cell phone. Radio DJ’s are playing the anointed “Song of the Summer” one last time – this summer’s anointed champion? Justin Beiber and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito.” Yep, it has been a full summer. You’ve had a full summer too. People are coming and going and struggling and striving and starting new things and ending others. But August is here and you can sense the exhale of the-livin-is-easy-summertime and the inhale of a new season – most notably in society as the beginning of a new school year. Even if you’re not a student or a teacher, our culture is geared around the school season enough that it is a collective experience. We’re collecting school supplies for our Partner in Education next door and in two weeks, we’ll have a special blessing in worship for students and educators. Band kids are learning their new marches and football players are pulling in the heat of two-a-days. Students will soon be taking that big gulp on day one of another year, a new grade, a new teacher. Regardless of how closely Day One will affect your schedule or routine, you’re a part of the seasonal shift. You feel it in some way. Are you ready for that shift? Every seasonal shift in a community comes with a whole new set of feelings, issues and possibilities. We’re going to do our best as a church family to help us make the shift to this new season in the life of our community. That’s why we begin this August sermon series today we’re calling, “Ready, Set, Go!”
We start today with ‘Ready.’ I’m guessing once a day or so, you’re faced with the question from someone about something coming up in your life, “Are you ready?” When we ask you that question, we want to know if you’re prepared. Are you jazzed up about what’s coming? Are you nervous or anxious? How are you feeling about what’s to come? Have you done the work ahead of time. Is your to-do list completed? Did you make arrangements for the dogs? Did you pick up enough bug spray? Did you get the marriage license? Is the car seat properly installed, fireman inspected and approved to carry that precious cargo home from the hospital for the very first time? I find that when I ask others the predictable, “Are you ready?” question, more often than not I get the “Not at all” predictable response. Not always, but much of the time. In some ways, I think this is what we’ve come to think is the most culturally acceptable response. It generally implies that we’re so busy, so important, that we just haven’t had the time to get fully ready for whatever that next thing is. I get lost in this sometimes. I think, “You know, I need to complete that first. When that is done, I’ll consider that and when that is finished I’ll get my head wrapped around that other thing.” Mike Yaconelli once said, “There are a whole lot of people who are so freakin’ busy—they’ve so cluttered up their lives—they’re at their wits’ end. And if they’d only just stop for a minute, they could hear the God of the universe whisper to them, “I love you.” Ouch. That gets me.
Maybe you know how that feels. I’m also sure it depends on what that next thing is. Sometimes, you’re so excited about something that you just jump right in before you even know fully what you’re jumping in to. Other things you dread so much that you resist facing what is coming to the extent that your attitude is in the dumps before you even get started. We might call these false starts. And there is certainly more than one way to experience a false start to a new season of life. The Apostle Paul offers a way to be ready for the set and go that will follow. We dive into part of his word to the Colossian church that speaks to the gift of preparedness.
The city of Colossae is noted by some commentators to be “the most unimportant town to which Paul ever wrote.” “That’s sort of offensive,” I thought. I grew up in a small, unassuming town, so to speak but would never call it unimportant. It was home. It was a town made up of friends and families who were, and remain, a necessary part of the human story. I told you earlier that July disappeared for me in Nicaragua. I spent a week there as part of a partnership our church has with the community of Chacraseca, Nicaragua. Over the course of two weeks, twenty-seven of us from HACC made that pilgrimage. Chacraseca is materially impoverished by any standard but the souls of those people, our friends there, are as rich as any I’ve ever met. Look past the name of the town on the sign to the eyes of Diana and Melanie … and countless others… and tell me that community is unimportant. The hope of Christ, alive in the world, is here, and there, and in my little hometown and in Colossae.
Paul writes this letter to that church from a jail cell. He wants to encourage their grounded-ness in the beautiful mystery of Christ and to be alert to how his presence is to shape their lives. “The substance of our message,” Paul writes, “is simple. We preach Christ. No more. No less.” Paul knows the outside pressures we face – and sometimes the inside pressures of religion too – “Do this. Don’t do that. Spend your time excluding those people. Focus on rules and enforcing them.” Paul says, “Un uh. Those all lead to false starts. Start with Jesus. Just Jesus. Know him. Work to understand him. Dwell in his character. Be his grace in the world not his Middle School Principal’s spanking paddle.” My goodness. I never got the paddle myself from Mr. Cerva when I was in middle school but I remember walking by his office one time when a kid got the paddle. Whew! Times have changed… a bit… in some ways. Don’t be a paddler. Be grace. That’s not easy but that’s the call.
Night one of our team’s PartnerTrip to Nicaragua, we were stranded in Dallas as our flight was cancelled. The airline put us up for the night in a nearby hotel and we rolled with the punches. Here’s our team that first night on the hotel elevator. This is when we were all still wearing clean clothes! All of us fit! And we were going down so even if we surpassed the weight limit, gravity would have helped us get down to the lobby. Dr. Bob Flint is pictured in the front. The joke early in the trip was that if you wanted to get on the screen during a sermon, you needed to be in a prominent spot in the photo — you made it, Bob!
Now… Bob is a renowned and master dentist, truly elite in his field. On our first work day in Chacraseca, Bob worked at the medical clinic along with the local dentist who came into the village on occasion to serve the community. There was a good line of folks in need of dental support – lots of extractions. As you can imagine, sterilization and access to the tools Bob is used to were an altogether different story at the clinic; challenging for sure. But I loved Bob’s approach to it. He could have called the dentist out for sub-par standards; chastising the practice. He could have refused to help and made a statement by walking out. But no. Bob rolled up his sleeves and used his gifts to make a difference to those who were hurting and in need. This is what Paul is saying: “Just Christ. Nothing more. Nothing less.” When Jesus was approached by the hurting on the Sabbath, he could have chastised them saying, “Hey – you know the rules – no work, no help on the Sabbath.” Instead, Jesus picked up some dirt with his hand, spit in it, and rubbed it on the eyes of the blind… on the wounds of the world. Not exactly the most sterile procedure but he served where he was, when he was there, with the gifts he had to give.
How could such an approach change your interaction with those in your life? When your gut is to say, “No,” in a state of judgment or to quip back with “Well, the Bible says…” trying to enforce your doctrine or “If you get your life together, then…”. How would things change if your response, first in your heart and then from your mouth and actions was the response that promoted nothing less than the love of Jesus. Nothing less. Save yourself some false starts by making sure you’re Christ-ready before responding to others in your life. And how do we ready ourselves to live out this grace in the world? How do you prepare for whatever season is just ahead of us? You draw on Paul’s words from the fourth chapter of Colossians.
“Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving.” “Pray diligently,” and my favorite part of this, “keep alert in it with thanksgiving.” It’s not about the right words or a certain length of time. It’s about consistency and intentionality. It’s about mindfulness. One of my friends is a middle school Principal in Indianapolis (apparently, there is a middle school principal theme this morning). Her school teachers have been trained in the Mindful Schools program and will implement mindfulness in their classrooms this school year. Mindfulness is about creating a pause in your day, slowing your thoughts down and paying attention to yourself and to the world around you. This has been a spiritual practice of our faith for years; to be intentional about clearing the clutter of your mind and spirit. And we are losing this discipline rapidly in today’s non-stop sensory world. Communion with God in the silence of the heart is a God-given capacity like a child’s capacity for self-forgetful abandon and joy. It’s about centering ourselves, clearing the mechanism so that our focus is clear. My buddy recently gave me a book called “Into the Silent Land” which is a guide to the Christian practice of contemplation by Martin Laird. Laird says, “God is our homeland. And the homing instinct of the human being is homed on God.” “Go to your home.” Like you say to your golf ball just before putting, “Go to your home.” Make time for this. Create intentional space for silence because our lives are so noisy. And in that silence, listen. The mental health coordinator at my friend’s school believes that practicing mindfulness will help students make better choices and help them communicate better with their teachers and peers. She said, “It helps increase self-discipline and self-regulation. It improves confidence, it helps with interpersonal skills, it improves emotional response and it increases the ability to understand others.” Could you benefit from some of those outcomes as well? Practice mindfulness or as Paul puts it, “Stay alert in your prayers…” and exist in that state with gratitude.
Start with Christ. Start with gratitude. Can you see how these starting points can carry us further than the starting points we may be most prone to employ? We may be inclined to start from a place of fear or judgment or selfishness. That won’t make us ‘ready’ for the next season. It will only drag us down or yank our attitude into a dark place. To ready ourselves, start with Christ. Nothing more. Nothing less. And start there in a spirit of gratitude. Paul is very clear about this. He’s also clear in how he asks the church to pray for him. He’s in prison, remember, but he doesn’t ask for prayers to be released. He doesn’t ask for a successful outcome to his coming trial. He doesn’t ask for a little break or even peace at the last, though those things are okay to request in prayer of course. But Paul’s laser focused. He asks the church at Colossae to pray only that God may give him strength and opportunity to do the work which God has called him to do. I’m not putting Paul on a pedestal here. Paul also prayed for a thorn in his side to be removed three times. Could have been a tough wrestling-a-rose-bush incident or, more likely, a metaphor for some other struggle he had in his life. We all pray for those things and such is okay. But keeping alert in our prayers, practicing mindfulness, hones in on the one thing, our purpose in God, asking for it to be illuminated in ongoing ways in our lives. From this clarity, this state of readiness, we operate forward. Paul says this will ready us to make the most of every opportunity. It will create a graciousness in our speech with others and therefore begin to bring the best out of them as well. Ground yourself in this spirit and you’ll give everything else in your life a greater chance to flourish. It doesn’t remove pain or heartache or struggle but it gives us a new lens through which to view them. It’s what we might call starting in the 10 and 2 zone.
In the movie, “Hitch”, Will Smith’s character (Hitch) is teaching Kevin James’ character (Albert) how to dance. Albert starts right in saying dancing is something he doesn’t need help with and he goes through all of his moves: “Start the fire,” as he rubs his hands together with some Lil’ John playing in the background. “Make the pizza” as he tosses pretend pizza dough into the air. He follows with “Q-tip” and “Throw it away” as you can begin to imagine what those moves look like. Hitch stops him saying, “Don’t ever do that again. Ever.” And he teaches him to start simply, with his elbows at 10 and 2. “This is where you live. This is home.” Now, I’m a big fan of the dance-like-no-one-is-watching approach to dancing. King David danced that way. But in this context, I think it’s an approach to readiness, like spiritually stretching first. Nothing but Christ. Nothing more, nothing less. Anything else is a false start.
I mentioned briefly about the false start to our team’s trip to Nicaragua. HACC’s first team that travelled the week before us had similar travel woes on the way there. But something happens along the way in these sorts of experiences and I look forward to our teams being able to share about the transformation they experienced in the coming weeks. But I’ll share this for now. Each day we served and laughed and cried and conversed and celebrated and worked alongside of the people of Chacraseca, things got clearer. Yes, cultural differences are complex and spiritual responses to what you experience deserve space to process and discern what it means for your life back home with your family or your neighbors or your political differing friends.
But, aside from all of those important things, Christ – nothing more and nothing less – becomes the centering focus of the moment. Day one’s concern about what you packed, what you’ll wear, your attempts not to sweat in sweltering conditions without the luxuries of home disappear bit by bit. I love these people. I lived with them. We shared bathrooms with toilets that didn’t always work and critters that shared our living space. I loved the new friends we made in Nicaragua and Day One’s sense of “This is their home?” turns into the comfort of sitting on their dirt floor, laughing with them and hugging like we were family. Christ. Nothing more. Nothing less. Sometimes, it takes going far from home to remember where home is. God. is. our. homeland.
We got on the plane in Managua on August 1st to fly to Dallas. It was a plane that happened to have a personal television for every single passenger which had its ironies thinking of what we had just experienced with one another – the minimal means of existence which had become more than enough to sustain joy and hope and heart. Nonetheless, I thumbed through the movie selections and picked another Will Smith movie: “Collateral Beauty.” I’d never seen it. It was wrapped up in the trials of Time, Love, and Death; the three becoming personified in a way that overlaid my experience in Nicaragua in such a powerful and profound way. By the end of the movie, the lump in my throat was large enough to be named and the tears pooling in my eyes might as well have fallen like the rain we felt on the Nicaraguan beach one evening. A woman sitting angled in the middle seat just a row ahead of me was watching a different movie entirely though the movies clearly climaxed at the same time. I perceived her to be from Nicaragua but I don’t know for sure that she was. But at the same time as “Mr. Lumpy” crept up in my own throat, she began dabbing her own eyes. Though the stories were different, we were the same in that moment. Collateral Beauty. Amidst the pain and struggle and uncertainty of life, there is beauty to be seen, to be felt, to be lived. It’s a mentality. It’s a Spirit thing. Are you ready for the next season ahead – whatever that may be for you? Look for the collateral beauty. Practice mindfulness. Stay alert in your prayers. See the world through a lens of gratitude. And start with Jesus. Nothing more. Nothing less.
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 Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. Martin Laird. Oxford University Press. 2006.