Where Does Happiness Come From. Part 2

Mextures

This week I’m going to build off of what I wrote in my last post about finding true happiness in this world, and today I want to start with a passage from the Psalms.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures…

I have always loved this Psalm and it is has always been a favorite amongst Gods people since the day it was written. I have even written songs about this passage and we sing them regularly at the congregation that I pastor here in Tampa.  It is a passage that we read when we need provision, when we need God to intervene, and when we need a little bit of peace in a chaotic world.

But, like much of the scriptures, this passage has been divorced of it’s original context. And when we remove a piece of writing form it’s original time, place, and audience we tend to miss some incredibly important things that we desperately need to hear.

Usually when we think of this passage we picture big fat fluffy sheep grazing in a field lush with green grass up to their mouths. In fact, if you do a quick google search of Psalm 23, this is exactly what kinds of images are conjured up. As if the sheep barely need to even lower their heads because the grass is so thick and healthy that they can almost wander with their eyes closed and open their mouths and be fed.

But the reality of that passage in it’s original context was actually much different, and it should have a profound impact on the actual meaning of the text. The “green fields” that the sheep were supposedly wandering in did not actually exist like we have just described them here. In reality, they looked more like this:

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Not quite the same, I would say. The food that was available for the sheep was not really all that abundant. In the morning, as the sun was rising, the dew would settle on these tiny sprigs of grass, and they would soak up the dew like a sponge. They would indeed turn green, but only for a short time. By noon there would be a scorching wind coming in from the east that would cause the grass and it’s flowers and greenery to wither and fade.

Without a shepherd the sheep would never eat, because only the shepherd knew where to lead them to find the food that they need. The shepherd knew that at different times of the day there would be grasses good for eating in certain parts of the valley, and he would take great care to lead the sheep to exactly what they needed to eat at the exact time that they needed it.

Think about that for a second.

The shepherd didn’t lead them into a land of plenty where they never needed to think about food anymore. He didn’t lead them to a place where they had such abundance that they could relax and no longer worry about being fed for the rest of their days… that kind of place did not exist!

Instead, the shepherd would lead them to exactly what they needed, exactly when they needed it. It was their “daily bread”. It was not year by year, but moment by moment.

If the sheep wanted to live, they had to keep their eyes on the shepherd. In fact, to take their eyes off of the shepherd was the most dangerous thing they could do. And all first century nomadic peoples knew the context in which this passage was written. Peter, Paul and James all wrote about it. Here is what James said in chapter 1:

 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

That word for “scorching heat” is the Greek word “καύσων (kausōn)”, also called the simoon”. And it’s heat could killed a healthy man who did not take shelter under a tent, tree, or at least a turban.

So lets reevaluate how we are to read this text.

I know that we want God to lead us into a place where we are at perfect peace. Where there is plenty to feast upon and no lack of abundance. But that is never promised to us in this life. Instead, we are told that we have a shepherd that we can trust, who knows the way through the fires of life, who has gone ahead of us and calls us to follow Him. He knows the way. He is paving and has paved a way for us to be fed and nourished. A way for us to find peace. Not a storehouse of peace, but a fountain of it. Constantly flowing.

Peace is not abundant food or money or shelter… it is abundant trust and faith that, if we follow our shepherd, we will always be given exactly what we need when we need it.

In fact, it is when we receive too much abundance that we tend to fall into misery. When we have too much of a good thing, we find ourselves alone and heading towards destruction.

Pay attention to exactly what God said to the Israelites when he was about to lead them into abundance. He is not telling them that it will be what they need, instead He warns them that it of the dangers of it all. Read Deuteronomy 6:10

“And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers…with great and good cities that you did not build, 11and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, 12then take care lest you forget the LORD who brought you out of bondage…

It did not take long for them to forget about the God who fed them in the wilderness day after day. It did not take long for them to fall into idolatry. It wasn’t long before they found themselves back in bondage once again.

Usually it is when we have too much that we forget our shepherd. He becomes unnecessary. We find ourselves self sufficient, and so we isolate ourselves.

Sometimes the things that we are praying for, that things that we want, that things that we look at and say “If I only had THAT, then I would be HAPPY!”… THOSE are the thing that will be our undoing.

Sometimes the most loving thing that God could possibly do for us is to say “no, you don’t need that, and I will not be giving it to you”.

Sometimes the most loving thing that god can do is to give you just a little, right here, right now.

Sometimes when we are receiving all of the things that we always wanted, we should be terrified because perhaps we are actually being chastened and disciplined.

Happiness comes in the providence. It comes from posture of thankfulness.

Perhaps the best way to put it is in the lyrics of a beloved song from The Muppet Christmas Carol:

Yes, and every night will end
And every day will start
With a grateful prayer
And a thankful heart

So may you wake up tomorrow in want and need. Because only in the seeking and finding, day by day, do we really understand that love is real and that we have a shepherd and a guide who sees, who understands, and who is capable of granting salvation in every moment. Not just later, but NOW.

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Graceful Responses To Nasty Emails.

I woke up that Sunday morning and perused my sermon notes over coffee. I was pretty satisfied with the effort that I had put into crafting a teaching that would help us, as a church, put some things in perspective, but I knew what Monday morning would bring. I told my wife as I headed out the door “I’m probably going to receive a nasty email after I this sermon”. She looked at me with a furrowed brow and responded “Why, what are you preaching on?” . “Community”, I answered. She nodded, “The loners don’t like to hear about community”. As I walked out the door I looked at her and said “And, lone rangers are always looking for a fight”.

The next morning the volume on my phone was set at full volume. Just loud enough to hear the “ding” of an incoming message. It was my sabbath, so I rolled over and put the phone on “Do not disturb” mode. Eventually my intrigue got the better of me, and I opened up my email to read the scathing, ungracious, angry, insulting and deriding pile of steaming excrement had been launched at my soul on, what was supposed to be, my day of rest. My morning was ruined.

I’ve only ever been a pastor, so I’m not sure what other people have to put up with, but I’m fairly certain that this can’t possibly be the only profession that invites these kinds of letters. I imagine that many of you receive them from time to time.

Today I want to address this seemingly new phenomenon of human beings, professed followers of Jesus, launching virtual cannonballs from the comfort of their couch and pajamas. I imagine that the rise in this type of behavior is due in part to the easy access that we have to the people we are upset with. It used to be that when you had a grievance you would either set up a meeting and prepare your thoughts to be delivered face to face. You were forced to look into the eyes of the other person. Where your body language spoke far more than your words ever could. Where there is a sense of respect and decorum. That type of scenario is exactly what cowards fear, and what kept them (and their emotional outbursts) in check.

But in this day and age we can inject ourselves, our anger, our unhealth, and our spiritual darkness directly into the souls of the person who has become the object of our ire during their family dinner, their prayer time, or the busiest parts of their day. And for the bitter minded, this is far to big of a temptation to pass up.

So what do we do? How do we respond? How do we interact with ungraciousness? Well, I can only tell you what I have learned over the years (through both my failures and successes) about how to respond to this type of behavior. So here are some simple rules that I follow. Rules that have helped me turn many of these interactions into helpful dialogue instead of heated and destructive breakdowns in relationship. So here we go.

Rule #1: Wait 48 hours before responding.

I make a general habit of trying to treat the majority of digital correspondence as if it were not digital at all, but tangible. Like a handwritten note that I received via old fashioned snail mail. Putting some chronological distance between the initial emotions, and the response.

This does 2 things:

1) It gives them time to think about the repercussions of their actions.
It takes time for information to be processed. They probably haven’t taken that time. They acted out of anger mixed with access to you. A couple of days of letting their thoughts settle will do them (and you) some good. Often times I will receive a follow up email a day later that will try and soften their previous letter, and sometimes even a request to meet in person… which is the best possible scenario. Regret and shame weigh heavy on people. It can drive them to the realization that they are in a dark place and need to draw near to people, not push them away. Time to think and to let the spirit of God do his work can soften the heart.

2) It gives you time to think about your response.
Your first instinct is to defend and fire back. You, no doubt, know about some easy jabs that you could throw at them: pointing out their struggles with some sin that you know about, stupid things that they have done, all of the misinformation that they have gathered. This is not only unhelpful, it throws more heat on the fire.
Remember, they weren’t thinking clearly when they wrote the letter and, at this moment, neither are you. Let things settle, abandon the scene of the accident and return when the adrenaline has worn off. You will find that you can easily look at things differently, and only then will you be able to respond with your integrity intact.

Rule #2: Do not defend yourself.

Let me quote a passage from my favorite book, “Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster:

The tongue is our most powerful weapon of manipulation. A frantic stream of words flows from us because we are in a constant process of adjusting our public image. We fear so deeply what we think other people see in us that we talk in order to straighten out their understanding. If I have done some wrong thing (or even some right thing that I think you may misunderstand) and discover that you know about it, I will be very tempted to help you understand my action! Silence is one of the deepest Disciplines of the Spirit simply because it puts the stopper on all self-justification.

Silence is a spiritual discipline, and spiritual disciplines are there to bear fruit in our lives. One of the ways that we can practice silence is to remain silent when our reputation and motives are under attack. The fruit of silence is freedom. Freedom to let God justify us.

If there are personal attacks, things specifically written to demean your character or bring pain and insult to your soul, say nothing of those. If they are true, then you have some internal spiritual work to do that has nothing to do with them. If they are untrue, then be at peace. Be silent. Rest. Your integrity is intact, and now you can enjoy watching God be your defender.

Rule #3: No negativity!

Diamonds and emails are forever. I have said things that have come back a decade later and sucker-punched me right in the kisser. Those negative and emotional words will live forever in someone else’s inbox. They will never be deleted. I know this because I have kept every awful email that I have ever received. I use them as a reminder to either set up boundaries in the future, or for when I find out later that there was sin that the sender was hiding that has come to light, and now I can read it through the lens of their pain and guilt. It is a reminder that most of the time they don’t hate you, they hate that you have reminded them of themselves… and they can’t stand themselves. That email, sent out of a sinful place, now becomes a warning sign for your future interactions with them. If you see them going down that same path again, you now know what to look for and how to help them confess, repent, and cope.

Sending negativity through email is akin to sending your kryptonite out into enemy territory. It will be forwarded to others, and your problems will only increase as more and more people see a side of you that you wish would disappear.

If you must respond through email, do so with positivity and encouragement. Express your desire for reconciliation and grace. Be hopeful with them that you can find common ground. Apologize if necessary. Tell them the spirit with which you are writing, and ask them to read it in that tone.

Rule #4: Look for substance. 

Print that nasty email out, and get a sharpie. Black out (redact!) all of the personal attacks and insults. Things that are unfounded and assumptions that are not grounded in actual reality. What are you left with? Is there a legitimate concern? Address it. Address it with dignity and grace and a desire to find a remedy. The entire email probably could have been boiled down to that one point, so pretend that it was and focus all of your efforts towards meeting that need.

Those are the rules that I have for myself, perhaps they can help guide you when someone is firing arrows in a fit of emotion.

Above all, remember. There is no reward in winning the argument. There is no joy in destroying another person. There are no spoils of war that will make you happy. Our God does not delight in the destruction of relationships. He is not proud of you for winning the argument, having a great comeback, or laying waste to those who attack you. He loves them as much as he loves you.

They might not ever fully enter into relationship with you again, and if the relationship was abusive then it is best to set up boundaries to protect yourself and the ones you love. I’ve had to let many relational seasons come to an end, and its okay. Seasons come and go, and sometimes unhealthy influences need to be removed from your life. But God is not willing that any should perish, and our desires should mirror His. Our desire should be exactly what God desires: “that all should come to repentance”. This is not only about eterna relationship with God, it is also about our relationships with each other here and now.

When the dust settles you will be left either standing side-by-side with them again, or standing alone. But then you will have to answer to God for your own responses, your own motives, and the current state of your soul. Will you still be at peace then?

I leave you with the words of Paul, who had far more attacks leveled at him then you or I ever will, and still had the purity of heart to write this in Romans 12:17-19:

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord.…

Lets Talk about Your Soul-Crushing Calendar.

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Every single Sunday morning I ask countless people the american greeting question: “Hey, how are things?”. And ninety nine point nine percent of the time I receive an answer similar to “Man, things are so busy!”. Everyone is so busy. When you look into the eyes of other people you can see the glazed over look of a life that is filled with wall to wall obstacles, appointments and meetings. So many hurdles to wade through from the moment the feet hit the floor until the head finally hits the pillow in exhaustion. Yet we talk about how busy we are with our chests pushed out, as if we were waiting for the medal of american respect to be pinned to our chests because, yes… we are so very busy.

A relative of mine works for a ministry where there are weekly meetings that he has secretly dubbed “busy time”. One by one each person at the table takes their turn spinning tales of busy-ness. Each one greater than the last until they all can smile and affirm together that, yes, they are the busiest people they know.

On the other hand I have far too many conversations after Sunday worship gatherings that are filled with statements like “I just don’t feel close to God” or “I don’t have time to read and study, to meditate and exercise and grow”.

We always seem to have time for everyone else’s needs, but never for our own. We have time to help everyone else build what they want to build, but never time to build ourselves into what we want and need to become.

I have a small phrase that I want to give you. I think it will be a gift to you. And I think this little phrase can change your life. Are you ready? Here we go:

Your calendar is not about what you need to get done, it is about the kind of person that you want to be.

Your calendar should represent the you of your dreams. When I hear the laments of people who are unhappy with who they are right now, the state of their spiritual lives, the mass of chaos that has become their soul, I don’t need to wonder what their calendar for the last 6 months looked like. I already know.

They have been pouring themselves out. For everyone. For friends and family and bosses and co-workers, and even for God. The color coded blocks that pepper their ical like shotgun blasts represent a thousand little pieces of their heart and soul that they are giving away to others. Sometimes out of love, sometimes out of obligation, and sometimes out of fear.

And the blank spaces in their calendar represent the times that, if nothing else comes up, just might be times when they can refill their souls that have been running on fumes for months, if not years. When did it become okay, and even a badge of honor, to wear exhaustion around necks? When did it become acceptable to give the reigns of your life over to the tyranny of the whims of other people?

I made a decision at some point over the last couple of years to stop the madness. And it all started with a question:

What kind of person do you want to be in six months?

And let me follow that up with another question:

Does your calendar represent a movement towards becoming that person?

If not, you need to delete it and start over.

You see, your life shouldn’t be found in the blank spaces. Your personal growth and health should be first and foremost laid out in the boldest colors. And they should be locked in and immoveable.

Open your calendar today and ask yourself a couple of questions:

Do you want a better prayer life? Yes? Then show me exactly where on your calendar you have designated time for prayer, for reading books on prayer, for praying with others.

Do you want to have a deeper understanding of theology and spirituality? Show me where on your calendar you have designated times for reading, for meeting with your pastor or elders, or for taking classes on those particular subjects.

Do you want to have a better marriage? A deeper and more active sex life? A more intimate relationship with your spouse? So when were you planning on pursuing them? If you are just waiting for things to happen, you are forgetting that you are already struggling to find time for yourself and your God… weren’t those things just supposed to “happen” as well?

How about rest? Is vacation an afterthought? Are you putting money away every week in order to go to the mountains or the ocean and fill yourself up? Or are you just hoping that you will stumble into some extra days off and then struggle to stressfully scrape up some cash to do so? You don’t really believe that you will come back filled up when you stressed over money the entire time, do you?

Six months from now you will be someone else. And it’s your choice who that person will be.

If you don’t tell your time how it will be spent, then other people will. I promise you. Do you know why? Because you have no reason to say no. Your calendar is wide open, and your achilles heal is exposed. But your defense mechanism is the simple phrase: “I’m sorry, my calendar is booked at that time”.

One thing that I have noticed is that no one ever questions the calendar. If you tell them “I will be playing candyland with my daughter”, they will become irritated at your lack of commitment to whatever it is that they deem important. BUT, if your reply is “The Calendar is booked”  then there is no questions. The calendar is gospel to them, because they are busy, and busyness is honorable. Candyland is not.

So may your calendar reflect your sanctification. Your movement towards a life that reflects Jesus. The desires of your heart to live a meaningful life. To learn, to love, to grow, and to build a life that is filled with grace and peace.

Your calendar is not a reflection of what you need to get done. It is a well lit path towards kind of person that you will become. So fill ‘er up.