Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Choosing God's reign


"Men and Women, I call us this evening to repentance. We need to turn from the idols that enslave us, that demonize, dehumanize, and degrade us, and return to the living God. We need to turn from the illusory kingdoms of self to the very real and substantial Kingdom of God."

My two friends and I came from Canada to the Urbana Convention. We sat together in the middle section, just below the nosebleed seats. We three listened to John Stott, who expounded 2 Timothy each morning.

We three listened to missionaries talk about the power of God, about the love of God for lost people, about miracles and the supreme joy of being devoted to Jesus no matter what the circumstance.

When it came time to make a decision, we three were ready. We stood together and made a commitment to give our lives to mission and follow God's leading anywhere, at home or abroad.

Now, we are thirty-six years this side of Urbana 1967. For my friend Ted, the inspiration he received and commitment he made led him to be a career missionary. He is serving God's purpose in Europe and parts of Africa. He has been on the mission field for over thirty years.

The other friend who came with me was Mary, someone who had made it clear to her family, her friends and her church that she was going to be an overseas missionary. If there was a sure bet, Mary was it. Today, Mary is a top executive in her field. She has influence; she has affluence, and some very impressive toys. She rubs shoulders every day with some very powerful people. But she is not a missionary overseas, and she is not a missionary in her work context. God is not shaping her life choices.

When I left Urbana, with the passion and inspiration of my decision still very fresh, I had every intention of fulfilling it. I would finish high school, then on to university and then into Christian service. However, when I started at the University of Toronto a year later, I began to wonder whether it might not be a bad idea to put those commitments aside for a time.

I wanted to take just a little break – just enough time to savour some new friendships, some new thoughts, and a new worldview. I decided to take a little detour. That detour turned out to be longer than I'd expected. It would be eight years before I would once again consider the decision I made at Urbana.

Ted, Mary and me – we three! We heard the same message. We stood up with the same conviction and made a decision with passionate sincerity. But with such very different outcomes. How could that be?

Central to this question is what defines our reality?

I am a big movie fan. So of course I was there with the best of them on November 5 to see the latest installment of The Matrix. As much as I enjoyed the sequels, I found the first Matrix the most compelling. The main idea of the Matrix is that reality is not what it seems. What characters experience, what they see, touch, hear, taste and smell is not, in fact, true reality.

This is an engaging and disturbing premise for a story because we all base our lives on what we believe is real. And like the movie, "reality" often has more layers than what is first apparent.

Scripture says that when we let something or someone other that God define our reality, we are committing idolatry. We may think of idolatry as something people did in ancient times – nothing we’d do now – bowing down before statues and offering sacrifices to golden calves – we don’t do that! But idolatry is subtler, more insidious and a hundred times more pervasive than that. Idolatry has to do with what we worship, and what we worship defines our reality. It defines what we love, what we fear, what we long for, and what we aspire to. It affects how we pray and what we pray for. It shapes what keeps us up at night, what we do in secret and where we turn when we need solace and care. It is the thing that adds definition, color and nuance to our daily choices.

In the gospels, and I am sure you remember this story; a man comes to Jesus and asks him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" The man comes and questions Jesus because he senses that despite all that he is doing to lead a good life, something is missing. Like Neo, the main character in the Matrix, he has an intuitive sense that despite appearances, something is amiss.

This was a man driven to do the right things. When Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, he does all of them. Not one does he miss. And he has done them since his youth. How many of us could say that? Certainly not me!

Perhaps he was beginning to entertain the frightening notion that the reality by which he organized his life might not, in the end, secure the thing he wanted most.

My own restlessness, the sense of something amiss, started in high school. My life with God had been particularly marked by a few things: summers at Christian camp as a kid and my home church, which was a family-based church.

Camp was where I most understood the reality of Jesus. Hearing God's Word in the midst of God's creation; living with eight kids gave an opportunity to live out and see lived out, an obedience to Jesus in loving and serving others – and probably, for me, always asking for and receiving forgiveness. Jesus became real for me.

At my church, I knew adults of Christian faith, who were very sincere, and whose lives were deeply changed by the gospel. But the church struggled to engage the societal shifts of the 1960's and the social revolution. There were unwritten assumptions that there were certain things that Christians didn't do, certain questions that Christians didn't ask, certain topics that Christians don't talk about.

I concluded God's kingdom was narrow and had a lot of arbitrary rules of conduct. The rules, for me, made no sense, but I liked the people, so I began to live a compartmentalized life, and a hidden life. You can imagine my restlessness, my sense of unease, as I tried to live vacillating between these two worlds.

Idolatry entered in at that point. Other things other than God became more real for me. I graduated, and I was selected for a great job, which included working for the Olympics. The job paid well. I was in love with a great non-Christian man. We were talking seriously about getting married. We worked hard and we played hard, and we worked together in the same work. I had part ownership of a sailboat and a ski chalet, a sports car, and all the toys and gadgets you could ever dream of, and all the places you could ever fly to.

With the Rich Ruler, he was blameless by the rules of conduct. But he was missing the big piece of reality – relationship with Jesus. Jesus addresses his deep restlessness. Jesus invites him to decide to leave behind his idolatry of money, so that he could, with his whole self, follow after Jesus and participate in the Kingdom of God.

Likewise, Jesus invited me to deal with my restlessness. Ironically, I am probably one of a few Christians who was urged back to the faith by her non-Christian boyfriend. He asked me to go back to church and decide once and for all about God. He knew he didn't want Jesus and he didn't want a wife who followed Jesus. He liked our life the way it was.

Reluctantly, I started attending church. It was the closest one I could roll out of bed and go to. Providentially, an old friend spotted me and made herself a fixture in my life. She introduced me to her friends and Christian mentors. I found myself in a small group with her, asking all the questions I had stored up, and then some! I found that Marilyn and Shirley, although they were Christians, were actually pretty fun people. I enjoyed being with them. They weren’t afraid of my questions. They had their own questions about life and they brought them openly before God. They treated God as a friend. They hid nothing.

They introduced me to a missionary friend. As you can probably guess, I also didn’t like missionaries. She and her husband had helped found the IFES student movement in Colombia. She was so different than the stereotypes I had built up about missionaries – she was not narrow-minded, she wasn’t out-of-touch, or strangely religious. "Weird," as I called it! Instead, she was a "with-it" person, fun to be with, and anything but boring. And she would engage every question I had.

Above all, she and these Christian friends gave me a glimpse of life lived out not vacillating between two worlds. They broke my stereotypes; they had an attractive, intimate relationship with Jesus that I had never developed. Jesus shaped the way they lived, and the choices they made. They loved me enough to challenge the things that were idols in my life; things that limited my relationship with God.

Friends, who or what defines your reality? Is it the Kingdom of God, or is it the Kingdom of Self? Is it Jesus, his love, his purpose, his power, his very self? Or is it something else?

What makes up the Matrix of illusion and idolatry for those of us in North America? I want us to consider three general avenues of idolatry. And friends, I want you to know: I had to face these idols and how they expressed themselves in my life, to be free to really embrace the life of Jesus and his kingdom.

So I come to you tonight, not to burden you, but to be with you in this process.

The Idolatry of Self-Glory or Self- Fulfillment

Perhaps only a few of us would actually admit that our life ambition is to rule the world. Most of us wouldn't say that. But how many more of us dream of being set apart, of being noticed, of being Number One, or of being special or praised by this world? How many of us are caught up in the desire to project the right image, wearing the right clothes, being in with the right people or the right group?

How many of our thoughts gravitate to "will I be accepted, will I be happy, will I like the job I do? Will it entertain me, or keep my interest?" I loved the idea that I worked with the Olympics in Montréal. I loved being a part of a crack team, hand-selected by my boss! I loved that my future was going to be with the International Olympic Committee, and fly all over the world. I liked that.

For me, I needed to set aside my agenda for self-glory or self-fulfillment – the path I had decided I was on. So God took me to Colombia, where I spoke no Spanish. I couldn’t communicate. I couldn’t really do anything. I could just be loved by the people there, and enter a relationship with God. How many of us are swayed by the matrix of worldly honor, glory or fulfillment rather than Kingdom of glory?

The Idolatry of Self-Comfort

For those of us from Canada and the US, avoiding suffering and experiencing comfort can have an incredible power. Jesus promises us a life filled with joy, community, power, depth and persecution! Jesus promises to comfort us in our suffering; but Jesus does not promise us a comfortable life.

One of my students when I worked in California came to university with her life ambition being to acquire a husband with a good job, get some kids, and get a house in the suburbs, complete with white picket fence. While there was nothing wrong with wanting any of those things, she allowed her reality to be defined by the drive for security and comfort. And she had to give that over to God, to allow God to fill her with his presence.

Today, Susan and her husband work in an orphanage in Eastern Europe. They combat poverty, government bureaucracy and their own weaknesses. Her life is not comfortable, but it is rich, full of purpose and the very real presence of Jesus.

Our drive for self-comfort can also lead us into all kinds of addictions. Alcoholism continues to be a major health issue on North American university and college campuses, as well as gambling. As believers, we are not immune to this.

The widespread use of computers and the ease of surfing on the Internet have made pornography widely available and even acceptable for self-comfort. Women, as well as men, become pornography users and find themselves trapped in addictive behaviours, with sexualized imaginations that they feel helpless to control and get any healing from. Talk about a lifestyle of demoralizing hiddenness! Some of you are trapped in that lifestyle and feel helpless.

We also, in the area of self-comfort, look inappropriately for comfort in relationships. We justify moving beyond the boundaries that God has set. We begin to personally reset the boundaries of these relationships based on our feelings and need for love and intimacy; based on the fact that we might have been wounded or hurt or abused, and are looking for love. In our quest for comfort and ease, anything can become an addiction – video games, hours of anonymity in chat rooms, the shop-till-you-drop syndrome – you name it.

The Idolatry of Self-Empowerment or Self-Reliance

Perhaps the biggest object of worship among North Americans is money – not just money, but all the things that money can buy. I know – I had all the gadgets. Rampant consumerism, yes, but even more than that, the intangible things that money buys: the things that bring you in among the world's privileged, educated, and elite. Things that would create you to be an elitist.

And all of this occurs to the point that we feel entitled. We feel entitled to have choices, to have a sense of freedom, to live without limits and boundaries. It's not even enough that we have food: we would find it confining, boring, to eat the same foods at every meal. We like it that we can choose Italian, Chinese, pizza, hamburgers, or French, or go out for Thai food.

We feel entitled when we want to travel to distant countries and cultures – so that we might be people of broad understanding and experience. Never mind that some people in our world have such limited means that in a lifetime, they never go beyond the borders of their town.

We feel entitled to leisure time and to be entertained endlessly, to have prosperity in the present and security in the future. We may even set arbitrary hours we will work. Some of us won’t even work a full-time job, because we’ve decided we can have leisure when we want. We can have a reflective life when we want. And those might not be God’s decisions.

Men and Women, I call you this evening to repentance. I call you to soften your hearts. We need to turn from the idols that enslave us, that demonize us, dehumanize us, and degrade us, and return to the living God. We need to turn from the illusory kingdom of self to the very real and substantial Kingdom of God.

What does repentance consist of? I took an eight-year detour from the commitment and plans I made at Urbana. God was infinitely patient and loving, and caring with me along the way. He made repentance possible for me. Tonight, friends, he’s making repentance possible for you.

Relationship with Jesus was worth making the changes in my life. I had to pay a cost, but it was worth it and it is still is worth it. Because as you let go of an idol in your life, a void is left. And friends, Jesus wants to come and fill that void. Jesus came and filled the void in my life, as I began to lay some of these idols down. Because idols only fill the area of a deeper need.

There are three steps involved in repentance.

1. Decide to follow Jesus.

The Rich Ruler was asked to sell what he had, give to the poor, and to follow Jesus. I knew the decision for me was to choose for God and God alone – relationship with Him; to no longer straddle being a citizen of two worlds, two realities, and two kingdoms. I needed to break from my compartmentalized world. God took me to Colombia, South America, an unfamiliar place, where my faith was made even more alive with the friendship and love of Colombian university students. Over a period of time, I decided to follow Jesus with my whole life. I needed to be there, to be untangled from all the idols that were limiting my relationship with God.

2. Pursue healing of the consequences of idolatry.

Idolatry leaves appetites and values that need reversing, injuries and sickness that need healing. The process of healing from idolatry for me included me saying no to a marriage with a non-Christian boyfriend – which was one of the most painful things I did in my early twenties. He had already made the decision that from what he understood of God and His Kingdom, he did not want to buy into a commitment to God. And he sure did not want a wife whose relationship with God might interfere with his sense of marriage priorities. And so, we parted from each other. That parting was painful. But in the void that he filled in my life, God brought in his love and care for me.

3. Walk in obedience and community.

New decisions of commitment need to be lived out. We are no longer to take our orders for life from the matrix of self, from idols that claim to be reality. We look to Jesus, whose commands we begin to delight in. We love to be set within God’s boundaries. We are shaped by His Word and we begin to be led by the Spirit of Jesus. We walk in the Jesus Way, giving ourselves to participation in Jesus' Mission, in community with the companions that He gives us. He never leaves us alone.

In summary, there are three steps to repentance:

1. Decide to follow Jesus. And when you decide, tell your group or friends. Share it with someone. 2. Pursue healing of the consequences of idolatry. Some of you are gripped by some of the things I’ve said tonight. Start here. Have some friends pray for you. God to the prayer ministry rooms tomorrow. 3. Walk in obedience and community - commit to a fellowship that desires spiritual growth.

Friends, I did pay a cost to make these changes, but it was worth it, and it is still worth it all. I put aside self-glory, and my plans for fulfillment in God's hands. I allowed Him to bring fulfillment in my life, and he has more than done that. I put aside comfort found only in relationships and possessions, to be loved and comforted by Jesus. I put aside my self-reliance or independence to be relying on God and the community of God.

What are the idols that rule your life? How long will you run after idols and substitutions for Jesus’ love, direction and purpose? Respond now to him and turn them over to Jesus and embrace this true reality. I can tell you, if you’re afraid, take this step. I was afraid, and Jesus came and filled that void.

Remember three of us came to Urbana with good intentions to follow God. Two of us left trapped by false realities. Will you deal with God tonight? Will you put your life in His hands? Amen.

* I thank God for the gracious opportunity to have been part of the 20,000-plus audience listening to this in late 2003 at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


Blogger UARIDI said...

Living as a disciple of Jesus is never easy, but the rewards are so many.

I like what you have said about idols - these are the hardest to tear down.
Thank you for sharing

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