Just One More

“Just one more drink.” “One more won’t hurt.” One more will take the edge off.” “One more visit to the bar.” “One more shot.” “Give me one more.” We all have a “one more” story. Either we are the ones saying one more or we know someone who keeps repeating the “one more” line. It is always “one more.” And yet, “one more” is never enough.

Addiction is more than a drinking problem. Addiction comes in many shapes and sizes. It is done for the sake of feeling good, looking good, or tasting good. It shows up alone behind a computer screen, in front of crowds at a party, or with so-called friends in a dark room.  Addiction leaves us feeling high, low, alone, or crowded. Or it leaves us feeling nothing at all which is what most addicts are going for. Addiction offers us the escape from being human. It destroys our deepest passions. For the addict, life becomes narrowed down to the “one more” convinced that the “one more” is saving his or her life even while it destroys it. Every addiction kills; some do it more discreetly than others.

As humans we have gotten good at playing the “got-it-all-together” game. It is a game we have mastered with some efficiency. As long as someone keeps taking away our bottom we can keep playing the game. As long as we keep the excuses for the hurts coming, the habits fed, and the hang-ups downplayed, we can stay in the game.

You know that addiction is an issue when it begins to define you. If your life is lived for the next drink or drug, then addiction is what you are dealing. If your life is only about how to get high, stop the pain, or numb the feelings, then you are an addict. If drugs, alcohol, sex, work, or Instagram “likes” label you, then you could be an addict. If you blame others for your habits, hurts, and hang-ups, then you could be an addict. If you know someone who is always giving excuses or finding crutches to lean on, then you could be dealing with an addict. The addiction becomes a crutch. It keeps them from walking on their own. As long as the addict has a crutch, healing will not happen. At some point the crutches are going to have to be dropped.

It isn’t until we face plant on the icy bottom that the cracks begin to show up, the bruises hurt, and the ugliness is reflected. The “got-it-all-together” game is lost and we crawl away as losers. When addiction is the hand we are playing with, there are never winners.

Before King Solomon dies, Jeroboam, son of a servant of the king, starts a revolt that will divide the kingdom of Israel. After Solomon’s death, his son Rehoboam tries to return unity to the kingdom but when he ignores wise counsel the northern tribes secede from the kingdom and make Jeroboam king. Rehoboam is left with the tribe of Judah. In his fifth year, Judah is invaded by the king of Egypt. He comes in and takes all that is valuable from the house of the Lord and the house of the king. It appears that Judah becomes a vassal of the king of Egypt. The king of Judah is forced to pay a tribute to keep the armies of Egypt from attacking and destroying the people. Rehoboam becomes the last king of the united Israel and the first king of Judah after the kingdom is torn apart. The people of the land turn to idols and do wicked things under his leadership. He has lost all control and eventually is buried with his ancestors in the city of David. (See I Kings 14: 21 – 31)

Rehoboam’s life becomes an image of someone who is controlled by addiction. He refuses to listen to wise counsel. It is impossible to argue sanely with an addict. His heart is divided which causes his home to be divided. The addiction becomes king. It comes in and takes what it wants leaving nothing but brokenness and tears in its path. Eventually the only thing that can be said about the addict is that he slept with his ancestors.

Addiction does not have to be your legacy. There is a way out. It starts with honesty. Addiction will destroy your life. It will continue to take and take until you are left with nothing but shame and guilt. For a lot of us, our story is “it started out pretty good and then it got bad. But then I made a change and it got better. And then it got worse.” Why? We acknowledge we have a problem, we work hard to clean-up our lives, but we strive to do it all on our own. Jesus tells a story in the gospel of Matthew about an unclean spirit that decides to return to the house from whence it came. He finds it empty, swept, and put in order. The unclean spirit is thinking, “This is a great place for me to invite some friends over to hang out.” Jesus says, “The last state of that person is worse than the first” (Matt. 12: 45). Why? Hiding things in closets don’t last. The closet cannot hide all our secrets. Eventually, the pressure is more than the door can stand. It takes more than cleaning up. It requires turning over the keys of the house to Jesus.

Overcoming addiction happens when you get out of bed every morning and ask God for the strength to resist for that day. If you try to win back your neglected years, you will lose your days. Freedom from addiction is found in taking the next right step. What is the next right step for you? What one thing do you need to do today that is a step toward victorious living? It could be simply acknowledging you have a problem. It could be reaching out for help. It could be saying a pray that begins, “Thank you Lord for another day to make the next right step.” What is that step for you?

Faith is the most captivating power on earth. By it mountains move, waters divide, and the dead are raised. Faith is the only stimulant that can produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). If it must be dependency, let it be a faith dependent on Jesus. Quit playing the “got-it-all-together” game, put down the hand you’re playing and start trusting and confessing. The bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). What do you need to confess today? What do you need to come clean about today? What do you need to acknowledge? To confess means to “agree” with God. I agree that I am an alcoholic, drug addict, or workaholic. Be specific as you silently confess your sin to God. Addiction derails us from God’s pathway to peace and joy. Confession puts us back on track. Trust God to deal with your hurts, hang-ups, or habits.

The church is full of addicts. We are all recovering from sin and none of us has it all together. We are a community that is learning by faith to trust in God and daring to trust one another. We are people on a road called redemption. We are wounded people listening to a wounded pastor, living in the light of God’s amazing grace.

What is the next right step for you? Take it. Don’t look for a shortcut. Keep fighting. Stay with the struggle. Run the race. Crawl if you need to. But trust God. Hope in Christ. Never give up. As long as God is in control, resurrection is always a possibility. If today you find yourself saying, “Just one more,” let the one more be reaching for the hand of God.

Prayer of Confession (For Love of Power)

Eternal God, you are purer than our eyes can behold, instead of power to rule the world, you chose love. We look to you for mercy today.

We confess our failures in the art of love. We have talked about loving one another but have shown indifference, anger, and hostility. We have talked about serving others but have selfishly tried to manipulate for our own gain. We have talked of carrying the burdens of the downtrodden but instead have stepped on them. We have talked about sacrifice but instead rest in comfort while others are oppressed and face injustice.

We confess our love of power. You have given us splendid visions of goodness, truth, and beauty but we have replaced the vision for a craving to control, manipulate, and dominate.

Forgive our treatment of others and heal us of our addiction to power. Help us to see all our actions against the backdrop of Calvary. In the name of him who rules the world with love instead of power we pray and ask for forgiveness. Amen

For the Love of Power

He was taken to the highest peak and showed all the kingdoms of the world. He was promised it could all be his. If only he would worship at the feet of Satan, Jesus could have all the power and splendor of ruling the world. Scanning the horizon, Jesus replies, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (Matt. 4: 10).

If only the temptation to turn away from power was that easy. Abraham Lincoln once said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Power is an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It is easier to control people than to love people. It is easier to manipulate than to negotiate. It is easier to own our life than to love life.

The very traits that help people gain control – being polite, honest, and outgoing – all but disappear once the rise to power. The person intoxicated with power becomes impulsive, rude, and reckless. They start acting like fools. Studies have shown the more power someone possesses the less sympathetic they are toward the concerns of others. The rise of power causes emotional detachment. Intimacy is seen as a threat to the rise of power.

Power sways our ability to make ethical decisions. Everyone understands that cheating is wrong. But a person of influence and control finds ways to rationalize away their moral lapse. “Yes, stealing is wrong but what I am doing is not stealing,” they may say. Power turns us into hypocrites. It has the ability to show our human weaknesses. Just like a person addicted to Meth starts showing the breakdown of the body, a person obsessed with power will show signs of the collapse of the soul. As Lord Acton said in the 18th Century, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Solomon took over as king during a tumult time. David’s sons were fighting for a throne that had been promised to the son of Bathsheba. After being anointed king by his father, Solomon sets to work consolidating the kingdom. In order for this to happen people had to be killed and leaders taken out of power. Leading a nation requires wisdom. He prays to the Lord and is granted wisdom. He could have asked for wealth or power, but he needs wisdom. God is pleased with Solomon’s prayer and grants him his request and more. Rulers from all over the Mediterranean world, including Queen of Sheba, were drawn to his court because of his legendary wisdom.

Solomon set out to build the temple. It took seven years and thousands of hands to construct. Once it was finished it became a place of religious identity for the people of Israel. The temple was a magnificent structure that reminded everyone who saw it of the God who had rescued his people from Egypt and had chosen the people of Israel to be his nation. The Lord appeared to Solomon with the promise that if his faithfulness and obedience continued, his family would be kings forever. Israel would be securely established for eternity. He was set to be the greatest king in Israel’s history.

If we read between the lines, we discover that Solomon enjoyed his power. Yes, it took seven years to build the temple of the Lord, but thirteen years were devoted to the construction of Solomon’s palace. He had fourteen hundred chariots, twelve thousand horsemen, forty thousand stalls of horses at his beck and call. He issued heavy taxation on the people and demanded forced labor. He had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. This was a measure of his influence in the ancient world since these were largely marriages used for treaties with foreign people. In order to keep peace in the palace, he builds shrines to the gods that his wives worshiped and houses for them to reside.

“The Lord was angry with Solomon” (I Kings 11:9). As a result, his kingdom would be torn away from him and given to others. All that would be left would be the tribe from whence he came. Solomon ruled with absolute power. He was his own destruction. He came to symbolize the wealth and glory of the empire. No other king ascended as high on the pinnacle of worldly splendor. His power became a wall of mirrors that reflected his own glory and reputation. Drunk on power, he became his own worst enemy. Possessing all the wisdom of the world could not keep Solomon from being seduced by power.

Ever since the snake said, “The day you eat of this tree your eyes will be open and you will be like gods, knowing good from evil (Gen. 3:5), we have been tempted by power. God knew that the world could not be rescued by power. Jesus was born in a place not fit for a king. He came not riding on a warrior stallion but a humble beast. He was lifted up not on a throne but on a cross. Instead of a crown of jewels, a crown of thorns was placed on his head. If God of the universe knew that power would not save the world, why do we fight for it thinking that it will solve all our problems?

We let the rise to power consume us. We live for the next promotion. We strive to have the most “likes” or followers. We stress over our place in the world. Jesus encourages us to take a look at the lilies of the field. Do you notice how God cares for them? They grow as God provides. Jesus says, “Even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these” (Matt. 6:29). Solomon in his entire splendor has nothing on the grandeur of God’s creation. And yet, we strive to be the next Solomon.

Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” We reply, “Can we sit on your right hand or left hand in your kingdom” (Matt. 20:21)?  Unless we learn to keep our feet on humble ground and our heart connected to God’s love, we might just get carried away by seductive gust of power.

(Sermon preached at Liberty Hill UMC in Canton, GA on Sunday, Sept. 21, 2014)

Visible Darkness: Audio Sermon

“There is a difference between grief and depression. Grief is like a kitten that crawls up in your lap, purrs and cuddles, allows you to just be in that moment until the moment is enough and the kitten jumps down and goes its way. Depression is more like a hyena that stalks around you showing off its snarling teeth and drooling over any wound you may happen to have until the infection kills you off and you can be devoured.”

Sex, Lies, and Second Chances

“In the spring of the year” makes you think of birds singing, flowers bursting in color, and grass swaying in the breeze. It sounds like everything is good. And life was good. David had risen to power with strong support. He united a kingdom. The Philistine threat had weakened. The religious symbol that unified the people, the Ark of the Covenant, was taken up to Jerusalem. David had built a royal house for himself. “In the spring of the year” life was good.

“In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle” tells more. It explains responsibility. It speaks of fulfilling your commitments. It asks, “Why are you being a couch potato and taking afternoon strolls when you suppose to be leading your army?”

“In the spring of the year,” when things are good and his army needs him, David stays behind. When kings go to battle, David sends Joab.

The story of David is one of the greatest tragedies ever written. A man “after God’s own heart,” is destroyed by listening to his own heart. Walking on the rooftop of his palace, David eyes Bathsheba. He desires her. What was to prevent the most powerful man in the land from satisfying his desire? It was spring, the time when kings go out to battle, and Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, was off fighting David’s battles. David takes Uriah’s wife. “I am pregnant,” are the only words Bathsheba will speak.

To make it appear that Uriah was the father, David calls him home from battle. But Uriah the faithful warrior who refused to break the rules of warfare and go home to be with his wife, sleeps at the entrance of the king’s house. Uriah, the immigrant living in his adopted country, takes his faith in God and his allegiance to the king so serious that his fidelity throws a wrench in David’s plan.

Unaware that he is carrying his own death sentence, Uriah arrives back on the battlefield with a letter to the commander. The letter written by David encourages Joab to put Uriah right up on the enemies’ wall where death is certain.

It seems to be the perfect cover-up. But, we are told, “the thing David had done displeased Yahweh” (2 Samuel 11:27). The prophet Nathan comes to David with a tale of a rich man who took and slaughtered a poor man’s lamb. When David declares that such a man does not deserve to live, Nathan responds, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:1-7).

A dagger through his guilty heart, David responds with shame. He confesses, “I have sinned against Yahweh” (2 Samuel 12:13). He would later pen, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:1-2, 10-12).

David’s repentance, though heartfelt, could not free him from the fateful consequences. His lust and murder sets off a chain reaction that corrupts his own sons. When David dies it is not a heroic moment. The boy who showed us that Goliath could be killed with a single stone is the old man who dies cold and heartbroken in his royal palace.

Sex is power and power distorts our vision. Distorted sexual power tells us we are invincible. It says to us that no person is outside of our “possession.” When the Israelites asked for a king, Samuel warned them that the way of the king would be “taking” (I Samuel 8:10-18). He would take their sons and daughters. He would take their best grains and vegetables. He would take their land. From the security of his royal palace, David saw, he sent, and he took.

Adultery is about taking what we think will make us happy. Things are not the way we would like for them to be at home, not getting the affection we desire, or experiencing the passion that was once alive we start considering our options. We begin plotting alternatives. We launch into fantasies outside the promises of marriage. Adultery is selfishly ignoring our commitments. In our palaces of self-seeking passion, we build lies to protect us and construct elaborate ways to kill off marriages while attempting to make ourselves look blameless. We use the lives of other people as the bricks to our own defense.

Adultery becomes an issue in marriages when we use the wrong glue to hold the marriage together. For some, the glue that holds them together is nothing more than the law. Exodus 20:14, “Thou shall not commit adultery.” It seems pretty cut and dry. But anyone that has raised children knows that simply understanding the rules doesn’t mean they will always play by the rules. If we do not grasp the motive behind the law, we will have no motivation to follow the law. Knowing the law did not keep the Israelites from disobeying the law. They actually created ways to get around the law. The idea that marriages could be held together simply by a law was what the Pharisees were arguing when they came to Jesus inquiring about divorce. Jesus goes beyond the law found in Deuteronomy to the very purpose of God creating male and female.

The other misplaced glue in marriages is the concept of romantic love. Sexual appeal is referred to throughout scripture. The Song of Solomon is written from the viewpoint of romantic love. It was love at first sight for Isaac and Rebekah. Jacob worked for fourteen years to win the hand of Rachel. Romantic love is a strong desire that is important for marriages to last but it is not the glue that sustains. A man and a woman meet, fall in love, and, as long as love lasts, they stay married. But is it really fair to call it “love” so early? Can we really know it is love?

The glue that holds marriage together and keeps adultery at bay is the commitment to fidelity. We make the promise to love and cherish in marriage based on being a person committed to fidelity. It is hard to know what I am vowing when I say I will love, honor, and keep when I have never been in a relationship that demands such commitment. What I am saying is that I will commit to being the type of person who can make such promises. It is the commitment to fidelity that makes the vows made in marriage stick. It is our faithfulness that creates the type of environment where love, passion, and intimacy can thrive.

A forgiving attitude is needed for fidelity to succeed. God’s faithfulness to us always includes forgiveness. As followers of Jesus, we understand ourselves to be soaked in the forgiveness of God. Because we know of God’s forgiveness, we give the word that no wound to deep, pain to severe, or betrayal to distant that God’s light cannot touch.

The prophet Hosea demonstrates the story of God’s amazing grace by telling how God forgives the unfaithful Israelites. The journey of the Israelites with God is like a bride who continues to run off on her husband. God was ready to give up on the people, throw in the towel, walk away, and yet, God’s own forgiveness compels God to give the people another chance. It is as though God reminds God-self that they are “His” people, the ones God first loved. God says, “I will heal their faithlessness; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them…They will again live beneath my shadow, they will flourish like a garden; they will blossom like the vine…” (Hosea 14: 4,7).

Forgiveness is what allows us to move from a land of brokenness to a land of healing. Remembering that we are “forgiven people” is the power of our fidelity. Fidelity requires being a certain type of person. Being faithful in a throwaway culture requires forgiveness. Broken people create broken relationships. For any relationship to stand the test of time, fidelity and forgiveness must be forever linked. Forgiveness gives the courage to keep saying “yes” when everything around you says “no.” Fidelity is hard. Forgiveness is harder. But both are necessary if we are to discover love.

(Sermon preached at Liberty Hill UMC Canton, GA) (Text: II Samuel 11:1-5)

Visible Darkness

A few weeks ago, he came back. The thief creped in uninvited and definitely, unwanted. He took what he came for and left me bare. I went searching room to room for something, anything. The only thing that remained was fear and shame. Who wants to pick up the pieces when all you are left with is that which causes everything to stink?

It wasn’t like he was a total surprise. He had come before. He started coming when I was a child. He would hide under my bed and when the lights went out he would press down heavy on my covers leaving me trapped. He showed up at that age when you are trying to come to terms with being you. When I think I had myself figured out he would come in and steal the “me” and leave me doubting my identity. The bandit stayed away for a season. I made it through college and graduate school with only periodic episodes of lost and found.

I am not sure why this fool has tormented my family for generations. Maybe we have the look of vulnerability or at the very least, he likes messing up a good thing. Nonetheless, my family has been in his sights for years.  

A few years ago he started coming more regularly. It was almost like he decided to set up residence as the unwanted guest who never leaves. At first, I tried to overlook him. It’s hard to ignore the four-hundred pound slob who sits in the corner making weird noises and takes pleasure throwing darts at your heart. It wasn’t long until my kids begin to notice and my wife started being concerned. I went to therapy to learn how to kick him out of my life and was prescribed pills that promised to flush him away. He now lives at the edge of the forest where the wild meets the civilized. And I know he is waiting to infuse his madness and wreck havoc.

I know I am not the only one this thief has stolen from. Some of you have the experience of being robbed. You have friends that are walking around like a shell of a person because nothing exists on the inside. The thug’s name is depression and he comes to steal and destroy. Fifteen million Americans over the age of eighteen suffer with clinical depression. One in thirty-three children will suffer through depression. This thief is not picky in who he selects to steal from. The Rich, the poor, the young, or the old, the bold or the beautiful, Robin Williams or no-name Joe are all fair game in depression’s wicked scheme.

Robin Williams taught us that it can be masked, if only for a season. Before Ms. Doubtfire and Patch Adams, the writer of the Proverbs declared, “Laughter can conceal a heavy heart, but when the laughter ends, the grief remains” (14:13). One day you are forced out on stage with a cracked mask and the world sees you for who you are and it becomes too much. Live long enough in shame and fear and the anxiety becomes reality.

The first king of Israel knew this lesson. He was appointed to a role, that he did not want, by a prophet who did not what him in the role. He was a man condemned to loneliness from the first day he took the job as Israel’s king. Saul enters the story as a young man sent by his father to find lost donkeys. After coming up short, Saul and his companion inquire about Samuel the seer. Once they find Samuel, Saul becomes part of a larger drama that God had set in motion. He is made an honored guest at a banquet and in the morning Samuel anoints him and commissions him to reign over the people of the Lord. It was in these series of events that Saul is given another heart and is seized by the Spirit of God.

Our first clue to Saul’s struggle is found when he is presented before the people as their king. Even though we are told he stands head and shoulders above everyone else, when they called his name he was no where to be found. Eventually he was discovered “hiding among the baggage” (I Sam. 22). If you lack confidence in yourself, you scour behind the baggage.

Saul turns out to be a heroic figure that became a victim of uncontrollable circumstances and the dark depths of his own passionate future. He became engulfed in an ocean of despair that could only find relief in the soothing sounds of music. The one chosen to bring harmony into Saul’s life ends up being the victim of his madness. Saul is haunted by dark moods and insane jealousy. He lived a life of rage.

Through the harvested madness, Saul was capable of inspiring great devotion from his followers. His military success ended the Philistine terror. He levied no taxes and recruited his army from the ranks of volunteers. His devotion to God was like a sunflower that turned toward the sun, at least until his shadow became his influence.

The story of Saul ends when he leans on his own sword. More than one battle was lost on the field that day. He was a baby bird that had fallen hard on the ground of human history. “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy” declares the wisdom writer of Proverbs (14:10). David, the one who succeeds Saul as king and the one who Saul spent the later part of his life in an enraged jealousy trying to destroy, proclaims at Saul’s death, “How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished” (2 Sam. 1:27)! Saul refused to take back what the thief of mental illness stole from him.

For some, mental illness is stigmatized as evidence of personal sin or demonic influence. It is seen as inappropriate of the Christian life. People have told me to “get over it.” But you don’t just “get over” having all your emotions and feelings taken from you without asking. There is a difference between grief and depression. Grief is like a kitten that crawls up in your lap, purrs and cuddles, allows you to just be in that moment until the moment is enough and the kitten jumps down and goes its way. Depression is more like a hyena that stalks around you showing off its snarling teeth and drooling over any wound you may happen to have until the infection kills you off and you can be devoured.

For the person who has sinned, there needs to be confession and repentance of that sin. For the one who is ill, there needs to be a naming of the illness. It is only by accepting it that we begin to manage it. Depression may not be your fault, but a sign that we live in a fallen and broken world. Depression attacks the heart. It has no rhyme or reason. The unfortunate fruit of the entrance of sin in our world is the attempt to hide behind our pain. We become this overprotected parent of our soul in order to keep from dealing with the wounds of our heart.

Unless we name it we cannot deal with it. It is not like we are giving it to someone who cannot identify with us. Jesus says, “The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). At the onset of his ministry when the community wanted to cast him aside they called him “raving mad” (John 10:19) and they told him he was “demon possessed” (John 10:19). Jesus identifies with our weakness. On the cross, God chose separation in order to find us. When we walked away from the coolness of the garden, God set out to pursue us. Lost even to ourselves, God has not given up hope of us finding Him finding us. It was from this void that Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Mt. 27:46)? God abandoned hope for a split second to find us who appear to be hopeless. God stepped into the dark to find our lost hand. Though he fell into the deepest dark, the devil could not hold him. A shattered grave allows the rays of hope to shine in the darkest lives. He comes to give life.

The community of faith has sustained me when depression has tried to rob me of my soul. By being committed to this group of ragamuffins, I have cast my lot with a battered but holy people. Like the Jews who wandered through Sinai, some of us have it together and some of us are a total mess. By walking this journey together we have committed to staying in love with God and one another. And by loving, we are a community that can walk behind and pick up the pieces of the broken and disconnected. At the end of the day, my hope rest among the community that is identified with the Wounded Healer because it is among this insanely grace-filled people that I hear someone say, “There is a doctor in the house!”

(Sermon preached at Liberty Hill UMC Canton, GA) (Text: I Samuel 16: 14 – 23)