My Final Four Sermons: "You Will Be Here" Acts 9:1-6
Back when I was in seminary, a psychologist friend of mine recommended I read a book he had picked up. The title of the book is, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. Quite a title. It was almost an intimidating enough title to keep me from picking it up and read it.
But I did.
One of the main ideas of the author has to do with the structure of the brain and how the brain works. The brain is formed in two halves, or hemispheres. The left, major, hemisphere controls logic and math and science, etc. The right hemisphere controls language and art and music.
In between the two hemispheres is what's called the corpus colosseum. That part of the brain controls how the two hemispheres communicate with each other, to either blend their strengths or over-power one or the the other. That communication of the hemispheres is called consciousness.
Now here's Julian Jaynes theory. Jaynes says that prior to 3 or 4 thousand years ago, humans had no working corpus colosseum—no fully developed individual consciousness.
So what? you say. And so did I as I was reading this book. I almost put it down. Though I like reading about the brain function research, this was all a bit too much.
But then it got interesting.
According to Jaynes, prior to about 3 or 4 thousand years ago, because there was no constant connection between the brain's hemispheres, one side didn't know how to interpret when a rare message fired from one hemisphere to another. People, according to Jaynes, interpreted this activity of the brain as hearing the Voice of God.
People thought God was talking to them, when in reality it was just the beginnings of the corpus colosseum firing messages back and forth between the hemispheres. Once full communication between each half of the brain created a whole, there was no reason for God. There really was no Voice of God anymore.
Thus the reason my psychologist friend asked me to read that book. That we have misinterpreted basic brain function, the emergence of consciousness, for the Voice of God.
One reviewer of this book recently wrote, "(This book is) either a work of unparalleled genius, or completely out-to-lunch loopy." Yeah. But those are the kinds of reactions you get when you talk about the Voice of God, or hearing from God, or thinking about prayer. Does God really talk to us, or are we just talking to ourselves? Is this just the two hemispheres of our brain messing with us, or does God really speak to us?
Personally, I have to say ,"Yes", I believe—I know—God speaks to us, because God has spoken to me on several occasions. None of those times has it been weird, or potentially destructive. Like, "Take all your people out into the jungle and have them drink the koolaid."
Nothing like the guy I was talking to in a psyche ward one time. He told me God spoke to him. I asked, "How does God speak to you?" I was genuinely interested. He said, "God comes down into my dog. Then my dog splits in half, and there's a good half and a bad half. Sometimes God talks to me out of the good part of the dog, and sometimes God speaks to me out of the bad part, and tells me to do bad things." The guy stared into my eyes without blinking, looking to see if I believed him. He clearly believed it himself. I didn't.
I'm happy to say God has never spoken to me like that. Each time God's Voice has been affirming. And brought me back to my original call, which was the first time God spoke to me. At least the first time I was listening.
I've told the story before. I was a 7th grader sitting in church with my mom. Just me and her—the rest of my family was not really into going to church. But I loved going to church with my mom—I felt like a grown up.
During the sermon, I felt God's Voice say, "Steve, this is what I want you to do." That was it. I say I "felt" God's Voice, because each time God has spoken to me, I felt it rather than heard it. It was like feeling a beautiful piece of music that you hear for the very first time. It has a way of reaching down into you, penetrating you.
I was so sure of what I heard, I looked around to see if anyone else in the congregation had heard, or felt that Voice.
I sometimes chuckle to myself when I think back to that day. Because, that Sunday, a harpist was accompanying the church choir. Hopefully, when God said, "This is what I want you to do," the Lord didn't mean for me to become a harpist. If so, I severely missed my calling, misread God's Voice, and have wasted the last 40 years of my life.
That's what I've come to believe is one of the main things the Voice of God does—sets your direction, opens your eyes to your purpose, makes you become aware of your gifts and how to use them. I believe God likes to set people on a journey—an adventure—that you don't entirely know where it's going to lead you. But the Voice of God sets you out. The apostle Paul is a great example of that. Originally, Paul set himself out on his own journey—and was making a mess of it. Paul had become a well-meaning destroyer. As the saying goes, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." That's the journey Paul had put himself on.
It took the Voice of God to knock Paul off the path of that self-guided and destructive journey. Notice how Paul was knocked to the the ground by the Voice. Paul didn't just hear the Voice of God. He felt the Voice of God. And it had the power to put him on the ground.
Then it's important to understand what the Voice said next, once Paul was on the ground: "Now get up and go into the city. There you will be told what you must do." The Voice of God was about putting Paul on a new journey, a new mission, a new adventure. That journey was a religious one, but totally different from the one Paul had chosen for himself.
That's what the Voice of God does. Sometimes shakes up your world. Sometimes affirms you to stay the course you are on.
One of the churches I served I both liked and hated at the same time. There were times I didn't think I could last another day. If that was what the ministry was all about, I was done. My kids were similarly miserable.
I started looking into getting out. I started looking into becoming a political or corporate speech writer. One of the things you may not know is that I really enjoy writing sermons. I just don't enjoy preaching them.
So, I thought if I could get a job writing speeches, that other people gave, I'd be happy. I started making contacts with some political speech writers, and one guy in particular was very encouraging. Through him I was making a lot of contacts with others in that profession. I was about ready to make the jump.
But then the Voice of God came again. I used to walk out this dirt road during lunch time. I was walking and pondering. The Voice came and I was suddenly put on my knees. God said, "Steve, you will always be a pastor—and I need you here in this church." That was all God said. I broke down, overpowered and in tears.
Again, God's Voice affirmed my call, took me back to that time when I was set out on this adventure. God again called me by name—God's Voice likes to use names. God did the same with Paul. With each of the disciples. And with some of you, who have told me your stories.
God's Voice set me back on my original journey, and wouldn't let me veer away from that. That day, that Voice surprised me, because I was thinking and planning to leave my journey. Give up on my vocation given me by God. You'd think God would have been angry about what I was planning. Instead, God's Voice came at me with nothing but affirmation. I felt affirmed by that Voice, not disciplined.
Paul's life and journey were not perfect by any means. He struggled with something that grabbed him and wouldn't let go. He called it "a thorn in the flesh." No one knows what it was. I think it was something emotional, like guilt or shame. Maybe I'm just reading my own experience into it. Just a hunch I have about Paul.
Prior to coming here, I had gotten myself into a hot mess in California. I didn't handle a grief-filled event very well. The presbytery there didn't think I was ready to get back into the ministry. They dragged their feet about releasing me, and I was becoming more and more despondent.
I moved back out to Kansas and put myself in Charlie and Joan Ayers care out in Leoti. Charlie did all he could, but the Committee on Ministry in the San Joaquin Presbytery wouldn't budge.
We got Don Owens involved, who was the presbytery Executive here in Southern Kansas. Unbeknownst to me, at a General Assembly meeting, Don took the executive from the San Joaquin presbytery behind the woodshed and let him have it.
Whether the presbytery out there would release me or not, Don and the COM here wanted to force their hand by pushing ahead. I was to meet with the COM here in Pratt. I was sitting up in the tiny lounge waiting to be called down. Angela was still here—I think in her last week.
So, I'm just sitting there, as nervous as a cat getting a bath. Then came the Voice. All the Voice said was, "Steve, you will be here." That was it. That was all the Voice said. I had no sense of deserving to be anywhere, at that point. I just wanted out from under the thumb of the California presbytery. I was feeling guilty and ashamed. Knowing I was going to have to tell the COM here my whole story.
To be told, by the Voice of God I would be here was beyond belief. In fact, I didn't believe it.
I was beckoned downstairs. I told my story. I broke down a couple of times. Then they spoke. They said that from what I told them and what Don Owens found out, the COM out in California had totally mishandled my case. And the people sitting around the table were angrier than I was about it.
Don Owens said his conversation with the exec out there worked. They were releasing me into this presbytery's "custody," Don said with a smile. My ordeal was over.
After the meeting was over, Don said to me, "I want you to think about being interim Pastor here in Pratt. I'm going to give your name to the Session. Which he did.
So, in one day, God's Voice spoke: "You will be here." I was released to this presbytery. And I was going to be considered as interim of this church. Again, a huge affirmation of my call, bringing me back to the journey God put me on starting way back as a 7th grader. It was like the dark cloud over me evaporated, and I was suddenly affirmed and embraced by the Voice.
8 1/2 years later I'm at the end. Not just the end of my ministry here in Pratt, but my ministry vocation. I don't believe the Voice has stopped speaking. With each transition, God kept speaking. That Voice kept being felt. The journey continued. The journey still continues. The adventure continues.
For both of us, you all and me. There are many here who have felt that Voice—who feel it still. Who are following that Voice and leading the church as God's Voice directs. Follow them, as they follow the Voice. Listen, as I continue to do, and see where God’s Voice leads.
"My Final Four Sermons: What Is The Meaning Of Life?" Matthew 6:33 John 3:1-8
I was working in my office—this was at another church. I was engrossed in sermon writing. My desk faced an outer wall with a window, and the door to the office was off to my left and a bit behind my peripheral vision. Probably not the best feng shui.
I suddenly felt someone’s presence. I turned towards the door and Grant was standing there leaning against the door frame. I had no idea how long he was standing there—or, rather, leaning there.
He was drunk. It was late morning. He slurred out to me, “Steve, what’s the meaning of life?”
Grant was a well-respected banker in town. An Executive Vice-President. There are so many vice-presidents in banks, it’s hard to know what his position meant.
Grant’s wife was the President of the bank. So, between them, they were doing very well. They owned a gingerbread styled home in the older, stately part of town. It was on a half block lot. Lots of trees in the back with a nice pathway through the back yard. There was a fountain here or there, and a gazebo. Their two daughters weddings were in the back yard, and I had done them both.
By all outward appearances, they had a great, and more than comfortable life.
But that was evidently not so. At least for Grant. Outward appearances of a cushy life was hiding the fact that Grant was not happy. And I had no idea he was a drinker, let alone an alcoholic, which I found out that day he was.
Grant’s question to me may seem trite or over worn. In reality, his question is the number one question that is asked by people, both on the internet and in person. I would guess, that for most, there is an addendum to that question, which is, “...for me.” What is the meaning of life...for me? Part of the reason we put the “for me” on the end is because American culture is basically narcissistic, and it is all about me. We think, I don’t want to know your meaning of life. I want to know mine. I don’t want a general answer to the question that is good for everyone. I want something that is particular to me—my answer.
If that is your sentiment, your outlook, I’m going to disappoint you this morning.
There are at least two sides of an anxiety coin to this most asked question. First, is the anxiousness that you feel like there is this hole in your life that you haven’t been able to fill. You think that if you could just discover life’s meaning, that hole would be filled. Your emptiness would go away. That’s part of what Grant was asking me that late morning in my office.
The second side of that coin of anxiety is similar. It is the feeling there must be something more than this. The difference between the two sides is the hole is felt in the individual self. But here, the sense that there has to be something more has to do with life in general, life as you are living it. There has to be more than the conclusion the writer of Ecclesiastes comes to: All of life is far more boring Than words could ever say. Our eyes and ears are never satisfied With what we see and hear. Everything that happens Has happened before; Nothing is new, Nothing under the sun. (1:8-9, CEV)
What! You exclaim. How can that be in the Bible!? There’s got to be something new. Something more. Something different. Something better than this! There’s got to be something more than this boring, humdrum, repetitive life!
That’s the main thing Grant was asking me out of his stupor. “There’s got to be something more to energize me, something more to give me purpose, something more that is new and gives me excitement about being alive! What is the meaning of life?”
When you think about it, one of the best definitions of what it means to be human is we are meaning-making animals. No other animal or entity on earth worries or even thinks about personal meaning, or the meaning of their life. Wildebeest roaming in herds on the Serengeti plains of Africa aren’t standing around having existential conversations at the watering hole about what their life means. Only humans struggle with those existential questions.
We even try to make meaning out of the rawest of life’s materials: sickness, war, death, as well as everyday events. What does it mean? There’s got to be more than just the event itself.
Those are the two levels of everyday life. There are the events themselves—the experiences we have. Some of those experiences are big, life-altering, and even cataclysmic. But most are everyday, common goings-on kinds of things that we all wade through.
The other level is the meanings we put on those cataclysmic or everyday experiences. All of those meanings we give to our life experiences are highly individual. Two people can go through the same or similar experience, but attach entirely different meanings to those events.
What does it mean to be given a surprising diagnosis by your doctor? What does it mean to lose your job? Get a new job? What does it mean to just have a bad day? Have a good day? What does it mean to retire? What does it mean to hear the Voice of God? (Next weeks sermon.)
Now here’s what happens. We take all those little meanings of our life events, and they slowly become what we would call, “The Meaning of Life.” What we normally do is allow our experiences, and the meanings we attach to them, to become our over-arching meaning of life. We fashion what we come to know as the meaning of life from the bottom up. It’s all based on us, our experiences, and our meanings.
What eventually happens with that is what happened to Grant in my office: our meaning of life, that we fashioned based on our own experiences, collapses. The meaning of life, built from the bottom up, based on us, doesn’t ultimately work out. Our lives, our structure, our meaning, comes tumbling down like a house of cards.
When that happens, you’ll end up in my office, or someone’s office, asking, “What is the meaning of life? Everything I built over the last so-many-years, just came crashing down around me.”
What I have learned over 40 years of ministry, and thousands of conversations with people about the meaning of life, is that true meaning of life has to be built from the top down, not the bottom up.
Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Basically, Nicodemus has come to Jesus and said, “My life’s not working. It’s clear you’re a man of God. I need to hear a clear word of God and get my life on track.” And what does Jesus reply to Nicodemus? “I tell you for certain that you must be born from above before you can see God’s kingdom” (John 3:3, CEV).
Jesus’ statement tells us two vital things about the meaning of life. First, the meaning of life can only come from “above.” It has to be something over you. It has to be something bigger than you. You can’t find true meaning in life based on you, your own experiences, and your own meanings. You are not big enough to sustain true meaning of life.
That’s what Grant and Nicodemus had tried and failed doing. Their meaning of life wasn’t over them, or bigger than themselves. If your meaning in life is bigger than you—over you—then when you have a bad day, or get a negative diagnosis, or whatever, you determine the little meanings of those events by the larger meaning of life that is over you and covers you. The true meaning of life is born from above—top down.
And the other thing we learn about the meaning of life from Jesus’ statement to Nicodemus is that it has to be about God’s kingdom. It’s so important to hear this statement of Jesus: “...before you can see God’s kingdom.” The meaning of life ultimately has to do with seeing God’s kingdom—God’s activity—in your life.
So, when you experience an everyday or catastrophic event, the question is not, “What does this mean...to me?” The better question is, “How am I seeing God and God’s kingdom at work in this event?” The best, over-arching meaning of life has to do with the vision—the seeing—of God’s kingdom all around you and through you.
Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” In one sentence, there is the meaning of life. It is one meaning of life for all people in all situations. It is top down. It is over-arching. It has to do with that which is much bigger than ourselves. It keeps our focus outward—looking for/seeing God’s kingdom and God’s activity, rather than inward on our selves.
Can you imagine what a huge world opens up when you start seeing the kingdom of God—the activity of God—all around you? Can you imagine how your world changes if you seek the kingdom of God first? Not just in your life, but in all that is happening. Can you imagine the meaning in life that can be had when its absolutely about the kingdom of God, and not about your own puny, little kingdom?
if you seek first the kingdom—the activity—of God in and around your life, you won’t be leaning on your pastor’s office door asking about the meaning of life.