There’s just something about freedom. Paul tells us that freedom is the very reason that Jesus set us free. Redundant? Not if we understand that freedom comes from the heart of God, and as such, freedom is an end in itself. Freedom is the will of God. But do we know what freedom really is?
As I was putting Cyrus to bed tonight I could tell that it was going to be a long time before he would fall asleep. Normally this would frustrate me, and I would huff and puff about how he doesn’t sleep even though he’s EXHAUSTED, and WHY DON’T YOU JUST ROLL OVER AND GO NIGH-NIGH! YOU’RE TIRED! YOU’RE DELIRIOUS WITH FATIGUE! SLEEP IS BECKONING AND YET YOU RESIST! ALL IN AN EFFORT TO FRUSTRATE ME, YOUR LOVING FATHER!
But the Lord has been working on me, and so tonight I decided that, rather than get angry, I would pray. And so I prayed out loud. It was just the two of us in the room, and he was quiet while I prayed. I prayed for everything I could think of, and he just laid there, tossing and turning occasionally. And then, as I paused to think, he started talking.
Now, when Cyrus talks, you just let him babble on until he gets to the last word of the sentence, which is really what he has been talking about all along, and the only word you can understand anyway. So he’s babbling on and then he says, clear as day, “Baby Eisley, Mommy, Daddy.” He was praying for us! My little two year old son was praying for his family! How amazing is this? How blessed am I? The Bible says that the prayer’s of a righteous man avail much. But what about the prayers of a little child? Even more, I suspect. I am truly blessed.
Nor of fitness fondly dream;
God redeems. He buys me back when I sell myself to sin. He purchases me with the blood of His Son; and it seems He does this time and again, day after day. He forgives and forgives and forgives.
I’ve had an idea for a screenplay running around in my head for almost four years now. Back in 2004, while I was in Yosemite, I wrote almost 80 pages. But I’ve scrapped it all, started over, and have written 25 pages in the past three days. It feels like I’ve been pregnant with this idea for four years, and now I’m finally going into labor. (I’m sure my wife would point out that this is, in fact, nothing at all like that, and who am I to suggest such a thing.) Strangely enough, even though this is an R-rated script, I feel that writing it is an act of obedience to God. Whether or not it ever gets sold, the act of writing it, and finishing it, is and will be a huge step for me as I continue to grow and try to follow Jesus.
The best part about this process is how I’ve been collaborating with my wife on it. After the kids go to bed, we sit down and talk through the characters and events in the story. She gives me great feedback like, “I don’t think she would do that, no matter how much of a bitch she’s supposed to be.” (I know, she totally has a foul mouth.) She’s also being a really great listener, and I find myself going on and on about random little details in the story. This process has been great for our marriage as we do something fun and creative together. I love that the script is ours, and not just mine.
Tonight I will be preaching at Otterbein Christian Fellowship. They’ve asked me to speak about summer break and its various spiritual pitfalls. So I tried my best. This is a bit of a different take on the subject, and it relates more to spiritual loneliness, which I think is the core problem that students deal with over summer break. Here’s the manuscript.
So summer break is right around the corner. Must be nice. Back in my day we didn’t have summer vacation. Heck, we didn’t even have summer. That’s right, when I was in college, it snowed year round. And we had to walk to class, uphill both ways. That’s right, the earth wasn’t fully formed back then, so you never knew what you had to walk through to get home. It was terrible! But now you kids with your seasons, and your sunshine, and your breaks from school. Ridiculous.
So my name is Andy Holt, and I’m a crotchety old man. I turned 29 this month, so I won’t be in a very good mood for the rest of my life. I work at Heritage Christian Church, and I graduated from Ohio State back when we used to lose to Michigan every year. So that was a long time ago.
Summer break is a weird concept, isn’t it? I mean, it’s completely counterproductive to your education. You go to school for nine months, and then you’re off for three months, and you completely forget everything you learned in the past year. Summer break is a total academic regression. It’s amazing how much time it takes us to get smart, and then how little time it takes for us to get stupid again.
But we don’t just regress academically; we can also regress spiritually. We go back to old situations and act like the person we used to be. We find ourselves more susceptible to old temptations, old habits, and old patterns of thinking. The new thing that God has been doing gets undermined because we go back to the way things used to be. We’re not with the new friends we have now. We’re not n the same Christian community. We regress spiritually because we are spiritually alone. So with the ideas of spiritual regression and spiritual loneliness in mind, I’ve titled this sermon, Punching the Lion.
I’ll explain what I mean by “punching the lion” in a bit; but I hope that I can bring a new perspective on spiritual loneliness tonight. There are a lot of ways that I could talk about this subject. I could give you five ways to not be spiritually lonely. Or I could tell you about how God is close to the lonely, the downcast, and the brokenhearted. But that’s not on my heart tonight. What is on my heart is the response of the Christian community to spiritual loneliness.
You see, I believe that God speaks, primarily, through the Bible. I also believe that God acts, primarily, through the Church. To be more specific, in this setting, God acts through OCF. He does stuff when you all do his stuff.
So I believe that God overcomes spiritual loneliness through the actions of the Christian community. In other words, God doesn’t lay the guilt trip on the lonely person to go make himself unlonely. Instead, he calls the community of believers, and the individuals within that community, to surround that person with the love of Christ. God remedies our spiritual loneliness with spiritual friendship, and the act of spiritual friendship is like punching the lion in the face for the sake of our friends.
Each one of us will go through a time, or many times, in our life when we will be or feel spiritually alone. I am certainly no stranger to being and feeling spiritually alone.
After my freshmen year, back in the Ice Age, I spent my summer break on a Crusade-like project in Myrtle Beach. It wasn’t with Crusade, but an organization like it. It was a really great summer for me. I grew a ton spiritually. I lived in a beach house with ten guys. It was great.
But between the end of the project and the start of school, I was at home for a month. Now, I have a great Christian family, and I went to a great church, but there was no one there that I could relate with, spiritually. I had changed and grown a lot in the past year, but it had all been somewhere else, with other people. What had happened to me during the past year of growth and change hadn’t happened to or with the people I had grown up with. This made me feel very lonely. I was spiritually alone for a month.
This was a very dark month for me. I fell into some of my old habits, and some of my old ways of thinking. One night, I even had a physical sensation like the Holy Spirit was decreasing in me. I don’t know the theology behind that experience, and I’m probably not interpreting it correctly. All I can say is that I had a physical sensation of spiritual regression.
I was spiritually alone. I was separated from the community in which I had grown and matured so much. This is a dangerous place to be. When we are alone, we are more vulnerable to attacks from the devil. We’re like a zebra out by itself on the African plain. The lions are on the hunt, and that zebra is about to become dinner.
If I were watching a nature show, and I saw a zebra on the plain by itself, my first thought would be, “Stupid zebra. Don’t you know there are lions everywhere?”
And I wonder if too many of us, myself included, don’t respond the same way to lonely Christians. “Stupid Christian. Don’t you know the devil is out to get you? Get to church, dummy.” But that’s not very helpful, is it? “Go to church, stupid.” “Oh, okay.” It would be more helpful if we, the Christian community–the Church–went to them, and we punched the lion who is hunting them right in the face.
Let’s take a look at some Scripture. Turn to 1 Peter 5:8-9.
Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
Now, according to Wikipedia…by the way, have you heard of Wikipedia? “Wikipedia is the best thing ever. Anyone in the world can write anything they want about any subject. So you know you are getting the best possible information.” (Michael Scott) Anyway, according to Wikipedia, lions are opportunistic hunters. They take the closest prey, regardless of health. Whichever buffalo or zebra is closest, that’s the one they’re going after.
I’m not sure how much Peter knew about lions, so I really don’t know how far to stretch this metaphor. But I think the point is simply this: the devil is dangerous, so don’t put yourself in harm’s way.
When we are alone for an extended period of time, when we are spiritually alone, we are in harm’s way. We are more vulnerable when we are outside of Christian community.
I used to think that my faith was not genuine unless I could live apart from my Christian friends and still grow spiritually. But that’s just foolish. It’s the lone wolf mentality, and you may as well call it the used-to-be-a-Christian mentality, because that’s where you’re going to wind up if you try to do this on your own. I used to be a Christian, but then I tried to be a Christian all by myself, and I stopped being a Christian. The lion prowls around looking for someONE to devour. Lonely zebra! Bang! Dinner.
We need each other to survive. We are communal beings. Even lions hunt in packs. Christians need Christians in order to stay Christians. That’s just the way God designed us. The individual needs the group, and the group needs to look out for the individual. Punching the lion simply means that we’re looking out for each other, and that we’re willing to fight for each other.
The devil is out there, and he is a patient and cunning hunter. He doesn’t want to pick a fight with the whole church. He’d much rather take us out one by one. He will wait until you’re alone, and then he will pounce.
So if you see someone who is spiritually alone, reach out to them. Understand that they’re in a vulnerable position. It doesn’t really matter why they’re alone, maybe they even do it to themselves. But just because someone is foolish and arrogant doesn’t mean they ought not be loved. Reaching out to the spiritually alone is an act of love, and it is an act that God himself does through you.
You see, if the devil’s going to get one of you, the rest of you ought to make him earn it. This verse tells us to resist the devil by standing firm in the faith. This is something that we can all live out together. If the devil is going to come after one of us, then make him get through all of us. Let us all resist the devil, together, for the sake of the one. We should be telling the devil, as a community, “If you want to get to her, you’re going to have to go through us!”
If he wants to pick a fight, fine, then let him pick a fight. But let’s make sure the fight is with all of God’s people in the community, not just the one poor soul who wound up alone. The community ought to be looking after the individual. We ought to be resisting the devil together, and coming to the rescue of the one who is suffering.
Sometimes I wonder if we haven’t gotten this whole spiritual warfare thing backwards. Why do we always have to be the victims? Shouldn’t Satan be the one complaining, “I’m under spiritual attack!”? Shouldn’t the church be advancing against the gates of hell? Shouldn’t we be punching the lion in the face and pulling our brothers and sisters from its jaws?
Are we just going to stand by while our friends disappear from the fellowship, one by one? Are we going to be passive in the presence of the roaring lion? Or are we going to pick up the phone and call each other this summer? Are you going to send texts and emails to your friends, to see how they’re doing? Are you going to keep an eye on their facebook status, or look at what kind of pictures they’re posting? Are you going to speak up? Ask the hard questions? Fight for them, even at the risk of offending them? If your friend was being dragged off by a lion, wouldn’t you at least punch it?
In groups just like this there are almost always more freshmen than seniors. Why is that? How many people who were here three years ago aren’t here now because they got picked off by the lion? They got separated from the group because they were angry, or hurt, or discouraged, or busy, or shunned, or whatever. They got separated from the fellowship and then they got picked off by the lion. They went home for the summer, fell into old habits, and never reconnected with the group. That’s how it happens. It’s subtle. It’s slow. And it’s deadly effective.
The truth is that some of you who are here now may not be here in the fall, and not because you transferred or graduated. But if we stay connected to each other as the people of God, then we can fight the lions off together.
When you say your goodbyes, don’t say, “I’ll see you in the fall.” Say, “I’ll call you next week.” Or, “I’ll send you a text or e-mail to see if you got home alright.” Or, “I’ll give you a call in a couple of weeks to find out what kind of church you’re going to now.” Or, “Make sure you write on my wall.” Or whatever. Don’t say “I’ll see you in the fall.” The fall is too far away. A lot can happen between now and September.
I want to show you a video now. It’s from youtube, and most of you have probably already seen it. It’s kind of long, about eight minutes. But I think it’s a wonderful parable for how the church ought to respond when the lions come after one of its own. Let’s watch this together, and then I’ll get up and pray when it’s done.