I have a hard time letting go. Right now, I feel like life is moving way too fast! And sometimes I feel like I’m just holding on for dear life! This week has been a little like that. As you can see I’m recording this message from home, because sadly, myself, and everyone in my immediate family tested positive for Covid-19 last week. We’re ok. Thankfully our symptoms have been relatively mild, but still… it’s just one more circumstance causing me to feel like things are crazy out of control! Lately, my life has felt like a roller coaster. And I don’t like rollercoasters!
I mean I really really don’t like roller coasters.
We used to live relatively close to ‘Six Flags Great America’- a gigantic theme park just north of Chicago. And when the kids were little, going to Six Flags meant eating junk food or getting to meet cartoon characters as they walked around the park, I dunno maybe a carousel ride - all things safely enjoyed with our feet on the ground - where I like them. On. The ground. Yes, occasionally my kids would ask about riding the huge coasters - but - I always had an ace in my pocket. My kids weren't tall enough yet!
“Ooh, just not tall enough buddy… (pat their little heads) Maybe next year.”
Crisis averted. I could enjoy the rest of my day without any heart stopping worry or crippling fear.
Until, of course, the inevitable happened. Somehow, and seemingly overnight, my tiny baby girl had grown to be 54 inches tall. That meant she was now tall enough to ride every coaster in the park - and true to form, she had her eyes fixed on the tallest, longest, and fastest ride in the entire park - the Raging Bull.
Cue the panic! I mean really, I began to panic. She had her heart set on the one ride I managed to avoid since highschool! And now that my annual ‘you’re not tall enough’ excuse was null and void, what was I going to do?! Now listen, I know my thoughts were so irrational that - I’ll admit that - but this is what I was actually thinking:
I thought there was no way that the lap bar could come down tight enough to keep her from slipping out! There was only one thing left for me to do - I was going to have to Mom-arm her for the entire duration of the ride! You know the mom-arm? When your Mom is driving and has to stop suddenly for any reason, and without hesitation her arm reaches out to protect you like a second seatbelt, like the crossing arm of a school bus?
That’s what I thought! G-force and all physics aside, I thought nothing is as strong as a mother’s love and I was going to keep my girl safe! I know, I was out of my mind!
But something unexpected happened. When we finally reached the ride, in the frenzy, we got shuffled around and Desi was no longer next to me, she was next to my husband! HE DOESN’T EVEN HAVE A MOM ARM!
I was freaking out! Full blown hysteria by this point. I started begging him to keep his arm across her lap because I’m not sure the lap belt will go down far enough, and I don’t want her slipping out and soaring through the air and for goodness sake just keep your arm across… THAT’S WHEN THE LAP bars LOCKED INTO PLACE. It was only then, only at that exact second that I realized what I had committed myself to.
Immediate regret. My heart was pounding, but it was too late. And we started that dreadful slow climb.
This, my friends, is the face of terror. The face of sheer anguish and raw contempt. I absolutely loathed everything about this experience. The whole time I could hardly open my eyes - and then, adding insult to injury, a flash of light from a camera bulb, and this moment was forever preserved.
And if you look closely, my knuckles are actually white! I’ve got a death grip on that lap bar, as if my life depended on it... and I can’t let go!
But something else strikes me about this picture. Every other person in my family from oldest to youngest has the face of extreme joy (except my husband, he mocks danger). They are completely at ease, enjoying the ride.
Why were they able to be so relaxed on this roller coaster, when I was the most terrified I had ever been? I think the reason is because they trusted it. We’d watched hundreds of people safely ride that coaster for years - and all day that day. They trusted it - but for some reason, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to let go. And I missed the joy.
Life with all of it’s ups and downs - all of its unexpected curves and sudden drops - can sometimes feel like a rollercoaster. Sure, it can be thrilling, or just down right scary. Even on a good day, life can feel very much outside of our control - wild and unpredictable.
And it would seem to me that there are 2 ways in which we can choose to endure, 2 ways to approach life:
Fists clenched - white knuckling - tense and apprehensive, just waiting for it to be over
Or letting go, trusting, and bravely choosing joy.
We’ve been studying the book of Philippians all month as a church. We’re reading through the whole book together and in doing so, we’re discovering what really matters. So I hope you have a Bible nearby, or the The Bible App or the Grace Church App open so you can read along. We’re in Philippians chapter 3 this week, and
Paul starts off in Philippians chapter 3:1 by saying:
3:1 Whatever happens, my dear brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.
And we can stop right there! WHATEVER HAPPENS, my dear brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. This is an instruction. This is a mandate to REJOICE.
When we look at the letter of Philippians, and we talk about what really matters - apparently, this really matters to Paul! He uses the words ‘joy’ or ‘rejoice’ 16 times in this short letter. When we see a word or an idea repeated again and again, it should automatically make us take notice! It’s like a flashing sign - this is important! And remember, in ancient times, scrolls were expensive. And Paul was writing from prison! So you’d better believe he was going to make every word count!
And so he does. SIXTEEN times he stresses the words ‘Joy’ and ‘Rejoice” - rejoice in the Lord. So why the urgency, Paul? Why was this so important to him?
Well, first, we can see that joy was central to Paul’s survival in prison. Joy was fundamental even in the hard times. And this kind of joy was clearly not based on his circumstances. He’s in prison! At this point, he thinks he’ll get out alive, but he knows that he could likely be put to death, and suffer martyrdom for the cause of Christ. Could the circumstances be more dire? And yet he tells us in chapter 2:17 and 18
Phil. 2:17 But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like a liquid offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy.
18 Yes, you should rejoice, and I will share your joy.
He says “even if I lose my life, I will rejoice.”
Paul was modeling for the Philippian church, how to praise through any circumstance - no matter how dark. No matter how challenging. He is showing them that an attitude of joy comes by choice.
This does not sound like a man with clenched fists, afraid to open his eyes because of what might happen next! Sure, his circumstances had taken a sharp turn for the worse, but by choosing to rejoice in the Lord - no matter what happens - he maintains his focus. So crucial, in good times and bad times! Paul keeps his eyes on Jesus!
Look at what he says in Chapter 3:12:
Phil. 3:12 “But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. 13 No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.”
Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead.
The trouble with always looking backwards - it hinders momentum. And it’s certainly no way to run a race.
Constantly looking in the rear view mirror means you can’t see clearly what’s in front of you, and it makes it very hard to move forward.
This is where I found myself in the early summer of 2020.
I was sitting on my front porch, having a talk with God. I was looking at a rose bush in bloom that someone had given me in memory of my Mother, who had lost her earthly battle with cancer 6 months earlier. I say she lost her earthly battle because I know she ultimately won the race. Her favorite scripture just happened to be one from this letter to the Philippians
Phil. 1:21 “ For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better.”
or the way she liked to say it:
“To live is Christ! And to die is gain!”
So I was grieving out loud, in an honest conversation with God. I had felt that for the last 2 years or so, since my Mother’s cancer diagnosis, I had been constantly looking in the rear-view mirror, haunted by the what-if’s.
What if I had never moved away from Chicago.
What if I still lived close enough to her, to make her dinner every night, or just to be there, physically present with her.
What if my kids had never changed schools and Mom were still able to come to all of their performances?
What if I were still at my old job?
The what-if’s were spiraling out of control until they came to a sudden stop - with the realization that it was all over. What’s done is done. What happened, happened and it’s in the past now. I was looking at this beautiful rose bush in full bloom, a memorial to a life lived so well - the beautiful life that was - my mother’s. And it was time for me to release the past - to set it aside - and reach forward so that I could start again to live well the beautiful life that is mine.
So I prayed, “God - give me something to reach for. Give me something to look forward to. I need vision. I’m tired of always looking backwards. Give me vision and courage to look ahead! Give me freedom, where I still need freedom from the past. Help me to let go of all that is behind me. I don’t want to live with one foot in the past any longer. Help me to be here, fully here, where you have planted me, and give me something to reach for.”
This was my letting go. This moment on the porch. This was the moment I chose again to press on. In the quiet, it became so clear to me that rejoicing in the Lord is a choice! An attitude of joy comes by choice! It happens when we choose Him in these moments. Not our circumstances. We don’t rejoice in our circumstances! And we’re certainly not just pretending everything is ok. But real joy can be experienced even in our darkest hours, in our grief, when we reach for Him. He is there. And what a sweet and powerful moment it is when we make a decision to let go and trust Him! When we choose to praise no matter the circumstances.
For most of us, moments like these will happen again and again throughout our lives. It’s a place we keep coming back to whenever we are faced with unexpected losses, or challenges - this place of surrender, of letting go.
The writer of Hebrews wrote:
Hebrews 12:1a Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up.
Pay attention to that word ‘especially.’ ‘Especially’ the sin that so easily trips us up. Now, that’s the obvious thing, right. Sin is bad. Sin will trip you up. But the scripture says we should strip off EVERY weight! Yes, especially the sin, but that means that there are other weights, too!
For some of us, our pasts, what’s behind us, is still weighing us down! It’s still slowing us down because living in the past, constantly looking in the rear view mirror, means you can’t see clearly what’s in front of you.
Hebrews 12:1b And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. 2 We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith.
If life is a race, like this scripture says, how can we run with endurance?
Well one thing’s for sure, you can’t run with endurance if you’re constantly looking behind you. Hebrews 12 says we run with endurance by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion! Paul says in Philippians 3 that he focuses on one thing: forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead! The word Paul uses for ‘looking forward’ literally translates ‘straining intensely towards!’ It’s the very opposite of looking back. We lean intensely toward Jesus, the champion. We desire to grab hold of him, as Paul says, like Jesus first grabbed hold of us!
How can we run the race with endurance? We have to train. Endurance runners are disciplined. Their skills are backed up by all the months, weeks, and days they have spent training their bodies to be ready for race day. I have a pastor friend back home who says “We live our future one day at a time. The culmination of the days is our future!” The culmination of the days! Every squat. Every leg press. Every lunge. All of the interval training, diet, sleep, all of it - the culmination of the days - that is what makes it possible for a runner to endure.
And for the Christian, it’s every praise. Every prayer. Every scripture. Every spiritual discipline. Every act of self giving love, every moment of surrender - this is how we train! This is what makes it possible for a Christian to endure!
“Practice is the hardest part of learning, and training is the essence of transformation.”
― Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are
We have to train! This is why Paul so insists that we (the church) rejoice in the Lord!
That word ‘rejoice'' is the Greek word ‘Chairo.’
It is an action word that connotes
“A commitment to a long term way of doing something.” like an ongoing training
“a command to keep on doing an action as one’s general habit or lifestyle”
He’s telling the church at Philippi that a lifestyle of choosing joy, rejoicing in the Lord, how they will be able to endure, no matter the circumstances! This is how Paul is actively training for whatever challenges may lie ahead, by choosing to rejoice. And believe me, there were major challenges still ahead. But we see him, able to endure to the very end - actively and continuously rejoicing!
And he wants the church to learn from and follow his example.
Phil 3:1 Whatever happens, my dear brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. I never get tired of telling you these things, and I do it to safeguard your faith.
Safeguard your faith by rejoicing. Whatever happens. Safeguard your faith by rejoicing in the Lord! Not in your circumstances. No, rejoicing doesn’t mean we ‘pretend to be happy all the time.’ Choosing to rejoice in the Lord is how we train our eyes to focus on Jesus the champion! It’s how we are able to let go of what is behind us, the things that weigh us down, and run with endurance the race that is set before us! This is something we can practice to build our endurance! Actively rejoicing - choosing to praise - is an exercise in letting go!
Now I’m going to make it easy for you. I started a list - 10 reasons I have, right now, no matter what’s going on in the world or in my life - 10 reasons I have to rejoice. Speaking these truths outloud is one very practical way that we can practice letting go, and trusting!
And I didn’t even want to make these up, these promises are straight from scripture. We know that God’s word never returns void. So here we go, 10 reasons I have to rejoice:
God I rejoice because I know that
Your steadfast love never ceases! Your mercies never come to end. They are new every morning! Lamentations 3:22-23 You do not give up on us!
And I know that right now you are working in me, giving me the desire and the power to do what pleases You. Phil 2:13 YOU ARE WORKING! YOU ARE WORKING IN ME.
I know I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the Land of the Living! Psalm 27:13 I know I WILL SEE THE GOODNESS OF THE LORD!
I rejoice because I have a defender and a protector who does not slumber, or sleep. Psalm 121:4 God I can rejoice because You are always actively interceding on my behalf.
You are a refuge, I can run to, You are my strength, and a strong tower Psalm 62:7
You remove my sin from me, as far as the east is from the west Psalm 103:12
And God I rejoice because you've given me an advocate, Your Holy Spirit, to guide me, and to lead me to the truth. John 14:16-17
I know that You will never leave me nor forsake me Deuteronomy 31:6
I know that you are with me, that you grieve with me, collecting all of my tears in a bottle - that each one of them is precious to you Psalm 56:8
and someday -
Jesus - you will personally wipe away every tear from my eyes.
And I am absolutely certain, Lord, that it was You who began this good work in me, and You will continue Your work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. Phil. 1:6
Now, I just got you started here. You can go and practice speaking these truths right now! Take this list and go and do this right now! Proclaim the truth, God’s truth, over your life. He has all authority in heaven and on earth! Declare it! Be bold! Rejoice in the Lord!
And I know this isn’t an exhaustive list! It was hard to stop at just 10! And you might have other reasons to rejoice that aren’t on this list, so let’s keep it growing! Go to the Grace Church BYOB facebook page and share the reasons you have for rejoicing in the Lord! Let’s choose to praise. And when we do that we are practicing, as a church body, to fix our eyes on Jesus!
Whatever happens my dear brothers and sisters, REJOICE IN THE LORD. CHOOSE TO PRAISE. AND IN DOING SO, press forward, BUILD ENDURANCE. SAFEGUARD YOUR FAITH!
I’m going to pray for us, and I as I do I want to lead you through a short series of questions:
What is threatening your focus right now? Is it worry? Is it fear? Is it busy-ness? Life moving too quickly?
Lord in this moment, help us to fix our eyes on YOU!
What is weighing you down, and slowing you down? What is threatening your endurance? Is it regret? Is it anger? Is it sorrow? Is it a sin habit?
Lord, in this moment we ask for your Grace to lay those things aside. We give our burdens to YOU.
What is threatening to steal your joy and thereby steal your very strength? What is the thing you can’t let go of?
Lord, give us courage to choose YOU over all other things. As we reach for You, help us to let go of the things that are behind us. We lean intensely toward you, our Joy. Our Strength. Help us to run this race with endurance.
And help us, always to rejoice! We will choose to praise! As we let go and surrender to YOU - The Author, and the finisher of our faith.