Preacher: The Reverend Doyt Conn
We had a “name it and claim it” Christmas this year. I wanted a watch. I named it and low in behold, Christmas morning I claimed it. Kristin wanted a stethoscope. She named it and claimed it Christmas day. Margaret wanted an iPhone. She was more careful and circumspect, but she named it and claimed it. And Desmond was less circumspect. He wanted an iTouch, and he named it, and he named it again. And you guessed it, he claimed it Christmas morning.
It looks like the Conn’s are living large. At least that is what Joel Osteen, the prosperity Gospel preacher would say. I thought of his “name it and claim it” message after our very abundant Christmas, and after reading a Christmas letter from an old friend who talked about making claims on life. I’ll circle back to his letter in a minute, but since Christmas and this insightful letter, as the New Year begins, I have been reflecting on what we name and claim here at Epiphany.
So with this “name it and claim it” idea in mind, I typed Osteen into the search engine and a sermon popped up on YouTube. There I heard him instruct: “Say you are blessed and you will be. Say you are wonderfully made, and supremely talented. Look in the mirror when you say it so you’ll remember it, and live it and be it, because that is what God wants for you.”
Now that all sounds good, doesn’t it? Aren’t we beloved children of God? Aren’t we wonderfully made, and supremely talented? Don’t we forget this every once in a while?
Osteen reminds us, in a way that draws 35,000 people to his Houston, TX sports stadium each Sunday, and marks his ministry as a $73 million a year enterprise? “Name it and claim it” is his point and it speaks to people and is helpful to many.
Osteen goes on to preach: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I am attractive. I am getting younger. You talk like that,” he said, “and God will renew your youth.”
That is probably where we, thinking people in Seattle, jump off the train. A claim to renew ones youth sets off alarms for some of us. But I wonder, did any of you have a “name it and claim it” Christmas, like the Conns did? Have any of you, like I have in the past, run out the day after Christmas to claim at the store what no one seemed to hear you name when they were buying your present? Hopefully they left the gift receipt in the box.
Osteen has tapped into a rather core American idea embedded, I suspect, in our collective psyche by the words of our founding fathers, which read, “That we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights among them Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
And so, for many of us, not all of us, but for many of us, our ancestors came to and founded a country where God was the master, and not the king of the land they left behind, where if they lived by the will of God, God would bless them, and they would be happy. And this happiness came to be associated with health and wealth. And the American Dream was born.
Undergirding this dream are two founding principles: 1) that all people were created equal, and 2) that happiness comes to those who turn to God. I believe these ideas to be absolute truths: our equality and our happiness are a divine blessing. And I also believe these truths can be perverted in a way that wounds the soul.
Here is the crippling logic that can turn the American Dream into a stupor: if you are not healthy and wealthy, if you are not happy, then you are not favored by God; you are not doing God’s work; clearly you are not naming and claiming God’s divine blessing for you! And it is your own fault.
And here is where the profitability of the prosperity Gospel steps in: Then buy the books. Then buy the motivational CD’s. And if at first you don’t succeed, buy, buy again. Now here is what is so dangerous about my cynicism around the prosperity Gospel. The “name it and claim it” message looks a lot like my life, or at least what I show forth on the outside.
But here is the dirty little secret. My life isn’t perfect. My relationships aren’t perfect. My ability to know the will of God for my life isn’t perfect. Am I missing the divine mandate? Have I not heard the will of God in my life? I have health. I have wealth. I have a watch, a wife with a stethoscope, and kids with iThings. And still happiness comes and goes.
And so let me tell you about the Christmas letter I received this year. It came from an old friend of mine, Reid Isaac, a retired priest in Cleveland Heights, OH. In fact, it was Reid who encouraged me to consider going into the priesthood fifteen years ago. Now he is 87 years old.
He organized this Christmas letter around Psalm 30 which we hear today.
He began with verse 7. I’ll read it: “By your favor, O Lord, you had established me as a strong mountain.”
Under this verse Reid pens: “Think of a time when you were on top of the world; when you were strong and healthy, when your gifts and talents were respected.”
“Think of a time when you had more energy than you knew what to do with; when your body didn’t hurt and when you could eat whatever you liked. Remember how that felt?” Reid asked. “Think of that time and claim it.”
Then, he moves to verse 8, “To you, O Lord, I cried and made my supplication.”
“Think of a time,” Reid writes, “when it all seemed to come apart, when you needed surgery, and then you needed surgery to fix the surgery, and still you hurt. Think of a time when the project you were working on didn’t pan out or was unimportant to everyone else.
Think of the efforts you put into relationships that fell apart anyway, or into children who didn’t appreciate your sacrifices; think of a time when you were depressed or just sad or maybe lonely. Think about such times,” Reid says, “and claim them.”
Finally, he quotes the end of the Psalm, “You have turned my mourning into dancing; You have pulled off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy. So my soul will praise you and not be silent. O my God, I will give you thanks forever.”
And Reid concludes, “Think of a time when the sun began to shine for you again, when you were surprised by joy, when you fell in love with that same old person you claimed to have loved for so long. Think of a time when you jumped out of bed ready to engage the world. Think of a time of rebirth, and name it and claim it as well.”
We are not people of perfection.
We are people of rebirth.
We are people of redemption.
We are people of resurrection.
There is a distinction here. A stark, real contrast between the Gospel Reid finds in the nuanced, complexity of Psalm 30, and the one that fills stadiums in Houston, TX.
One is toward a pristine joy, a perfect picture of a clean, easy life, a happy life, marked by health and wealth. It is a perfect family photograph, where the kids are perpetually clean, and permanently dressed in their Sunday best, the kind of picture we send out in our Christmas cards.
And then there is the Gospel of joy that Reid preaches which is messy, and bruised, and dirty. It is the joy of a kid has who is told to go outside and play at the beginning of a summer day. And when he returns his legs are bruised from a bike spill and a soccer game, and his arms scraped from picking blackberries. Maybe he lost his shirt when he went swimming and his hair is matted and full of sand from the river. And there is a smile on his face, because it was all a great, unpredictable, wild adventure. And because he knew Mom would be there waiting, with dinner, and with his pajamas laid out next to a hot bath, where he would soak while she told him a magical story.
That is our world, the real world. We are that kid sent out to play. And when we come home, at the end of the day, on that final day, God is there for us, as God has always been there for us, waiting with dinner and a hot bath.
CS Lewis writes it this way, and I paraphrase: We can’t find the security we crave in this world. Yes, there will be moments of happiness, maybe known during a long walk on a warm day, or maybe known as we watch our favorite football team win the bowl game, or maybe known as we sit at the end of the day with a glass of wine, in front of the fire, listening to a Bach Cantata.
“These are like pleasant inns we stop at on a long journey. But,” Lewis concludes, “do not mistake the inn for your home.”
And so I am reminded as we begin this year that Epiphany is an inn by the side of the road, set on the path along where we walk this spiritual journey. We come here to remember that our equality is exclusively found in our belovedness, not as measured by wealth or health or some ambiguous happiness, but endowed in each one of us by our Creator, placed here by God for God’s purpose and our joy. In this and this alone we can trust, not towards the ends of perfection. Life is messier than that, at least in this garden in which we are placed.
So play hard. Live out this great adventure that is your life. And claim all of it. Then bring the fullness of your life to Epiphany, your inn on the side of the road, and rest a while. Share your stories around the fire, the good and the bad, for in all of it there is redemption and there is resurrection. This is what we name and this is what we claim.