March 7, 2020

Lessons Learned on Leave by John Ortberg (Mar 7)

Sermon posted online:

I want you all to know two things right off the bat for this talk. One is I’ve never been through a harder season in my life. If you’re visiting this weekend, I have been on leave for the last several weeks due to poor judgment on my part and made several mistakes that I so regret. And I have been walking through pain around that which has involved job pain and relationship pain and spiritual pain and family pain and media pain that has just been more intense and raw than stuff that I have known. And this is a story that in many ways I am, we are, kind of in the middle of and do not know how or when or if it will get fully resolved.

The other thing I want you to know right off the bat is I have never been more grateful to be preaching in my life than I am right now, today in this church with all of you [24 seconds of applause] I want you to know, I want you to know, I want you to know. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Okay. Thank you.

I want you all to know this process has been very chastening and very humbling, and I’m immensely glad for that and so grateful for you. I want you to know that it has made me more aware than I have ever been of my weakness. But at the same time, I have received strength from God to persist and to seek to be my best self and determined to the core of my soul not to give up from one moment to the next, and one day to the next in ways that have been very often clearly beyond my own capacities.

And then some hidden moments have been deeply moving for me. I’ve been discovering the sufficiency of God in places of desperation. I have been discovering words and thoughts and realities of Scripture, giving me power a day at a time, and sanity for my mind in ways that I have never experienced before. I can’t tell you how often I’ve just thought, “God, thank you so much for this book. For these words.” I’ve been discovering God in prayer and then losing Him and then finding Him again and then finding other people. So many of you who have been praying in ways that kept me going when I otherwise would have given out.

I’ve been discovering the truth of an old expression that I used to kind of dismiss as a cliche, but not anymore. No, I love it. “You will never know that God is all you need until God is all you have.” I have been learning what a strangely helpful thought it is to remember there are right now billions of people in the world who are impoverished, or starving, or oppressed, or trafficked, or have gone through something unbelievably catastrophic, who would do anything to trade places with me.

And some of you are in, have been in great suffering, and if you’re not, you will be. And that if I can share some of what I have been learning in this season on this journey, then God might use it. And then it might have a deeper meaning and a greater hope and help my life be about something more than just me.

So, I have had to lean deeply into three truths, and I want to talk about them with you for the next few moments. And the first one is this: “Nobody’s perfect”. Especially me.

I’ve read a lot of the Bible these last weeks about humility. Like where Peter says, “All of you clothe yourselves with humility toward one another. Because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand that He may lift you up in due time.” And during a several week span I had more than 80 meetings, one on one or in small groups with elders and staff and volunteers and parents and attenders where I would just ask, “How of my actions or decisions, mistakes, impacted you or created problems or burdens? And then also maybe there are other ways that I relate or communicate or interact, that are a problem. Would you be willing to tell me about some of those?” And people were. And I’m an introvert, so you might think that 80 meetings like this would be exhausting, and sometimes some of them were. But it was a strange thing, guys, when I would just say, “I’m gonna bracket my natural fleshly inclinations to defend myself or justify or explain and I’m gonna remember ‘there is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’.”

And sometimes in the morning, I just pray those words over and over again. “No condemnation, no condemnation.” And God reminds me I don’t have to sit in condemnation and I don’t have to use condemnation, which I’m so prone to do. If I’m in Christ Jesus, I’m just living in another spiritual reality, when I would remember, “I have been justified by faith” and those are not just words. So I no longer have to justify my existence by trying to be smart enough for right enough or good enough. When I could sit down with people say, “My only goal is to listen and try to learn whatever God can show me.”

These conversations have actually been very freeing for me, and I actually got this wonderful gift of being able to see blind spots and areas where I need to grow and discovering how I could love people better and become a tiny little bit more like Jesus. I’ll give you one example. One piece of feedback that I got, because I use words a lot, was how I could be too smooth with words. And instead of just directly saying what I think or what I want, I can leave stuff out or try to keep something secret and use words to try to manipulate or direct people.

And I was thinking about that the next morning, and I had done something that I knew a member of my family would not like. And my next thought was, I have to tell this person that I did this, that they won’t like. And my next thought just automatically was, “How could I narrate this in such a way that it puts me in the best light possible and kind of pressures them not to object to what I’ve done?” And then it occurred to me that’s what I do with words. But I don’t have to do that. Instead, I could just say to him, Here’s what I did and give them the freedom and dignity of not liking it. If they don’t like it, that’s okay. In fact, I realized what I really need to do is apologize to them first for violating a commitment that I had made to them. Nobody’s perfect, especially me.

Here’s another way I learned humility through this process, A friend said to me at one point in great love, “John, I think you just need to sit in the pain that various people in our congregation are feeling.” And my immediate response was to feel defensive, and I felt like, “So what you’re saying to me is whoever has the worst perception of me, you want me to agree with, you want me to just live in shame.” And I’ve been learning a lot about shame and how much more of it I have than I thought. And then I realized that’s not what this person was saying at all. They were just inviting me to stop thinking of myself for a moment and seek to understand and empathize with all of the members of a congregation that I wanna love. And that ended up being a great word from God for me, very helpful.

And I began to wonder how much of a pattern this resistant, defensive spirit is in my life. And so I asked Nancy, “Have you ever experienced that in me? Have you ever wanted to tell me something that might be hard in the moment, but instead of receiving it, I get defensive and resistant and withdrawn and distant?” And we’ve been married 36 years and you can all guess what the answer to that question was. And I thought, “How often does God want to speak a word to me from somebody that would help me be a better person or better pastor, a better friend or better dad, but I just push it away, or in just self sufficiency, or—I don’t even have words for it—just respond like ‘Oh, yeah, I already knew that already read that, already taught that already said that.’?”

But not now, because I need help too much. Part of what I’m learning is my capacity to find God in any given moment is directly related to my desperation to need God. In my weakness and need, prayer has become a whole different event for me. I just simply cannot face the day without it. Has nothing to do with being spiritual, just desperate, just human. And some of those rhythms will stay with me. I always used to be in the office super early for long, long time. And my wife would sometimes complain, “I would like to have a husband around in the morning, sometimes when I wake up.” And through these past few months, I was home and we would have time every morning to talk and pray. And we both liked it, and we both kind of needed it.

So I have decided to just keep doing that and just come into work a little bit later. And I will just start with Jesus and then my wife and then work. And that seems like a good order. And this actually leads to another learning that I’ve been leaning into a lot. And that is, “With Jesus, everybody’s welcome by grace alone, even me.”

One of the hardest parts about being on leave was: I just missed you. I missed being able to worship here. I missed our life group, a lot of whom is here right now. I missed getting to talk to the team. I missed getting to say, “My name is John, I’m a sinner,” and having you all say, “Hi John.” And my wife and my mom and my sister and my brother and my friends, Rick and Chuck and Sam and Pat, family members, other folks, have made up a little team. And I don’t understand it, but you all know about this, somehow the deeper the difficulties we face together, the deeper the bonds that form us. I don’t know why hard times do that, but it does. And I promise you I would not be walking through this season if I were walking alone.

One of the passages I spent several days with over the last few months is when Jesus said to his friends in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” And he’s so vulnerable in this. I was so struck in this season. He’s afraid to be alone, almost like a little child. “Stay here with me, will ya?” And I’ve never felt so vulnerable before with people up close or with people I don’t even know.

I’ve needed to lean into this truth because one of my great idols is reputation and image management, and over the last few years I keep needing to learn to just die to that. When Nancy and I came to Menlo 16 years ago, we left a remarkable church in Chicago that really innovated, making unchurched people feel welcome to church. The church used to have two midweek services devoted to believers and then four services on the weekend devoted to people that were seeking, to unchurched folks. And people came up to me one time and said, “I’ve noticed you’ve been preaching double duty lately quite a lot, both midweek services and on the weekends, and that’s a lot of you. Are you doing okay?” And I was touched by her concern and said, “Yeah, I’m doing okay.” And she said, “Good, because I’ve been trying to bring my unchurched boss to church for years and he’s finally coming for the first time this weekend, and I noticed you’re preaching again. Don’t screw up.” [laughter]

When Nancy and I came here to Menlo, we were often invited to speak back at services or conferences related to our old church. And then several years ago, a really difficult problem emerged at our old church, and Nancy and I found ourselves very much not on our own initiative, having to navigate a situation that was very weighty and very sensitive. And then, after years of no resolution, it became, at least in the little church world where we live, quite public. And I thought I had learned to let go of reputation.

And then over these past weeks, as we walk through this season at Menlo, as some of you know, this situation has also been written about in ways that can be quite public. And it will trouble me what people think, or things that I want to correct. And God is teaching me. I was in Peet’s a couple weeks ago to get coffee standing in line, and there were a bunch of copies of the local paper there, and I saw on the front page the headline was “Menlo Church” and I thought, “That’s kind of cool. We’re in the paper.” And then I looked more closely and there was my picture, and it was not a story that I liked at all, and my first instinct was just to run out of there. I would rather be decaffeinated than have to be here. [laughter] And I felt very exposed. And then the thought that came was, “No, John. My calling on you is not to hide in shame. It’s not to defend and explain and self protect. Just stand with humility. Confidence in me.”

All I am is one more flawed person for whom, nonetheless, Jesus died. Only God knows the full extent of how truly messed up I am, and his concern is not my reputation or my circumstances, but my character. One of the thoughts that’s been very helpful to me in these last weeks is that, “What matters is not how things turn out. What matters is how I turn out.” And no human being in the world has the power to get in the way of that. And God is the God of grace, and that means everybody’s welcome.

I have been learning about that as a dad. Church is often described as the family, cause the family, family especially, is to be a place where everybody’s welcome. And I want to say just a word about that because, as some of you know that’s become part of kind of a public story and you all are my church family. So I want to say a word, but only a word. Mostly will stay private cause it’s very personal. We have three children. Every one of them is unique and every one of them is precious. And I have loved every one of our children, as best I can, as God helps me, from the day they were born, and I will love them all until the day I die. I just want you to know that. And if you’re here today and you know something of family pain, me too. If you’re here today and you’re hoping God will work out something in relationship, but you don’t know how or when or if, me too.

I usually think of myself as a pretty high energy person, but I have found myself in this season often not feeling that way. Often just struggling to generate energy that would usually kind of flow. And Nancy said to me at one point, “I think you’re depressed. No surprise. I think you should be taking something.” And I said, “I don’t think so. I think if I were depressed I would know about it. Which one of us has a degree in psychology? Not you.” And she said, “Benjamin Franklin said the man who treats his own self has a fool for a doctor. Which one of us would that be? Not me either.” And so I asked my counselor, “Do you think I should take something?” And my counselor said, “Yes.” And I asked my friend Rick, who’s a psychologist “Do you think I should take something?” And Rick said, “Yes,” and I prayed about it and asked Jesus, “Do you think I should take something?” And Jesus said, “I’ve already told you your prayers are depressing me. Put me down for yes.” [laughter] So if any of you find yourself needing medical help for depression or anxiety or any mental health condition, if you find yourself feeling weak or needy or inadequate, all I can say is get in line, join the club. Everybody’s welcome here. Young or old. Rich or poor. Hurt or healthy. Whatever your religious, or spiritual or economic or sexual or ethnic or emotional background or orientation or status. Everybody’s welcome here. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s welcome.

But then, thank God, thank God, thank God—there’s the third great truth I’m leaning into, you know, that is: anything’s possible. Anything’s possible with God, not with me, not with me. I’ll be honest with you. There have been some times during these past few months when I thought, “I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can take it. Just feels impossible. I kind of think I’d just rather bail. I’ve been here 16 and a half years. That’s long enough. I’m 87 years old. That’s old enough. [laughter] Maybe I’ll just leave.” I’ll tell you what I think. Leaving day will come, come for everybody, sooner or later. And I want to be open before God and my heart and my family and our leadership and our circumstances and our church. Leaving day will come. But not today. Not because it’s hard. The hard—the hard is what makes it great.

There’s another passage in the Bible that’s become just a lifeline for me, and I recite it over and over and over. Romans 5. Paul talks about, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith,” and I think how much of my life has been about justifying my existence, now it’s like God saying, “I’m gonna take a lot of that away from you, and now you just receive your justification, your worth, your value, as a gift.”

“Then we have peace, with God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom we have access to the grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the glory of God, and then not only that, we glory in our sufferings.” Who says stuff? “We glory in our sufferings, because suffering produces perseverance, perseverance or endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God has poured his love into our hearts through His Holy Spirit.” We glory in suffering. We glory in suffering, and I’m learning, I know in just little tiny ways, I’m learning to glory, but I don’t want to miss that glory.

And sometimes I’ll write down in a journal in the morning, the spiritual opportunities that lie before me in a season of challenge. And it helps me so much. I do this quite often. I could become more resilient today. I can have more compassion for the suffering of others and not just think about me so much. I can learn to trust God more, like, really trust Him. I can serve my wife and my family in a time of need. I can model hope when it’s not easy. I could be less dependent on circumstances. I can grow inner strength. I can become the man my dog Baxter thinks I am. I can live in such a way that when I come to die, I do not look back on these days with bitter regret. And I can’t do that. It was like, that day is getting too close.

In some odd ways, part of what I’m learning is difficult days are like the days of deepest spiritual opportunity. For with God, Jesus said, “All things are possible.” And it’s so strange. I’ve had a lot of conversations about this situation and about my mistakes with a lot of folks at our church, and very often it’s been kind of difficult, and my fear was shame or rejection. But what I have found instead is love and grace and caring way beyond what I could have imagined. And so many of you have written notes and letters and cards and emails, way more than I have ever gotten at any church ever, in my life. In the last six weekends, I’ve gone to six different campuses, and the love and the grace and the mercy has just overwhelmed me and Nancy has come with me, and the phrase that keeps coming up from so many people is, “Stay strong.” And I want you to know, I promise I will.

Obviously, now we want to be real careful about contagion and so on, we’re thinking about ways to pray and help, but people just want to touch, so I’ve had more elbow shakes and fist bumps and head butts and shoe taps than I can count. And I will hug anybody this weekend, telepathically, or, uh, I just, I’m so grateful. It’s the strangest thing. I didn’t see this coming. [pause] I’m receiving more love in my weakness than I ever received in my strength. It is, I guess, the way the gospel works, that at a time when I never experienced the love, I never expected the congregation to give out love, let me say it one more time. At a time when I never expected the love of a congregation less, I never experienced it more. Anything’s possible.

So, so, where do we go from here, what shall we do now? I will tell you what I’m going to do now, as God helps, very much one day at a time, in the middle of a story the end of which I do not know. I promise you I will seek to re-earn and retain your trust as best I can. I will try to learn and to love and to grow, to worship, to live humbly before God, to be real, to contribute the best that I can, to be my best self, to devote myself to my calling from God, as God allows, as a great gift to be seized with great joy, even when there’s pain one day at a time—not forgetting this season, it is too deep, at least for me. It has made and will make some things different. I think I will feel more pain at least for a time. I think I will feel more weak, but that’s not bad, because God says, my Gdo says, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Paul says, “When I’m weak, then I’m strong.”

And part of what that means, gang, is you never know. You don’t know. When something happens, how it will turn out in the long run, or how God will use it. Because there is this Book full of stories, where Joseph goes from a prison to a throne, where Israel goes from slavery to the Promised Land, where Daniel goes from a lion’s den to a palace, where Esther goes from a harem girl to a hero, where Peter goes from ratting Jesus out to the Rock of Jesus’ church.

What if the story is not done yet? What if it turns out, that in the context of the grand story, which has its center, a crucifixion that leads to a resurrection, what if this season, this story becomes a part of that larger, cross-marked tomb-emptied story? What if I could be known by people in my life, by you, by this church, more deeply and fully than I have ever experienced with a church, not just in whatever gifts I have or learning or things that I think matter, but in my faults and my hurts and my sin and my fear, my pain, my scars? And what if God were to use the pain and uncertainty of this situation to build deeper relationships and a more inclusive and healing community than he ever used all of our talents and strengths?

What if it really is true that His strength is made perfect in weakness and then, as we bring more and more weakness, He brings more and more strength? And everybody’s welcome, and nobody’s perfect, and with God, anything’s possible becomes more and more realized here, and people in addiction and people in recovery and people going through homelessness and joblessness, people on their third divorce or abortion or prison sentence. Or people just tired of trying to pretend that everything’s perfect. Just tired of trying to pretend not to be anxious and depressed or desperately sad or jealous or angry or wounded, people with unwanted thoughts, people with secret shame, all met together here with no masks, all met like we had no reputations at all, in fact, all celebrated the recognition of total mutual personal inadequacy and confession and repentance and humility and healing and acceptance and servanthood and courage, in Jesus’ name gained a new birth of redemptive power in our midst.

What if we all double down on Jesus and double down on the cross and double down on the Gospel and double down on the resurrection and get on with it? Get on with the mission of seeking to know Jesus and be the agents of faith and hope and love serving in neighborhoods and schools and offices and shops and hospitals and homes and at the border and on the margins with the unremembered and the uncared for and the unheard and the unseen. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want to miss that. I’d like to stick around for that. I would like to be a part of that. Let’s pray. [pause]

Thank you, God, for this remarkable idea of the church as a place of love and healing and grace. And especially God, thank you for Jesus, the only one in whom we find either hope or healing. And may His spirit and power have a renewed birth, in me and in us, we pray in his name. Amen.