Friday, July 5, 2019

Mailboxes and Funhouse Mirrors: How Do We See Ourselves?

I recently built a new flowerbed around the mailbox at my house.  We live on a bit of hill, so I had to remove some dirt.  I laid some stones and then filled in with some fresh garden soil.  I also painted our mailbox and the mailbox post.  My wife planted some flowers in the bed, and it looked pretty good. However, the first picture that my wife took of our work was taken in such a way that the mailbox looked very crooked.  Our mailbox is not perfectly straight, but this photo made it look like it was leaning way off to one side.  When others looked at the flowerbed, there were comments about the flower bed, but many observed that the mailbox needed some attention.  I said the mailbox was not as bad as the picture might indicate, but the comments continued with things like, “pictures don’t lie”.  However, in this case, the picture did lie.  I later shared a photo taken from a different angle to verify this. 

I could not help thinking about how many times in our lives, we are living our lives as best we can, but when people look from the outside, their perspective is such that they only see what they perceive are the imperfections.  Those perceived flaws of our lives become the predominant feature that people see in us and the other work we do, or different perspectives are not considered (and, in fact, may be ignored when presented).  It is important for us to have people in our lives who can give us accurate reflection and feedback about who we really are.  We must realize that sometimes other have a perception of us that is skewed by their perceptions (biases, prejudices, experiences, etc.)   At times when we have such people in our lives, we begin to believe that the altered image of us is truly what we look like.  We must, however, realize that the image reflected to us is like funhouse mirror image of ourselves.  A true friend can show us that our “mailboxes” are not perfectly straight, but they are not leaning over as much as others might have us believe.  Certainly, we want to keep working on being the best versions of ourselves, but we want people who can help us see a realistic version of ourselves while loving us in our becoming.  We need to be able to resist believing the distorted images of ourselves that others might offer. 

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Just What We Needed: Reflections on Jesus' Encounter with Thomas

Last week was Easter. Unlike the story in some of the other gospels, in the Gospel of John we have only Mary Magdalene going to the tomb and finding it empty. She goes and tells Peter and John and they all go back to the tomb together. Peter and John leave the empty tomb confused and dismayed and Mary stays outside the tomb and cries. In that moment, Mary has an encounter with Jesus. She goes and tells the disciples that she has seen Jesus and she told them what he had said to her. We are not told their response, but what they do is lock themselves in their house out of fear. The passage says that they were fearful of “The Jews”. (I want to be clear, John’s Gospel uses the term, “The Jews” several times and this has become part of the reason for the mistreatment of Jews through the centuries. The disciples, however, were not fearful of all “the Jews”. They were fearful of some of the Jewish leaders who had felt threatened by Jesus’ teachings and actions and they were the ones who sought to have Jesus arrested and crucified. The disciples where there when Jesus was taken, and they feared that these same religious leaders would also come for them.) This is why they are hiding, and this is where we begin reading our passage for today:

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin[c]), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

There are some things about this passage that probably raise some questions for you (they certainly do for me) and, unfortunately, there are not really good answers for these things. One of those things is the fact that Jesus appears among the disciples while the door is locked, but he also confirms that it is, indeed, him. How did Jesus get in? Was he let in? Did he know some secret way to get in? We might ask if Jesus was a spirit, but he proves that he is indeed there in body. He shows his body to the disciples. So, is the risen Jesus something that is not spirit, but not fully bodied? We do not know. There are many thoughts about this and no concrete answers. We are told and we are to accept that Jesus appeared through the door that was locked. We don’t know. It seems reasonable then, that this is why Jesus has to say “Peace be with you” to the disciples. This appearance would be very unsettling.

I don’t know if we can truly put ourselves in the place of the disciples because we have so much history and experience with this story and we know how the story ends. However, the disciples have already been shown to not fully grasp the things that Jesus has tried to tell them. They have shown they do not understand what Jesus’ kingdom will be like. They have shown that they do not understand that Jesus will die and despite the fact that they saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the grave, they do not understand that Jesus has power over death. People die and they are dead. The disciples may have seen the one-off miracle of Lazarus, but the experience was that when you die, you’re dead. So, the disciples could apparently only see things one way and that way did not include a risen Jesus. They were huddled together in their house and were afraid and confused trying to figure out what they were going to do next. The story they had heard from Mary Magdalene about seeing Jesus had not really been a comfort to them but had only added to their questions and confusion. And in that moment, Jesus appears. No wonder he has to say to them, “Peace be with you”. It would have been confusing and unsettling. They disciples were not expecting to see Jesus, but there he was.

We are told that Thomas was not there at that time and we do not know why. So, when Thomas shows up, the other disciples tell him that they have seen Jesus. While Thomas may want to believe that this is true, Thomas is clear that he will not be able to believe until he sees the nail scars in Jesus’ hands and touches the wound in Jesus’ side. It is because of this that Thomas has sometimes gotten a bad rap. In fact, we usually refer to him as “Doubting Thomas.” For some reason, we want to see Thomas as the one disciple who cannot believe that Jesus is risen. This is so not fair to Thomas. What Thomas asks for is to have the exact same experience that the other disciples have had. The other disciples didn’t have to ask to see Jesus in person because Jesus appeared to them and showed them his wounds. Thomas, says, “I hear what you are saying, but I want to have that experience for myself.”

This really does not sound that unreasonable to me. Although, I am not a person for whom faith comes easily. However, part of the difficulty may be in how we have framed faith. Many believers, and non-believers as well, have tended to frame faith as a blind acceptance of that which we cannot prove. For some, faith is about accepting as fact something that does not seem to have any factual basis. We have tended to turn faith into an intellectual ascent to certain fact that we then call beliefs. “Belief” and “Faith” are reduced to saying that certain things are true while other things are not. The reality is that faith is not about certitude about certain facts, it is about what principles and reality we put at the center of our being. Theologian, Paul Tillich, writes that “doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith”. To have doubts is part of believing and “Faith” is not a noun, it is a verb. We don’t HAVE faith, we LIVE faith. We cannot fully grasp and put in the center of our being something that we do not understand at a fundamental level.

What ultimately changes our lives; what gives us hope, is not an intellectual belief that something is true, but a deep and profound experience that alters our perception. All of the disciples – not just Thomas – were stuck in the fact that they could only see the world one way. They were despairing, confused, grieving and lost because Jesus was not who they thought Jesus was. They had put their faith in an understanding that could not sustain them when things were difficult. We can fall into the same trap. We create ideas about how God is to work. We think we know how life is supposed to go. We can “faith” into these things being at the center of our being. We may also put other things at the center of our being like pleasing other people, having nice things, or achieving some type of success. Ultimately, those things will fail us, and they leave us locked in small way of thinking, paralyzed with fear because we do not know what is going to happen next, and we are afraid of the possibilities – like the disciples.

In those moments, we need a savior who shows up and says, “Don’t be afraid. Have peace in this moment. This is not going to turn out like you thought. I am indeed here with you. Here is the proof you need. Here is the reality that I am bigger than you believed. I have brought you life that you could not imagine. Put your faith in this.” Like Jesus did for the disciples, Jesus gives us each just what we need. Sometimes this comes after we have spent a bit of time in fear and confusion. Sometimes it comes at moments of profound doubt, but Jesus provides us just what we need.

Jesus said to Thomas, come and touch the wounds in my hand and touch the wound in my side. Thomas had said, “I will not believe until I can do this” and here Jesus provides just what he needs. The other disciples did not ask for it, but the mere fact that they were locked in a house in fear indicated that they did not grasp the power of the risen Jesus. They needed to see it for themselves. Thomas’ experience is so real and so meaningful that he proclaims Jesus to be Lord and God – two terms that were reserved only for God, the father. Thomas’ experience gives him a glimpse of the God who had broken into the world to give him something bigger to put his faith in.

But you may say, “But Chris, aren’t you forgetting that Jesus said to Thomas?” When Thomas called Jesus “My Lord and My God” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Again, many have taken this to mean that Jesus is saying that our faith should be blind. We are blessed if we can somehow affirm our “faith” without any proof. I would suggest that this is not what Jesus is saying at all. Look at John 20:31 – just a few verses beyond our passage for today. John writes, these are written so that you may come to believe[d] that Jesus is the Messiah,[e] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. The people who would be able to believe without seeing are all of the people who are not disciples. Every other person in that time and in history would not have the experience that the disciples had. John’s Gospel is written so that we will have “proof” that Jesus has overcome death and that there is life in following him. The blessed ones that can believe without seeing are you and me.

However, it is still true that none of us can actually believe without seeing things for ourselves – or experiencing things for ourselves. The fact that your mother or father has faith does not really change your life. The fact that your pastor has faith, does not change your life. Your mom, your dad, your pastor, your friend, or anyone else can tell you about their faith, but all of us will need to have an experience of that for ourselves. We need to experience Jesus in a way that is meaningful to us. While the disciples may have questioned how Jesus got into that locked house, there was obviously no doubt that they encountered the risen Jesus in that house. In fact, all of them would suffer or die because of their witness to their experiences with Jesus. We may have doubts about certain “facts” from time to time, but I would hope that we all have an experience with the risen Jesus that leaves no doubt about Jesus’ presence in our lives.

Finally, I would want us to note that Jesus sent the disciples into the world as God the father had sent Jesus into the world. We are to give a witness of our experience with Jesus. We are to seek to be the hands and feet of Jesus for those we encounter. We cannot make others believe, but we can seek to be the presence of Christ for another that is so real that they come to believe; not because of us, but because of the power of Jesus’ love that lives in us. I pray for you this week that you will encounter Jesus in a way that transforms you life and your faith and I pray that, in turn, you become the presence of Christ for another that becomes an opportunity for them to see Christ.


Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Grief Transformed*

In the beginning, the heaviness of sadness pulls me down.  My heart is broken, and I am physically exhausted from the tears that are continually on my face.  I cannot see light and there seems to be no life left in me.  My world is dark.  My natural impulse is to avoid the darkness, to run from it, but with courage that I cannot comprehend, I open my eyes in this darkness.  I cannot make out anything but shadows.  There is no form and no substance.  There is a great emptiness.  This place of grief is formless and void of anything except itself and darkness fills the depths of my sorrow.  But as I sit in this place, there is breath.  Yes, my own breath as I continue to breathe, though some days I despair even of this, but in this darkness, I also sense Ruach, the breath of God that sweeps across my face and there is, in that moment, a glimmer of light.  As I feel God’s breath in this place, I begin to see that there is light and there is darkness and they exist, each in their own time; one day at a time. As I continue to sit with the periods of light and darkness, life begins to transform around me; very slowly at first.  I begin to find a firm footing on which to stand.  In the moments of light standing on this new ground, I begin to see the shoots of new life straining through the earth.  The hope of a new beginning.  Not a beginning that comes despite the sadness and the darkness, but because of it.  In this moment I begin to hope in a future that is shaped by the comforting and creative breath of God that brings life where there was not life.   That brings warmth where it was cold.  That sheds light on a path that I could not see.  I look around and realize that God has not rescued me from the darkness, but brought me through it to a of place enlightenment, wisdom, and even joy. 
* This writing was inspired by a paragraph in the paper, “Recovering Grief in the age of Grief Recovery”. In that paper, my friend, BruceRogers-Vaughn, describes his own journey of grief over the loss of his son.  In one paragraph he wrote:

How might joy emerge from such an experience? I do not recall when I first noticed this, but as I mustered the courage to suffer my own grief something very subtle began to happen. I discovered in the chaos, at the edge of the abyss, an unnamable creative energy. It began to dawn upon me that Genesis 1 is not a commentary about some primeval era: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep." This is where anything that deserves the name life must begin—in the void, in the darkness of chaos. It is into this darkness that we descend whenever we mourn. And if we keep our eyes open in this darkness, we find there what the text of Genesis 1 asserts: That the breath of life, the Spirit of the Creator, is moving around in there: "and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters."   

Monday, November 26, 2018

Grieving is Part of a Joyful Holiday

In his paper, “Recovering Grief in the age of GriefRecovery”, my friend, Bruce Rogers-Vaughn, describes a “Dialectic of Grief”.  He says that grief is indistinguishable from love.  The process of grief, therefore, is the act of learning to love in the condition of absence.  So, when we have moments (memories, events, experiences) that connect us to the person that is lost, we feel simultaneously connected to them and aware of their absence at the same time.  I believe this idea can be extended beyond physical loss to more intangible losses (like the loss of hopes, dreams, and ideallic expectations.)  Perhaps this is why the holidays with their joy and gatherings of friends and family can be difficult for so many people.  In the moment that we are experiencing the presence of those close to us and the joy of the season, we are simultaneously reminded of those who are no longer with us.  For some, it is a painful reminder of those who have left voluntarily.  For some it is a reminder that they have been hurt deeply by a family member who they may or may not have to spend time with during the holidays.  For others, the joy of the holidays rings empty because depression or other emotional struggle has robbed them of the ability to experience it. 

Dr. Rogers-Vaughn says that grief is not something to recover from, but something we simply need to recover.  Too often our thoughts about grief have to do with ways to diminish it or avoid it.  Overt or subtle attempts to bypass the grief process or to avoid grief altogether, can lead us to avoid meaningful attachments in a misdirected attempt to avoid loss.  Attempts to bypass grief become twisted into psychopathology, addiction, and even violence.  The only way to get through grief is to go through grief.  What lies on the other side is not the absence of grief, but the acceptance of it.  A grief embraced can open us to a new way of seeing the world, becomes a foundation on which we construct hope, and transforms our love and faith.  Being able to accept grief as part of life is a fundamental part of being able to experience true joy. 

So, this holiday season, rather than seeking to avoid grief by changing your plans or anesthetizing your pain.  Allow yourself to grieve what losses you may have.  Create ways of remembering the person that is no longer with you. (For a good article on creating personal grieving rituals, click here.) Make time to feel your feelings and share them with trusted others.  It may be helpful to write those feelings and reflections in a journal.  Many congregations offer services of hope and remembrance or so called, “Blue Christmas” services.  These services can be a good opportunity for remembering and connection with our grief.  Others may find it helpful to talk with a professional therapist about their grief.  I pray that in this season, you will find the true joy of grief embraced.   

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Making Life an Adventure

Several years ago, my wife, Lynda, and I began to refer to various things we found to do as “adventures”.  The adventures were generally things that were out of the ordinary for us that might stretch us a bit, but in which we learned something new or experienced something we might otherwise not have experienced.  There was that time that I won a trip to the Texas Motorspeedway.  We are not generally NASCAR Fans, but the trip also included some other things that we thought would be fun.  It was on this trip that I discovered Robert Earl Keen, Jr.’s music and I have been a fan since.  That was our one and only trip to the famous Billy Bob’s in Ft. Worth.  However, we also enjoyed the experience of being at our one and only NASCAR race.  It was truly an adventure.

Recently on our anniversary we decided to go to a candle-making class – something we had not done before.  Afterwards we went looking for a place for dinner because we didn’t really want to wind up at one of usual favorites.  We happened upon a new restaurant that featured a menu of Indian-Italian fusion.  It would not have been our usual choice, but we gave it a try.  The dinner was great, and the wait staff was friendly. We had a great evening on a little adventure.

We have realized over the years (and probably with some life experience) that even the things that we would have preferred to not have to deal with have become a kind of adventure on their own.  The days of being unemployed and not knowing for sure if we would have enough money for groceries.  Having to figure out how to make dinner from what ever was in the freezer and the pantry and coming up with some unexpected combinations that weren’t half-bad.  We have lived through the loss of a house, loss of jobs, loss of family members and loss of friends.  We have had cars breakdown and lived through some car accidents.  Many of these things came with insight and lessons that could not otherwise be learned.  Not every event turned out as you might script it, but we have realized that we are always ok.  So, there are many things that we don’t want to have to live through, but in the midst of difficulty we try to remember that it will somehow be ok and the difficulty becomes a kind of adventure.

I don’t mean to imply a “Pollyanna” syrupy false sense of optimism, but a stance that can acknowledge the frustrations, disappointments, and griefs of the moment and still approach life with a curiosity about what will happen next.  There are few attitudes and outlooks that I believe can help make life more of an adventure:

1. Limit your expectations.  

It has been said that expectations are the thief of joy and I believe that is true.  If we expect that our life, an event, an encounter, a person should be a certain way, then we are easily disappointed or angry when those things are not like we expected.  Whereas if we try to limit our expectations, we can be grateful for whatever unfolds.  This not to say that we never make plans or have dreams, but it does mean that we might relax and breathe when our plans don’t go exactly how we thought. 

2. Approach others and life with curiosity rather than judgement. 

Similar to expectations, when others do not conform to our idea of what people should be, do, wear, etc. we have a tendency to judge them.  This judgement is the root of bullying, racism, and a number of other such things.  We start from a position of knowing how others should act or how things should be and then criticize, mock, or discount others when they do not fit our ideas.  By contrast, when we encounter an event or a person that does not fit with our experience, our expectations, or beliefs, if we approach those people or events with curiosity, we may find something that is interesting or inviting about the other person.  We may also find commonality with others.  If you find yourself saying, “I would NEVER do such and such” in response to another, why not try, “That is not something I usually do, tell me about that or let me try that.” 

3. Don’t be Afraid to be a novice.

When I look back on my life, I realize how much I missed out on because I was too afraid to not be an expert or to not be good at something.  However, no one ever got good at something without first being new to it.  This is why in my 40s I took up Taekwondo and learned to ride a motorcycle.  There was always somebody that was better than me at both, but I learned a lot about myself and others by challenging myself to be a novice at something and letting someone else teach me. 

4. Say, “Yes”

If you have never seen the movie, “Yes Man” with Jim Carey, I would recommend it.  Jim Carey’s character lives a very limited and unhappy life that is characterized by fear and doubt.  He is challenged to be more open to life and to say, “Yes” to more.  He winds up taking it a bit to far and learns to moderate, but the key issue is being open to new things and saying yes to things that feel unfamiliar or new.

5. Feel your feelings.  

In my therapy practice I have seen so many people thorough the years that were limited in life or in relationships because the were trying so hard to avoid feelings they did not want to feel.  I have been paralyzed in my own life by fears, insecurity, and attempts to avoid guilt, grief, or disappointment.  Though I still struggle some, what I have learned is that it is ok to be afraid, to be worried, to be hurt and disappointed.  Feel those feelings.  Talk about them with a trusted person or therapist, but in the end, feel your feelings, but don’t be controlled by them.

6. Trust God (Don't Assume You Know What I Mean Here)

Many people approach life believing that “everything happens for a reason” or that God causes all things.  The reality is that sometimes the reason things happen is that we (or someone close to us) have a lapse in judgement or act impulsively and there are consequences.  Romans 8:28 does not say that God controls everything but says that in everything God is at work to accomplish all the good that can be accomplished.  However, this is only true for those that “Love God” and are “Called according to God’s purposes”.  I believe that God is always at work to accomplish all the good that can come from any situation, but unless we are attuned in our hearts to see it, we will miss it.  Or as I sometimes say it, “God causes all things to work together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose…and for everyone else it is just shit that happens to you.”.  To have the attunement to see the Good that can be gleaned from a situation does not require a correct belief in God, but merely an openness to see God at work.  With such an outlook, we can trust that there will be good to come from any situation.  So, we can do our best to ride out the journey to see how the story ends.  In the midst of any struggle, we can say, “I hate that I (we) are going through this, but I can’t wait to see how this chapter of the story will end.”  Again, the experience in the moment is rarely that fun, but I think of it is a goal to shoot for. 

May you find the adventures in life, but more so, may you find your life to be an adventure.  Amen. 

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Outrageous Nonsense: A Sermon on James 2:1-17

Preached at Eno & Oak Grove United Methodist Churches
Dickson, Tennessee
September 9, 2018

James 2:1-17 (NRSV)

My brothers and sisters,[a] do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?[b] 2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, 3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,”[c] 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.[d] Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? 7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. 11 For the one who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. 13 For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters,[e] if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he said that a person should love God with their whole being but said that the second commandment was like it in that a person should love their neighbor as they love themselves. So, just to make sure his bases were covered, a person there in the crowd asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told him the story of the kind Samaritan that demonstrated that anyone who is in need is our neighbor (Luke 10:25). In another place, Jesus says that loving God and loving others as ourselves is the basis of all of the laws and other teachings of the Bible (Matthew 22:40). That seems to be a fairly strong statement and seems pretty clear that keeping a good relationship with God and others is of fundamental importance. However, just a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, James, Jesus’ brother is having to write to Christians outside of Israel to remind them that this teaching was still fundamentally important.

These two commandments that Jesus calls the most important are intimately related. Loving God with our whole being requires us to be completely open with God. We cannot love God with only part of ourselves while holding back another part. We cannot love God with our spirit, but not our body. We cannot love God with our Sundays, but not our Mondays through Saturdays as well and we cannot love God with our heart and not our time or our wallet. We must let the love of God into every part of our lives. God must be able to love and forgive the parts of us that we do not like and that we feel ashamed of and God must be able to love and use our gifts and abilities. We are to love God with our whole being. When we have loved God with our full being, then the love of God fills us to overflowing and we love those around us.

It is important to note that Jesus did not command us to love our neighbor instead of ourselves and he did not command us to love our neighbor more than ourselves, but as much and in the same way that we love ourselves, we should love our neighbor. When we think about what we want or what we need, we must also think about our brother and sister and what they need. We cannot think about taking care of ourselves without also thinking about how our lives connect with others and how our lives impact others. The command that James calls the “Royal Law” does not say that we can never do anything for ourselves, but it does help us keep from being selfish. If we only think about what we want, then we are not thinking about our neighbor. However, it is not just enough to think about our neighbor. If we are caring for ourselves, we must care for our neighbor, but we know that this way of living is not really our nature.

As a general rule, we tend to think too much of ourselves. We don’t like to wait behind other people in line. We get angry when someone cuts us off in traffic because they “obviously think they are more important than us”. We want to be sure we have enough of…well, everything and way too often we are led to believe that having more stuff or having certain things will make our lives better. This car will make you feel powerful or full of life. This kind of beverage will make you feel energized. We are told every day through our media that more is better, and we see that the more money a person has, the more power they have, and we also want to feel important.

When we look at those running for office right now and all of those painful commercials on T.V., we see that all of those candidates are millionaires. The large majority of those who are in political office right now are from the wealthiest class in our society. Since the 1970s the number of extremely wealthy people in the U.S. has gotten smaller, but their share of the wealth in our country has gotten larger. So fewer people own more and more of our nation’s wealth. In the same period of time, those that have been called the middle class has gotten smaller and those who live in poverty has increased. It literally has been true that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Based on the research for his recent book, Dr. Bruce Vaughn at Vanderbilt notes that this trend has been true since the 1970s regardless of which political party has been in power. He also notes that in same period of time, we have had an increase in the number of people dealing with depression and anxiety. If we find ourselves in that lower 99% of people, we can often look at that 1% and wish we could be more like them.

I remember the first time that I got to attend a concert at the arena downtown and got to sit in one of those private boxes. I sat with people I knew and liked. I ate the food right there in the box. I didn’t even have to go out of the box to use the restroom. We had a private one right there. I though, “Man, this is the way to go to a concert.” It was nice. If you have the money there are a lot of perks in this world. The very wealthy get the best interest rates, the best mortgage rates, and the lowest fees. If you have the money, you can pay to skip the line at the amusement parks you can get your pizza delivered before anyone else’s. If you have money, you don’t have to worry about things breaking down or healthcare emergencies, you can afford a vacation, you can eat at nice restaurants and people love to have you around because they feel powerful when they are around you and they benefit from your money. Who wouldn’t like that?

The problem is that as Christians, we are called to a different way of thinking and different priorities. The reality is that we do not know exactly who these words in the book of James were written to and we do not know exactly why they had to be written, but apparently, they had to be written… because human nature continues to challenge the nature of God.

James says that if a wealthy person comes into your church and you are tempted to show them favoritism like is shown in other places in our lives – don’t! James reminds us that the economy of the Kingdom of God is not the same as the world’s economy. The world looks at the wealthy and thinks, “What can they do for me?” and the minute we make a distinction between people for whatever reason, we have put ourselves in the place of judgement. When we decide who gets favored treatment, when we decide who is in and who is out, and we make distinctions between ourselves, we often do it for selfish reasons. We may show favoritism to one person because of what we hope to get, or we may reject another person out of fear. James reminds us, however, that in God’s economy, it is the “least of these” that are important. In God’s economy, those that are humbled and lowly will be lifted up.

James is not saying that the wealthy are not welcome in the assembly, but that the distinctions that exist outside the church body should not exist inside the church body. James does seem to suggest that at least some of those who are wealthy have used their power and influence to hurt those who do not have power. James seems to suggest that some who have great wealth have achieved it by taking advantage of those that are poor and who have less power. This seems to have been true not just in time of James’ writing, but throughout history. The fight for the poor and the powerless has been slow and change has been hard-won, if it has come at all. If the world’s economy was like God’s economy, there would have been no need for Moses to help free the Israelites from the Egyptians. There would have been no need for the protestant reformation. If the world’s economy was like God’s economy, we would not have needed the American revolution or the French revolution. We would not have needed the 13th Amendment to the constitution that abolished slavery, the 15th amendment that gave African-American men the right to vote, or the 19th amendment that gave women the right to vote. If some of the rich and powerful did not take advantage of the poor and powerless we would not need the laws that abolished child labor, the laws that established a fair wage for workers, or the fight to end segregation. James is clear on this point, if a person is made wealthy and powerful in the world’s economy by taking advantage of others and by satisfying their own selfish desires that only cares about their own wealth and their bottom line – then in God’s economy, they will be humbled. James says that God favors those who are poor and downtrodden. In God’s economy, those that are used, oppressed, and poor will be made great in faith. If the powerful are humbled and the powerless are lifted up, then in the middle there is equality. In God’s economy, all are equal, and all are welcome in the assembly and at the table of God.

James does not stop there, and it is what he writes next that has created the most controversy over this book of the Bible through history. In talking about how the Christians should not make distinctions among themselves, James certainly talks about how doing so puts us in a place of judgement. And while we might argue, that making such distinctions is not as bad as committing adultery or murdering someone. What James writes is essentially this, “if you think you are not in the wrong because you have not committed one of the ‘big sins’, you better think again.” In the law of God, if you are guilty of judging others and withholding mercy, then you are just as guilty as the adulterer or the murderer. James goes on to say:

What good is it, my brothers and sisters,[e] if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Through the ages, there have been great debates over the meaning of this passage and others in the book of James. I am aware that these questions apparently resolved in the theology of John Wesley and the tradition of the Methodists but indulge me for a moment. The controversy of this passage has been in the question of what saves a person. Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9). I do not believe that Paul and James’ perspectives are contradictory and if I know my church history, neither did John Wesley.

It is our faith in Christ that saves us. Our belief about God, the person of Jesus, His saving work on the cross, and his resurrection is what saves us. However, if that faith in Christ is genuine, then it should result in a change in our outlook, attitudes, priorities, and actions. If we truly grasp God’s love for us, then we are humbled by the gift and will desire to share it with others. We will seek out ways to live the gift of God’s love in every part of our life – that is, love God with our whole being. We are not saved by keeping the rules, but a change in how we live results from inner change that occurs through faith. Our personal economy begins to look like God’s economy.

However, there is an additional layer of truth here as well. If in our faith, we do not yet understand what it is to live out our faith. If our transforming faith has not yet transformed our whole being, James gives us some very practical instruction here. I was in a training yesterday that reminded the participants that when it comes to our clients in psychotherapy or to anyone who wants or needs to make a change, it is not enough to simply want to change. If we want to make a change in our life, we have to practice a new way of being. One way people talk about this is like this is to say that if you want to develop new habits or ways of being, you can begin to act “as if” you already have those qualities and you begin to practice those new habits until you have practiced them so much that they become part of who you are. Or as some say, “fake it till you make it”. I do not remember a lot of the Spanish that I used to know, but I did study Spanish in Spain in the summer of 1987. I lived with a family in Spain that spoke no English. I walked every day to a small language school where my teacher spoke no English. Every day was a struggle as I tried to navigate maps, buy food, communicate with my hosts. I had to think about every single word I said and formulate every sentence carefully. I would long to just have the ease of speaking my native English and at night when my roommate and I were in our room, I would love to just talk a while in English. As we would talk, our host “mama” would come by our room and say to us in Spanish, “No Ingles, Espanol solamente” (or No English, Spanish only). It was exhausting, but to learn the language we had to practice. Over the weeks I was in Spain, I began to write in my journal in a combination of English and Spanish. I began to have dreams in Spanish. I got more comfortable in carrying on basic conversations in Spanish.

James is suggesting a similar thing here in verses 16 and 17. Living with another person in mind and loving our neighbor as ourselves can feel as awkward as trying to learn a new language. Thinking of ourselves seems to be our default “language”. However, it was not enough for me in Spain to wish I could speak a new language and it is not enough to wish good for those who are poor and downtrodden. We have to practice. If we are to do what James suggests in actually providing directly to the less fortunate rather than just praying for them or wishing them well, we would have to get to know those who struggle. We would have to meet these people and get to know their names. We would have to learn their story and understand their needs. To do this, we will have to practice generosity and humility. We will have to sacrifice the comfort we have in doing what is familiar and practice what is more difficult and less natural for us. In our faith and through practice, we may find that over time the awkward actions are perfected in a transformation of our heart. And, whether our life is transformed by some faith experience or our life is transformed by our efforts to live out our faith, the bottom line is that having faith is not just an intellectual pursuit; it is something that gets down in the cells of our bodies and changes the way we think, the way we perceive others, the way think about what is important, and how we spend our time and energy.

I loved Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this passage in The Message. I will read just a portion of this. It reads this way:

2 1-4 My dear friends, don’t let public opinion influence how you live out our glorious, Christ-originated faith. If a man enters your church wearing an expensive suit, and a street person wearing rags comes in right after him, and you say to the man in the suit, “Sit here, sir; this is the best seat in the house!” and either ignore the street person or say, “Better sit here in the back row,” haven’t you segregated God’s children and proved that you are judges who can’t be trusted?

Listen, dear friends. Isn’t it clear by now that God operates quite differently? He chose the world’s down-and-out as the kingdom’s first citizens, with full rights and privileges. This kingdom is promised to anyone who loves God. And here you are abusing these same citizens!

You do well when you complete the Royal Rule of the Scriptures: “Love others as you love yourself.” But if you play up to these so-called important people, you go against the Rule and stand convicted by it. Talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the Rule that sets us free. For if you refuse to act kindly, you can hardly expect to be treated kindly. Kind mercy wins over harsh judgment every time.

Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you?

Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?

“Outrageous nonsense”, indeed.

Let us Pray

God, we know that our human nature is to think about ourselves only. Our human nature is to think of ourselves as more important than others. We are tempted so often to desire and seek the things of this world that we believe will set us apart and make us powerful. Thank you for the reminder in the words of James and the life of Jesus that remind us that your ways are not our ways and your economy is not the worlds economy. In your eyes, each of us is already important. To you, every person we will encounter this week is important regardless of what they look like on the outside. God, continue to work in our lives to perfect us that we may see others as you see them, that we may prioritize what you prioritize, and that all that we do will reflect your love that is in us. Amen.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Hide & Seek: A Reflection on Genesis 3

June 2018
Chris O’Rear, M.Div., M.M.F.T.

“Guilt” has been described as the feeling that we have made a mistake.  We feel it when we do something that we believed that we should not do, or we did not do something that we believed we should do.  It is an error in judgement, a misstep, or an accident.  In comparison, “Shame” is not the feeling that I made a mistake; it is the feeling that I am a mistake.  It is not the feeling that I did something wrong, but the feeling that I am somehow flawed.  It is the feeling that there is something wrong with me and if people knew this about me, they would not like me.  We sometimes talk about the shame we feel about our physical bodies.  There are things about most of our bodies that we do not like.  I will not name all of those, but almost everyone has them.  So, we try to wear flattering clothing or clothing that boosts or hides or covers what we don’t want others to notice.  We may dye our hair (or for some, try to grow some hair), we may get injections, have surgery, all designed to cover the things about our bodies that we feel ashamed of.  

Genesis 2:25 says that before eating the forbidden fruit, Adam & Eve were naked, and they were not ashamed.  They were completely open and vulnerable, and they were not afraid to be seen.  They did not fear the reaction of the other.  They did not have to hide.  I believe we can see this as a relational state for Adam & Eve as well.  Many of us can also understand the emotional and relational type of shame.  Somewhere in our life, maybe going all the back to childhood, we learned that it was not ok for us to be who we were or feel what we feel.  As a young person, a girl may have expressed interest in certain hobbies or sports or she may have behaved in ways that were seen as too rough and she would have been told to “act more like a lady”.  It might not have been acceptable for her to like certain things or to behave in certain ways.  For a young boy, he may have expressed interest in certain activities that he was told were too “girly” or he may have been scolded for crying being told that “Boys don’t cry”.  Whatever the case, we learn from an early age in subtle and not so subtle ways that certain things we like, certain ways we feel, and certain things we do are not acceptable to others.  So, if we feel those things or think those things, we feel we have to hide those things.  

Others grow up in families where there are certain struggles or difficulties.  Some families have someone who struggles with drugs or alcohol use or others grow up where there is abuse of some kind.  Others just grow up in deep poverty or with someone who has a severe physical or mental illness.  People in these families can start to feel different or unusual.  They can start feel like the things that make them different somehow make them flawed and they feel that they cannot let others know everything about them because they fear the judgement or rejection of others and they try to hide.  Adam and Eve in their ideal state were naked – completely open – and they were not ashamed or afraid.    

Adam & Eve had been told that they could eat from any tree in the garden, except one.  One day they each ate from that forbidden tree and immediately, they realized that they were naked.  Once they ate from that tree that they were not supposed to eat from, they realized that they were vulnerable.  They immediately felt the needed to cover themselves.  Not only did they feel the need to hide from each other, they also felt that they had to try to hide from God.  When it came time for Adam and Eve to spend time with God, God was there, but Adam & Eve tried to hide.  Adam & Eve not only felt guilty for what they had done, but they felt ashamed.  They realized that they were vulnerable – vulnerable to injury, vulnerable to rejection, vulnerable to judgement – and so, they tried to hide.  

Most of the time when we hear this story referenced, people just mention Adam & Eve’s “rebellion” against God and their blatant disregard for God’s rules and we are to gather that this is why they are now in trouble.  Many times we only talk about sin as a desire to do things our own way and that way is seen as being contrary to “God’s way” and so we find ourselves somehow in trouble and in fear of God’s punishment.  It does seem that in the grand scheme of things, Adam & Eve were in the same boat as one another because they had each eaten the fruit from the tree that they were not to eat from, but there are some interesting differences in how they got there.  Adam & Eve are in the garden and are apparently near the tree that they are not to eat from.  Out of nowhere comes the very clever serpent to talk with Eve.  The serpent causes Eve to reflect on the rules that were put in place in the garden and immediately pique’s Eve’s interest as to why the fruit of this one tree is forbidden.  Why could they not eat of this one tree when they could eat of all the others?  Eve just simply notes, that it is forbidden and says, “God said we would die if we ate it.”  But the serpent says, “You will not die, but God knows if you eat of this fruit, you will be like God; having wisdom of good and evil.”  Eve will later call this a trick (or a deception) depending on your translation, but in Genesis 3:22 God confirms that Adam & Eve, having eaten the fruit are now, indeed, like God, knowing good and evil.  As it turns out the serpent did not lie to Eve about that but twists the truth.  So, the Bible says that Eve evaluated the statements of the serpent and noted that the fruit of the tree was beautiful, it was good for food, and it was good to make one wise and so, she decided to eat it.  In eating this fruit, Eve has decided that she knows better about what is good for her but note that she also strongly desires the wisdom. What she does violates God’s rule for her, but she is seeking a wisdom beyond what she has.  Adam, on the other hand, is standing next to Eve, she offers the fruit to Adam and without question, without a hesitation, Adam takes the fruit and eats it.  

We do not know why Eve offered Adam the fruit and we could speculate about that, but the two of them seem to represent at least two ways that we find ourselves outside of God’s desire for us.  Eve is seeking wisdom, but she engages in an activity that will have dire consequences.  She is seeking wisdom but makes her own plan and her own way to find it.  She risks what she believes could be death in order to get wisdom.  We are reading from the Hebrew bible this morning, but I will note that both the Hebrew & the Greek word for “sin” literally mean to “miss the mark”.  The Greek word more can be compared with things like javelin throwing or archery when a person is aiming for one thing but misses the mark.  Eve is aiming for wisdom and she believes the fruit of the tree will provide her that wisdom, but she acts without regard to God’s desire and she will have consequences.  

Adam, on the other hand, simply takes the fruit from Eve and eats it.  He doesn’t ask questions.  He doesn’t examine the fruit or reflect on the potential consequences.  He just takes it and eats it.  In this regard, Adam’s sin is not like Eve’s.  He does not “miss the mark”, he does not even seem to be paying attention to the fact that there was a mark.  Adam seems to represent a kind of self-absorbed, non-reflective, selfishness that thinks only for itself and acts only with short-term thoughts of what it wants now.  He shows no regard for how his actions will affect him or the future.  He doesn’t consider how others will be affected, he just takes the fruit and eats it. And he too will have consequences.   

Whether it was out of a misguided attempt to achieve something or whether it was a selfish, short-sighted act, Adam & Eve have both done what God told them not to and now they are trying to hide.  Adam & Eve rely on a fairly common way of trying to hide the truth; they blame someone else.  Adam says, “This is not my fault, that woman you gave me made me do this!”.  Eve says, “It is not my fault, the serpent tricked me”.    In our shame, we often try to hide by switching and blaming.  Have you ever been in an argument and you say, “Why did you do such and such?” and the response is, “Well, you did thus and so…”  It is a quick way to shift the attention off me and get it on to something else.  One of the ways we try to hide ourselves is to believe that whatever has happened is someone else’s fault.   We love to blame others for our struggles, but it really just keeps us from looking at the things that we are responsible for.  Yes, for Adam & Eve, the serpent played a role.  Yes, for Adam, Eve played a role, but in the end, they will all have consequences.  

Interestingly, however, the consequence is not death.  While God had said that if Adam & Eve ate this fruit they would die, when they actually ate the fruit, they did not die. God seems to have demonstrated mercy in that moment. However, I have long reflected on the fact that God could not undo what Adam & Eve had done.  God could not take back the knowledge they had gained.  God could not restore them to the state of being vulnerable and naked without shame, but instead God just makes for them better clothes.  This seems to me to be the nature of our sin.  Many times, when we have done things we wished we had not done, there can be forgiveness.  There can be healing, but lives are forever changed – both ours and often the lives of others.  God demonstrates great mercy towards Adam & Eve in that he protects them from death, but he cannot protect them from the challenges of life that they will now face.  They will live with the consequences of their actions their entire lives.  

Several years ago, one of my daughters had been caught skipping school.  You may say, well that’s not so bad.  Lots of kids have skipped school at one time or another.  Well, we caught her skipping school because while skipping, she crashed her car into a brick mailbox and totaled the car.  She had to call to tell us all that had happened.  There was no hiding that.  That led us to discover other things going on in her life and we sought out appropriate help for her and our family.  One day I was driving her to a counseling appointment and she said, “I am sorry, dad.  I guess I am just going to have to learn some things the hard way.” I said, “I am sorry.  That is going to be tough for you, but there is nothing you can do that will change the fact that you are my daughter and I love you.  We will figure out how to get through this.” I added, “I am sure that God feels this way about me pretty much every day of my life because I, too, have had to learn some things the hard way.” 

Some of us can look at mistakes made by others and learn lessons from those.  We may have avoided the difficulties that others have had to face, but most of us, at one time or another, have had to learn some lesson the hard way.  We have made a decision to do something we should not have done or said something we wish we had not said.  Sometimes like a blind person trying to find their way through an unfamiliar room, we can stumble around trying to find our way and wind up hurting ourselves or others.  Sometimes, we get so wrapped up in our own desires that we lose sight of bigger issues.  There are times when we are all tempted to act out of selfish desire that only thinks about what we want or what we think we need. In those moments we can also hurt ourselves and hurt other people.  When we realize what we have done, we often want to hide.  We try to minimize what we have done by saying, “oh, it’s not so bad” or “Look, I am not like those other people.”.  We may try to blame others for difficulty.  “If they had not done this, then I would not have done that.”  All those things are really just attempts to hide what we feel is broken in us.  We do not want to be found out.  

When playing hide and seek as a child, part of the fun is finding a great hiding place.  We loved to find a place that no one would think to look, but as minutes tick by and we sit crouched alone in our hiding place, we begin to realize that we may not be found.  That does not make the game fun because deep down inside, we really want to be found.  All of us have found ways to try to hide ourselves from others at one time or another and trying to keep things hidden or hiding part of our selves for a long time can feel like a huge burden or weight, but the longer we keep things hidden, the more we feel that we cannot be found out.  We can begin to feel lonely and isolated because we know that we don’t have a genuine connection with anyone.  We have an innate desire for that genuine connection where we do not have to hide.  When most people are finally found or found out, one of the first things they say is, “I am so glad I don’t have to carry that burden any longer.”  It is not God’s desire for us to hide from one another.  The ideal was that we could be completely open with one another and not fear judgement and not fear rejection. This the basis of genuine connection and authentic relating.  However, for many other reasons, we have not done a good job of loving each other when we are vulnerable. In fact, we have often been hurtful to those who are hurting. So, I feel obligated today to say that not everyone needs to know everything about you.  We still have to be careful about who we can share with, but …there ought to be some people in your life who truly know you.  We ought to have someone in our lives that we don’t have to hide from.  And, of course, we have to know that we cannot hide from God.  For some that is a frightening thought; that God will surely find us out.  We have painted God into a place of being rejecting just like others we have known in our lives, but in the story of Adam & Eve, God comes looking for them.  While we are trying to hide from God, God is looking for us and like a child playing hide and seek, in our heart of hearts, we want to be found.  We do not want to be found by the punitive and punishing God, but by the God who offers us grace to survive the consequences of our sins.  We want to be found by the God who can protect us from the worst we could do to ourselves and provides us another way.  Yes, we will probably still have to deal with the consequences of the things we have done, but we have a God that says, “There is nothing you can do that will cause me to stop loving you.  You are my child and I will always love you.”  

There is love and peace, community and connection with ourselves, God and others when we don’t have to hide any part of ourselves any longer.  There is authentic relating when we can be vulnerable with one another without shame.  This is God’s desire for us.