Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflections on 2011, Tae Kwon Do, and Stuff

One of the best parts of 2011 came very early in the year asI won a trip for our whole family to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii.  Though we were only there for a few days, it was a fabulous experience.  When we returned from Hawaii, we finally moved out of my mom’s house where we had been living since the loss of our house in a mudslide during the 2010 flood.  We moved into a condo that we have been renting since then.  Though a little bigger than our house, living in our new place has been an adjustment to renting again and settling into a new routine.  I have continued to feel blessed by my work at the Pastoral Counseling Centers and by the fabulous people that I work with.  The work that we do is phenomenal and usually quite rewarding.  However, the rewards have not been monetary this year.  After making as many budget cuts as we can, the organization continued to struggle financially.  It has been a challenging year in that regard.  I am blessed by a staff that so believes in the work that we do that stay and support the organization when things have been difficult.  The struggles this year did not keep me from trading in my 2006 Honda Shadow for a 2011 Kawasaki Vulcan 900LT and I have loved riding my new bike.  Just enough bigger than my last bike to be more comfortable, I try to ride to work as often as I can and it makes life just a little more fun.

As 2011 moved to a close I had the opportunity to realize a goal of the past few years.  On December 10, I tested for my black belt in tae kwon do (TKD).  I began taking TKD in 2007 and have had an ambivalent relationship with it since then.  I was drawn more to the “art” part than the martial arts and anticipated a fun way to exercise that I could add to other workouts.  I soon realized that TKD would be more than that.  I enjoyed the physical workouts, learning the forms/patterns, and hitting and kicking targets, but I was not so much into the loud shouts and the sparring.  I liked that I learned things that might help me defend myself on the streets, but every time I tried to spar another student in class I wound getting my butt kicked.  It was at times like this that I realized that TKD was more than just another way to exercise, but involved mental, emotional, and physical aspects that paralleled life.  I am person who likes to be able to check off boxes and have a feeling of accomplishment.  My work challenges me on a daily basis with a process that does not always get tied up in neat little packages.  I don’t like to have a lot of attention drawn to myself and, therefore, I struggle with being awkward, imperfect, or inadequate.  TKD has challenged me on regular basis to move out of the comfort zone – to risk failing at something new and appearing foolish in order to accomplish something great.  I have had to tolerate slow learning and being imperfect.  I have had to accept that there is a process to the learning and you cannot move towards mastery without going through the intermediary steps.  I have had to realize that I can learn from others, but I cannot compare myself to others.  I have to always strive to better than I was before, but I have to accept that there will always be another who is better, faster, and stronger than I am.

That being said, some days have been easier for me than others as I struggle with learning something new or challenging myself in a new way.  I have come to a place of always trying something new and realizing that I may not be able to do everything.  Along the way I reached a point where I knew that was going to see the process through to some point.  I came to realize that achieving the black belt, while a great accomplishment, is only a beginning that marks a level of mastery of basic skills.  I remain somewhat ambivalent about continuing as I have new aches and pains, as I continue to feel uncomfortable with being imperfect.  But I have come to realize that the more I can learn to tolerate the process of learning and growing TKD and experience the joy of new accomplishments there, the more I can do this in my life outside the TKD studio.  I am excited to see what challenges and excitements come in 2012.  I pray blessings for you in the New Year.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Some Good News

(Click the title above to hear a recording of this sermon)

Vine Street Christian Church
Nashville, Tennessee
December 11, 2011
Chris O’Rear, M.Div., M.M.F.T.

In the year 538 B.C., the Israelite people had returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon.  The life they had known there in Jerusalem before captivity had been devastated by the Babylonians, but they had hope of rebuilding their temple and rebuilding their lives.  The Israelites did not return to Jerusalem with many belongings and they had very little money.  They were now under Persian rulers that demanded taxes from them in form of tributes to the king.  Year after year passed and the people began to realize that they were not going to have the resources to rebuild their temple or their lives in Jerusalem.  Each year that passed brought more and more despair that the life they thought they could have would not be realized.  They were free from captivity, but they were hardly free to live the life they wanted – the life that they dreamed possible.  It is in this setting that Isaiah utters the words found in the text this morning.  Isaiah offers a word of encouragement to the afflicted (or as some translations have it, the poor), the captives, the prisoners, the brokenhearted, and the mourning.  The poor, the captives, the prisoners, the brokenhearted and the mourning were not in another group of people somewhere, This word was for the Israelites themselves and like so many times in their history, their story becomes a window into our own story and the work of God in our lives.  While the circumstances may be different, this passage from Isaiah, is indeed a word for us.
You may look at this list of struggles and, at first glance, wonder how these things relate to you.  You may say, “I am not poor or afflicted”.  We may go home to our houses in the areas surrounding this building not really knowing what it is to be poor or afflicted. We sometimes think of the poor as being lazy or we may think of the poor as being from a particular ethnic group, but generally, we think of them as those other people in some other part of town or some other part of the world. 
 By any measure applied to it, I am not poor now.  In fact, according to, I am now one of the 41 million richest people in the world, but it has not always been that way for me.  When I was in my years of training I often worked multiple jobs and my wife worked her job and we tried to make ends meet.  There were times we did not have enough to eat and worried about feeding the children.  My wife spent a few very humbling days visiting government offices to apply for the WIC program that provides basic foods for women, infants, and children.  There have been many times in our lives when we have eaten only because of the generosity of others.  Poverty really is not that far away.   The reality is that for many of us, losing everything is only a couple of missed paychecks away.
Right now in America there are a record number of people living below the poverty line.  15.1% of the population or (46.2 million people) currently live in poverty.  Poverty is defined as a family of four having an income less than $22,350.  This 15.1% is made up of people from every race and ethnicity.  Two-thirds of these people currently work more than one job; they are far from lazy, but they are often the lowest wage earners.    Those that struggle financially often lack the opportunities for better jobs, higher wages, a good education, adequate nutrition and adequate healthcare.  Those who struggle in poverty in America are in need of some good news.
However, the news for the rest world only gets worse.  That theoretical American family of four that lives on $22,350 and is defined as living in poverty in the United States is actually in the top 11% of the wage earners in the world.  As one example, the average person in Haiti lives on less than $740 a year (or about $2 per day).  On average, more than 15 Million children die of hunger each year.  There is great poverty in the world and it can be overwhelming to see the faces of starving children and the magnitude of the need.   The poor in this country and the poor of the world are indeed afflicted and they are in need of some good news.
 Though we sometimes think of those in poverty by certain stereotypes, it is even worse for those in prison. There is great prejudice against prisoners.  There is a huge difficulty for those coming out of prison to reenter mainstream life again because we tend to think about prisoners as “prisoners” and not as PEOPLE who have been in prison.  We don’t think about prisoners as people in need of help, we think about them as evil-doers in need of punishment.  We tend to think of certain races and ethnicities as criminals and not as people.   The reality is that the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate of any other nation.   Currently about 1 out of 37 people has been in prison.   The reasons for incarceration are complex and if we really seek to understand the issues, we begin to realize that it is not just as simple as “bad choices” and punishment.   Around the world there are also those that are imprisoned because they oppose their unjust governments.  There are those who are imprisoned for their faith and those that are tortured and abused while in prison.  The imprisoned of this country and around the world are in need of some good news.
 Isaiah says there is good news not just for the prisoner, but for the captive.  We may wonder if there is a difference.  While there is a high probability that most of you have not been in prison, it is not likely that you have escaped some type of captivity.  There are those who are captive to things like addictions, but we are also held captive to materialism and consumerism that says we must have more, we must have newest, the biggest, the fastest, and the most attractive.  We are captives to cultural expectations and media images of what attractive is.   We spend so much time and money trying to match the expectations and trying to fit in.  There are those that are very much captive by their own fears, by depression, by anxiety, by mental illness, and abuse. 

Several years ago, I had a client that came to me complaining that she felt cutoff from her feelings and cutoff from other people. She did not have any huge complaints in her life other than she felt there ought to be more to life than what she was experiencing.  As she shared her story with me she first revealed emotional and physical neglect by her mother and step-father.  A she got older she began to act out in a number of ways to try get attention from anyone who would give it to her.  Because of her behavior she eventually wound up being sent to live with her father.  From almost her very first week living with him, her father abused her in some of the most terrible ways.  To make sure that she would not leave or create too much trouble, her father held her captive by forcing her to use drugs and alcohol.  She was kept as a slave for her father and as she reflected with me on the insanity of these years of her life, her biggest question was, “Why didn’t anyone ever try to help free me?”

  Those who are held captive in this world are in need of some good news.

Some of you may be living the life that you expected to be living, but many are not.   Even if many things in our lives have gone the way we thought they would, there are always the things that we are not prepared for that creep up in our lives.  When we are young, we dream dreams of what life could be – what we would like life to be.  We dream about our careers and where we hope to live.  I have two teenaged daughters and I am amazed how early they start thinking about what they want their weddings to be like – What their dress will be like, where they want to marry, what colors they want to have in their wedding.  We think about the kind of person we want to be and the kind of person we might want to marry – if we think about being married.  In some of our plans and dreams we may even feel we hear the promise of God in our hearts.  We set out on our journey with our young dreams and our ideal hopes and then we find roadblocks followed by disappointments.  For some these roadblocks come earlier than later, but it seems there are always things that distract us on the journey.  We find ourselves without the financial resources we hoped for, we may find ourselves feeling captive in our jobs or in our relationships, we may be broken hearted by the loss of those we love or relationships that we thought would last forever.   We may have to deal with the illness in ourselves or those we love or we may suffer the anger and rage that another inflicts on us (or comes from within us).  We can very much find ourselves lost in a strange world governed by unfamiliar things and longing for a home.  We can find ourselves mourning lost dreams and the pain of disappointments.  Like the Israelites, we are the poor, the imprisoned, the broken hearted and the mourning and we are in need of some good news.
The good news comes in the midst of our disillusionment when there is one who cries out; “The Spirit of God is on me because God anointed me.  He sent me to preach good news to the poor, to heal the heartbroken, to announce freedom to all captives and pardon all prisoners.  God sent me to announce the year of his grace— a celebration of God's destruction of our enemies and the things that fight against us.  God has sent me to comfort all who mourn; to care for the needs of all who mourn, to give them bouquets of roses instead of ashes and messages of joy instead of news of doom.”  But it is not enough to know there is good news.  We want to know what the good news is.
On one hand it is comforting just know that God, the creator of the universe, is aware of our struggles and cares for our situation.  I can think of few experiences that have been more meaningful for me than to sit with another person and share my deepest thoughts and hurts and then feel heard and understood.  In that moment there is a sense of the presence of God and, as the other person becomes the embodiment of God’s presence, I have a sense that I am not alone in my struggles.    Though I have found this connection with another to be personally meaningful, there have been times when, as a therapist, this “being with” people feels horribly inadequate.  Last year as I had two clients who both lived for several months in their cars, I said to one of them one day, “I see you struggle with not having enough food to eat and not having a place to sleep, it feels so inadequate to meet with you every week in these sessions when I can’t fix those huge problems for you.”  My client teared up as she said, “You will never know what it means for me to be able to come here and talk to you about everything that is going on in my life and to know that you understand.” 
The client I talked about earlier who had suffered such terrible abuse came to a place in her therapy where we were questioning whether she should continue with me or whether we should explore another form of therapy for her.  She sent me the following message in an email between two of our sessions:

You cannot know how grateful I am for you. I believe that God is the director of our sessions and with your guidance and God’s, I will be set free; free from the bondage of self. You seem to unconditionally love people – and that is new and odd to me. I try to make sense out of it and when I do I think I feel a glimmer of the love of Christ. Most people would not try to put themselves in my shoes and the fact that you do may be the grace of God knowing what I need. How can I be worthy of God’s grace now, but not back then – [when I was young]. I must stop assuming that I am not worthy.  You treat me as if I am worthy. Please don’t change how you interact with me. You are saving my life – or helping me to find my life myself. This is very serious to me, still in writing this I am trying to believe that you find me worthy to offer any assistance at all. I will do my best to hold onto the hope that I have as much as I can this week. And that is what I believe will pull me out of this pit of despair. I know that you have hope and I may focus on yours until I can feel it for myself. 

When someone else seeks to understand us and seeks to love us well, God is present, we are not alone, and that is good news.

When Jesus was ready to begin his public ministry, he stood up in the temple and read the passage from Isaiah that we read this morning.  He concluded his reading by saying that this reading was fulfilled in him.  Indeed the good news that we have is that God knows us and God loves us.  God doesn’t just know the things about us we wish we could hide from God and others, but God knows the “us” that we have the potential to be and God is working in our lives, as God has been working in history, to help us become all that we were created to be.

When we look at those who are poor, we tend to see “the poor”.  When God looks at the poor, God sees his children in need.  We tend to define prisoners by the crimes they commit, but the good news of the gospel is that none of us are defined by what we have done in the past.   None of us must feel ashamed for the mistakes of our past.  When God looks on us through the sacrifice of Jesus, he sees the person we were created to be – in all of our fullness – and we are defined by the love of God for us and not by what we have done.  When we look across the world, we tend to see colors, ethnic groups, nationalities, genders and ages through the lenses of our own prejudices and stereotypes, but in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, no slave or free, no male or female.  Our value in Christ is that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.  Our value to God is that God so loved the world that he sent his son.  Though we were captive, Christ has died to make us free and as John writes, “If the son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).  If we are free then our priorities are not based on the world around us, but the Christ that is in us.
 If we are free, then we should live as though we are free.  We set our priorities differently; we not only look for the Christ that is in our neighbor, but also the Christ that is in our enemy.  We who are free should seek to bring the good news to those who still struggle.  We should seek to embody the love of God for each person that we encounter. We should seek to the see the person behind each label.  The people around us are not “the poor”, “the afflicted” , prisoners, captives, sluts, jerks, the lost, the stupid, democrats, republicans, or any other label we use to divide ourselves and hurt one another.   The people around us are… people – the children of God, loved by God and deserving of our time, worthy of knowing, and worthy of love.
We are the poor, afflicted, the captive, the prisoner and the heartbroken, but through Christ we can also be the Good news for another on the path.  Sometimes the task of helping seems overwhelming.  Sometimes having different standards and priorities than those around us can seem lonely or exhausting.  Sometimes we may feel called to help, but we are not sure we are up to the task.  Isaiah says that it is the spirit of God on us and the love of God that is in us that makes it possible for us to persevere. 
In your suffering today, know that that God sees you.  Though you may not be living the life that you wanted to live, you are not forgotten.  “The Spirit of God is on me because God has anointed me.  He has sent me to preach good news to the poor and afflicted, to heal the heartbroken, to announce freedom to all captives and pardon all prisoners.  God sent me to announce the year of his grace and to comfort all who mourn; to care for the needs of all who mourn, to give them bouquets of roses instead of ashes and messages of joy instead of news of doom.”    If you have experienced the power of God’s unconditional love to transform you from the inside out – heart, mind, and spirit – then the spirit of God is also upon you and mission of Christ is accomplished in the reading of this text this morning.

Let us pray,