Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Living Life and Faith Like a Mattress Sales Person

My daughter is moving into her first unfurnished apartment in a month.  Among the things she needs is a new bed.  We went to a local store on July 4 that was advertising a special sale.  We found the mattresses in this department store and began looking.  Several beds were out of our price range and some were just not comfortable.  We found two that were within $100 of each other that were both fairly comfortable.  We just had one or two questions about the beds to help my daughter make up her mind.  It was at this point, we were approached by an enthusiastic salesman. 

When he approached, he introduced himself.  He told us about his history in selling mattresses including his work at an unnamed (but strongly inferred) competitor down the street.  He then proceeded to tell us his philosophy of sales and the need to always be honest about the product and the sale.  After this, he began talking about the various ways that people pick a mattress – some starting from the price and others from comfort.  He asked my daughter if she slept on her back, side, or front in order to help him determine the best mattress for her.  All the while, he still did not know what WE needed or what questions we had and he had not addressed our most burning need.  I interjected with our needs and our previous exploration before he arrived.  We then learned that though we wanted to just load up a mattress into my truck that this was not an option.  It would HAVE to be delivered…and delivery is not free.  If we purchased a certain bed frame, the delivery would be free and we did need a bed frame.  However, it became clear that we were not going to get the bed for the advertised price and we would not be able to leave with it that day.  So, we left with no bed and decided to “examine our options”.  We thanked “Mr. Enthusiasm” for his time.

When were in the car, my daughter talked about how frustrating that whole experience had been.  She said, “I didn’t need him to tell me his whole philosophy of sales, I just needed him to ‘do’ his philosophy of sales.”  I immediately thought about how many times in my life that sentence could be applicable.  I thought about my counseling career.  In the early years as I was trying to figure out who I was a therapist, I would often try to tell clients about my primary theory or method.  (UGH!  Just the thought of having done that makes me cringe now.)  Sure some people care, but most do not.  They just want to know if you can help.  They want to know if they will be understood.  If I cannot demonstrate that I care and that I am listening then whatever my theory may be, it is worthless. 

As I reflected, I thought about some Christians I know.  When they enter into the world – work, school, clubs, etc. – it is very important for them to let people know what they believe.  “You need to know that I am a Christian and because of that I will not do X or I believe Y.”  It seems very important for them to be clear about their theory of faith and Christianity.  However, most people don’t care.  In fact, the others may now want to distance themselves from you because they don’t feel you can relate to them or worse, you will judge them.  What most people care about is how you interact with them.  They notice if you care.  They notice if you listen. They will notice if you offer love and caring.  Most people don’t need to hear your theory of Christian life; they just need to have you live it.   

Like the over-enthusiastic mattress salesman, too often people may leave an encounter with a Christian not feeling heard or understood.  They may not leave with anything more than what they had when they entered the conversation because we have not taken the time to meet them where they are.   The mattress salesman assumed he knew what we needed, but we never got what we needed.   A person may not need to yet know everything about our history and beliefs.  They may just need to know if we can answer their two questions.   Will you listen?  Do you care? 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Modern Pharisees?

The Pharisees of the Gospels are portrayed as being legalistic and focused on outward appearance of righteousness to the exclusion of all else.  Many have written about how this may or may not be an accurate reflection of the religious leaders of Jesus’ time and others have defended the Pharisees’ desire for piety out of reverence for God.  While these things may be true, I would like to observe the actions and words of the Pharisees as they are portrayed. 

The Pharisees had achieved a position of respect and power and did not like anything that challenged that place of power.  They were scholars of the law and sought to remain pure and faithful to God by not violating any part of the law.  The Pharisees are portrayed as noting their own personal piety and seeking to go above and beyond what they believed God expected.  The Pharisee who prayed next to the tax collector in the temple prayed to God with a list of his great accomplishments and then thanked God that he was not like other men, including the one who was praying near him (Luke 18:11).  It is the Pharisees who brought to Jesus the woman caught in adultery (John 8).  It is the Pharisees that questioned Jesus about breaking the Sabbath by healing on the Sabbath (Luke 5:17) and gleaning grain from the fields on the Sabbath (Matt 12:1-3, Mark 2:22-25, Luke 6:1-3).  It is the Pharisees who condemned Jesus for eating with sinners and tax collectors (Matt 9:11, Mark 2:16, Luke 5:30).  This last issue is of particular focus.  To remain pure or to appear pure, the Pharisees would apparently avoid spending time with those that they considered to be sinful or anyone who would, according to the law, make them ceremonially unclean.  To spend time with such people would make them unclean and, therefore, not fit to participate in worship.  Because of their attempt to keep the law, they made distinctions between themselves and those that felt did not keep the law as they did.  They saw their understanding of God as superior and their attempt live out their understanding as making them superior to others. 

Throughout the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament, the life, actions, and teachings of Jesus are presented as being the antithesis of the Pharisees.  Jesus is presented as valuing relationships over keeping the law.  He openly condemned the Pharisees for attempting to appear righteous while not attending to true transformation of their hearts (Matt 23:25-26, Luke 11:39).  He condemned their ways in his story of the Good Samaritan when noted that the Priest and the Levite passed by the injured man fearing that they would be made unclean rather than going to check on the man or offering care for him (Luke 10:25-37).  Jesus openly talked with a Samaritan woman (John 4:1-26) and he regularly ate with those who were considered outcasts, sinners, and tax collectors.  Eating with someone was more than sharing food or sharing a table.  It involved conversation and truly getting to know someone.  It was a sharing of lives and not just food.  When Jesus encountered others, he did not make distinctions among people and did not use the earthly labels that others used to divide themselves.  Jesus healed, talked with, ate with, taught, and loved people of all nationalities, genders, and backgrounds. 

In later years, Paul wrote that in Christ all earthly titles are meaningless.  When we follow Christ, when we are “In Christ”, we are to love one another and we are no longer defined by or define others by the earthly categories that divide people.  Paul names male and female, Jew and Greek, Slave and Free (Gal. 3:28).  In today’s world it might mean that we add the categories of Christian and Non-Christian, Rich and Poor, Democrat or Republican, and Gay and Straight.  In fact, what we read of love says that if we do all the right things, but do not have love, then our actions are worthless (I Cor. 13:1-3).  Jealousies, envy, fighting, all disappear when we truly love (I Cor. 13: 4-7).  When we look at another and see them as “Them” or “Those People”, even if are feelings are benevolent, we are still making distinctions among ourselves.  True love seeks to find the “person” within.  True love seeks whatever is true within that person.  True love seeks whatever is admirable in that person.

This is why I am deeply concerned about the efforts these days to codify the “freedom” of business owners to deny services to another on the grounds of religious beliefs (Arizona, Tennessee, Kansas).  Many of those who are seeking to have the “right” to refuse another person service because the other person does not fit with their understanding of God or God’s teachings identify themselves as Christians.   To say, “If I feel your life or behavior violates my understanding of God’s rules and laws and I do not want to have anything to do with you” is no better than the biblical Pharisees refusing to fellowship with others out of fear of appearing to be sinful or fear of being made unclean by the association.  However, Jesus’ example was that we should have intimate fellowship with these very people; that we should make no distinction between people.  It is not the example of Jesus to shun others.  It is not the example of Jesus to say if you do not obey the law, I will not have communion with you.  That mentality is one that is built on our own attempts to appear righteous and that type of mentality always results in us making distinctions between our attempts and what we might perceive as the lack of attempts in others.  The difficulty is that once we make a distinction between ourselves and others, we have left the example of Jesus.  If we truly believe that “All have sinned” (Rom 3:23), then none of us has any grounds to make distinction between ourselves and others.   

I realize the irony of writing this piece.  In writing this I am making a distinction between those that want to ostracize others and those that desire to be inclusive.  However, I will readily admit that I suck at following the example of Jesus.  In my heart I truly to desire to see others beyond the earthly labels.  In my counseling practice, I seek to know the person behind the traditional diagnoses.  When I am able to connect with that person, then I lose the distance that is created by the label.  The people are no longer “drug addicts”, “homeless”, “mentally ill”, “adulterers”, rich, poor, gay, straight, single, married or anything else.  When I am actually able to know the person, I see in them the person who yearns for wholeness.  I see the person who desires meaning.  I connect with the person who fears being alone.  I can connect with those things.  I can also identify the places that my clients have experienced love or have shown true self-less love.  I can see the places that they fight for justice.  I see in them creativity and beauty.  All these things I understand as a bit of their creator in them and I seek to help those parts grow.  There are times when my work feels very holy.  However, I leave my office and I curse the jackass who is tailgating me down the interstate.  I feel angry when I see people intentionally hurt one another or attempt exercise control over others.  I regularly feel impatient.  I get my feelings hurt and respond with anger.  I am a long way from achieving the ideal of being Christ-like.  I am grateful for the grace of God that allows me to get up each morning and try again.  When I am aware of my own struggles and the ways I hurt others, I can hardly stand in judgment of another person who is also on a spiritual journey.  This, I guess, is why I feel frustration when I see people who claim to follow the same Christ I do, seeking to condemn others, alienate others, or hurt others with whom they do not agree for some reason.  Let us seek something better.  Let us show our distinction as the Disciples of Christ by our love (John 13:35).  For when we love one another, only then do we truly fulfill the law of God (Rom.13:8). 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Pink Elephants with Purple Polka Dots and True Transformation

A friend recommended an article to me a couple of weeks ago entitled, “The Secret to Breaking Out of Our Most Destructive Habits” by Stephen Stosny.   I took issue with some of Dr. Stosny’s evaluations of cathartic experience, but I did agree with his assessment that the path to change involves more than an exploration of the past.  For me, the exploration of past experiences and facilitating cathartic experience is only meaningful if it leads to the opportunity for change and helps create an understanding of a path to change.  I appreciated that Dr. Stosny could talk about how continued focus on what is not desired actually reinforced the very thing that a person wished to be rid of.    The path to change then lies in a focus on what is desired and involves repeated attempts to practice new skills, new reactions and attitudes until the under-developed becomes second nature.  Though he talked about brain chemistry, I could affirm this reality both in my own therapy with clients and my own personal journey of change. 

In the same week, I read in Peter Rollin’s Book, Insurrection, thoughts on how the desire to observe an authority’s prohibition and the desire to transgress the prohibition can exist in the same mind.  Similar to Stosny (but not identical at all), Rollins describes how the focus on a prohibition actually can drive the very behavior that is prohibited.  As I reflected on the intersection of both of these writings, I began to think about Christianity and pink elephants with purple polka dots. 

For years, I have worked with clients who have rehearsed and ruminated over attitudes and behaviors that they wanted to change.  However, they only ruminated over how much they desired those things to change and how much they did not want those things in their minds.  Often times, the people have prayed that God would remove certain thoughts or feelings from them.  They have sought to be free from something in their life without really knowing what change would look like other than to be free form that which seems to hold them down. 

For some of these clients, I have asked them to close their eyes and clear their minds.  I tell them that I do not want them to think about anything…especially pink elephants with purple polka dots.  I repeat the admonition, “Do NOT think of anything, including pink elephants with purple polka dots”.  Facetiously, I will ask the client, “What is now on your mind?”  The answer is obviously pink elephants with purple polka dots.   My point is that even if we are thinking about it in the negative, when we focus our attention on what we do not want, we are still reinforcing those very thoughts in our head.  Instead, we work on figuring out what we would prefer to have in our heads instead. 

When I realize this as a path to true change, I realize what a poor job we have done in the church in helping people find real change even as we are trying to tell people “Good News”.  The Good News that we like to tell is that people are sinners; that we are born with a sinful nature, BUT God loves us anyway.  Not only does God love us anyway, but God sent his son to die on the cross for our sins.  Then we tell people that if we accept the gift of Jesus’ death on the cross, we are a new creature and we then should live differently.  To help people with this, we have created a list of things that Christians do not do and many times week after week we hear sermons about what we should not do and what we have to be careful of.  However, if we look at what actually brings about transformation in a person, then we realize that if we continually focus on how terrible and sinful we are, then the love of God DESPITE our failures only keeps us focused on our failure.  Likewise, the more we focus on what we should not do, the more we reinforce the desire to transgress the prohibition and the more we actually reinforce the behavior that is not desired. 

 The process of salvation then is worked out as we seek to live more and more as Christ did.  This is not defined by what we DON’T do (and not even so much by what we DO), but the attitude, outlook, and heart that is in us.  In Christ we are a new creature.  As Rollins writes, “In grace we are able to accept that we are accepted [Paul Tillich’s concept] and, in this very act of knowing we do not have to change, we discover the ability to change.  It is in experiencing the license of grace rather than the legalism of prohibition that real transformation becomes possible” (p. 106).

This concept is not a comfortable one for many because of fear.  What if we are truly free?  What if we do not condemn others for their “bad” behavior?  Aren’t they likely to continue in their “ungodly” ways?  While there are concepts of healthy community that would have us interact with one another around hurtful and self-destructive behaviors, it is radical acceptance of others that allows for the possibility of growth and transformation.  Many times what keeps us from this radical acceptance is fear, but we know that perfect love casts out fear (I John 4:18).   Our church communities have too often become places where we pretend to be perfect and talk about those who don’t live up to the standards we have created.  Instead our church communities should be places of encouragement where we are practicing the new attitudes and skills we want to live into and support and encourage each other when have setbacks knowing that we are all on the same journey towards the same destination.   The path of true transformation lies not rehearsing the pink elephants and purple polka dots of how terrible we are, but in encouraging one another on the path of being all that God intended us to be. 

Monday, January 27, 2014

You Kids Need to Get Along

(Click the title link above to hear a recording of this sermon from the 6PM service)

I Corinthians 1:10-18
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Franklin, Tennessee
January 26, 2014
Chris O’Rear, M.Div., M.M.F.T.

Whether it is a friendly argument about which rock band is the greatest of all history or a political election, we like to win.  We like to be right.  We want to be on the winning side and we like to be number one.  It feels good to win and no one likes to lose.  Our culture seems to be built on winning and losing.  We fight for our candidate to win elections to push our favorite agendas.  We use any means necessary to discredit our opponents in the political arena.  There are those in baseball and other sports that can tell us that the end justifies the means when it comes to winning and breaking records set by someone else.  We push ourselves to the max, we abuse ourselves and others, and we sacrifice all in the name of winning. 

In Paul’s day, in Corinth, it was not the sports, but the politics of the community that seeped into the church.  The leaders and teachers of society were judged by the eloquence of their arguments.  Persuasive teachers crafted carefully worded arguments for their own position.  Those that were deemed the most persuasive were called wise and worthy of being followed.  The people in the church at Corinth took the same means of reflection to Paul’s teachings.  They began to notice that Paul’s arguments and teachings were not as clever as some others.  Whether they actually formed groups or parties around various teachers is debated, but there do seem to have been some divisions within the church.  Some still supported Paul and his stance that the Jewish roots of Christianity were not that important, but others began say that some other teachers and preachers were more persuasive.   Some were persuaded by Peter and his high regard for the Jewish roots of Christianity.  Some were persuaded by the philosophical ideas of the Hellenistic Jews espoused by Apollos.   This is not to say that Peter or Apollos were actively seeking followers of their own or trying to divide the church, but apparently there were those who identified with one over another. 

The rivalry grew; each group vying for dominance in the church.  Which group would have one of THEIR people as head of the vestry?  Which group would get THEIR person elected Bishop?  Which of their ideas would predominate the preaching and teaching or be incorporated into the catechism?  Each group fought for their own view and sought to overpower the rival views.  The rivalry grew and the difficulties increased until the divisions spilled out into the community.  It got so bad that it finally got back to Paul because “Chloe’s people told him”.  Why did Chloe or her people even care?  Were they supporters of Paul who were afraid of losing their position or were they neutral observers who feared the consequences of the escalating tensions?  We don’t know.

What we do know is that where rivalry grows and a score-keeping mentality dominates, there is no true community.   In a relationship with trust and true connection, we do for others as they need and we have every reason to expect that they will do for us.  In a healthy relationship, interactions are marked by respect, openness and honesty.  But when one person or group has to win and one has to lose, then relationships are based on competition.  Interactions are guarded and the words of others are treated with suspicion.  If we are not sure the other has our best interest at heart, then we mistrust everything they do and we are careful to keep score to make sure we get what we think is fair.   True community cannot exist where such interactions occur.  Someone has to win and someone has to lose.  I have met so many couples through the years that have lost the sense of trust in their partner.  They have grown suspicious of the other’s intent or actions.  It gets so bad at times that one person can say, “Look at the beautiful blue sky” and the other says, “What do you mean by that?” or “You have no idea what a blue sky is”.  It is very difficult for us to come back from such a place when the level of resentment has grown to that level. 

It almost sounds foolish when Paul simply writes, “Be of the same mind and let there be no divisions among you.”  That is like a parent saying to their arguing kids, “you two stop that.  You need to get along with each other.”  That is great, but what does that look like?  How are we supposed to make that happen?

As I was reading this passage, I couldn’t help but think of Bill Cosby from “Himself” when he talks about parents dealing with arguing kids.  He says, “Parents are not interested in justice — they want QUIET!” They don’t care who started the fight or who said what; they just want it to stop.  What results in the kids is not a true understanding or resolution to the conflict, but a false peace.  For the kids it is like, “My mom just makes me say, “I’m sorry”.  I don’t have to actually BE sorry.”  In this way, we might think that Paul is just calling for everyone to be…“Polite”.  We don’t have to get along; we just have to pretend that we get along.  We speak civilly to one another, but tear each other down behind our backs.  We pretend to agree while harboring deep judgment or disgust for the other.  This is what we in the therapist business call “False Community”.  It is one of the early stages of group dynamics.  Everyone wants to get along, so everyone pretends to get along even though they might not get along.  This may be a short-term coping strategy (like some of you used with your in-laws over the holidays), but it is not a path to true community. For “true community” to develop, false community has to be replaced with something more meaningful. 

Paul is not advocating for “false community” and its superficial agreement.  In fact in Chapter 11 of this same book, Paul says that the existence of differences is necessary in order to find the truth.  What Paul does, however, is point the church members beyond their focus on their arguments to something bigger than themselves.  Paul’s response to the church is NOT an attempt to make a more eloquent argument for his own position and reinforce any divisions there.  His response is to get to the heart of the conflict.  Paul says, “No, I was not as eloquent as some, but if you are persuaded by the eloquence, then you have robbed the message of the cross of its ability to speak for itself.”  The message of the cross is foolish for those who do not get it, but it is the power of God for those who are being saved by it. 

Paul goes on in the following verses to make the contrast between the world’s wisdom and God’s wisdom.  What the world sees as important, is rubbish in God’s economy.  Paul notes that while the people have boasted to one another about which great teacher they follow, they really have nothing to boast in besides Christ.   While they have inflated their own importance, they have nothing without Christ.  Christ died for all of us because of the sin in all of us.  If we are all in need of salvation, then none of us is any better than any other of us and the only value we have is as a child of God.  If we understand each person as fellow child of God and we are seeking to value the things that God values, then whether or not we win the argument becomes less important.  If we are having heavy discussions, but we are guided by love and respect for the other, the conversation will end very differently than if we seek to defeat the other.  The world will tell us to protect our own, to defend our position, to win at all costs.  It is utter foolishness to say, “Love your enemy”.  It is folly to seek the honor of your rival. 
This time last year, my oldest daughter was studying in South Africa.  She had the chance to visit Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held for most of the 27 years he was imprisoned.  When he was released from prison in 1990 it would have made sense by our usual standards for him to seek revenge on those who held him in captivity.  It would make sense for him to want to defeat them, but Nelson Mandela seems motivated by something else.  He invited his former jailer to dinner.  He invited his former prison guard to his inauguration and he once had lunch with a man who had tried to have him killed.  He was once quoted as saying, “A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don't have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.”

We can learn from from his example.  We can learn from the apostle Paul.  As we have discussions within the body of Christ, let us not forget the leveling message of the cross and the love of God for each one of us.  May we reflect that love in all that we do and all that we say.  Amen.