Sunday, October 20, 2013

Tossing, Turning, and Transformation

Have you ever experienced so much turmoil in your life that you couldn’t sleep?  You’re exhausted and you need to sleep more than anything, but your mind keeps racing and you toss and turn. You wake up in the night to check the clock and every time you do, it’s about 10 minutes later than it was the last time you checked. 

It can be like that when you know you’re going to have to face something difficult and you start to imagine all the terrible things that could happen, because you don’t know what lies ahead.  Maybe you have an important decision to make and you don’t know which way to go. Maybe you know you’re going to be faced with something so big that it could change the course of your life. Like it’s the night before your wedding.  Or the night before you know you’re going to have a confrontation with your boss at work.  Or the night before you have a big test in school that will determine your whole grade.  Or the night before you’re going have surgery.

Now, I know there are some people who can sleep like a baby no matter what is going on in their lives. But if you’re not one of them, you’re not alone. Apparently, Jacob wasn’t either.  When he was on the brink of what could amount to either the end of his life, or a new beginning to his life, while he should have been sleeping because he has big ahead of him, he finds himself engaged in a nightlong wrestling match with God.  Here’s the situation…

After being away for 20 years, Jacob was finally going home.  To say that he hadn’t left under the best of terms is an understatement.  He remembered it all.  The lies and the manipulation he had used to cheat his brother Esau out of his heritage and Esau’s understandable vow to get even with Jacob and kill him.  Jacob knew it was time to leave.  So he went off and made a life for himself far away from home.  Then after he burned all his bridges in his new life, he wound up having no where else to go but back home again. 

Jacob isn’t sure how his brother Esau will receive him.  Had 20 years mellowed him, or did Esau still want to kill him?  When he sends some messengers ahead, they bring back news saying, “Your brother Esau is on his way to meet you and he’s bringing 400 men with him.”  Now, Jacob knows that you don’t need 400 men to have a friendly family reunion, so he prepares himself for the worst.  He divides his family and his lifestock into two groups.  That way if Esau attacks one group, maybe the other one will be safe.  He also sends some gifts on ahead of him, hoping to ease Esau’s anger against him with a little bribery. 

            Jacob’s whole life is hanging in the balance.  His slimy past has finally caught up with him and he has no idea what’s going to happen.  It’s a turning point in his life.  In fact, in the midst of the wrestling, God asks him what his name is.  “Jacob,” he says.  “Not any more,” God tells him.  “From now on you’re not going to be called Jacob.  But Israel will be your name.”

Israel means “one who wrestles with God.” And this was a wrestling match with a purpose. God wants Jacob to let go of who he was so that he can become who he will be. That’s really the ultimate wrestling match that any of us can engage in. God wants us to let go of who we were so we can become who we will be.  It’s the struggle of transformation.

Liz was a woman who seemed to go through one crisis after another in her life.  From my limited experience with her, I could see that her life was a mess because of the bad choices she made. Despite the fact that she was very bright and capable, she had gone from one lousy relationship to another and one lousy job to another. I couldn’t figure out why, until I got to know her better. She had a self-esteem issue in her life. She thought that she wasn’t good enough to have a really good job, so she settled for something that didn’t begin to challenge her or use the gifts she had.  She thought she didn’t deserve to be loved and accepted for who she was, so she ended up in relationships with people who put her down and treated her with contempt.
I shared my observation with her, that she was making choices in her life that seemed to reinforce her low self-esteem. She said: “When I was growing up my father was always finding fault with everything I did. He told me I was worthless and that I would never amount to anything.” That was her explanation. She was raised by a man who belittled her, and it had ruined her life. 

It was good for Liz to recognize how her history had affected her.  But what bothered me was that she seemed to be saying that her history actually defined her.  Do you ever find yourself doing that? Do you ever let your history define who you are? 

Nothing could be further from the life that God wants for you.  God wants you to let go of who you were, so you can become who you will be.  God wants more for you than the same old, same old.  God wants your life to be transformed. 

That’s not just true for us as individuals, but it’s also true for us as a church.  It’s not God’s will that his people define who they are by their history. That they continue to rehash a difficult time in their past, over and over.  Or, that they spend all their time trying to recapture the glory of days gone by. Our history doesn’t define who we are.  We don’t have a status quo God.  We have a God of transformation. 

Change is hard for all of us. If you’ve ever been walking in the woods, you’ve probably noticed that there are pathways between the trees. These are routes that have been traveled in the past.  The more traveled the pathways are, the more beaten down, the easier they are to use.  That’s also how it is for the pathways we have in our brains.  The more we travel a certain pathway, the easier it becomes to use it. 

When we’re hiking around in the woods, we tend to stay on the pathways that are well worn.  It’s easier for us to get from one place to the other and we don’t have to worry about becoming lost.  Our pathways in the brain are the same for us.  We tend to stay on the well-worn pathways, the ones that we have traveled in the past.

In order to change, we have to step off the well-established pathway and form a new one.  That’s why transformation can be so difficult for us.  It means setting out on a different course than the one we’ve always used in the past. 

A path isn’t a path at all until it’s been traveled a few times.  It takes a lot of effort to forge a new path in the wilderness.  There are boulders to be removed along the way, weeds to be chopped down, and trees you may need to go around. It can be such hard work that you may return to the old path by default, even if you know it doesn’t really get you where you need to go. It’s difficult to resist taking the well-worn path.  

Socrates once said, “The secret of change is to focus your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” Do you feel like you’re expending all your energy fighting the past and getting nowhere? Do you climb out of bed, after tossing and turning all night, and walk around the next day exhausted like a zombie, or agitated for no apparent reason? Could it be that you’re wrestling with God, perhaps without even realizing it?  
Jacob stood on the brink of the unknown and was reluctant to become anything more than who he had always been. But God had more that he wanted for Jacob. God wrestled with him and from then on Jacob was a man named Israel who walked with a limp. 

God wants more for us too.  Don’t neglect the opportunities he puts before you to forge new pathways. Stop fighting the past, so you can move into the future God has for you. And your life will be transformed.   Amen.



Sunday, October 13, 2013

Twice Blest

It’s the ultimate symbol of the outsider:  leper. Wherever there are people, there seem to be lepers. They’re the ones we like to keep at a distance. Those who are beneath us. The people we make unkind jokes about. We tend to treat them as if they don’t have feelings. Instead of referring to them by name, we label them, often with words that are demeaning and hateful. Who are the lepers in our world today?

When we call them lepers, of course, we don’t mean that literally. But we treat them much the way lepers were treated in the Bible.  The physical disease was a small part of the pain a leper had to deal with. The real suffering was social -- being cut off from community.

Sometimes when I use my GPS and I end up off the beaten path, it shows my little car wandering around in a blank space where there are no roads. That’s the kind of place where Jesus encounters ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19), and it’s exactly the place where you would expect them to be. They had to keep their distance from the general population because people were afraid that if they came in contact with a leper, they might become unclean, too.  

According to Leviticus, lepers were supposed to cover their upper lip and cry “unclean, unclean” as a way to warn people to keep their distance. But these lepers in the story don’t do that. Instead, they seem to know that Jesus could help them because they call out to Jesus, “have mercy upon us…”

So Jesus, knowing what the Law demands, tells the 10 lepers to go and show themselves to the priests. Once they were declared clean, they could be rejoined with their families and regain the lives they lost when they became lepers.

They hadn’t yet been healed, but they did as Jesus said. They set out to find a priest. And while they’re on their way, they discover they have been made clean. Every one of them. I would imagine that when they realized what had happened, they weren’t walking to see the priest any longer. Now they were running!

All except one. He didn’t follow orders. When he saw that he had been healed, he didn’t run to the priest, he ran back to Jesus. Did that make him a better person than the other lepers who had been healed? I don’t think so. After all, the other nine were simply doing what Jesus told them to do; they were following the Jewish law.

And there’s the rub. They were following the Jewish law because they were Jews. But this 10th leper wasn’t a Jew. He was an outsider. Even if he had gone to show himself to a priest, he wouldn’t have been declared clean. He still would have been excluded from the community. Because he was a two-time loser. A leper, yes, and also a Samaritan.

Jews looked down on Samaritans. They were racially mixed, with Jewish and pagan ancestors. Although they worshipped Yahweh, their religious practice deviated from Judaism on a number of points and they were considered religious perverts, unclean, and Jews wouldn’t come near them.

Interestingly, in Jewish culture, between being a Samaritan and being a leper, being a leper was the worse curse. The 10th leper had been included in the community with the other nine. It didn’t matter that he was a Samaritan and they were Jews; they were all lepers, and they were all in it together. But once they were healed, the old distinction of Jew vs. Samaritan became important again. You may be able to think of times when you have also witnessed the same dynamic. In a time of trial, people come together who ordinarily wouldn’t have a thing to do with one another, and they form community. But then, once the trial passes, the walls that divide them quickly go up again.

Now, it may be that the Samaritan, who didn’t have any reason to show himself to a priest who only would have rejected him… it may be that the Samaritan returned to Jesus because he didn’t have any place else to go. It’s possible. But then, he did, no doubt, have a home to return to, and he wouldn’t have wanted to waste any time getting back there. He didn’t need to have a priest tell him what he already knew, he had been healed. He had his life back.

But before he set off for his homecoming, he had something else he had to do. He felt compelled to return to the one who had healed him and express his gratitude. Barbara Brown Taylor refers to the 10th leper as the one who followed his heart instead of his instructions. She contrasts the ones who did their duty by following the law with a rule-breaking, risk-taking outsider. She writes that "Ten behaved like good lepers, good Jews; only one, a double loser, behaved like a man in love."

This reminds me of the story where Jesus is having dinner with some of the good upstanding men of the synagogue and a wild woman enters with a jar of expensive perfume, which she proceeds to pour all over Jesus feet. Of course, the men are appalled at her behavior. And Jesus explains to them that the woman is so over-the-top grateful because she realizes she has been forgiven for so much.” He’s suggesting that there’s a correlation between how grateful a person is and how much they actually have to be grateful for.

The Samaritan returns to Jesus because he recognizes how much he has received. Perhaps he has a greater awareness of how blest he was to be healed because he was twice cursed. Yes, he was healed, just like all the others, but he receives more. When Jesus finally sends him on his way, he says that the man’s faith has not only made him physically well, but also whole.  There is a second blessing that comes from recognizing the original blessing and giving thanks. It’s the blessing of wholeness and salvation.

That’s how thanksgiving works. First we’re able to experience a blessing from God. And then, we’re able to recognize that blessing, and give expression to it. When the 10th leper saw that he was more than a Samaritan, or a leper, but a child of God, whole and accepted and beautiful, it sent him back to give thanks. And that’s what the other nine missed. It’s not that they did anything wrong; it’s that they didn’t recognize their healing as a blessing, so they missed out on the opportunity to be made whole.

Have you ever thought  of yourself as a leper? Have you ever carried some physical or spiritual wound that has damaged you and alienated you from others? Have you ever been seen, healed, and welcomed home? Do you respond by turning around and giving thanks to the source of your healing, or do you continue on your way, oblivious to the one who has healed you?

The act of worship gives us the opportunity to be twice blessed. I think about how many of us at tend to take our blessings for granted as we neglect the opportunity to gather weekly to offer praise and thanksgiving to God -- the opportunity to receive a second blessing. How many of us wake up on a Sunday and decide to spend the morning in bed, or on the golf course, or working in the yard? And then I think about one of our church members at Holy Trinity, Larry Bollinger, who has been in the Mecklenburg County jail for a year and a half now. As you might imagine, he’d give anything to be with us for worship. Our faith community is something that he treasures deeply. In fact, every Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m., he gets out his church bulletin and worships with us from his jail cell.

I’ve noticed at Holy Trinity that God seems to lead people to us who have been hurt by a church in their past. They have felt excluded or unloved or judged. Our pews are filled with people who have felt leper-ized by the world and they come to be healed.

Although I began this post by observing that wherever there are people, there are lepers, it is not so in God’s kingdom. The Kingdom of God is a leper-free zone. And, among so many who worship with us at Holy Trinity, particularly people who are new to our community, I can see an overwhelming sense of gratitude for that. They’re so thankful to be part of a church where they are loved and accepted and celebrated as God’s children.

The world may see us as lepers, or we may even see ourselves as lepers, outwardly or inwardly. But by the grace of God, that’s not who we are at all. We discover who we really are in this world by seeing ourselves as God sees us: beloved, forgiven, whole – blessed. When we recognize our blessing and express our gratitude, we’re twice blessed.

I had wanted to see the Grand Canyon my whole life. This summer I made it. And after imagining the moment for so many years, I found that when I finally got there, what I treasured the most was not that first moment standing on the edge of the canyon looking at the majesty of it all. What I treasured most was standing on the edge of the canyon looking at the majesty of it all with my daughter Gretchen. I turned to her and said, “Thank you so much for being here with me.” And I was twice blessed. 

We all have opportunities to be twice blessed every day.  It happens in those moments when we realize how much we have to be grateful for and we call a time out before moving on to the next activity. We take a deep breath of thanksgiving and recognize that it happened again. Just when we realize how much God has blessed our lives, there it is -- a second blessing.




Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Nancy's Most Wanted (have you seen this man?)

It was a lovely Friday in May. Friday is normally my day off, but I decided that I would spend a bit of this one at the church, planting flowers. I didn’t bother to stop at my office, but parked out front and opened the hatch to my Honda Fit where I had everything I needed: potting soil, a few  flats of flowers, hand shovel and garden gloves. It was only three planters, so it wouldn’t take me long. First, I cleared away the winter pansies and worked a little soil into the earth. Then I planted half a dozen vincas in each one and poured a little water on them. No problem.

Before I was finished with the job, I had to get rid of the old plants. After putting them in a garbage bag, I walked around the side of the church to throw it in the dumpster. I was away from my car for 30 seconds, tops. And that’s all it took. When I returned, my was purse gone, along with the phone I had owned for less than two weeks. The police were no help. My stuff was gone. I had to suck it up and deal with it. So, I spent the rest of my day on the phone cancelling charge cards, at the bank figuring out how to get money, going to the DMV for my new driver’s license, which now has a very rough photo of me that I won’t even let my children see.  (No make-up, a rat’s nest on my head and a crabby look on my face -- Hey, I was doing yard work.)

As I worked my way through the unexpected hassles of the day, I was furious with myself. I should have known better. It would have been so easy for me to just place the purse and phone in my office when I arrived at the church. How could I have been so stupid? After spending all day kicking myself,  it’s a wonder I could sit down.

And then, there was the issue of the phone. Fortunately, I had bought into the insurance, and I had a new phone the next  morning. Yeah, I had to re-program everything on a phone that I was just learning how to use, but it could have been worse. The folks at Verizon were very helpful… after I went back the third time to get it connected.

It’s one of the new Windows smart phones, a Nokia 4G something or another, and it takes really good pictures. And that’s where the story gets interesting. Since they cancelled my phone, I’m assuming the person who stole it can’t use it as a phone, but, apparently, he can still use it as a camera. I know this because he saves the pictures he takes on the SkyDrive, so I can see them! (I suppose he can see mine, too. I wonder if he enjoyed my vacation.) At first I wondered, why are these random pictures of people I don't know appearing on my phone? Then, I realized that it was him -- my thief. 

Now, there’s something so wrong about this. When I was robbed, I took responsibility for my part in that. I kicked myself for my carelessness, but knew that I just had to let it go and move on. What was done was done and there was nothing I could do about it. I’ve been robbed in the past, and I know that’s the only way to deal with it. But when someone robs you, they’re supposed to disappear and you’re not supposed to see them again. You’re certainly not supposed to be watching them having a grand time with what they stole from you. It’s unconscionable. I’m not angry at myself anymore. Now, I'm angry with the thief. Not only did he steal what was mine, but he continues to rub my nose in it!

The church secretary saw the thief run from my car, so I know that it was an African-American man, and I have every reason to believe he is the star of his own picture show. (If the man pictured isn’t the original thief, he knows he’s using a stolen phone, so, yes, he’s still a thief.) Altogether, I have about 80 pictures on my phone that the thief has taken.
Here he is. Kinda cute… for a thief. This one was posted a few hours ago. 

And here’s his girlfriend. He didn’t do bad… for a thief.

This, apparently, is their little girl. Adorable. I wonder if she knows her daddy is a thief.

Can anyone tell me, is this person doing something illegal?

They have a Jordan jersey on the wall in their home. I wonder if he stole that, too.

Do you think this is directed at me? Sure feels that way.

Oh, I could go on, but you’ve probably had enough. The next time you see me, if you’d like to see more, I’d be glad to share them with you. I wonder how long he will continue to share his life with me. And I wonder how long I will look at them without becoming infuriated. If you see this person, would you please tell him to at least have the decency to stop posting his pictures on my SkyDrive? Stealing is one thing, but this is just
plain mean.