Sunday, February 22, 2009

Seeing It Through

(Read James 1:1-8 and Mark 1:40-45)

Several years ago I was doing pastoral counseling with a woman named Terri, who had come to talk with me because her last two relationships had failed due to her partners’ infidelity, and now she was concerned about her current relationship. Let me tell you a little bit about Terri’s history so you can understand the situation better. When Terri was just 18 years old, her mother died a rather long and painful death from lung cancer. Before she passed away, Terri’s mother had told her daughter that she hoped Terri’s father would remarry. Terri hated the thought of her dad being with another woman, but tried to understand what her mother was telling her. However, when Terri’s dad married her mother’s best friend only a year after her mom’s passing, she grew furious. She thought, how could they do that to her mother?

By then, Terri had gone off to college, and while away, she refused to speak to her new step-mother and barely spoke with her father. In her junior year of college, Terri began dating a young man named Tom, who was good-looking, funny, smart. Terri fell for him hard, and you can imagine her anger and sadness when just six months into their relationship, Terri found out that Tom had cheated on her with one of her sorority sisters. She felt betrayed and became almost obsessed with Tom’s “other woman.”

Graduation came as a relief, and Terri moved to Chicago to start over fresh. She worked in sales, and at her office, she met Matthew. Matthew was charismatic and charming, and he adored Terri. They fell in love quickly and married within a year. Life was a honeymoon for about two years, but then Terri and Matthew began arguing quite a bit. Terri became jealous of the women who played on Matthew’s co-ed softball team He invited her to join the team or just come and watch, but Terri refused. Tension began building in the house. About a year later, Matthew came to Terri and said he wanted a divorce. She tried to talk him out of it, saying that they should go to couples’ therapy before they made any hasty decisions. But Matthew shook his head, no. He had met another woman, and he was certain that he wanted a divorce. In a moment of explosive anger, Terri threw a vase at Matthew’s head, demanding to know if it was one of the women from his softball league. Matthew said it wasn’t, but Terri didn’t believe him.

Between her dad’s marriage to her mother’s best friend, and her failed relationships with Tom and Matthew, Terri had lost faith in men, and she had become competitive and envious of other women. Two years after her divorce was finalized, Terri came to talk to me because she had met someone new, Brad, whom she really liked. But she was terrified of getting into another relationship. She was terrified of the person she had become at the end of her divorce, and she already felt some of those old feelings resurfacing. Before she and Brad even really started to date, Terri felt incredibly insecure, and she was suspicious and jealous of the women that worked in Brad’s office.

In our first session, Terri told me that she feared her relationships with men were like a broken record, and she was doomed to repeat the mistakes of her past. She wanted to break the pattern of picking men who ended up cheating on her, and she wanted desperately to stop feeling so jealous and suspicious of other women.

No one here has the exact same story as Terri, but I would guess that we all have something in common with her. Sadly, many of us find ourselves making the same mistakes in life over and over again. Or we find ourselves in similar situations over and over again. We don’t do it intentionally or even consciously. Some patterns, like trying a new musical instrument every year and never staying with any of them long enough to really learn how to play, are minor in terms of the way they affect our lives. But other patterns are very destructive. Without meaning to or even knowing why we do it, people often get themselves into unhealthy patterns that make their lives miserable. The addictive cycle is one such pattern. Choosing abusive partners is another. Not being able to hold down a job is another. Money patterns, such as excessive spending or never paying bills, tickets or taxes on time is another. Yo-yo dieting is another. The examples are endless.

Until we learn how to handle such patterns, such problems, we are doomed to keep repeating them. I think the practical instructions in James 1:1-8 can teach us how to break free of such unhealthy and unsatisfying living.

In the beginning of this letter, James says that trials and difficult situations are actually opportunities for growth. The more times you find yourself in such trials or situations, the more opportunities you have to grow out of them. If you remain faithful to God amidst such tribulations and suffering, you will make it through them, you will come out on the other side, but endurance is key.

James insists that you must keep going all the way through the ordeal in order to mature, in order to become perfect and complete. Don’t quit part way through because then you won’t fully grow up. Endure until you receive the full benefit so that you will lack in nothing.

It’s the idea of walking through the forest. The only way to get to the other side of a situation is by walking through the forest, no matter how scary, until you come out on the other side transformed. If you only go part way and stop, you won’t fully work through the problem at hand, and then sooner or later, you will probably find yourself back where you started, at the entrance of the forest, in a familiar and problematic situation.

There is a reason why we keep getting ourselves into the same problematic situations over and over again, and that’s because we do what we know, we do what’s familiar, we do what we’ve always done whether or not such doing is working for or against us. It’s difficult to choose differently in life. If you are not sure how to make it through a repeat situation so that you break the pattern and end up on the other side, James advises that you pray to God, who gives graciously and generously, and will provide you with the wisdom that you need to succeed.

James advice is first to endure, to enter into the situation and see it through until the end, at which point you will be transformed. And second, to look to God for wisdom and guidance so that you can successfully make it through the forest to the other side.

Before I explain these points further, I’d like for each of you to think of some aspect of your life that you want to end or move past or stop doing, whether it’s a thought or a behavior. Perhaps some issue that you have prayed about more than once and maybe even cried out to God, when will this ever end? When will this stop being the case? Something you are sick of dealing with.

First, James admonishes us to endure. It’s a long process from the beginning to the end, for transformation to happen. Don’t just settle for half-healing or kind of being set free. Follow through, endure all the way until the end, until the pattern has been broken, until you are different, until you are free of that which plagues you.

In Mark 1: 40-45, a man with leprosy comes to Jesus begging him to make him clean. Jesus stretches out his hand and touches the leper, saying, “Be made clean!” And “Immediately the leprosy left [the man] and he was made clean” (Mark 1:42). But the story doesn’t end there. Jesus then tells the man to go show himself to the priests. You see, in those days, “according to the law, the leper needed to present himself to the priests and offer a sacrifice in order to reenter society and be restored to the community.” Without doing this, the man, though cleansed of leprosy would have remained an outcast in society. Jesus wanted him to keep going, to endure if you will, so that he would be fully healed, not just partially healed. To be cleansed of the leprosy will change the man’s physical condition, but to see his whole life changed, he needs to be welcomed back into the community. Thus, the leper can’t just stop after seeking out Jesus. He must continue on and go to the priests as well.

If we really want to come through our problems on the other side, we must stay with them until all aspects of our lives that they affected have been healed. If you’re someone who struggles with holding down a job, it’s not enough to get a new job. You have to find work you like and are good at, and then stay at it for a significant period of time to be fully healed. If you’re someone who yo-yo diets and feels bad about your body, it’s not enough to lose X number of pounds only to gain it back. You have to lose the weight by developing sustainable healthy eating habits and by exercising. You have to feel good about yourself and keep the weight off to be fully healed. If you are in an abusive relationship, you not only have to get out of that relationship, you have to stop choosing abusive partners. You have to go to therapy to work through your trauma and pain. Being fully healed involves our whole selves – mind, body, spirit, relationships, emotions

How does this full healing take place? With God’s help of course. There’s a reason we keep finding ourselves in the same old predicament, and it has to do with thinking and acting in the same ways we always have. But God is ready and willing to show us new ways of thinking and acting so that we will have new results.

James second piece of advise is to seek God’s wisdom. God’s wisdom will teach you an enlightened way of thinking and acting so that you can make it all the way through the forest and come out on the other side matured, transformed, or in James’ words, perfect and complete.

When Terri came to me for counseling, she was committed to solving this problem of hers. She was ready to endure until her relationships and feelings within relationships changed. As we talked, she said she was feeling an urge to get to know the women in Brad’s office before she went any further with him in their relationship. It was something she had never done before, a new way of approaching the situation. Instead of drilling Brad about these women day and night to make sure he wasn’t attracted to them, instead of refusing to speak to these women (like she refused to speak to the women on Matthew’s softball team) because she perceived them as threats, Terri decided she wanted to get to know them. Luckily, when she told Brad this, he thought it was a great idea. So one day, they went out for drinks after work. Brad introduced Terri to the women he worked with, Veronica and Beth, the whole while keeping his arm loosely around the small of her back. Terri discovered that both Veronica and Beth were married and that they were very nice people. And finally, she didn’t feel so threatened by their existence in Brad’s life.

All it takes to live life in a new way is to think and act in a new way. This is easier said than done. It takes courage and endurance and wisdom, but it’s completely possible. Like James says, we are fortunate when we experience trials, even similar trials over and over again, because if we have enduring faith in God and if we pray for wisdom, these trials become opportunities for spiritual enlightenment and result in a better way of existing in this world. They result in a happier and healthier life.

What this results in is a happier life for you and for me. So next time you find yourself in the same old situation, don’t walk away. Don’t do what you always do either. But walk faithfully into the situation, trusting that God’s wisdom will show you a new way to live.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Start with Yourself. Transform the World.

Here is a beautiful and wise re-vision of the beatitudes, written by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Concordia:

Blessed are those who are willing to enter into the process of being healed, for they will become healers.

Blessed are those who recognize their own inner violence, for they will come to know nonviolence.

Blessed are those who can forgive self, for they will become forgivers.

Blessed are those who are willing to let go of selfishness and self-centeredness, for they will become a healing presence.

Blessed are those who listen with compassion, for they will become compassionate.

Blessed are those who are willing to enter into conflict, for they will find transformation.

Blessed are those who know their interdependence with all of creation, for they will become unifiers.

Blessed are those who live in a contemplative life stance, for they will find God in all things.

Blessed are those who strive to live these beatitudes, for they will be reconcilers

May we be the healers. May we be the peace makers. May we be the reconcilers.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Co-Creating a Happier You and a Healthier World

At the heart of Christian discipleship is our faith in God, which causes us to think and act in specific ways. Because of our faith, we trust that God will provide for us and protect us throughout our lives. Because of our faith, we surrender our wills over to God’s will and try to obediently follow God’s laws in our day to day living. The Carmelite nun, Therese of Lisieux, once wrote, “It is our Father alone who can make us saints.” I whole-heartedly agree that submission to God results in the transformation of our very beings, but Christians must be careful not to let this sort of thinking make them weak and unempowered. Sometimes, when we think we are surrendering to God, what we are really doing is being passive, complacent or irresponsible. This can lead to great unhappiness and leave one feeling like a victim in his or her own life.

While we are called to give our suffering and brokenness over to Jesus, we must also assume responsibility for our lives and the development of God’s kingdom on this earth. There is truth to the saying: God helps those who help themselves. This is your life, and you play an active role in shaping your own future!

And not just yours! You have the ability to positively affect the realities of your family and friends, your community, your church, any place in the world you decide to get involved. The Great Spirit is empowering your spirit so that you can co-create a world with God that resembles the kingdom of heaven.

You have been given a mind with which to think, a heart with which to feel, and a will with which to choose, use them all to cultivate a meaningful life and a healthier world!

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Inclusive Church

(James 2:1-13, Romans 1:8-17 and Luke 10:29-37)

Ministry has many faces, both literally and figuratively. Literally, in the fact that all ministers have a different face. Figuratively, in the fact that ministry itself looks different all the time. This past week, I was involved in a ministry that I had never been involved in before. It was a seminar for new pastors to discuss the ups and downs of starting in the local church. We discussed the pastor’s perspective, the congregation’s perspective, and the cabinet’s (who matches pastor with congregation) perspective. I am so happy to say that I, who have already been in ministry for 3 ½ years, was one of the most experienced pastors there, expect for those who were leading the conference.

I’m so happy because becoming a minister has been the most challenging experience of my life, and the most worthwhile. Learning how to preach, how to administer to the affairs of the church, and how to work with so many different people has been a continual learning experience. What made it even more difficult for me was the fact that I was a woman and young. I didn’t and still don’t fit the traditional image of a pastor. Research shows that the majority of congregations prefer a white, married male with two kids. In this regard, the only thing I had going for me coming in was being white. I will always remember one interview when someone from the congregation said to me, “You are 28 years old. What could you possibly teach me?”

Despite this comment (which none of you made), I want to thank you all because you have given me a chance. Not only did I not fit the traditional image of pastor, but I was also new at all this. I had and still have so much to learn. It was your openness to me as a person, your understanding, and your support that helped me to mature and become the minister I am today – which is far from perfect, but I think I am doing a pretty good job at spreading love, helping us all to worship God, and keeping the church on a positive path.

What broke my heart at this event that I went to was that many of the new pastors in other UMC’s right around us have not been given the chance by their congregations to minister with their God given gifts and to grow in their professional aptitude like I have.

One such pastor, whom I will refer to as Gertrude, has had a terrible time in her first year of ministry, and this job is hard enough without people intentionally making it harder for you. Since she arrived in July, more than 20 people have left the church, and several of the key leaders in the church have resigned from their positions. Gertrude holds regular office hours as the church requests, but no one comes to see her. No one even calls Gertrude to see how she is adjusting, and she is a 50 year old woman, who had to leave her home and husband in Queens to take this position, not 30 miles from where we sit this morning. Gertrude has made great sacrifices to serve the Lord and the Church; meanwhile she is being treated like an outsider for no good reason. I spent time with this woman and heard her speak and pray, and she has a beautiful spirit and is passionate in her love for God and all people. She definitely has something to offer, but very few people are giving her a chance. Some members in the congregation actually wrote a letter to the DS because they didn’t approve of her saying “Hallelujah” during her sermon. And do you know why she is having so much trouble? It’s because she’s black.

None of us likes to think of ourselves as prejudiced or racist. I know I don’t. But most of us still do judge people based on the way they look. Prejudice is more than just an individual’s opinion about someone without knowing them. Prejudice is ingrained into our entire society’s way of thinking. We have stereotypes in our minds of what people will be like just because of their outward appearance. Men are expected to be competent and strong. Women are expected to be nurturing and responsible. The old are expected to be wise. The young spirited, but reckless and confused. Thin people are thought to be healthy. Overweight people thought to be lazy. People from other countries are viewed as foreign and not like us, when the truth could be that we have more in common with immigrants to this country than our next door neighbors. These are ideas we have been taught that are not necessarily true, and that we might not even realize condition our minds. We have to question these unexamined, inherited thoughts because they distort our perspectives, and then we react to people unfairly. We don’t give people a chance to be themselves.

Has anyone ever judged you without getting to know you? I’m sure you’ve felt that sometime before. It’s de humanizing; it’s unfair, and it’s not Christian.

Jesus ministry was all about breaking down the barriers and cutting across the boundaries that divide people. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus lets us know his feelings about prejudice. When a Jewish man is robbed and beaten while going from Jerusalem to Jericho, those who are expected to help him don’t. The Jewish priest walks by on the other side of the road, and so does the Levite, who would be a respected Jewish layperson. The one who comes over to help is a person that Jews looked down on, a person that Jews were not supposed to associate with, a Samaritan. The Samaritan defies the false boundaries that have been set up between him and another person by bandaging the wounds of the beaten man, taking him to an inn, and paying for his stay there. The Samaritan was not expected to help the Jew. They were different kinds, but in this parable, Jesus shows that when it comes to loving one another and helping one another, there are no boundaries. Each of us is required by God to there for one another.

The Church is called to be a place of diversity, where all people regardless of disability, age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, intelligence, appearance are accepted and loved for being the unique child of God that they are. I’ve brought to you this issue that many pastors are facing now because of this conference I was at and because of the terrible hurt that is being done to good people without good reason, but this is also an issue within the laity of congregations and an issue wherever you go where diversity has become problematic instead of celebrated.

If anywhere in the world, the Church should embrace all people. We should be the one place that truly reflects and celebrates all of God’s children, but I’m sure many of you remember that just a few years ago, a man who was a homosexual was denied membership into a church. I am proud to say that our UMC motto is “open hearts, open minds, open doors.” If you are too, then we cannot allow discrimination to continue.

I know we aren’t experiencing these sorts of problems in this church today. But just down the road, a wonderful minister is suffering because her congregation is not embracing diversity and the gifts she has to offer. I’m preaching on this today because I want us to be prepared for whomever might walk through our doors. Clergy or laity. That they will be given a chance and we will not judge them by their appearance or their accent.

For those of you who aren’t aware, February is black history month, and this Sunday is the 100th anniversary of the NAACP, whose first goal was to stop lynching. The NAACP has made a tremendous impact in our society so that African Americans would be given the respect and the rights they deserve. The Church is also called to be a place where all people find sanctuary and receive the respect they deserve as brothers and sisters in the family of God.

In Romans 16, Paul says, “I have complete confidence in the gospel ; it is God’s power to save all who believe.” Over and over again in the Scriptures, God’s power to redeem the world is connected to our belief. It’s that partnership between us and God that I have been talking about the last few weeks. Somehow, it is our belief that helps to unlock God’s power.

This is true of an individual’s power as well. Somehow, it is your belief in me that helps to unlock my power, that helps me to be empowered as a person. It is my belief in you that helps you to be empowered as a person so that you can live up to your full potential. It is our belief in our children that helps to empower them to grow and mature and be the best person they can be. So at least in part, we are all responsible for each other’s successes and failures. And really all we have to do from the beginning is give each other the benefit of the doubt and believe in each other.

The face of ministry is changing. More than half of the new pastors in our conference are black, Korean or Latino. And so are many of the people who live in and around this community. I thank you for accepting me and believing in me when I first arrived here. I believe in all of you too, no matter how you are different from me. The invitation for us today is to believe in all people, especially those who come to us through Christ, and to embrace diversity that all might find with us the opportunity to live fully as God is calling them to live.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week in America. May we be a congregation that helps to change that.