Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Matters of the Heart

In the cold of winter, I decided to get a puppy. Some of you have met her. Her name is Annabell. Annie for short. I also call her bunny because she hops and pounces. And Annie Bananie, which has somehow free associated into the nickname, Banana Head. Annie’s very sweet and I love her.

But she wasn’t cheap. When I started doing the research on puppies, I kind of fell in love with the idea of getting a Moarkie. Now, a Moarkie is a cross-breed between a Maltese and a Yorkshire Terrier. My parents are the proud owners of our family dog, Coco Bongo, who is a Yorkshire Terrier. So in deciding what kind of dog to get, I knew I wanted someone like Coco, but not exactly.

On the internet, you can find everything. I found tons of people selling Moarkies. There is a trend in cross-breeding the little dogs now. Maltapoos. Shitzapoo’s. Yorkapoos. Mitzus. The thing was, I didn’t want to send some person from the internet several hundred dollars and then wait for my Moarkie to arrive in the mail. I wanted to see him or her first. The breeders offered to show me pictures, but somehow that didn’t sit right with me. I wasn’t about to drive down to North Carolina in February so I when I found a pet store in NYC, called Raising Rover and Baby, that sold Moarkie’s, I made plans to head to NY, have dinner with my best friends on Valentine’s Day, and go to Raising Rover with the possibility that if I fell in love, I would come home with a puppy.

It was there I found my Annie. I’ll be honest. She was expensive, but I was able to see her in person. I even met her brother. The man at Raising Rover talked to me for over two hours about having a puppy. And, it was immediate gratification. I went to the City looking for a Moarkie puppy, and I came home with a Moarkie puppy. Even though Annie came at a high price, she was worth it to me.

I’ll tell you what wasn’t worth it to me. The several hundreds of dollars of food, vitamins, supplements, and accessories – combs, leash, collar, sweater, puppy playpen- that Raising Rover tried to sell me. Some of it, like the food, I purchased because its not good to change a puppy’s diet suddenly, but the $8 leash I bought at the small pet shop in New Paltz is just as functional and cute as the $30 leash at Raising Rover. And thel puppy gate they tried to sell me there is no better than the baby gate my sister gave me now that her kids are older.

Some things in life are worth the price you pay. Others aren’t. When it comes to financial matters, being an educated consumer is paramount. After that, it often comes down to matters of the heart. Annie is a matter of the heart. She is worth her weight in gold.

It’s not just things that cost money that have a price though. Our daily work has a price too. It affects are energy, our bottom line, our feelings of self-worth and well-being. So do choices we make and situations we find ourselves in. Our relationships cost something to us emotionally, psychologically, physically and spiritually.

Several Thanksgivings ago, when my family still lived in Ohio, one of my cousins drank too much at dinner. He drank too much, and then he wanted to drive home. His brother, my other cousin, wouldn’t let him. He took his keys. Perhaps something like this has happened in your family. Drunk people do not like it when you take away their keys.

So there we all are at like midnight, our bellies hyper-extended from turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, cake, coffee, you name it. There we are after having gone around the table each saying what we’re grateful for, some of us seeing each other for the first time that year. And now, there we are arguing over whether or not my one cousin could drive home.

It really put a damper on the evening to be honest. But my one cousin, the sober one, was training to be a lawyer, so after over an hour of back and forth, back and forth, my intoxicated cousin finally gave up and took a nap. The 1 ½ fight that Thanksgiving which possibly saved some lives was worth it. It was worth the price we all paid. Drinking too much at a family function and then fighting with your family because your proud and stubborn, that was not worth it.

Everything we want or have or do in live costs something. The question is: is it worth the price you pay? We can rationally analyze the situation. Make pros and cons lists. Weigh our options. But often times, when it comes down to it, the only way to truly know if something is worth it is comes down to a matter of the heart.

Do you stay in a relationship that makes you feel safe and comfortable in some ways, but is unfulfilling and shutting you down in others ways? Not if your heart tells you you have to go.

Do you take that other job even though it pays less and you’ll have to move? I don’t know. What does your heart tell you?

Do you put your mother with advanced Alzheimer’s in a nursing home? I can’t answer that for you either. What it comes down to is a matter of the heart.

I know that the heart can be perverted. The Bible says that. But I also know that the heart is the center of everything dear to us, of everything that means something to us, everything we’re convicted in, everything we’re passionate about. The heart is the center of everything we love. So it is here that we must decide if it’s worth the price we will pay.

Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem today. As he did, many, many people fell on their knees in admiration and praise. They waved palm braches and lay them before him as he rode a donkey (which was a sign that he was the Messiah the Jewish people were waiting for) into their midst, and they shouted, “Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

Many of the people that Jesus has healed throughout his ministry are there. There are also many there who hardly know of the traveling preacher from Nazareth.
Many whom he has instructed in God’s way are there. His best friends are there. They get to have a sacred Passover meal together.

But after the fancy parade, we know what happens. How one of those friends betrays him. We know Jesus gets arrested on trumped up charges, and then one of his friends denies knowing him in public. We know he gets beaten, and mocked, and humiliated, and that he’s killed.

Do you think it was worth it? Giving his life in loyalty to what he believed? Giving his life to save sinners like you and me? Maybe, Jesus should have stayed home that year? Maybe there was some other way, some less costly way to accomplish these things?

When I was finishing up at Princeton Theological Seminary, the Rev. Dr. Brian Blount preached a sermon the weekend of my graduation called, “Pick a Fight!” In a nutshell, he said: “Wow, graduating class. You sure are accomplished, faithful, good-hearted and well-intentioned people. I’m proud of you. But now what are you going to do? Are you going to go into the world and get a good job, find a suitable mate, settle down and try to make sure that everybody likes you?

Or, he said, are you going to go out there and do what Jesus did? Are you going to go and stand up for what you believe God wants – things like justice and mercy and faithfulness – even if it makes you unpopular and uncomfortable? Are you going to spend time in study and prayer, searching for the will of God in the midst of your particular situation, and proclaim that will even if no one wants to hear it and people hold it against you once you’ve said it?” Or he said, “are you going to go make for yourself a nice bed and lie in it while people suffer around you? While wars rage and babies starve? While the earth cries out for help and the poor stay poor because they can’t get a decent education or a role model to show them what to do? The Rev. Dr. Brian Blount, who now is the President of Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, encouraged the graduating class of 2005 to go out in the world and pick a fight – and you could have heard a pin drop in that upper middle class, white Presbyterian church in Princeton, NJ as he said so.

If I’m going to pick a fight and risk all that, it better be worth it. You too.

In the film, A Time to Kill, Matthew McConaughey plays young lawyer, Jake Brigance, and he doesn’t decide to pick a fight so much as he agrees to enter into a battle. The story is set in Mississippi, the deep South, in the 1990’s, where yes, believe it, racial tensions, prejudices and injustices are still alive and well. (They’re still alive and well here today in NY. At Fishkill Correctional Facility, of the 25 students in the class I am teaching, all but maybe three are African American men. How can that not be injustice?)

Anyway, Samuel L Jackson plays the role of Carl Lee Hailey. Carl Lee is African American and so is his 10 year old daughter, Tonya. Walking home from the grocery store one afternoon, poor little Tonya is raped, beaten and hung from a tree to die by two drunk, white men (if you can call them men). Thankfully, the tree branch breaks and Tonya lives. The men are caught and are going to go to trial for what they have done, but just the year before, four similar men had raped a black girl and got off. So Carl Lee decides to take justice into his own hands, and he kills the two men who raped his daughter right there in the courthouse.

Now, Carl Lee’s the one on trial. Jake Brigance agrees to be his attorney, a white man defending a black man in Mississippi. In using this film as an example, I am not condoning murder or taking justice into one’s own hands, but I do want to lift up Jake Brigance, a man who wants to save the world one case at a time, and a man who wants to prove that “in the new South, justice can be and will be colorblind.”

No sooner does Jake take the case that the threats start. First, against his life. Then, against the lives of his wife and daughter. One dark night, the Klu Klux Klan burn a cross on the family’s front lawn. Right about then is where most of us would have walked away from the case, the fight. Jake’s wife and friends certainly tell him to.

But as a matter of the heart, Jake can’t quit this case any more than Jesus could have avoided going to Jerusalem for the Passover. They both had the option, and yet, for them and what they believed, there really was no option. Their hearts told them that whatever the cost, whatever happened, it was worth it.

The Klan continues. They attempt to throw a bomb in Jake’s house, and eventually succeed in burning it down. Thank God no one is in it. Jake’s secretary and her husband are also threatened, and the secretary’s husband dies of a heart attack or a stroke when the Klan surprises him. And Jake’s legal assistant, played by Sandra Bullock, is abducted, beaten, hung on a pole and left to die until someone comes back to cut her lose and take her to the hospital. It comes to the point where the only way all the pain and suffering is going to be worth it is if Carl Lee Hailey gets a fair trial and is released from prison like a white man would be, and as the movie says, like white men have been who were in similar situations as Carl Lee.

In the final summation, Jake Brigance powerfully describes the crime against Tonya. He has the jury shut their eyes and imagine it. When he’s laid out the whole brutal scenario, he says, “Can you see that little girl, bruised, beaten, her little womb dead from what happened to her. Can you see her? Now imagine she’s white.”

When the jury returns, Carl Lee is found not guilty. Justice has prevailed as colorblind in the South, and Jack Brigance has made a difference in the world, which makes the battle he entered into and the price he and everyone around him had to pay, worth it.

And Jesus, was his sacrifice worth it? Do not doubt, but believe. Believe in him and believe that it was worth it. It cost his life, but it was worth it because to God, we are worth it. When it comes to matters of the heart, Jesus is all heart. We are his heart. And the love that God and Jesus have for us is so great that there is no cost, no price they would not pay to ensure that we will live our lives close to them.

What about you? Is what you’re living for worth it? Are you spending your time and energy and money and spirit on what you love? Because that’s what God wants. Are you fighting the good fight? It all comes down to what your heart is telling you.

Jesus showed us that what really matters are matters of the heart! Live by your heart and you will truly live.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

What You Think Matters

At Bible study on Wed, we read this parable:

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” (Luke 12:16-20).

God called the rich man a fool because his thinking about the situation was all wrong. Seeing that the man died that very night and would no longer have use for his excess crops, it would have been wiser of him to share his abundance of crops with those who were going hungry. I believe that was Jesus’ point.

When I read this parable, I too thought the rich man was a fool, that his thinking was all wrong, but for a different reason. I imagined him the season before working hard in the fields from dawn until dusk, and all his workers as well, trying to get ahead, not being able to enjoy the day for fear that there wouldn’t be enough the next day. And not until this great crop came in was the man finally able to say, “Ahhh. At last. Now I can relax. Now I can eat, drink, and be merry. I can enjoy my life.”

This is a distorted way of thinking that many people struggle with. The idea that “I can’t relax, I can’t enjoy my life until XXX amount of dollars are in the bank, stored up, safe and secure, ensuring my family’s future.” [And as many of us have learned, even if you’ve made the money and invested it wisely, there is no guarantee for the future]. Or maybe its not money that the issue, maybe it’s “I can’t relax, I can’t enjoy my life until I get to this place in my career.” Or “I can’t be happy until I’m married, or have children or until the mortgage is paid off.”

The “I’ll be happy when…” thinking is flawed thinking.

We don’t have to wait until we reach a certain point to enjoy life, to relax some, to be happy. We can be happy today even as we work hard, and everything isn’t perfectly how we want it to be. We can be happy while we are working to achieve our goals, not only once we’ve achieved them.

In today’s Luke passage, Jesus says that we all need to repent or we will perish. Repent means to turn around or change, to do it differently than we’ve been doing it because the way we’ve been doing it is the road to death. Normally, sermons on repentance focus on altering sinful behaviors, which is valuable, but today, I’d like to suggest that it is also very important that we repent from our negative, destructive, life-taking, soul-sucking thinking because thinking really does have the power to diminish the quality of our lives or to make them better.

Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil!’” (Luke 13: 6-7).

Our minds are what set us apart from all other animals. Our thinking should help us to bear fruit in our lives, and any thinking that does not help us bear fruit or any thinking that bears rotten fruit needs to go. Like a tree that bears no fruit wastes the soil, thoughts that bear no fruit or bear bad fruit, waste our minds. In place of such thinking, we need God’s truth, wisdom, and understanding to permeate our minds.

The Lord says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

The first thought I would like to suggest God/Jesus would have us cut out of our lives is the “I’ll be happy when…” syndrome. Nothing needs to change in order for you to be happy and satisfied. I know everything might not be as you want it to be right now, but you have all the conditions necessary for happiness. Look around you. Think about all you’ve been given. You have all the conditions necessary for happiness. Be grateful. Rejoice. Don’t get stuck thinking that life will be better in the future.

The key to repentance is awareness. You now have to catch yourself. The next time you say, “I’ll relax once Christmas is over (or this project is over, etc)” stop right then and there and take a break. The only guarantee we have is today.

Enjoy the present moment. It’s called the present because it’s a gift.

The thoughts that we have, the beliefs that we hold, and the perspectives that we come from are the root of our feelings. For example, if I look in a mirror and think, “I’m fat,” I will most likely feel bad about myself. If I look in a mirror and think, “I look pretty,” I will most likely feel good about myself. The negative thought, “I’m fat,” leads to the negative feeling. The positive thought, “I look pretty,” leads to the positive feeling.

We think X, and therefore, we feel Y.

So, our thoughts, beliefs, perspectives affect what we feel, and in turn, our feelings affect our experience of reality. The actual truth of whether I’m fat or not or pretty or not doesn’t even really matter as much as my thinking does, and how that thinking makes me feel. If I feel good, my experience of life is positive. If I feel bad, my experience of life is negative, no matter how much I weigh.

When a person feels angry or frustrated, his/her experience of reality is hardly as pleasant as when one feels happy and satisfied. The point is: its what we think, believe, how we interpret reality that determines whether we suffer or not.

Caveat- I know its not all mental. There is genuine suffering that no good attitude can fix. I recognize this. But I’m talking about the day in and day out, regular experiences of life, in which attitude really is everything, as they say.

The second thought that rarely if ever produces fruit and needs to be cut out of our lives is the: “it must be my fault” or “ I did something wrong” reaction/belief.

Many people suffer for no good reason because they insist on making everything that happens about them. If your new neighbors don’t come to your Christmas party, you wonder what you did wrong. If your boss or co-worker criticizes you, you take everything they say to heart as though you truly are incompetent or lazy or whatever. If no one comes up to you at coffee hour at church, you feel insecure and awkward.

The vast majority of the time, how someone treats you or doesn’t treat you is a reflection of that person and what they are going through, not of you. The neighbors didn’t come to your Christmas party because they’re going through a divorce and they don’t want anyone to know yet. Your co-worker yelled at you because he just found out his mother is dying. And no one came up to talk to you at coffee hour because…well…take as many people as there are at coffee hour and there are that many reasons.

We often blame ourselves when we don’t deserve the blame. We think it has to do with me, when actually, it has to do with the other person. People do what they do because of themselves so don’t take it personally. (To learn more about this one, read The Four Agreements.)

For today, the last dead tree branch of thinking I would like to suggest we cut out is the negative self-talk. Self talk is the internal dialogue that goes on inside of all of us. Self talk is how we explain situations to ourselves, and for many of us, if we would just become aware of how negatively we talk to ourselves, and stop doing it, our experience of life would immediately improve.

If you set a goal for yourself and don’t achieve it, do you think: “ I’m a failure. I’ll never be able to do this or achieve that.” ? Or when you set a goal for yourself, and when you don’t achieve it, do you think: I can do this. I will do this. I just have to persevere and my dream will come true.

Some people like to call themselves names. “I’m such an idiot. Stupid. Jerk.” It’s not okay for other people to say these things to us. Why should we be allowed to talk to ourselves this way?

Another example of negative self talk is when someone you love disappoints you, do you think: So and so doesn’t love me, and then get sad and feel sorry for yourself. Or someone you love might disappoint you and you might even make a more sweeping negative assumption, such as, “no one loves me.” This might lead to further disasterous thinking: “No one loves me. No one understands me. I’m all alone in this world.”

This is reinforcing “I am not worthy of love” kind of thinking.

The flip side of the previous situation could be that someone you love disappoints you, and instead of spiraling into existential despair, you could think: “I deserve to be treated well.” If Johnny’s not going to do what he said he would do for the 1000th time, than I’ll do it myself or hire someone else to do it. Or, if Betsy doesn’t come through this time, I’
m not asking her again.” Whatever it is, the “no one loves me” thought sends you down. The “I deserve to be treated well” thought empowers you to take action in a way that will benefit yourself.

“Many [people] want to get rid of their painful feelings, but they do not want to get rid of their beliefs, the viewpoints that are the very roots of their feelings” (Thich Nhat Hanh. Peace is Every Step. Pg. 56.) Our suffering really starts in our heads, by the way we interpret situations, by the way that we think. So I encourage you all to become aware of your negative thinking and negative self-talk, and then to cut it out of your life. If you create the space, God can plant wisdom and understanding in that space, and your experience of life will be far more loving, happy and peaceful.

Let me end with some positive talk:

Your Life Hold Unlimited Potential

You have the ability
To attain whatever you seek;
Within you is every potential
You can imagine.
Always aim higher than
You believe you can reach.
So often you’ll discover
That when your talents
Are set free
By your imagination,
You can achieve any goal.
If people offer
Their help or wisdom
As you go through life,
Accept it gratefully.
You can learn much from those
Who have gone before you.
Never be afraid or hesitant
To step off the accepted path
And head in your own direction
If your heart tells you that it’s the right way for you.
Always believe that you will
Ultimately succeed
At whatever you do,
And never forget the value
Of persistence, discipline,
And determination.
You are meant to be
Whatever you dream of becoming.
-Edmund O’ Neill

May we all speak to ourselves and one another is such a loving and hopeful way.