Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Think Different; Be Different

American media and advertisers want us to feel needy. They want us to feel needy so that we will buy their products, use their services and run to them, instead of God, whenever we have a problem.

If we are not feeling beautiful enough, there is some makeup or hair dye that can solve our problem. If we are not feeling powerful enough, there is some car or mutual fund that can solve our problem. If we are not feeling healthy enough, there is some pill or program that can solve our problem.

Whenever “the world,” in the negative sense of the word, tries to make us feel not something enough, not good enough, not successful enough, not skinny enough, not smart enough, not athletic enough, not happy enough, a red flag should go off in our minds because what “the world” is trying to do is make us feel needy, insecure, lacking and dissatisfied. The word “enough” means “sufficient to meet a need or satisfy a desire; adequate,” but used in conjunction with the word “not,” it starts referring to things not being adequate or unable to satisfy us. This is pretty much the opposite of how God wants us to feel and think.

Tanya is a pretty, educated, and successful woman, but she still doesn’t think she is “good enough.” She wants her apartment to be cleaner and her clothes to be nicer and her waist to be thinner. When she talks like this, she is focusing on the negative, on what’s not “good enough” in her life. This is no way to live, especially because God has blessed her in hundreds of ways, and she should be focusing on what is good and right in her life, and not on what “the world” is telling her she still needs.

Errors in the way we think are stumbling blocks to the spiritual life. How can we praise and give thanks to God if we are continually dissatisfied with what we have? How can we present ourselves as living sacrifices to God if we are continually dissatisfied with who we are?

Today’s scripture from Romans says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

Or the New Living Translation says, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

If we simply stop using the words “not enough” in reference to ourselves and what we have, we will be making a big step in renewing our minds and transforming our lives.

Two very simple ways we can do this are by being grateful for what we have and by being happy with ourselves.

First, gratitude. Gratitude is an attitude. “Have an attitude of gratitude,” my father always says. We have so many things to be thankful for in life. Our bodies for example. The fact that we have eyes to see, ears to hear and legs to walk. Forget that we are not perfect. We don’t need to be perfect because we have been blessed with health in so many ways.

Our relationships are another thing to be grateful for. We have friends, family, church family, good co-workers, all sorts of people who make our lives more interesting and offer us support. Instead of dwelling on the one relationship that we don’t have or isn’t going well, we can be thankful for the many people in our lives who bring us joy and comfort.

We have many possessions as well that we can be grateful for. We have homes to live in, beds to sleep in, clothes to wear, and food to eat.

It’s easy to take these things for granted, to want more, to say we don’t have enough, but that’s worldly thinking. We do have enough. And to know this is to have the mind of Christ in us.

William Ward once said, “God gave you a gift of 86,400 seconds today. Have you used one to say "thank you?"

A second way we can refuse to conform to “the world,” renew our minds and transform our lives is by being happy with ourselves. God created each one of us carefully and with a plan in mind. And when we constantly berate ourselves because we aren’t this and we aren’t that, we are insulting God. No one is perfect, but each of us is blessed, and until we own that, until we know that, we will squander our gifts because we may not realize that we have something very special to offer this hurting world.

I like this quote by Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” In God’s eyes, you are a gift and an opportunity. You can create beauty and heal the world by being alive as yourself.

There’s a story called Jonathan Livingston Seagull that exemplifies this quote, and in this story, Jonathon, who is in fact a seagull, is frustrated with the meaningless materialism and conformity and limitation of seagull life. All the other gulls do is eat and balk, which is really boring to Jonathan.

Jonathan realizes that he was meant to fly. And so he spreads his wings and spends hours learning to fly higher and faster, to do rolls and turns in the sky. It is through his pursuit of being fully himself and following his heart that Jonathon is taken to a new level of being. Eventually, he is befriended by other gulls, gulls he didn’t even know were out there when he began his journey, and they guide him into an existence that brings him as close to God as one can get.

Today, I want to invite everyone to be true to yourselves, even if that means leaving the old flock behind and venturing out on your own. We can start by not conforming to this world who tells us that we do not have enough, and we are not enough. Instead, we can be grateful for what we have and who we are, and then continue to move forward by opening up our hearts and living life to the fullest. Remember, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Wrestling With God

(Read Genesis 32: 22-31)

Submission to God’s will is one of the great spiritual disciplines of our tradition. In the classic book, Celebration of Discipline, the profound teacher, Richard Foster writes, “The most radical social teaching of Jesus was his total reversal of the contemporary notion of greatness. Leadership is found in becoming the servant of all. Power is discovered in submission. The foremost symbol of this radical servanthood is the cross” (Foster, pg. 115). The book of Philippians sums it up when the writer says, “He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). According to Christian teaching, it is through this humbling, obedience and death that Jesus and we ourselves find glory, power and life.

“Every discipline has its corresponding freedom” (Foster,Richard. Celebration of Discipline. pg. 110). And the freedom associated with submission is “the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way.” Richard Foster goes on to say, “The obsession to demand that things go the way we want them to go is one of the greatest bondages in human society today. People will spend weeks, months, even years in a perpetual stew because some little thing did not go as they wished” (Foster, pg. 111).

And let’s face it, people that insist on their own way all the time drive us crazy. The boss that micromanages and demands that things be just so, the parent that gives their child no freedom and insists that their way is the right way, the friend who always has a plan and gets irritable when that plan is deviated from…these people are missing out on the dynamic movement that is supposed to be a part of a healthy relationship. It’s in the back and forth, the conversation, the compromise that we are most creative with each other and find a way to make whatever the situation is mutually beneficial.

I have a friend who has a very definitive idea of the way she likes things, and sometimes, being around her is like walking on eggshells. I have to watch what I say because I don’t want to offend her sensibilities. Honestly, it’s tiring and not that much fun to be around her when she’s like this.

So, submission is something that we do in order to get along well with others and make the relationship rewarding for all parties. As well, submission is something that we do to imitate Jesus, and through it, we find the life that God wants for us, instead of the life that we want for ourselves. However, there is a season for everything. As Ecclesiastes says, there is “a time to be born, and a time to die. A time to weep, and a time to laugh. A time to seek, and a time to lose.” We can’t always submit. So may I add, there is “a time to submit, and a time to wrestle.” A wise person knows what is called for when.

And that brings us to today’s Scripture lesson of Jacob wrestling with God. Jacob is in the process of taking his family on a journey. They have left their home, but have not arrived yet at their destination when he comes across a man, who turns out to be God. Jacob wrestles with him all night long, and as day is breaking, God says, “Let me go.” Jacob replies, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Genesis 32: 26).

This brings me to my first point: when we decide it’s time to wrestle, to strive with God or with a fellow human being, we must have a purpose in mind. In other words, choose your battles according to what you want most in life. If you really want to be a published writer, then you will send out proposal after proposal because you have a goal, and you will let nothing deter you from that goal of being published. But we have to know what we want in life. Do you know what’s really important to you right now? What’s worth wrestling and striving for?

Choosing your battles based on your overall goals and desires is especially important when you are wrestling with human beings. You don’t want to fight with your mother or mother-in-law about everything, so pick the things that really matter to you and let the rest go.

A second point about this passage: the wrestling goes on all night long and into the morning. When we decide it’s time to go for something, we can’t be faint of heart. We must be ready for a challenge and ready to endure. This can be difficult because many of us get about halfway to where we want to be and settle. “Oh, this is good enough” we say. Jacob doesn’t quit even after his hip is struck out of joint. He perseveres. He keeps wrestling until he gets what he wants.

A third point: God rewards, not punishes, but rewards Jacob for wrestling with him. I know that submission to God’s will is a pillar of our spirituality, but don’t you ever get tired praying, “Thy will be done.” I know for many years I would say the Lord’s Prayer, including the part that God’s will be done, but then would say in my personal prayer time, “God, why can’t it be my way? I know what I want. I know what I need. Why can’t you make happen what I want to have happen?”

The thing is, if we are going to wrestle God for what we want, then we have to take responsibility for making that thing come to fruition. Yes, I believe the Holy Spirit will help us in our weakness, but God does not just present our greatest desires on a silver platter. As the saying goes, God helps those who help themselves.

There is a poem called “Striving” by Robert William Service, and I particularly like these three lines:

I am myself - yet when I strive
I build a self that's truer, higher;
I keep my bit of God alive

I don’t know exactly what you are feeling like right now, but my friends, let’s have some fire in our bellies! Let’s strive, let’s wrestle so that we can be our best selves, so that we can see our dreams fulfilled, so that the part inside of us that is divine can really shine forth.

Today is no day to roll over and play dead. Today is the day to wrestle with God and be blessed. Amen.

No One Can Keep You Down When God is Raising You Up

(Read Genesis 45: 1-15)

The story of Joseph and his 11 brothers is a long saga, one that begins in jealousy and brokenness and ends in reconciliation and love. There is much we can learn about our own lives and relationships from Joseph’s story.

In Genesis, chapter 37, we learn that Joseph is the youngest of Jacob or Israel’s children, and he is also Jacob’s favorite. This made Joseph the object of his brothers’ contempt. Scripture says, “But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him” (Genesis 37: 4).

As long as Joseph was not a threat to his brothers, they tolerated his existence, but then, to make matters worse, Joseph has a dream that causes his brothers to hate him even more. In innocent exuberance, Joseph says to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”

What was to Joseph a fantastic dream was to his brothers a threatening premonition. They feared that he would rise above them somehow. So perhaps with trembling, perhaps in anger, Joseph’s brothers say to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” (Genesis 37: 6-8).

Suspicion and fear of Joseph multiplies until the day comes that Joseph’s brothers plot to kill him, the young dreamer. But discussing it among themselves, they quickly decide that they cannot kill their youngest brother outright, and opt instead to strip Joseph of his clothing and throw him into an empty pit with no water in it, knowing that death would inevitably be his fate.

However, when a group of Ishmaelites comes by, the brothers again redevise their plan. Instead of leaving him to die in the pit, they decide to sell him into slavery for 20 pieces of silver. And thus, Joseph is taken to Egypt as a slave.

But the story continues that Joseph finds favor with Pharaoh, and so, he becomes a ruler of Egypt. Many years after selling their brother into slavery, Jacob’s sons are forced to go to Egypt to buy grain for there was famine in Canaan where they lived. And who was it that was selling the grain to them? None other than Joseph, although they did not recognize him. So it comes to pass that the one who was betrayed, Joseph the dreamer, now has his brothers’ fate in his hands.
What will he do?

None of us here have been sold into slavery by our families, yet, many of us have been betrayed by our families in some way. Children who have been molested or beaten have been betrayed by their families. Children who have been neglected or abandoned have been betrayed by their families. More subtly, children are often the recipients of their parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins’ dysfunction. These people don’t intentionally try to hurt us, but because they are broken and needy themselves, they help to form in us brokenness and need. For example, I know a woman who was not happy with the way that she looked. She was insecure. Then, when she had a son, she used to cover his mouth when he laughed because she didn’t like the way his teeth and gums looked. What was happening was her own insecurity and shame was being acted out on her son, who then in turn felt embarrassed and ashamed about himself. I think this is why the bible says that a family’s sins are passed down from generation to generation. In this case, the boy inherited the shame of his mother. But there are a myriad of dysfunctions and unhealthy thinking and behaviors that can be passed among family. Feelings of worthlessness, extreme guilt, fear, indifference, anger, addiction…the list goes on.

Oftentimes, we aren’t even aware of the cycles that our families are caught up in, and thus it is nearly impossible for us to break them. But if we do become aware through self-reflection, observation, and the insight that comes from God, we have the opportunity to be healed. Nobody can keep us down if God is working to raise us up.

As God, as Jesus, as the Holy Spirit works in our lives to mend our brokenness, there comes a time when we must face the people who have hurt us. In the beginning, anger and resentment are natural and a healthy part of the process, but in time, an understanding needs to set in that stops casting blame. If we are ever to truly heal, we must be able to forgive.

That is why the story of Joseph gives me pause to think. There he is with his brothers before him, their lives now in his hands. Does he take an eye for an eye? Does he seek retribution? No. He has mercy and compassion for his brothers and their families.

In today’s text, Joseph says to his brothers, “Come closer to me. I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45: 4-5). Rather than yell at them and accuse them and blame them, he forgives them and tells them to come live with him, and he kisses them and weeps on their necks. And they kiss him back and weep on his neck because the guilt and burden they felt for all those years is finally being released.

I think about my brokenness and the ways that I’ve been hurt, and when I am in a healthy, evolved state of mind, these things don’t make me bitter, they make me feel compassion for myself and for the world. Like Joseph, you and I, can take what we’ve been through and use it to bring healing and life to others.

One small way I do this in my own life is that I often felt left out as a kid because I was the youngest. Nobody intentionally left me out, but that’s how I felt nonetheless. Now, I have a nephew who is the only young boy in our family. His girl cousins play together, and oftentimes, he sits there by himself playing his DS. He’s lost in his own world, but because of my experience, I always go over to him and say “hi” and see if he wants to play catch or talk or whatever. We can use what brought us down in life to raise others up.

God doesn’t want us to stay down forever. God wants to raise us up. God wants us to be well and happy and whole.

There’s this empowering poem by Maya Angelou called “Still I Rise.” In it, Maya, who is an African American woman and knows what it is to be marginalized and betrayed, refuses to stay down because of what has happened to her. She writes:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Maya rose.

Joseph rose. He came out of the pit he was thrown in. He came up to help others who tried to put him down.

Jesus rose. He came out of the grave he was buried in. He came up to save everyone so that we wouldn’t have to stay put down.

You can rise. I can rise. We don’t have to let anything that happened before keep us down. We can rise ourselves, and we can help others to rise as well.

Thanks be to God who gives us the strength, the courage and the fortitude to rise.