Thursday, August 8, 2013

Loosen up that grip a smidge

When I first moved to Minnesota, I had never been stuck in the snow before. I had occasionally had to shovel myself out in college, but I had never been legitimately stuck until one day I parked my car and came outside to find it had snowed 10 inches in one night. This Kansan was not pleased. I got in my car and started to back out of my space only to discover (native upper midwesterners will laugh) that if you spin your wheels too hard, you just get more stuck. So I had completely dug myself into my parking space and it took an experienced AAA employee to pull me out. Now that I'm an experienced Minnesotan, I've learned there's a trick: if you are stuck and start backing up only to find your wheels are spinning without you moving, you have to stop completely. The longer you spin, the more you melt the snow and lose friction, and the more stuck you'll be. It's kind of like those Chinese finger traps. Once you've entirely stopped, you can sometimes do this thing where you very, very slowly move as far forward as you can and then quickly reverse to shoot yourself out of the hole while you have traction. I don't recommend trying this if you are parked near anybody else, but it's worked for me a few times. There's an innate wisdom in this Minnesota snow-escape trick that I picked up, and that is that sometimes in order to go, you have to stop first.

This is also a well known psychological phenomenon. In problem solving, like problems of math or logic, you can essentially think yourself into a corner. You approach a problem, and the more you think about it, the more you train yourself into incorrect methods of problem solving, and the harder it is to find a new way to think about it. In this case, the best solution is to completely leave the problem, do something else, and come back to it fresh later. Often, that leads to a new approach that ends up solving the problem. This is pretty much life. Some problem occurs, and we dive into it full tilt with all our problem solving abilities drawn like a sword, but often these problems can't be solved with brute strength and we end up getting stuck and discouraged, and sometimes paralyzed by the crap that happens to us.

One of my favorite movies is The Legend of Bagger Vance. For some stupid reason it got bad reviews so it's not very well known, but it is absolutely brilliant. BRILLIANT, I TELL YOU! The gist of the movie is that Matt Damon's character, Junah, is a promising young golfer who goes off to the first World War and after witnessing his entire platoon being killed, he comes back broken. He can't function, let alone golf. He has "lost his swing." The movie uses a golf swing as a metaphor for the control we have over our life, and suggests that there is an "authentic swing" that each and every one of us is born with--a calling or vocation or path of sorts--and that is intimately tied with who we are and how we live. Junah has been to hell and he's trying so hard to get out of that hell that he's alternating between giving up and frantically, ineptly spinning his wheels. He's totally stuck. The scene below is the turning point, where Junah realizes that he can't do it on his own, and Bagger Vance, caddy/representation of the divine teaches him what he needs to do to get un-stuck. (If this scene doesn't make you cry, you have no soul.)

There's a lot going on in this scene from a philosophical standpoint, but to my understanding the three main ideas are that suffering and that frantic wheel spinning can cause us to forget our identity, and it's only in stopping that we can return to that state that we lived in before evil hurt us and broke us. We have to let go of the burdens and the inevitable suffering in order to move forward toward becoming who and what God has called us to be. And as Bagger says, "you ain't alone in that." The reason you can lay the burdens down is because you have somebody there who's ready to pick them up for you. "Ain't a soul on this entire earth got a burden to carry he don't understand."

Whew, now that I'm done crying, let me get to what this means for us. Who you were created to be is intimately tied to where you are going, but life happens. Just like there isn't a burden on this earth that Jesus doesn't understand, there's also probably not a person on this earth that doesn't have one. Living is hard, and the suffering that happens to us drags us away from who we were named to be. The doubt and insecurity and loss and violence and failures and mistakes hurt us, and if you've ever been hurt in love or life you know that it's easy to clam up when we're hurt. I hate being vulnerable, and my first instinct when I'm hurt is to withdraw (how's that for an awesome coping skill?), and that's pretty typical. Once bitten, twice shy, right? That withdrawal and tentativeness and waiting for the other shoe to drop is exactly the "grip too tight" that the movie is talking about. It's control and protection, but ultimately, it doesn't work out. The anxiety doesn't protect you from the bad things that happen. The hard shell doesn't protect you from getting hurt in love if all you end up with is bitterness that you're alone. And so we have to make the totally counter intuitive move from being scared shitless and clinging on for dear life to letting go in order to avoid falling. What?

This is the heart of the gospel. Paul talks about his power being made perfect in weakness, and about the foolishness of the gospel. The gospel is foolishness exactly because the best place to be, the strongest place to be, is the place where we are most vulnerable. It's in letting go that you can be caught. It's in opening yourself to rejection that you can be loved. It's in dying that you can be raised. To quote a great blog post about suffering that I read earlier, "Not once have I danced around our house shouting, “Yeah suffering!”  Instead, in the midst of pain and hurt, I am actively expecting God to do something." And it's because we believe in a God of resurrection, a God who cares and is with us and acts on our behalf that we can loosen up that grip a smidge, and remember who it is that God has created and called us to be.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Anxiety and preparation

I know all about anxiety as of late. I took a survey with P as part of our pre-marriage counseling, and though I generally think of myself as a low-stress/low-anxiety person, the survey revealed that I am actually somewhat stressed and anxious as of late. I keep having crazy wedding dreams wherein people ask me uncomfortable questions in public, or disasters of all types strike. I happen to be at a particularly uncomfortable juncture in life where I am stressed out because of where I am and also nervous and anxious about where I'm going. I'm getting married, I'm moving, I'm going to be going through the approval process (the last step before ordination in the ELCA), and I'm dragging a fair amount of student debt into my new marriage with a somewhat tenuous career field ahead. Yikes!

Avoiding anxiety is easier said than done. Luke 12 says: "Do not worry" but let's be honest here, I'm gonna. How am I going to pay my loans? Am I going to be approved? Will I be able to sustain a healthy, happy marriage? Everybody has these questions about finances and relationships and health and various commitments, and they can become overwhelming, especially when they hit all at once. The Luke text says both do not worry, yet be prepared, and I have a hard time doing both at the same time! The story then goes on to give a couple somewhat bizarre examples of "watchful slaves" as my Bible titles this section. "Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes" (37) and "Blessed is the slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives." (44) These seem like sort of scary images--Big Brother God is watching and if you're not hard at work when he comes, watch out! Nothing to worry about there...

Paired with this text for the week is an excerpt from Hebrews, which is a beautiful, poetic interpretation of the people of Israel's walk with God through the generations. Chapter 11 starts out: "Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen." It then goes on to extol Abraham, the father of the covenant with Israel and all of his many virtues of faith. But if you hop back to Genesis and take a look at Abraham's story, it becomes apparent that his relationship with God was, shall we say, less than fully trusting. God says: "I'm going to give you and your wife Sarah a child!" So Abraham says, "That's cool, I'm going to go out and sleep with my wife's handmaiden because I don't actually believe you. Then I'm going to laugh about it." Not to mention the journey he took from his homeland wherein he let his wife be given to Pharaoh not once, but twice! Yes, he is surely a paragon of perfect trust in the Lord...

The readers of Hebrews likely knew that this poetic version of Abraham's adventure was perhaps slightly rose-colored, so the point is not that Abraham was great and perfect and faithful, but that despite Abraham being a kind of crappy person, he still walked with God and God was faithful to him not just in spite of his weakness, but perhaps because of it. Verse twelve says: "Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born." This is not just a statement about Abraham's rather advanced age, but, I think, a metaphorical statement about Abraham's overall crappiness as a human being. It shows God's commitment to Abraham, and God's ability to take something that is a big fat failure and breathe life into it by its very presence. This is how faith can be evidence. That such an imperfect person can even have faith just points to the one who is the source of it.

This is how the writer of Luke can declare in one breath that we need to be unafraid and in the next tell us to be prepared. The question raised is: what does preparation look like? And the answer depends heavily on who you think God is and how God behaves. If you think that God is behaving like a monster waiting to condemn you for failure, you are going to be afraid. If you think God is there helping you only if you're toiling and laboring as hard as you can, you're going to be nervous about the arrival of the master. But if you think that God is one who is committed fully to your well-being and is showing up in order to help you, heal you, lead you to something greater, preparedness means doing your best with confidence that the God who makes old people have children and breathes life into dead bodies is going to enliven you and perfect all of your childish attempts to live.

That's pretty much the only way I can soothe myself when my head starts spinning out of control with wedding details and employment prospects and worries about my ability to successfully sustain a relationship with another human being. I start out knowing I'm not really going to do the greatest job, but I know God is going to be in the midst of my marriage helping us to forgive one another, and God is going to be in the midst of whatever happens with my candidacy committee and future call committees and financial future and all of my future. Worrying becomes pointless in the face of the knowledge of that kind of commitment to us and our well-being, because God is always here, raising up the things that our ineptness kills, healing and fixing all the broken things inside us, and promising a future based not one the current one, but on a reality we can't even begin to imagine. God's very presence is the assurance of things hoped for, showing us daily who we are and who God is.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Boxes (sermon on Luke 12:13-21)

I have boxes in my basement that I haven't opened in years. I know what's in them, more or less, because I organized them. It's not stuff that I use or particularly need, but it's stuff that I want to keep, because it represents times in my life. A volleyball uniform from 5th grade, when I actually almost felt like a normal kid; a box full of notes that my friend Cherise passed to me during our 11th grade Western Civ. class; t-shirts from college events like Relay For Life and Klondike Derby. These boxes are not my life, but they contain memories of things that remind me of my life. When I'm old, I hope to look back and pull out those notes and laugh at the silly things we thought were funny, and remember the fun we had in college. It serves the purpose of reminding me of good times. Everybody has them—I'm sure you do too, and I think there's nothing wrong with having boxes full of memories.

We live at the speed of light some days. Day to day, it can seem slow, especially if you're alone. You get up, you make food, you work or do a hobby, maybe you talk to a few people, you go to sleep again. All the while, you know that time has flown by and you are getting older. You plan for what's coming—by keeping a 401K or other savings account, by writing a will, by planning your retirement, or saving for your son or daughter's future schooling, by eating healthy or exercising. We build our barns and silos and we store up for the future, and there's nothing wrong with that either. Stuff is important. Although lilies might not need to toil, humans do, at least a little bit. We can't live on a prayer like the singer Bon Jovi suggests, at least not literally. We need food and shelter and clothing. So it's a little confusing when Jesus tells a parable about a man who is described as “foolish” who does little more than what most of us are doing—saving up, building your business, keeping your stuff safe in boxes, preparing for the future. What's wrong with that?

Anybody who has ever moved in their life understands how stuff accumulates over time. Even if you don't buy much, somehow more and more stuff ends up in your house. It breeds, or gnomes put more in with the old stuff, or something, and we hang onto it because it's familiar and safe and maybe someday it will be useful. If you've moved a bunch of times, you know that the stuff that was in boxes once often stays in boxes, and it starts to become a burden that you can't let go of. It doesn't matter that you didn't like great aunt Joan, you inherited her dishes and by God you're going to keep them! This only seems sillier when you start thinking about what will happen to your stuff after you die. You didn't even like it, and now your kids or other relatives are saddled with it. Have you asked yourself lately what purpose it serves?

The rich man in Jesus' parable was avoiding doing just that. On the surface, it seems like what he was doing was just good business. I'm sure some of you folks have even done this on your farms. You have a good year, and you need more space, so you build bigger silos or you buy some more property. There's nothing wrong with that—but ask yourself, what purpose are you serving? This is the question the man in the parable wasn't asking. His thought was only on acquiring more stuff, filling up his barns and saving his grain for the future, ignoring the fact that there were starving, struggling peasants all around him. Ignoring the fact that he could have fed his excess to others, or given his workers better wages, or taken leisure time now that he was secure in order to be with his friends and family. The purpose that the farmer's wealth was serving was an unworthy one—he shoved his excess in a barn and let it sit there, where only he could benefit and enjoy it. It was serving him, but nobody else, and in the end, it was useless even to him because his life was demanded of him.

There's a great connection between the reading in Ecclesiastes and our gospel for today. Both are asking questions about the purpose of our lives. The philosopher writes that things go on and on, generations turn and the sun rises and sets, but that basically all the work we do is vapor or a chasing after the wind, depending on your goal. If the treasure is your goal, you will be disappointed, because eventually you'll die, and as they say, you never see a hearse pulling a U-haul. Working, even living, is pointless in the end, if what you expect is to win some sort of prize for collecting the most toys. It doesn't work that way, because regardless of our differences, the one thing every human being has in common is that we all die, and all that material stuff we worked for eventually goes away. So why do we do it?

I think Jesus is saying that the man was foolish not because he saved, but because his goal was the stuff, and that goal was born from a disconnection to reality of life around him—to the reality of need around him. There's nothing wrong with the stuff—we all need it, we all have it, most of us even like it. The man was foolish because the stuff was the point for him, while Jesus is standing here telling crowds of people about a kind of abundance that is greater and eternal. Rather than just existing in the midst of a world that's constantly moving on without us, Jesus is declaring that we are deeply connected to one another and to God because of who Christ is and who we are. To focus on the things as the goal instead of utilizing God's gifts as a way to more deeply connect is beyond foolishness—it's blasphemy against the one who gave the gifts because it rejects the giver. Our lives and the things we have weren't given as an ends, but as a means to live and be supported and to support other people. To toil and worry and labor for the things that don't last is to ignore the greater gift of the love that lays down its life for its friends.

We all have boxes in the attic or the basement or the closet, filled with memories and important things, but we also have boxes filled with unimportant things, with useless things or even harmful things. We have those things inside us too—anger, resentment, worry, fear. Some things are worth keeping, but much of what we hold onto is useless baggage that we grudgingly drag from house to house, day to day, year to year. Ask yourself what purpose that stuff you are carrying around serves—if it's not serving you right now and it's not serving anybody else, maybe it's time to let it go. Jesus has called you and named you beloved, connecting you to the greater things, to the Spirit, to God, to others, so that you can be free of the stuff—so you can leave the boxes and the emotional garbage—and instead live out your calling taking only what's helpful and restful and needful, free from everything that isn't serving God's purpose.