The little girl had been naughty in school. By way of punishment, she was directed by the teacher to remain in her seat after the session until she had written an original composition containing not less than fifty words. In a surprisingly short space of time, she offered the following, and was duly excused: “I lost my kitty, and I went out and called, Come, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty….”
Now that’s someone who knows how to simplify matters.
A fellow who knew quite a few road signs such as the one welcoming you to Kettle Falls, Washington, the home of “1255 friendly people and one grouch” said his favorite of them all is posted on an Alaska highway. It says, “Choose your rut carefully. You’ll be in it for the next two hundred miles.”
I want to talk to you about being stuck in a rut. Now most of us don’t view ourselves like this too often. We’re not stuck. We’re doing the most with what life has given us at this point in our lives. We’re actually quite resourceful, wise, and a bit of fun when the time is right. We’ve got stuff figured out. After all, we’ve been around the block and we know what we have and what we like.
But what if we took a moment to look at ourselves and didn’t give ourselves quite so many breaks and benefits of the doubt. What if instead of building yourself up because you’re afraid if you don’t you’ll get run over by negativity and won’t leave your house for a month you decided to step off the carousel of positive thoughts about “little old me, myself, and I” for a while this morning.
Look, I know we’re supposed to stay constantly in some sort of happy zone. We’re supposed to look at ourselves in the mirror and repeat after me, “I’m OK. Everybody likes me.” It’s good for our self-image, and self-image as we know is very crucial to well-being.
But once in a while when scripture has been heard we should throw out some of that 20th century psychology. It’s not that it’s so bad but at the very
least it’s not the only way Christians view every issue of self and soul. We could use a strong return to some straight up biblical teaching.
We like to view ourselves as strong, independent, complete, in control, building our own little empires of goodness, little in need of a power beyond our own. And while this may get us up and going, Paul learned the hard way that this is simply not true.
“’My grace is sufficient for you,’ the Lord told him, ‘for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Cor 12:9-10
Nobody talks about being weak today, or foolish as Paul also calls himself. That’s because in our day and age we’re not the one who’s in the wrong. How can you back down? You’re not the one who has the problem. Why should you be weak? It’s their fault. It’s someone else’s issue. It’s the world and its ways. It’s too bad so many people all around you are so messed up. But you’re looking good.
Therefore, there’s no need to change. If we, and by we I mean I since you’re you and not me and I’m not the one who has issues, at least not like you have… if we don’t need to change then it solves a lot of problems, doesn’t it? Actually, taking things from your perspective: I’m not sure what you’re doing here, since you’ve got it together and don’t need to change.
Oh, that’s right. We’re here to get a little pick-me-up, a little inspiration, some positive motivation to get us ready to deal with everyone else who brings us down and doesn’t have themselves altogether, at least certainly not like I do, and by I, I mean I since you’re you and not me, and that’s a problem for me but not my problem. You got that?
This morning, just so you know ahead of time, I’m not in the mood to give you a “Go get ’em, tiger” talk. We’ll get there at the end.
Someone I know loves to take pictures, lots of pictures. You would have to ask her what precisely motivates her to capture our family life and our church life in digital stills, but I know this much is certain: There are times when Marit’s picture captures the “moment.” That moment might be a
matter of location, the people in that location, the sun shining just right, smiles big and broad or an action that the viewer will remember for years to come. We have some beautiful pictures of the children and the family, and some nice ones of many of you.
If we can be honest right now, we all look at Marit’s pictures in the Vantage or elsewhere and of course other pictures to check in on how we’re looking these days. We know we can’t look like we did twenty years ago but we’re always hoping for something respectable and perhaps even cute, pretty or handsome. We want to see if we’re looking good, with our hair just the way it should always be, our clothes looking fine, our weight either not too much or not too little because we would all like to capture the moment when we’re shining from head to toe, beautiful inside and out.
This is the moment we see in our Transfiguration story. If someone had had a camera, boy oh boy what a picture that would have been. Jesus was shining, radiant, amazing, at the peak of his powers and they were flowing through him so much that they became visible for his best friends and disciples to see. What a glorious moment!
If only it could have stayed that way.
If only we could stay in that moment. If life, if time and change, didn’t force us to change, to grow, and grow old, I highly doubt many of us would change.
If we didn’t have to we would stick to some moment, never depart from some people, remain glued to some place, stand on some talent or capability and never get off. If you and I could choose we would choose some high on the mountaintop experience, take out the pegs, put down tents, sink some roots, build ourselves a home, and call it a day—or rather a lifetime.
This is the Lotus eaters syndrome. Lotus eaters were made famous in the Homer’s Odyssey when Odysseus was forced to stop on the island where whoever ate the lotus flower was overcome with the desire to stay there forever. Eventually, of course, this proves to be a critical error in judgment. Odysseus rounded up the men and forced them to continue the voyage home.
My lotus eating would have stopped me in Spain when I was twenty-one years old back in 1986 when the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl, my parents were in the early 50’s and Alicante, Spain was my home for six months, complete with a beach on the Mediterranean Sea. I spent wonderful months studying, learning Spanish, meeting people, and traveling. I was twenty-one, single, feeling good, looking good. Back then if I could have put the brakes on everything that’s where and when I would have put my hand to the wheel, pulled a hard right and docked the boat permanentemente in Alicante’s harbor.
My guess is that someone might be thinking, “Well, that seems sort of strange for a pastor with five lovely children, a wonderful wife, and a darn good church to say—at least out loud. Is he saying he would trade all of them in for that?” Well, now that you mention it…. No, of course not, and that’s my point.
At the time, at the time, Spain looked like the end of the known and best world for me. It’s quite likely we’ll have such a best time in our minds and heart and would do the same. Many of us might even do the same for right now just in order not to have to move any more forward than you have already had to move.
This is what Peter saying. “I’ve got me a spot up here and the view is pretty darn fantastic and let’s forget about ever going down the mountain or any place else for that matter.” Ol’ Peter knows he’s got the best deal in town and he doesn’t want to go down, anywhere else, or to have to change.
The truth is we’re naturally lotus-eaters. We like it the way we got it. We want to keep it as it is. We don’t want to be overly challenged, or made to change, forced to grow or alter our perspective. “I yam who I yam and that’s all what I yam,” we say along with Popeye. In The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, author Stephen Grosz tells the story of Marissa Panigrosso, who worked on the 98th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center. She recalled that when the first plane hit the North Tower on September 11, 2001, a wave of hot air came through her glass windows as intense as opening a pizza oven.
She did not hesitate. She didn’t even pick up her purse, make a phone call or turn off her computer. She walked quickly to the nearest emergency exit, pushed through the door and began the ninety-eight stairway descent to the ground. What she found curious is that far more people chose to stay right where they were. They made outside calls and even an entire group of colleagues went into their previously scheduled meeting.
Why would they choose to stay in such a vulnerable place in such an extreme circumstance? Because they were human beings and we find change to be extremely difficult, practically impossible. What were the chances of another plane hitting their tower, really? And if they did leave, wouldn’t their colleagues think they were over-reacting, running in fear? They should stay calm and wait for help, maintain an even keel. And that’s what they did.
Grosz suggests that the reason every single person in the South Tower didn’t immediately leave the building is that they didn’t have a familiar story in their minds to guide them.
We’re vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story. We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one. We don’t want an exit if we don’t know exactly where it’s going to take us, even, or perhaps especially, in an emergency.
Even among those people who chose to leave, there were some who went back to the floor to retrieve personal belongings they couldn’t bear to part with. One woman was walking down alongside Marissa Panigrosso when she stopped herself and went back upstairs to get the baby pictures of her children left on her desk. To lose them was too much for her to accept. The decision was fatal.
We’ve got a strong need to keep things where we can see them, a yearning for things to remain the same. We’re not good at making changes. We want to keep one image of life and ourselves and how things should be. And here’s the thing: We get to pick the place in our mind where we’re going to stay.
We also get to pick the person we believe we are, the main character in our life story. And we’ve all been taught according to the rules of positive
self-image that when we look at ourselves we should pick the image of when we’ve done well—which of course we’re more than willing to do. We freeze image, we picture ourselves reaching down to help someone else, forgiving that someone who hurt us, giving from the treasures in our heart. We’re actually quite saintly….
And does such a saint, such a positive, do-gooder really need any more help? Our answer is No. We don’t need God, or God’s grace or God’s strength or Jesus Christ more deeply than how deep or not so deep this good person we picture ourselves as needs the Lord and Savior. We’re satisfied. We’re quite satisfied. We’re self-satisfied. We’re comfortable with ourselves, even confident.
But scripture doesn’t stop at that moment. The video has been rolling the whole time. God doesn’t only see those beautiful, on the top of the mountain moments of yours. There’s a whole lot of down in the valley and off reservation footage that unfortunately for us doesn’t get cut from the final film.
What am I saying? I’m saying you’re not the saint of your unchanging imagination, tiger. What I’m saying is that our comfortable and confident story isn’t the true story. Oh, there’s no doubt we have the God-given freedom to believe what we want about ourselves but that doesn’t make it right or the truth.
If you’re sitting here one-tenth willing to worship and nine-tenths doubting you need it then you don’t know the truth. If you’re here listening to one-tenth of what is said and sung and prayed and nine-tenths dismissing it pertains to you then you aren’t walking with the Lord. We’re like icebergs, with the visible and public part of our faith being the ten percent above water but 90% percent of it drowning under water. If you’re sitting here stiff as a brick, afraid of contributing something real of your life so that God can really use you, then you’re drowning in fear and not floating on faith.
Look, I know you’re doing some good things in your life and perhaps even in the church but ask yourself: Where is my passion? Where is my heart
for God, for Christ? Why don’t I think I belong to God? Where are my feelings for the story of God’s love for me and the world?
Instead of placing ourselves up on holy mountain, we ought to come back down to earth and face the truth:
I think we need Jesus Christ a lot more than we’re willing to confess to ourselves, God, and anyone else. Forget the false image of yourself as complete, in control, and as good as can be expected under the circumstances. We can do and be better.
Instead, accept God’s offer of Christ’s life given for you. Take advantage of Lent starting with Ash Wednesday to journey forward with the Lord. Stake your life’s value and beauty on faithfulness and devotion to the one who loved you first. Open your heart to the Holy Spirit, and follow where it leads.
And as scripture says, “… whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Can anybody say Amen?