Monday, October 26, 2015

A Septics Faith

We had a great trip to Ohio, but it is inevitable when the Shutt clan gets together that we dissect the world and talk about the heavy stuff like death, faith and faith issues. Gretchen has been taking courses at her church and right now she is doing a course on comparative religions, so she spent quite a bit of time interviewing folks about what they believe. Her assignment included discerning whether we were theists, humanists, or agnostic/atheist. What she discovered was that most of us Shutt/James are theists, but skeptical theists! Yes, we believe in a higher power. Yes, we believe in a divine creative force, yes, we recognize there is something unique about Jesus, but the rest is up for grabs. Big surprise, huh?

I really tried to keep my big mouth shut and listen, which was difficult. Even so I recommend listening to all of you. Listening to others without trying to formulate a response or clarification or rebuttal can be very instructive. The more she probed the more she realized that the skeptic's position does not oppose faith. In fact, it often exemplifies a deep but unconventional faith.   After all, Paul himself reminds us, faith is holding on to things we long for, things we cannot see or prove.

I have struggled with “faith” all of my life. Partly because faith is generally defines as an absence of doubt. I can still tap into the pain I felt as a young adult listening to my elders talk about faith.  I'd be rich is I had a dollar for every time I heard Prof Martin say “you just have to have faith.” Yet when I asked “but how do I get faith” the answer was a vague “you just have to have faith” which never seemed very helpful. I found far more reassurance is Jesus affirmation of Thomas, because Thomas's response is one I can understand.   "Show me!"

Having grown up in FMC I learned early that paradoxical thinking is ok, in fact, for the faith journey is a paradoxical one. Questioning is an important aspect of any spiritual journey because a sustaining faith does not come from blindly accepting what others say or swallowing dogmatic statements taught by some accepted authority or reading the Bible literally. While that has been reassuring in one way, that also left me open to doubt and struggling.  I can assure you that for some of us “I told you so” just doesn't work even if we'd want it to. Some of us have these weird personalities whereby we seem compelled to question and struggle with everything.   I suspect that's why I've been so attracted to the 12 steps because one of the basic premises of the 12 step program and its spiritual principles is one can only follow “the god of your understanding.” 

And so I struggle with the question of whether my intuitively sensing that something larger exists apart from us is enough for a Christian's faith? Was there really a Jesus? Does it matter? Is it enough to be so attracted to what Jesus represents that I feel impelled to try to model my life after his teachings and life enough? Is hoping that something positive, dynamic, creative, imaginative exists even when war and violence, addiction and greed and pain and suffering this faith? 

Aa I approach my 79th birthday I've become even more convinced that there truly is a benevolent creative force behind life and creation. Of course, my family environment helped. As did this growing up in this church. As did going to Bluffton College where I was reminded over and over that nothing we can learn or do can undermine God, for God is always bigger, always greater, always that force behind any discovery, the source for what we are learning.
Over time I've come to understand that I truly live by faith everyday. I have faith that when I flip a light switch a light will come on. I have faith the car will start. That Earl will be supportive. That Fairfield Mennonite will keep on being here and supportive of each of us as we walk together on our journey of faith. That I will have enough to eat. That the will sun come up and set. All this even when it doesn't always happen. Light bulbs burn out. The power goes off. The car doesn't start. Earl 's sometimes grumpy and critical. FMC almost imploded a number of years ago when our little group experienced that most painful of all experiences...a church split.   Loved ones die.  Some days it's cloudy and I can't see the sun. Yet I keep on keeping on, because I have sure of the basic dependibility of life. Somewhere along the line I've discovered that practicing gratitude creates a spiral of goodness and inner contentment for me. For me, at least, it's by being grateful for all the little things which we take for granted that I find daily affirmation that love is really stronger than hate, that good does overcome evil, even if only in small ways.

When we travel I get the back seat--- which is just where I want to be--- except my aging ears don't hear too well and all I get are parts of the conversation going on in the front seat. But that was enough this trip as I'd been mulling over what I wanted to say this morning when I took my turn preaching. When I heard Gretchen interviewing Earl about what he believed or didn't, I found myself thinking of C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia. As so often happens for me, I find more answers to my faith questions in fiction than Scripture or overt religious writings. In Lewis's book THE SILVER CHAIR the children find themselves trapped in a dark, hot, frightening underworld with the lost prince and the green lady(an evil witch.) Puddlglum, a Marsh Wiggle, is with them. Now Marshwiggles being half frog and half human are naturally skeptical creatures. If there is a way to put a negative spin on something, the marshwiggle will find it, so it is inevitable that the Marsh Wiggle saves the day,  for skeptics are more difficult to disillusion that those who simply assume that the good get rewarded. You see, once the Green Lady has everyone in the same room she casts her hypnotic spell over the prince and the children convincing them that nothing exists except the underworld they are experiencing, a world where everything is dark and gloomy. So it is the Marsh Wiggle who is skeptical that what she is saying is the complete truth.  Even when she glows with a seductive beauty, entertains them with her wonderful music, drugs them with an incense she throws on the fire... all the while telling the children that Narnia does not exist, that there is no world of love and laughter, sunshine, stars, fresh water, light, talking animals, friendship and hope. But Puddleglum, struggling to resist the green lady's spell forces himself to stamp out the fire and the drugging effect of the incense though it burns his webbed feet terribly and causes a terrible stink. So the children and the prince escape and run for their lives toward the surface where they believe/hope that Narnia does exist, even as the underworld crumbles around them....not knowing anything more than they have to keep climbing up toward what they believe is the way back to Narnia.

That, my friends, is my metaphor for a skeptic's faith. I am a skeptical Puddleglum. Like him I finds myself unimpressed with what the this world offers with its commercialism and materialism and ISSIS and gun violence, racism, sexism, and greedy oligarchs running our country.  Maybe that is all there is.  Maybe. Even so I choose to believe that Narnia exists. Whether or not Jesus ever lived or there is life after death, doesn't really matter to me.  The promise that that what Jesus represents, that the stories surrounding Jesus and how he lived, taught, and treated people shows me there can indeed be a different way to live right now in this broken world.  Even as I struggle with my questions and doubts in a crumbling world filled with darkness and hate, in the end the hope, no a conviction,  that a Narnia might exist becomes enough for me to hang on and keep reaching for something higher, something better than what I see. My deep longing for something more keeps me living day by day with gratitude, joy and contentment. You see, in spite of my doubts, I have faith that my random acts of kindness, my feeble attempts at loving my enemies, my inadequate efforts to 'feed my sheep” does in some unknown way flip as a divinely wired switch of love and goodness. And that is enough.

For we fix our attention not on things that are seen, but on things that are unseen. What we can see lasts only for a time, but what we cannot see lasts forever.” Or as Peterson says in The Message” “There's more here than meets the eye.”


Sunday, September 20, 2015

Finding Serenity Through Acceptance

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.  Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace.  Taking as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen.

In years past, I’ve heard the first sentence of the serenity prayer many times.  I’ve seen it on plaques and wall hangings.  They were just words and the words didn’t mean anything to me because I never stopped to think about the words. 

That first sentence of The Serenity Prayer…..God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference…… very powerful if you take the time to actually absorb what the words mean.  But hearing the entire prayer is more powerful still.  I’d like to examine the prayer with you and then let’s see where we are at the end of this message.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change –

Serenity….what is it?  What does it mean? It means clearness, quiet, calm, tranquil, peaceful. 

In the prayer, we are asking God for the peace to accept the things in life, both personal and situational, that cannot be altered.  Accepting the things we cannot change is so difficult. Much of our lives are shaped by things that happen to us. We come into the world from the very beginning shaped by circumstance beyond our control. The family we are born into, the culture, the economic resources, the country, all of these things shape us before we take our first breath.
But it doesn’t end there. Life is filled with things that just happen to us, things beyond our control. Oftentimes what we want to change most are the other people in our lives. One of the hardest things to accept in life has to be the inability to change other people, especially the people that we love. Certainly we can provide encouragement and resources, but it is virtually impossible to force another person to change unless he or she is willing to change themselves.  And anyone who has taken the time to reflect on their life knows the struggle of not being able to change the past. Every one of us has regrets, a bad decision made here and there. We can do our best to mend a relationship that has been damaged, but the past is the past, there’s no white-out in life. There is nothing we can do to change it. God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change.

And then there is the nagging desire to change ourselves. There are a great many things that we can change about ourselves, but there are many more that we are stuck with. We are imperfect beings, by nature. We are not going to be perfect parents, perfect spouses, perfect homemakers, perfect professionals. And we also aren’t going to have perfect bodies or perfect health. Try as we might, some things are beyond our control.  The sooner we accept the things we cannot change about ourselves, the sooner we can move on to focus on the things we can change.

So, what is this first part of the prayer asking us to do?  It’s asking us to embrace what IS, rather than wishing for what is not.  It’s asking us to embrace what’s happened in the past, embrace our faults, embrace the people in your life along with their faults.  When we accept these realities, we are acknowledging that they are real, not made-up, not fake.  “Acceptance” boils down to this: standing firm and being willing to look reality in the eye.  To face our fears and doubts.  To quiet our impulse to run away or distract ourselves in the hopes they’ll go away.  When we accept, we start to find that we tend to be more at peace, more serene – we realize “it is what it is.”

Now, The courage to change the things I can –

This is a request for the strength and fortitude to overcome that which is possible to achieve.  We’ve already ascertained some of the things that cannot be changed, so, what are some of the things can be changed?  I can change myself, I can change how I live my life, I can change any addictions that I have, I can take a stand about something….there are many things I can change, but first, I have to go back to the first part of the sentence and accept that the thing I want to change is real.  I have to accept that I demonstrate an unhealthy behavior at times, I have to accept that I have an addiction, I have to accept that there is an intolerable situation that I am passionate about, etc. etc.  But this part of the sentence uses the word courage.  Courage – what’s that got to do with changing things?  Courage is the ability to conquer fear or despair.  I feel that courage is a very appropriate word here.  How many of us are content to put up with things, yet are equally content to complain about it?  How many of us have decided to actually change something, only to work at it for a little while before falling back into old habits or saying that “it’s too hard to change?”  How many of us have felt very strongly about an issue, yet will not speak up, or attend that demonstration?  That’s where the courage part comes in.  Is it really too hard to change, or is it that we’re afraid to change?  Our little world may become disrupted if we change….it may affect the way people look at us……it may actually cause the breakup of a relationship.  But, if the thing you are trying to change is real enough or painful enough to you, then you need to find the courage to do it. 

And the wisdom to know the difference –

When we have the wisdom to know the difference between what we can and cannot change, we can save ourselves a lot of trouble and energy.  When we can distinguish what is in our control and what is not in our control we can stop trying to control what we absolutely cannot control. 

Wisdom – that’s a great word.  Wouldn’t you be pleased as punch if someone associated you with the word wisdom?  Say, you know Dan is really wise….or that Fred….he’s got a lot of wisdom.  It’s a distinguished word.  Wisdom means insight, judgment, good sense, knowledge.  We’re asking God to provide us with the wisdom to know when to accept a situation and when to challenge it.  To me, that means that we need to have faith that there is a higher power or higher being that can grant us this wisdom.  How does this wisdom get from God to us?  I can only speak for myself but in my experience, God speaks to me in one of two ways:  the first requires quiet and time to be introspective and look deeply inside myself.  I need to contemplate and think things through.  Sometimes, if I’m lucky, the wisdom will come quickly, but all too often, my thoughts start scattering and I can’t bring myself back so, I may have to try this many times.  The other way is usually the way it happens for me.  I can be going about my usual business, thinking about this and that, when all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the wisdom comes to me….Boom.  Here’s the answer.  Each one of you needs to find your own way to wisdom.  You need to let go and let God.

So, we’ve gotten through the most familiar form of The Serenity Prayer.  How about the rest….What does that mean to me? 

Living one day at a time, one moment at a time, accepting hardships as the pathway to peace –Living one day at a time, one moment at a time….we’ve all heard that phrase.  To me, since that phrase is found within a prayer asking for serenity, I take it to mean that we should enjoy what is around us…see the beauty of the seasons, smile, live now and don’t worry about what’s going to happen because when you worry about what might happen, you lose what’s happening right now. 

Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace - There’s that “accepting” word again!  This goes back to “the courage to change the things I can.”  Hardships will happen…we don’t go looking for them, but they happen to everyone.  Accept it…it’s real.  If it’s something that can be changed, change it.  If not, let it go.  In either case, accept it and you’ll get your serenity back.

Taking as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; - I, like all of you in this room, would love it if the world were a peaceful, loving place.  It’s not.  Being distraught or overwhelmed by the events of this world is an unhealthy thing to do.  I am certainly guilty of being both.  But, coming back to The Serenity Prayer, I cannot change what has and is happening in the world today.  What I can do is take a realistic look at what I can do to make it a better place for the future.  I can’t wish away the wars going on in the Middle East.  But I can sit down to dinner with Deya and Haya and learn about them and get others to learn about them and then those others can get  others to learn about them… see where this is going.  Or like everyone that helps with the Food Pantry, or helps with renovating the playground….we’re helping to make the world a better place for some people.  We are doing what we can do in our community.  It all comes down to individual actions.

Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next –

Here’s where faith comes into play.  Stop trying to control things…..surrender to the will of God, listen for his messages.  He’ll lead us down the right path.  If we try to do these things, we should be reasonably happy in this life.  And the last part of the sentence “…and supremely happy with Him forever in the next,” well, I’m just focusing on this life, and not worrying about the next just yet.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Forgiveness: Loosing the cords of mistakes

Text: II Cor. 5: 16-21 from Today's English version, sometimes called The good News Bible. This sermon was delivered on Aug. 9, 2015

There have been some good and bad anniveraries this month. The 50th anniversary of the voting rights act. The anniversaries of our dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Loose the cords of mistakes binding us as we release the strands we hold of others guilt.

I was reminded last weekend that family stories are filled with hurts and disappointments along with joy and delight. Watching our adult children interact; seeing old roles emerge at times; observating how desperately each wanted to be accepted and valued by the other, I was reminded once again that I am a Jesus follower not because he promises me eternal salvation but because the Jesus way makes so much sense. “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” may very well be referring to some kind of eternal salvation, but for me it is a simple yet dynamic statement of truth. If we are to get along with each other, if we are to co-exist without violence and ugliness we must learn to walk the Jesus walk. And as my dad used to say, “ideas are often hard to put in practice but watching how another person does something can be very enlightening. That's the role Jesus plays. Through his life and teachings he shows us how to be.”

It's ironic then that as human beings, as societies, as cultures, we spend so much time nursing our hurts and avenging our so called slights. Even our understanding of God is shaped by out lust for vengeance and punishment. In spite of our rhetoric we love a violent and vengeful God and use the Old Testament to excuse our own violence. Yet Jesus exemplifies in his person a God of love, a God of forgiveness, a God of new beginnings, a God of hope, a God of reconciliation and remption. If seeing is believing thepotential for human interaction in him, how can I not believe and follow?

It is also human nature to reduce everything to it's lowest common denominator so we seem to cheapen everything we touch. Forgiveness, for instance we reduce to simply saying” I'm sorry” or “that's ok.” But, true forgivenss is radical emotional and spiritual surgery that allows us to remounce all of our logical claims for revenge or compensation for the hurts and damage we've suffered. Forgiveness frees us by cutting the cords and knots, by breaking the chains of betrayal and PTSD and painful memories that bind us to the past that is keeping us captive. Forgiveness frees us from compulsively picking our scabs and opening old wounds so they never heal.

Popular understanding assumes that forgiveness is something we do to relieve the offender of their guilt. And that can be part of the process. But the forgivenss that Jesus practiced was a conditional transaction that is more about us than the offender: it's about the role we play in the process. It is conditional because we cannot forgive without first being forgiven for harboring hate and judgment and the lust for revenge. When he prays, “Father forgive them they know not what they do” he is releasing his disappointments and broken dreams of what he had hoped for; he is recognizing that Judas's brokenness and attachment to the ways of the world were just too strong and that governments are rigid ego driven institutions. He is recognizing that three years wasn't enough time.

We forgive not for the other's sake but for our own, because forgiveness looses the strands we hold of others guilt so that we are freed from all that holds us back. So that we can move on. So that we can heal. So that we can begin to see the other through a new set of eyes. And in that process of our healing we set in motion the opportunities for others to heal.

Forgiveness is not about condoning evil or wrong. It is not about ignoring, making excuses or denying what happened. Forgiveness is about facing reality, accepting what happened even when we hate what happened, and then by taking responsibility for the part we played in whatever occurred, in acknowledging that the way we've chosen to respond to the betrayal, hurt, injury, is what is eating us alive. That revenge can never undo what has happened so the only way to move on is by our detaching from that pain. Forgiveness is saying to the other, “ I no longer give you the power to keep hurting me. I release you from carrying the guilt of what you did, hoping that you have learned something from all of this, but even if you haven't, I release myself from your power over me and my life. Just as I will what is best for me, I now will what is best for you so that we can both move into God's open future as non-enemies.

Three stories defining forgiveness.

A Jewish survivor of one of the death camps was called to testifiy at the Nurenberg trial against a very cruel and sadistic guard. As he painfully recounted his story he began to weep so much that the judge called for a recess. Asked what memory had upset him so deeply he replied, “it wasn't what I remembered; it was what I saw in myself. I got a good look at my deep hatred and contempt for the guard and I suddenly realized that I am no different than he. I am as capable of hurting others as he as I wanted him to suffer as we suffered. Thus I wept in fear and shame.” You see we often react so strongly to the acts of others because they hold up a mirror in which we are forced to see ourselves.

And then there is The Nichol Mines massacre of the Amish girls and more recently the mass shooting in Charleston SC. In both cases those who survived stated that they forgave because not to do so would make their loved ones deaths a senseless traversity accomplishing what the shooter desired.

In the early 60's a Korean family came to New York so their gifted son could study medicine.  One evening while walking to the universaity library he was murdered by 3 teen gang members. His parents were devastated. At the sentencing hearing the Korean family spoke against the death penalty and an excessive sentence. Since their son was no longer alive and able to become a doctor, they'd decided it was these very boys who must now pick up the dream they'd destroyed by killing their son. This couple told the court that they would pay for whatever it cost to have the boys finish high school and get college degrees while incarcerated. They believed God wanted them to invest all of their love and resources into these ghetto kids who killed all they held precious. When the boys came up for parole they wanted the boys released into their care. This was what they needed for their own healing for anything less than the complete change of these boys lives would make their son's death a tragic waste.

And so the miracle of forgiveness began... and continued through the years, for this quiet Korean couple visited those boys while in prison week after week, arranging for their education and counseling and religious training while incarcerated and even after their release. By refusing to define the boys according to their past behaviors, they helped everyone involved see themselves through a completely different lens. Today one boy is a doctor who runs a street clinic, another teaches in a ghetto school, and third is a missionary in Korea.

O God of love and forgiveness, grant what we need each day in bread and insight. Loose the cords of mistakes binding us to the past as we release the strands we hold of others guilt. Don't let surface things delude us but free us from what holds us back. Amen
Joyce Shutt is pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Reading from the July 5 Sunday Service

My role as helper is not to do things for the person I am trying to help, but to be things; not to try to control and change their actions, but through understanding and awareness to change my reactions.  I will change my negatives to positives, fear to faith, contempt for what they do to understanding, and manipulation or over-protectiveness to release with love - not trying to make them fit a standard or image, but giving them an opportunity to pursue their own destiny, regardless of what their choice may be.

I will change my dominance to encouragement, panic to serenity, the inertia of despair to the energy of my own personal growth, and self-justification to self-understanding.  Self pity blocks effective action.  The more I indulge in it, the more I feel that the answer to my problem is a change in others and in society, not in myself.  Thus, I become a hopeless case.

Exhaustion is the result when I use my energy in mulling over the past with regret or in trying to figure ways to escape a future that has yet to arrive.  Projecting an image of the future and anxiously hovering over it for fear it will or it won't come true uses all of my energy and leaves me unable to live today.  Yet living today is the only way to have a life.

I will have no thought for the future action of others, neither expecting them to be better or worse as time goes on, for in such expectations I am really trying to create.  I will love and let be.  All people are always changing.  If I try to judge them, I do so only on what I think I know of them, failing to realize that there is much I do not know.  I will give others credit for attempts at progress and for having had many victories which are unknown.

I, too, am always changing, and I can make that change a constructive one if I am willing.  I can change myself.  Others, I can only love.

Stepping Out of Our Three Sided Boxes

Last Sunday Brenda referred to fear in her sermon. As she spoke a light bulb flashed for me. When we say “perfect love casts out all fear” we are naming love as the opposite of fear, not courage, safety or security. Somehow I've missed that up till now. We spend so much energy trying to guarantee our comfort, safety and security.   But Scripture reminds us that those are not the antidotes of fear at all.   In fact, our very pursuit of safety and security will always make us even more afraid!

Love is the antidote to fear. Love. Not a feel good love but a love that is intent on we ourselves being the agent of change. We do that by willing what is best for the other, respecting the others right to a decent life, even when we can't stand their guts. Even when they've bullied, demeaned and hurt us.

Someone once said that we can summarize all of Jesus teachings in three short phrases. Love your enemies, Feed my sheep. Follow me.  Love your enemies, love your obnoxious family members and neighbors. Love bigots, crackpots, illegal immigrants, criminals, those of different races, colors, religions. Love fanatics and self aggrandizing politicans of all sorts. Not easy, so it's no wonder we have instead focused on economic security, the right to carry, the myth of redemptive violence, building fences of all sorts, demonizing those who are different.  Agape love, that is God inspired love that enables us to rescpect and value those we can't stand, those who are committed to hurting and even killing us is the hardest things we can possibly do.    As if to underscore that the very first Bible stories that include human beings involves blaming and jealousy.

Back in the 70's when I was going to Newton, Kansas for church meetings I got to know Peter Ediger. Pete was an outspoken peace advocate, pastor and poet. At one of those meeting he shared a dream. In his dream he saw a long row of big boxes in which many people (he described them as the damned) were agitated and pacing back and forth. The thing was these boxes had only three sides. The fourth was completely open. Nothing kept the frantic people inside their boxes, yet no one turned around. Everyone kept facing the three closed sides, wailing, complaining, lamenting their situation. In the dream, Peter called out to them, “You are free, Turn around and step outside.” But the people said “go away you damned radical” and kept tearing their hair and walking back and forth beating aginst the walls, refusing to turn and face the opening.

This weekend we celebrate our nation's birthday. In many ways our founding fathers were radicals who stepped outside of the box and embraced a new way of being and doing. But over the years we've become comfortable in the three sided boxes we've created. We've become reluctant to turn around and step outside, because that would require change, loving our enemies, welcoming immigrants, embracing those who are different, being open to those who challenge our biases and assumptions. It would require us to change. Not them, but us..

Love is the antidote to fear, not because it transforms the other or makes us any safer, at least in the short run, but because it transforms us.    Freed from fear we can embark on new paths, engage in new activities, look through a new set of eyes, feel new feelings. Free, we can risk, become more like the people God intended us to be.

Much of the time I am ashamed to call myself Christian when I see the evil done in the name of Christ, but today I proudly proclaim myself a Christ follower, timid though I may be in my following. The church's call to “repent and be saved” is not just a valid one, but an essential one if we are to survive as a species. Repent. Change direction. Turn around. Step outside the box. Embrace change however frightening. Be saved from ourselves, our self destructive policies and actions, and our fears.

After a hurricane in the 70's Mac Albright suggested we take the church kids rubber rafting. Being a bit nuts I agreed. We gathered up our gang of about 15 middle schoolers and took off. We had 2 rafts; a big one that accomodated most of the kids, and a smaller one for four. Mac assurred me that Link, his nephew, was a veteran rubber rafter and he could manage the small raft.  Yeah right.  We hadn't gone far before we tipped the raft over and fell in the water.  Fortunately the stream was shallow enough at that point that we could wade to a little island and catch our breaths. Delighted with our adventure we climbed back in and set sail.

And then disaster struck. Real disaster.  At a broken dam, now clogged with all sorts of debris sucked into a whirlpool in front of the dam, throwing the four of us into the raging water. Somehow I managed to pull myself out, grabbed hold of Link's arm and pulled him to safety. Gasping, the two of us went in after Eddie Richardson. But where was Fid?  Diving back in I found him trapped under the trash, his foot tangled in some string.  am convinced that some power greater than myself gifted us that afternoon for there is no way I was strong enough to have dived under that water, grabbed Fid's arm at the shoulder, disentangled his leg, and pulled both of us up out of that swirling sucking vortex.  As soon as we'd surface enough to catch a breath of air, it pulled us back under. But by the grace of God, Fid and I eventually crawled out of the water and debris to safety. And then the four of us got back in the raft and finished our trip down stream.  Having narrowly escaped death we all needed to join the others.

When I dropped Les and Fid off at their home, Fid ran into the house shouting, “Mom, Dad, Mrs Shutt saved my life!”  That's when I understood the Biblical imperative “repent and be saved.” The ways we chose to live, the choices we make have serious long range implications. Biblical writers understood that when we focus on greed, self interest, war and violence there is only possible outcome. Death and more of the same. Unless we repent, unless we step out of our three sided boxes, nothing will ever change.  Salvation involved stepping out of our boxes.  Not saved as an evacuation plan to heaven, but saved so that God's energy can flow through us to help others. Saved to live in relationship with others and our world.   Saved to work together for the betterment of humankind.  Saved to belong to a joy filled beloved community of faithful followers. Saved to be grateful rather than greedy.  Hearing Fid call out “Mrs Shutt saved my life” I found I really wanted to spend the rest of my life helping others step outside of their three sided boxes.
If we are to save our broken war torn, hate filled, greed infested, self-centered world, then we have to be the first ones to turn around and step outside of the box. We must be the ones to embrace that promised love that defies human understanding and casts out all fear. Difficult as it is to trust in an unseen God, we can do this, not that it will be easy.   It won't. The old familiar ways of being and doing are like that watery vortex that kept pulling us back under the broken dam.   But being so flooded with love and concern for those kids that afternoon I completely lost all fear and concern for my own safety and that momentary burst of love was enough to mobilize my strength to pull Fid far enough out of the water that two other little boys could do the rest.

And that's how it works!  A scrawny little woamn and two kids complete the metaphor. Perfect love exists in imperfect scrawny improbable people for that love is not about us and what we can do on our own, it is about joining others in small actions and efforts.  Being with, needing, depending on,, sharing with, weeping with, laughing with others.  Together love flows through us from a power greater than all of us.  Together love can and will free us to turn around and make that first baby step out of our three sided boxes into God's open future. Amen

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Dangers of Comparing Yourself to Others

This message was presented to the congregation on Sunday, May 31:

Since retiring about 4 years ago, I have been spending time looking inward in order to try to figure out what motivates me to behave in certain ways.  I have found this to be difficult, humbling, scary and at times, wonderfully freeing!  One of the behaviors that I have been reflecting on and researching is my habit of comparing myself to others.  I guess I started the comparison business when I was fairly young.  Coming from a family with six children, I can remember a lot of squabbles surrounding “How come she gets the bigger one?” or “Why does he get to go and I can’t?”  Regardless of when I learned – I’ve been a comparer for most of my life.

There are some instances when comparisons are not bad or wrong.  Take comparing one estimate for work to be done against another estimate…..or comparing the benefits of one type of investment against another….or comparing the functionality of one appliance brand against another.  Those types of comparisons are necessary in order to get the product or outcome that you want or need.

I’d like to focus on an unhealthy type of comparison – comparing oneself with another.  When we do this comparison, there are usually two outcomes – we feel inferior because we compare ourselves to someone we believe is “better” than we are; or we feel superior because our comparison becomes a judgment of someone.

I’m going to presume that we all do it or have done it at some point in our lives.  We compare ourselves to others and gauge where we are based on what we observe them to be doing.

If it was simply an observation, that would be one thing.  But in comparing oneself to others, we often end up judging ourselves and there’s no one worse to judge!  It’s not a fair comparison, of course.  I tend to compare myself with someone I perceive as being, doing, having more.  The key word here is perceive  because I don’t always know of their insecurities or how much suffering and pain they have endured during their life. 

But even if it’s an apples-to-apples comparison – my gifts or things to theirs – what use is that?  Do my gifts and things need to be better than anyone else’s?  Why?

Do these things determine my happiness?  Do they show me what life is about?

No:  happiness comes from appreciating what’s in front of me, not wishing I was someone else or doing something else.  In order for me to find out what life is about, I need to pay closer attention to my life, not someone else’s. 

And I don’t need to be better than anyone else:  I just need to love where I am and what I’m doing and who I am.  That’s what matters.

The comparisons don’t make me happier or appreciate life more – they make me feel “less than.”

I remember comparing in grade school, especially around the 5th or 6th grades.  I was very quiet and shy and I used to look at the girls who were not and wish that I was like them.  I was also on the chubby size and would look at the other girls who were thin and wish that I looked like them.  You must remember also, that this was the age of Twiggy!  These comparisons only made me feel “less than”.  And that’s the thing about comparing yourself to others – there is never a win for you.

There are an infinite number of categories upon which a person can compare themself and an almost infinite number of people to compare yourself to.  Once we begin down that road, we never find an end. 

The tendency to compare ourselves to others is as human as any other emotion.  But the decision to compare only steals joy from our lives and it’s a habit with lots of shortcomings.  Theodore Roosevelt said “Comparison is the thief of joy.”  They add no value, meaning or fulfillment to our lives.  They only distract from it.  There are so many things wrong with comparing such as:

Comparisons are always unfair:  We typically compare the worst we know of ourselves to the best we presume about others.

Each person is too unique to compare fairly:  Your gifts, talents, successes, contributions and value are entirely unique to you and your purpose in this world.  They can never be properly compared to anyone else.

You have nothing to gain, but much to lose when comparing.  For example, your pride, your dignity, your drive and your passion.  Even if you reach the highest level of success, there will always be something – or someone- else to focus on.  But by doing so, we waste precious energy focusing on other peoples’ lives rather than our own.

Comparisons often result in resentment - Resentment toward others and toward oneself.

How then, can we break this habit of comparison?

One of the tools I read about was re-directing our comparison to how we were in the past as compared to how we are now.  In other words, keep the comparison within instead of without.  Think about the fact that we are always becoming more.  Who we are today is the result of the decisions we made yesterday.  We are always in a “state of creation.”  So, when you catch yourself comparing yourself to another, stop for a moment and re-direct the thought.  Instead of submitting to the temptation to compare yourself to someone else, ask yourself a few questions instead:

1.      What are you doing today that you couldn’t have done five, three or even one year ago?  Become aware of your successes.  No matter what your place is in life, you have a unique perspective backed by unique experiences and unique gifts. 

2.      How have you stepped out in the last year that you might have found inconceivable before?  You have everything you need to accomplish good in your little section of the world.  Find motivation to pursue these opportunities.

3.      What negative behavior have you stopped engaging in that you never thought you could quit?  Remind yourself that no one is perfect and nobody is living a painless life.

4.      What positive behavior have you been engaging in that up until now, you have resisted?  A positive behavior, such as gratitude forces us to recognize the good things we already have in our world.

5.      How have you continued to become a new and improved version of yourself?  Finding inspiration and learning from others is very wise.  Try asking questions of the people you admire.  Surround yourself with people who know more than you do about a topic that you are interested in. 

These are the things that count.  Comparing ourselves with someone else is inaccurate and irrelevant.  We all came into this world differently.  We all came in with certain gifts that, through life experience, we have continued to hone.  Remember that the only masterful creation we have to work with is ourselves.  We should strive to be the best possible versions of ourselves – not only for own selves, but for the benefit and contribution we can offer to others.  Learn to celebrate the little advancements you make without comparing them to others.  There are so many negative effects with comparing.  It’s a shame that we do it.  You will be amazed at the freedom you can find if you compare less.

In closing, I’d like to share a quote from Helen Keller.  “Instead of comparing our lot with that of those who are more fortunate than we are, we should compare it with the lot of the great majority of our fellow humans.  It then appears that we are among the privileged.”