Sunday, November 4, 2012

Owning Our Wounds

[I was honored to preach something close to this at the Laity Sunday service last week at a wonderful little country church - Summerville UMC in Phenix City, AL.]

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.  Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. - 2 Corinthians 12:7-9

I asked Judd what I might speak about, and he said it's laity Sunday, so you if don't have anything else prepared, you can speak about laity in action.  And I told him I'd try but that I was going to take the advice given to someone else asked to be a guest speaker in church, “Come tell us about what's saving your life right now.” I think that what I've prepared can at least compliment this wonderful service that has been led by the laity so far.  What I've heard today is about our mission, to minister to the world.  And what I'll talk about is what gets in our way of doing that, and a possible path toward being able to fulfill that mission.  And that path, as Paul tells us, is weakness, or as the title of this message describes, "owning own wounds." 

This is hard for us in 2012 in the United States because weakness is despised by our culture.  "Weak" really is a four letter word.  If you had the unfortunate experience of watching all of the post-debate analysis, it wasn't about substance.  No, it was about who looked weak and who looked strong, weakness was dismissed and strength was “presidential.”  And it's not just in politics, it's everywhere.  Weakness needs to be rooted out, things that are broken need fixing or replacing.  And it's only natural.  We don't want to be weak and limited in what we can do.  No one wants pain and suffering.  Because it hurts.

So here is the great apostle Paul.  And he was weak, broken in some big way.  It’s so bad he calls it a messenger of satan sent to torment him.  So he cried out to the lord three times to take it away from him.  Honestly, I can’t always relate to Paul, he confuses me.  But here, can't we all relate to him?  He's hurting.  We don't know what it is, and maybe he does that so we can all find ourselves in this passage.  He's going through hardship, which we've all been through. 

And his prayers were heard, but God did not grant his wish.  God is not in the wish granting business.  God is in the salvation business.  So what Paul hears is not, “I will remove this hurt from you.”  God's answer was, “Paul, my grace is sufficient for you.  Paul, my power is made perfect in weakness.  Paul, you are a boastful man, so go boast of this: you are broken and weak, and once you finally accepted that, the power and grace of God met you, and it was enough for you.”

That is the good news for us if we are willing to hear it – not that God will take away our struggles, but that when we move toward what hurts, we move through it, and there we will be embraced by the overwhelming grace of God.  And it will be enough for us too.

It's not just Paul; this is at the heart of the gospel.  Jesus tell us that “I did not come for the healthy, but for those who need a doctor.”  He’s telling us that he’s going to have a hard time reaching and transforming us if we aren't willing to embrace what hurts us.  One of the great travesties of living in a culture of strength is this “I'm fine,” response to everything that happens.  Divorce?  Don’t need to talk about it; I'm fine.  Chest pain?  I'm fine, it's probably just indigestion. Overworked?  Dealing with a sick or elderly loved one?  It’s OK; I'm fine. 

What a lie.  When Jesus says the sick, not the healthy need a doctor, he's telling us don’t be too proud to come looking for healing or you won’t find it.  He's telling us, "hey be honest with yourself.  Where are you hurting?  Where are you weak and broken?  Find that place in yourself," Jesus says, "and I promise I'll meet you there." 

We serve a crucified savior.  The way of the cross is the path through pain and death, and ONLY then onto resurrection.  The resurrected Jesus is not in shining white robes that we see in our Sunday school room walls.  Jesus still had his wounds. “Here Thomas,” says Jesus, “don't believe it's me, look right here, touch my wounds.”  Those wounds don't go away and neither do ours, but part of our salvation is that they can be transformed into something very sacred.   

And that's the hard and beautiful gospel for our hard and beautiful lives.  We can't leave the hard parts out.  We deny the transforming grace of God when we don't deal with what hurts us.  And it has real life consequences.  A favorite author of mine, Richard Rohr, says “the pain we don't transform, we transmit to others.”  I can tell you without reservation that the most embarrassing moments of my life, when I am hurtful to those I love, they come out of some unresolved pain that I'm just not dealing with.  I've either been hurt or slighted by someone else, or I'm insecure & not sure I'm up to the task, but I don't admit that & I so I just bluster my way through when things get hard. 

Please don't ask my wife for any specifics, but she knows better than anyone else.  When I'm being especially difficult to live with, and I’ve got some darkness that I haven't dealt with, but, “Hey, I’m fine,” get ready for trouble if you point out where I’m coming up short.  My ego gets upset and I lash out. 

Rather than owning where I'm wounded, I let my wound own me.  I AM THE VICTIM, I have been treated unfairly, and I can't relent from it.  And that cuts off the path to healing and forgiveness.   I end up missing out on so much of the beauty of life right in front of me because I'm just too proud to admit I am broken need to deal with it.

This is what we all do when we refuse to get in touch with what's wrong with us.  Stress from work, sickness or death of a family member, strained relationships, financial harship, broken trust.  These things wound us. If you live long enough, life is going to wound you deeply.  There is just no getting around it.  And if we don't transform the pain, we will transmit it to others.  We look for ways to patch it up: food, alcohol, television, internet, smart phones, work work work.  Anything to keep from checking in with ourselves and deal with how we’re broken.  “Lord, just make me numb!“ We don't say it, but isn't this what we are asking when we don't deal with what hurts?  

But numb is not where god's grace is found.  It is found on the other side of pain.  And we only get there by dealing with what hurts, dealing with where we fall short, dealing with the suffering that life has placed in our path.  And please hear me, I don't not for a second think that God causes us to suffer for some reason.  Death and depression and disease and divorce are not instruments of God, they are not put there for a purpose.  But the genius of God is knowing that in the fullness of life, we are going to suffer, we are going to hurt and cause others to hurt, and God says that's where he's going to go to work.  He's not going to leave us there unchanged.  Like Jesus, our wounds won't go away, but we will start to see them more fully.  Not just as a place of death, but as the path to resurrection life.

There's a song I love that has this line in it: “There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in.”  I love that line because it names what Paul says, the light, the sufficient grace of God, is there with us when life is cracked and broken.  And that grace comes when we go down toward the darkness, and not up and away from it.  We've got this cultural image of climbing.  Climbing up the ladder of success, climbing up and away from what's weak and dirty in us through achievement, climbing higher and higher up toward a God that we imagine is sitting in a kingdom on high.  Climbing away from our pain and weakness.  And there’s a whole Christian tradition that tells us what we find when we climb up looking for God, looking for the high life free of difficulty.  It tells us when we get to the top, there's nothing there.    It's only when we fall do we realize that we fall into the grace of God.  600 years ago a woman named Julian of Norwich said “First there is the fall and then the recovery from the fall.  Both are the mercy of god.” 

And what do we find when let ourselves fall and be broken?  We find ourselves on a path downward.  But it’s a path we walk along always, always with God.  If we are promised anything, it is that God is with us in our suffering.  And that path he takes us on leads to a very sacred place, to a place in each of us that we see cannot be wounded, because it is the very image of god that is in each of us.  It's something that we all have, and it is undefileable and unbreakable, it is our deepest truest self that is always in communion with God and is waiting for us to rediscover it. 

There is a story that I love about a little boy, 4 or 5 years old, whose parents bring home his newborn baby sister.  And the boy tells his parents to give him some time alone with his new sister.  They knew the issues with bringing home a new sibling, but they have the baby monitor setup, so they tell him to go ahead into her room, and they sneak into the other room to listen to the monitor.  And they hear him close the door and hear his little feet patter over to her bed, and they hear him get real close to her and whisper: “Hey! Tell me all about God, because I've almost forgotten.” 

We grow up, get wounded and forget, don't we, about our union with God.  It's like layer upon layer upon layer of paint and wallpaper from life gets plastered over that original beauty and oneness that has always been in all of us.  And when we embrace our brokenness, we get to see through that crack in everything where the light gets in, we get to remember our oneness with God.  We get to experience his grace that is sufficient for everything we face in this life. 

And when it happens, we cannot help but share it, to try to see the weakness and brokenness of others and wrap our arms around it, and try to bring God’s grace to it.  As the scripture says, we go looking for Jesus in others, in the hungry, the sick, the naked, the imprisoned.  And I think we end up being more gracious and patient with people in general.  Feeling the embrace of God in our own insecurity, we have more patience with it in others, don't we? 

To claim our brokenness is to help bring the power and grace of God into our world.  And don’t just believe me.  Think about the most gracious people you know, who show up when times are hard,  who can speak words of comfort in grief, who tend to the sick and the poor, whose egos don’t ever seem to get in the way of anything God is trying to do; they are almost always people who have endured great pain or struggle and moved through it.  I've heard it called “the terrible gift,” and that is very fitting.  Life has handed them something terrible, but out of it they have received the gift of the grace and strength of God to get through it, so they share it with others. 

And to use some good Methodist language: it shows up in our mission and in our nurture.  A couple of examples: our church hosts a community-wide Christmas dinner every Christmas day.  Full Christmas dinner with turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes, you name it is served for about 300 people, and most of them probably wouldn’t get Christmas dinner otherwise.  Inevitably, every year this mission is led by those who have lost someone they love, a spouse, parent or child.  These are people who know what it's like to have a hard Christmas. 

In my own life, I lost my father last year to a brain tumor.  He lived with it for 20 precious and hard months.  It was and continues to be a very big wound in my life. But let me tell you, the grace we received in that time could fill the time of 20 more sermons.  Amazing acts of love and kindness were with us every step of the way.  God's hands were so often the hands of friendship, cooking meals, cutting the grass, holding our hands while we laughed and cried and prayed.  I can testify without reservation to the power of God made perfect in weakness, and to a God that showed me in the middle of deep pain that there is still a place in me that is whole and unbroken even in the face of tremendous loss. 

And out of that has come a couple of missions at our church.  My wife started a caregiver support group seeing the struggle of my mom caring for my dad and knowing of others dealing with that in our community.  I was eating lunch after my dad's funeral with the pastor of his church who told me of a mission he was excited about – Stop Hunger Now, where your church partners with this group to buy bulk food supplies and packages them into individual meals that are shipped to school feeding programs in the poorest and hungriest places in the world.  So I felt led to help start that in Union Springs.  Over the last year and a half, we've raised money and packaged 30,000 meals in this program that have fed kids in Uganda.  It is a wonderful mission. 

And one of the greatest honors of my life came several months after my father passed.  I was asked to speak at the funeral of a fellow church member who had died of pancreatic cancer.  Though I would have thought about it, “Hey, we need to go take them some food,” I probably wouldn’t have done so if I had not experienced those same acts of grace by others in my own family's hard time. And so we did go visit and take them a few meals.  And out of that came a wonderful friendship and some very holy time accompanying them on that journey.

And owning our wounds is a journey.  It’s healing work that is never really finished.  But we can learn so much from it.  It teaches us how to live, how to live faithfully.  And ultimately it teaches us how to die faithfully, unafraid because we already know that god will meet us there too. 

The work of the laity, I think, is to first own our wounds, to be broken and accept the power of God that we find in weakness, to experience that love in that deep and holy place in each of us.  And then be there to cry with others who are broken, and to share with them the grace we've experienced. 

When our stance toward life is a stance of weakness and brokenness, it is all that we can do to go out looking to comfort the weakness and brokenness in others and share the good news with them.  And that good news is this: “Hey, I am here with you, and so is the grace and power of God, and it is sufficient for you.”  

My prayer for us today is that we have the faith to believe this, and the courage to go to those hard places where God promises us he'll meet us and transform us.  Amen.  

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God."
 – 1 Corinthians 2: 1-5

I took off an afternoon from work a couple of weeks ago to spend a little time in the woods.  It’s springtime, and there’s nothing like being out in nature to remind your body that winter is over.  But I went off into the woods this day to see something specific – fire.  Every few years my in-laws will do a controlled burn in their woods.  It is quite a site to see.  A concoction of gas & diesel spews forth through a flame and lands on the ground, sending an infantry line of fire along the ground that advances and advances, consuming pine straw, stickers, dead wood, weeds and unwanted saplings that clutter out the forest's beauty.  But to watch the process is to watch a literal scorched earth.  It takes what is unwanted and superfluous and consumes it, filling the air with thick ash and leaving the ground a field of soot.  It can be troubling to watch.  But it leaves the mature trees, deeply rooted, unharmed except for some charring of the bark at the bottom.  It is an awesome display of creative destruction. 

The next day everything is black, seemingly dead and destroyed.  And the most haunting part is the dark of night right after the burn.  Pine stumps still soaked in turpentine burn well into the night.  They litter the otherwise complete darkness of the forest with seeming camp fires of a vast medieval army bedded down in these very woods.  And then three months later, everything is more beautiful than before the fire started its consuming work.
I cannot help but think of the season of Lent when reflecting on this scene.  We open the season in many of our churches by administering the ashes on Wednesday with a solemn reminder that “from dust we came, and to dust we go”.  It is a call to remember our mortality and the reality of death, that force that can shake us out of mundanity and move us toward meaning like no other can. It is creative destruction, indeed. 

And Lent is preparing us for the creative destruction that is the crucifixion and resurrection.  And it is most certainly both creation and destruction.  Jesus is killed, and yet after the destruction, Jesus continues to live.  And for this story to really mean anything, we’ve got to connect our own mortal life and the life of Jesus that endures. 

And for our feeble minds, this is a hard thing to do.  And I think it’s made harder by sincere yet superficial attempts at naming the un-nameable, trying to utter what is ineffable, and trying to grab hold of the arrow rather than align our beings in the direction the arrow is pointing.

It’s a problem that seems to have been around since not long after Jesus’ death.  I can imagine his first followers asking the same questions we do: “Jesus lives, of this we are certain.  He animates our souls.  We know him still as intimately as we know ourselves.  Yet how?  What does that mean?  And why did he die?  Surely there is something good and redeeming to come out of his death.”  These are the thoughts of every mortal who’s experienced God’s love through Jesus, be they his first disciples or be they church-goers in 2012.  And from here, we do what only seems natural – we say, “Come, let us explain it!”

I have spent much time in the den of explanation, more than enough time to know that it is a closed loop rather than a means of grace.  In fact, explanation of the crucifixion, resurrection, and what all that means has led to many of the most difficult and embarrassing times of my faith, and certainly my most ungracious (though I never picked up on that at the time).  Whatever your theory of atonement, it is ultimately only that – a theory, one explanation among many (and believe me, I’ve known many!).   This exercise no doubt gets us answering questions, but it’s been my experience that even if we think we come up with the right answers, we nonetheless still have the wrong questions.  As Frederick Buechner says, “It is not objective proof of God’s existence that we want but the experience of God’s presence.”  And to Buechner I’d humbly add, “It is not the genus and phylum of the salvation tree we want to know but the taste of the fruit it bears.” 

And what a difference that is in emphasis.  Dead questions are replaced with alive ones:  “What happened then?” becomes “what is happening now?”  “What does it mean that he saved me back then?” becomes “How he can save us right now?”  “Exactly how was I reconciled?” becomes “Exactly where do I now need to reconcile?”  And finally, “What is the nature of the God revealed in that theory?” becomes “What is the nature of the God I experience right now?” 

To get from there to hear, I think we need to do a little Spring burning this holy week.  What is keeping us from tasting the fruit, from encountering God?  For me, and for many, I think, it’s our own safe doctrine that needs to be set afire.  Whether you hold dear to or are uncomfortable with how and why you think God reconciles us through Jesus, what would happen if we threw that understanding in the fire?  We’ve got to admit that at least part of us is consumed with understanding the “how it is” that could be focusing on experiencing the “what is” in our lives. 

Occupy yourself with figuring out the key and time, and you’ll close your heart to hearing the beauty of the song.  Focus on the type of paint and canvas and you’ll miss the glory of the painting.  Listen for the meter, and your ears will miss the deep emotion in the poem.  Spend your time figuring out and explaining the how of it and completely miss the magic of the experience.   

Our problem is that we’ve been led astray in thinking it is the technical "how" parts that are meant by what it means to “believe” theologically.  Stop for a moment and think of someone you love dearly.  “Believing” in that person has to do with your heart, not your head.  It’s a radical trust in the core of that person based on shared experience and loving relationship with them.  And talking about the “how” of that love and that belief in your beloved (think endorphins, attachment theory, etc) not only seems silly, but seems to do an injustice to the very nature of the love and belief itself.    

We are reading a wonderful book for Lent in my Sunday School class from Brennan Manning call The Ragamuffin Gospel.  When so much of Christianity seems to be looking in one direction, Manning’s looking in another.  When others are looking at sin as a place of shame, he’s looking at it as a place for God’s holy grace.  Along with Peter Rollins' book Insurrection, a quote from The Ragamuffin Gospel got me going down the path of writing this.  Paraphrasing Rabbi Joshua Abraham Hescel, Manning prays:

Dear Lord,
grant me the grace of wonder.
Surprise me, amaze me,
awe me in every crevice of Your universe.
Delight me to see how Your Christ plays in ten thousand places
to the Father through the features of men's faces.
Each day enrapture me with Your marvelous things without number.
I do not ask to see the reason for it all;
I ask only to share the wonder of it all.

This is where I am trying to get to this Easter, not asking to domesticate and understand the reason for the season, only hoping to share in the wonder of it all.  And getting there has taken me through this season of creative destruction.  A forest consumed of all but its big beautiful trees is one that can be enjoyed without the brambles and the thorns snagging your legs.  What is destroyed and entombed on Friday is raised to heavenly glory on Sunday.  What I leave behind in certitude, logic and order, I receive tenfold in experience, relationship, and reverence. 

Now let us hear Paul again from above – “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God."

So may we too burn up every explanation except Jesus and him crucified.  And may we discuss this season of our faith not with human wisdom but by describing God’s power through Jesus in our own weakness and fear and trembling.  Barbara Brown Taylor tells a wonderful story of a preacher inviting her to preach at his church.  When she asked what she should speak about, his answer was simply, “Tell us about what’s saving your life right now.”  Those are stories each of us can tell and tell much easier when not concerned with exactly how we were saved way back when.  Our stories about God in action right now are testimony to our claim, "Jesus lives!"  And as Paul says, it doesn't come from lofty words or wisdom but from the very heart of our lives and our relationship with Christ and each other.
So may that be our witness this week – Jesus lives.  He died and he rose.  He goes on, and he is alive in my life.  Let me tell you how he’s saving my life right now.

Burn the rest, and trust that what is important will endure.

"When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not harm thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
(“How Firm a Foundation”)