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Sermon for May 27, 2012 / Pentecost

Hello faithful reader. If been a bad blogger. Actually, I haven't really preached since April, so I have not had much to post here. However, the furlough is over. Today I post the first of five sermons in a series I'm calling, Five Ideas That Can Change Your Life. --mbb

Five Ideas That Can Change Your Life: Beauty for Ashes

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is upon me,
   for the LORD has anointed me
   to bring good news to the poor.
God has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
   and to proclaim that captives will be released
   and prisoners will be freed.
God has sent me to tell those who mourn
   that the time of the LORD’s favor has come,
   and with it, the day of God’s anger against their enemies.
To all who mourn in Israel,
   God will give a crown of beauty for ashes,
a joyous blessing instead of mourning,
   festive praise instead of despair.
In their righteousness, they will be like great oaks
   that the LORD has planted for his own glory.
Isaiah 61:1-3

I lose my patience with stupidity. I know it sounds terrible. But in the name of honesty, I need to tell you that I agree with Albert Einstein who said, “Only two things are infinite - the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.”

I also need to tell you that lately I’ve been thinking, “What if the problem is not them, but me?” My revelation came when reading about the “Lake Wobegon Effect.” Most of you know about Lake Wobegon where “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” That's the status quo in the town of Lake Wobegon, where Garrison Keillor escorts us each week on A Prairie Home Companion.

Here’s how Lake Wobegon Effect works. We have a tendency to overestimate our abilities and to underestimate our faults. Let’s use mobile phones as an example. When it comes to using a mobile phone while driving, most American drivers are overconfident about their ability to do it safely.  Most Americans have zero tolerance for other drivers who chitchat on a cell phone while driving. 88 % of drivers said they consider talking on a cell phone while driving a serious threat to their personal safety. 71 % of drivers said they consider it unacceptable to chat on a handheld phone while driving.

But they are talking about other drivers, not themselves. 67 % of drivers admit that they have talked on a cell phone while driving in the past month. Deep down inside we think the rules apply to everyone else, not us. When it comes to self-appraisal of our ability to drive safely, we think we are above average drivers in comparison with other drivers on the road.

I’m realizing that people like me who "don't have the patience for stupid people", who think our stars burn brighter than others’, may be masking some deep insecurity.  Losing patience with others is a cheap and convenient way to prop ourselves up at the expense of others. Life just feels better if I can blame some problems on the stupidity of others.

It turns out, I am not only critical of others; I can also be hard on myself. When faced with my own failures, I can move to self-judgment. Self-criticism can spiral out of control. I can turn my anger inward. That’s when my back pain flares up. That’s when I turn mean. Real mean. That’s when I get more upset at myself because I can’t do the things I want to do. It’s a terrible feeling. Hurt. Trapped. Stuck.

Most of us get stuck, from time to time. We get stuck to jobs, to circumstance, to children, to spouses, to singleness, to childlessness, to the economy, to addictions, to infirmities; stuck in expectations, hopes, fears, regrets, uncertainties, and grief; we get stuck in worn ideas and futures that have not arrived; stuck in feelings of shame, in apathy, in regrets, in greed.

Speaking of stuck, imagine the disciples hiding in a house during the Feast of Pentecost. Imagine what they must be feeling . . .
Grief:     “We miss Jesus and feel lost without him.”
Anger:    “Rome continues to terrorize us, robbing us of our humanity each day.”
Fear:       “Will we be the next ones to die for putting our hope in change?”
Shame:   “What do people say when they see us, knowing that we gave up everything to  follow a  
                 dead Messiah?”
Regret:     “I should have done more to save Jesus. I could have done more.”

God has a word for us today. It’s a word of freedom. The Sacred Spirit’s wind breathes refreshing Good news to the stuck. Comfort to the brokenhearted. Release to the captives. Favor for those who mourn. Beauty for ashes.

I recently learned a new word.  Maitri. It’s Sanskrit for “unconditional friendship with one’s self.” Maitri is the seed of happiness and the basis for compassion.  Maitri is Gladness for life. And it’s hard to come by. It’s much more common for us to disapprove of and belittle ourselves. We feel grief, shame, fear, anger and regret, and we look outside of ourselves for some validation (spiritual practice, exercise, food). A lot of this has to do with our relationship with pain and difficulty. In Buddhism, the Buddha’s great spiritual insight was a realization that in all human life pain is inevitable. Growing old. Dying.  Illness. Even love. The more you love, the more you open your heart to sadness and grief. Life has a lot of pain.

What might happen if we stop struggling against the pain in our life? This is not the kind of question we like to answer. We want to fix pain. Eradicate. Eliminate. Exterminate. Decimate. Remove. Abolish. Purge. Ignore. When we try to ignore pain, we ignore part of our very selves.

Pema Chodron tells this story: One time when I was a child, I was feeling very upset and angry at one point. I think I was around seven or eight. And there was this old woman, who I later become very close to. But the first time I ever met her, I was walking down the street kicking stones with my head down, and I was feeling very lonely. I was basically feeling that nobody loved me very much and that people weren't taking care of me. So I was walking along angry at the world, kicking stones. And this woman said, "Child, don't let the world harden your heart." When our lives are difficult, in small ways or large ways, when we're going through a lot emotionally, or when difficult things are happening in our environment, does life cause us to become more uptight and afraid? Or do those very same events, soften us and can open us to the renewing Breath of the Sacred Spirit?

That’s the message of Pentecost in Acts 2, isn’t it? Think about it. The world outside where the disciples hid was exactly the same before and after the gift of the Spirit. People worked, ate, played, made love, and struggled for survival exactly the same way before and after the gift of the Spirit. So what changed? Maitri. A change in perspective. Softening to compassion instead of hardening to fear. Like us, the disciples did not know what would happen to them tomorrow. We never know what's coming next. That's what makes us scared. We spend a lot of time trying to control the future, but the truth is that we don't really know. The question is how do we relate when things are uncomfortable? How did the disciples do it? That stepped into their discomfort with Spirit-inspired boldness. They lived into the words that Jesus said before he died, “I know longer call you servants, but friends” (John 15:15). No longer servants of fear. No longer taking orders from insecurity. They befriended their situation and reframed their suffering.

Here is our first idea that can change your life: You can love the stranger who is you. When you walk up to a mirror, what do you expect to see? Many times, the image looking back at you is critical and harsh. You’re older. You’re flabbier. You’re wrinkle. You’re not as robust as you used to be. You’re tired. Imagine what might happen if you look at your face in the mirror and your reflection greets you with generosity and respect. Your image smiles at you in compassion and welcome. You can love again that stranger who is yourself. You can give back your heart to that stranger who has loved you. Maitri. Befriend yourself once more.

Perhaps you absorbed yourself in confusion and self doubt for a couple of decades.  Perhaps you followed the wrong footsteps for too long. Perhaps you have become too satisfied with a comfortable but empty life of conformity. Yes, you have covered yourself with a veil of loss. Yes, you have known anger, fear, grief, shame, and regret. Yes, you have fed on old memories that no longer nourish your soul. There is always time to step out and sense the breath of the Spirit. That time is now. Now is the time to love. Now is the time to feast on your life. Now is the time to take beauty for ashes, blessing instead of mourning, praise instead of despair.

Sources:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7s-rRMUl04I
http://beingbuddhist.net/2011/05/22/maitri/
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-b-townsend-ii/the-lake-wobegon-effect-a_b_1163246.html
http://www.quora.com/How-do-I-get-over-my-low-tolerance-for-stupid-people
http://www.shambhala.org/teachers/pema/maitri1.php
Roger Housden, Ten Poems to Change Your Life, pp. 96-102
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