Sermon: Here I am, Lord
Sunday, December 29
Congratulations on surviving the hustle and bustle of Christmas! Don’t let your guard down, New Year’s Eve is yet to come! 2019 is ending and we’re transitioning into the new year. Some of you have committed to New Year’s resolutions and will be making personal changes. A presidential term is ending and we’re heading into the campaign season. Pastor John has left the church and we’re on a journey to figure out where we are and where we’re going. Today I’m going to take one piece of transitioning, and that’s figuring out where we are right now—in the present moment. I’ll start with a story.
It was noon on the first day of school and Jimmy, a first-grader, started heading out the door with the kindergarten students. The principal was at the door saying goodbye to the students and noticed Jimmy with his coat and backpack on. “Jimmy, where are you going?” “I’m going home.” “Jimmy, you’re in first grade now. You get to stay for lunch and after lunch, you’ll be going back to class until you leave at 3 o’clock.” Jimmy took off his backpack, threw it to the ground, and yelled, “Who signed me up for this— stuff!”
I’m sure you can all relate to situations where you found yourself in a place that you didn’t want to be. I selected our readings today to illustrate just a few of many examples from the Bible where people found themselves in a difficult time. Noah: Build a 450 ft. ark—“In the yard?–Where everyone can see it?” Mary: Pregnant by God—“Really??” Jonah: Go tell a nation of your enemies to repent? “Yeah, right! I’d rather be swallowed by a big fish!” Saul: Think you’re doing God’s work and you’re struck blind by a bright light and asked by a heavenly voice, “Why are you persecuting me?”
Whether it’s learning we’re in for a longer school day than we thought or some other seemingly impossible situation we find ourselves in, it’s important to have a skill called STOP: Stop, Take a step back, Observe, and Proceed mindfully. We may find ourselves in situations that were not of our own making: Your employer closes the business or lays you off; your loved and adored children move far away; there’s a death or loss in your family; you or someone near to you develops a serious physical or mental illness, or maybe its as simple as someone taking the parking space you had been patiently waiting for. And sometimes we create our own drama, like Jerry Long, written about in Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, who became a quadriplegic in a diving accident at 18 years of age. Whatever the situation, most often our thinking-the way we interpret events-drives our behavior.
The title of today’s sermon, “Here I am, Lord” is not intended as an answer to God’s call as it was in the book of Samuel. Instead, it’s our call to God for understanding the exact nature of the situation we’re in. “Lord, help me understand what “here” is and then I’ll be more effective in dealing with it.” When I’m in a difficult situation, I find it helpful to Stop, Take a step back, Observe both inside and outside of me, and if it’s really important, to pray about it, and to seek “wise counsel” (usually Jean) to make sure I’m understanding, truly understanding, the situation I’m in.
Anna Debenham, a teacher with the Insight Alliance, is working in prisons throughout Oregon to invite inmates to examine their thinking and their behavior. She explains, “I thought life was happening to me, but actually it is happening through me.” One of the inmates who had completed Anna’s training explained it this way. “Have you ever tried to capture a chicken in a chicken coup? I used to run after it and the chicken raced away with dust and feathers flying everywhere. I ended up exhausted with little to show for it. However, if I just sit and watch the chicken, it stays calm and just slowly goes about its business. I realized that the chicken was a good metaphor for my thinking. In the past, when something happened outside of me, I just reacted to it. I exploded in anger and made a mess of everything. That was me reacting to my world. Now, when something happens outside of me, I just observe the information outside of me, and I observe my thinking and then decide how I might want to respond to this information. This process has given me great peace.”
Jim Petersen, one of our former pastors and author of Why Don’t We Listen Better, suggested the “gulp response” to troubling situations. The gulp response prevents us from saying the first thing that comes to mind-which most often is the least effective thing to say-and it also helps us change our thinking from “attack and defend” to “listen and understand”.
Marsha Linehan, the founder of Dialectical Behavior Therapy or DBT as it is more commonly known, talks about the skill of Reality Acceptance. When we’re facing a crisis or difficult decision in our life, it’s important for us to discern the facts. It’s helpful to be able to describe the situation without judgment and without making inferences. Radical Acceptance is complete and total openness to the facts of reality as they are, without throwing a tantrum or responding with willful ineffectiveness.
Radical Acceptance is not approval. It is not compassion or love. It is not passivity, giving up, or giving in. It is not against change. It is the acceptance of the “here I am.”
Some of us may argue, “Why do I have to accept reality?”
- Rejecting or denying reality doesn’t change reality.
- Changing reality requires first accepting reality.
- Pain can not be avoided
- Rejecting reality turns pain into suffering
- Accepting reality can bring freedom
- Acceptance may lead to sadness, but deep calm usually follows
- The path out of hell is through misery
It’s pretty easy to determine when we’re questioning or fighting reality. We’ll often ask or pray, “Why me?” “It shouldn’t be this way!” We may seek deliverance, like Jesus when he asked, “Father, take this cup from me.”
Failures in radical acceptance lead to despair, passivity when action is needed, bitterness, resentment, and undue shame or guilt. The goal of radical acceptance is to fully accept just those facts that must be accepted. For some of us, this is a difficult skill. One thing that gets in the way is willfulness. Willfulness is trying to control the universe, as well as sitting on your hands when something is needed. It’s insisting on your way. It’s holding on to a grudge or bitterness.
Besides me, are there any other willful people out there?
The opposite of willfulness is willingness. Willingness is complete openness to the moment and doing just what is needed. Willingness is accepting what is, and responding to what is, in an effective manner. It’s doing what works.
When Jerry Long, the young man I mentioned earlier, broke his neck in a diving accident, I’m sure he went through a period of mourning his loss. But after a period of pain and suffering, he recognized: I broke my neck but I’m not going to let it break me. He came to know the legitimate limitations of his body, but he was willing to work with what he had. And he created a rich and meaningful life.
This is radical acceptance; the “Lord, Here I Am” moment: You know where you are when you can describe in detail what it is that you need to accept, without exaggerating or minimizing—where you can describe factually and without judgment. All four Biblical characters Noah, Jonah, Mary and Saul/Paul came to radically accept their situations. I want to share some personal stories to illustrate my journey on the path to figuring out the “Lord, Here I am” moment and tie in willfulness, willingness, and radical acceptance.
The first story is about Willful Rick. Before I met Jean, I was in a relationship with a woman that was going nowhere. I was in a lot of emotional pain and suffering because I wasn’t willing to take a deep look at myself or the relationship. So I pulled a Jonah—ran off and joined the Peace Corp. Even before I left for Costa Rica, I knew it was a mistake–but I was willful—insisting on my own way. After six weeks, I came back, embarrassed, ashamed, and feeling like a failure. Running away didn’t solve anything.
The next story I’ll share involves driving and being in a hurry. I’m sure you have been delayed by a LONG train, a SLOW driver, an accident, or something else—you can fill in the blank. I was driving down Nimbus on my way to teach a class when I was noticed several cars stopped in front of me. I looked around and noticed a gaggle of geese impeding the flow of traffic. They were in a long single-file line strutting across the street. It didn’t take me long to determine that I’d be waiting a long time before the final goose had crossed the road. I started to panic, thinking I’d be late for class, something that had never happened. I could imagine the classmates talking about how unprofessional I was for not being on time. I could feel the tightness in my chest and I started looking for ways to get out of the mess. Drive over the curb and across the lawn into a parking lot that exited on the other side of the birds? Enter the on-coming traffic lane, drive fast and hope the birds would be terrified and get out of the way? Get out of my car and try to chase them out of the road? I had to do something.
I used the STOP skill. I stopped, took a step back and observed. I accepted just the facts: I was stuck in traffic and I would have to wait until the geese crossed the road. Getting upset about it solved nothing. The best thing I could do was enjoy the moment. I started noticing the geese. They were beautiful and it was almost comical that these birds were not the least bit intimidated by the one or two-ton vehicles that were just feet away from “fowl play”! They just strutted with deliberate steps, like they owned the world. It made me chuckle and I enjoyed the Here I am, Lord moment. I recognized that I had no control over what the class participants might have thought, and I trusted that they would be as forgiving of me as I would be of them in a similar situation.
The last story I’ll share is when I cut my finger on the table saw—sliced it open like a hotdog bun–cut it bad enough that duct tape wasn’t going to fix it this time. I knew I needed to go to emergency to have stitches and I needed Jean to drive me there. Troubling thoughts hijacked my thinking: “It’s cut really bad! You’re going to lose your finger! You’ll never play the piano or guitar again!” My heart started racing and I could feel the panic. Then I used the STOP skill and radical acceptance. Facts: I cut my finger. I need to get to emergency and have a doctor look at it. I won’t know how bad it is until I talk with the doctor. I need to stay calm and ask Jean, with a calm and confident voice, to drive me to Emergency. (She has a hard time with blood and radically accepting that when I work on a project, there’s blood). I relaxed and felt a calmness come over me. The acceptance of the Here I am. I won’t lie to you. Between the time I cut my finger and even a month after the surgeon stitched my finger back together, I had to use the STOP skill at least 50 times to get rid of the imagined fears of the future and just deal with the present moment.
I want you to know that today, I am both willful and willing in my attitude towards life and I work hard at understanding and radically accepting the Here I am moment. The good news is that today I can recognize when I’m stuck in the past, disasterizing about the future, and being willful. I know I have a choice to stay willful or become more willing. When I’m willful, I’ll ask myself, “What is it I’m afraid of?” or “What is the threat?” This can be helpful in determining facts from inferences or partial truths and this helps me move forward in a more effective manner.
In closing, I invite all of us to have a willing attitude in the transitions we’re making, especially in regards to Southminster’s journey from John’s departure to an interim pastor to securing a permanent pastor. Some members are excited about this journey and others are at a place where they are hurting and angry over their loss. We’re going to be having
conversations in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be good listeners, we will be able to deal with the facts that need to be accepted, and we’ll be able to discard distorted facts or inferences that get in the way of our understanding. The radical acceptance of the present, the “Here I am, Lord,” will help us nurture the love, compassion, and strength of our beloved community.
Best wishes for the new year!