Grace for Ourselves and Others

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

This is a meditation on grace that I shared at our Ash Wednesday service.  It was based on Psalm 51.

Well, being from Indiana I am a basketball fan.  I’ve been a fan of the Indiana Pacers ever since they were in the ABA, used a red, white and blue basketball and played against the Virginia Squires. I also like the college teams – especially Purdue, Notre Dame, but mostly Indiana University.  IU is doing well this year – they have 19 wins and 5 losses this season and have been in the top twenty-five rankings.  And of course IU has all sorts of fans all over the state – some of them who put a lot of emotional energy into the game.

It was a couple of years ago.  IU was having an even better season than they are now.  They were standing at 20 wins and 2 losses.  They were playing Illinois.  It was a tough game but IU lost on a last second shot.  I was friends with another IU Fan on Facebook who wrote this on his Facebook page for everyone to see, “UNBELIEVABLE!!!! TOTALLY embarrassing, a NIGHTMARE – this season with the possibility of a Big ten title is OVER.  Really Guys!!!!!!!”  He used a lot of capital letters and exclamation points to get his point across. 

My first reaction to that post was that it was a lot of emotion for someone who probably never played the game at any level and doesn’t understand what it is like to compete against folks who are trying just as hard as you are to win the game.  And second the loss meant their record dropped to all of 20-3 and they were still tied for first place in the Big 10.  That’s pretty good   But here was somebody, a supposed fan, ready to write their season off because of a last second, two point loss.  Really?

Maybe one of the most important things for us to remember about life, is no single moment in our life, whether it is a moment of great accomplishment or a moment of stark failure, no single moment should be allowed to define who we are.  Life is much more complex than that.  We are much more than what we are at any single point in history.

For years, Lance Armstrong, was thought to be the ultimate champion, not only because of his seven bicycle victories in the Tour de France, but also because of his personal triumph over cancer and his Live Strong Foundation which supports those that battle that awful disease.  But then we learned because of investigations, and by his own word, that his bicycle victories included his cheating through performance enhancing drugs and his rise to the top included his willingness to lie and squash anyone who presented an obstacle to him.  Even with that information about being someone who lied and cheated his way to victory, someone who trampled on others, there were those suffering from cancer and their families who said that in spite of all that, Lance Armstrong would always be a hero to them for what he has done to help further cancer research and to inspire and support cancer patients.  So which is Lance Armstrong then - liar, cheat, manipulator or hero, inspiring champion?  Is he just one or the other or both and?  Does it depend on whether you were one of his bicycling competitors or whether you are one the cancer patients who have been inspired by him?

In the Psalm we have read today we have King David confessing profound sinfulness.  The result of being confronted by the prophet Nathan.  David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and when discovered he conspired to have Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed.  Imagine if David was our political leader and such a scandal broke out. There would be no stone unturned in getting that guy out of office and putting him behind bars, because no one is supposed to be above the law,  King David, corrupt, adulterer, murderer – yet the scriptures say that David was also a man after God’s own heart.  We still use the story of David defeating Goliath to inspire us to conquer the giants in our own lives.  And David’s words are scripture, the Word of the Lord.  Psalms 23 is the most often cited as one to be read in the most difficult time of the human journey the journey of death and grief.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, . . .” Aren’t those beautiful words – some of the most beloved in the whole Bible?  Well who wrote them- David the corrupt adulterer and murderer or David a man after God’s own heart?   One or the other, both/and.

What about Paul?  When the church was starting he was violently opposed to it.  When Stephen was stoned for proclaiming the gospel, the first Christian martyr, Paul was there and he did nothing to stop it.  In fact, the scriptures say that he approved of the killing.  It also says that he breathed “threats and murder” against those who followed Jesus. But then Paul himself became a follower and he ended up writing quite a bit of the New Testament and writing those powerful words about “clothing ourselves in love which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  Which was Paul – the one who approved of the stoning of Stephen, who breathed threats and murder against the church or the one who wrote about the importance of love?  Well he was both wasn’t he?

 What about you?  Is your heart always pure, always in the right place, you always do the right thing?  Or are there times when you have said, done or maybe even just thought, some of the things you are not proud of.

I have never been to one of my high school reunions.  I am afraid what would happen to people if they learned I was a minister.  There might be a heart attack or two – especially now that we are older. They knew who I was back then, who I ran around with, what I did, they couldn’t believe I was a minister not after those days.

We are neither the sum of our accomplishments, nor the total of our stark failures.  We are human beings, each of us, on a journey through life.  No snap shot of a single moment can define our journey, a panoramic view is a necessity for all of us.  And this is why grace is so important, not only to receive but to extend to others.

A last second, two point loss and someone is ready to write the entire season off. Have you ever done that with a person?  They fail one of life’s tests, they stumble, they fall – “Well that’s who they are, that’s all they are ever going to be, no use in wasting any time on them.”  Yet, isn’t the story of our faith the story of grace and second chances – and third and fourth chances.  This is even why we know of David, why we know of Paul.   God did not write them off nor cast them aside because of their failure.  And the same is true for so many of the biblical characters – Jacob, Moses, Peter, and Rahab.

I want to encourage you during this season of Lent to be full of grace. First toward yourself.  Your failures, whatever they may be, do not define you.  You are more than that.  I encourage you also to be full of grace toward others – their failures, whatever they may be are not what define them either.  Grace does not mean being naïve.  It doesn’t mean just allowing yourself to be taken advantage of.  It means, at least in part, that you give somebody the opportunity to get it right this time.  Peace be with you and all of us who need that additional opportunity.

If You Were Successful, Would You Even Know It?

Living with Drama

I’ve got a friend who, not too long ago, experienced some difficult times with his family. Addiction. Co-dependency. A nightmare of family recriminations. For a couple of months, it seemed, he was on the phone every day with his family rehearsing some new sordid development.

He and I went out to breakfast one day, and I asked him how he was doing. He said that this family crisis seemed to consume him, and that he didn’t have any energy for anything else. Always some new wrinkle, some new situation requiring that he devote more time and energy.

“It’s like living in a soap opera. And the weird thing is, I feel almost like I’m addicted to it.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

“At first it seemed interesting being involved in something important. I liked the phone calls and the meetings, thinking I was helping to make the situation better. Hours every day. But then I realized that I needed the adrenaline rush I got when some new twist appeared, and we were all on the phone about it. Now, it just feels like we talk endlessly and nothing really gets fixed. And I’m beginning to wonder if I’m hooked on the drama.”

“So why don’t you quit doing it?” I wondered.

“It’s not that easy. I want to quit, but we really are talking about some important things. On the other hand, whatever we’re doing isn’t really changing anything; it’s just making me constantly stressed out and preventing me from doing other things I need to do. I don’t know.”

Have you ever been around somebody who’s gotten hooked on drama? Everything in their lives revolves around “the thing.” They endlessly run conversations and scenarios in their head, like the Joint Chiefs of Staff war gaming the invasion at Normandy. There’s intrigue and subplots, betrayals and instances of sacrifice, great acts of courage and petty retributions.

I’ve been a part of congregations like that. Congregations get hooked on drama. Phone line marathons. Postmortems on the board meeting in the parking lot. Strategy sessions seated around conference tables, furiously poring over copies of the by-laws, now complete with marginalia and a cross-referencing apparatus.

The whole negative feedback loop of drama can start innocently enough. A personnel issue here, a budget problem there—and pretty soon you’re talking about Roberts Rules of Order over your cornflakes.

But the irony is that doing anything creative (or even constructive) is almost impossible once the drama takes hold. Reactivity reigns. You spend more time rehearsing what you “should have said” at the meeting than imagining what kind of action could allow you to realize a faithful vision of the future.

“So, how do we stop it?”

It would be easy for me to be glib, coming off like I have all the answers about how to disrupt the drama enough to get purchase on a healthier way of being. The truth of the matter is I don’t have any magic elixir I can dispense.

But let me get back to that in a minute.

If You Were Successful Would You Know It?

I was driving the other day, and this phrase popped into my head: If your congregation were ever successful, would you recognize it?

That’s a lot to unpack, right? Most of which has to do with how you define “success.” That’s problematic, as I’ve argued before, since congregations tend to have standards of success that are largely impossible to achieve, having to do with a variety of complex factors mostly out of any congregation’s control. Because of the culture we live in, we have a pretty good idea of what “successful” congregations are supposed to look like. They’re the one’s getting all the attention, the one’s reporters turn to to get a comment on breaking news, the one’s highlighted in denominational P.R. materials.

I’m increasingly convinced, however, that success has more than just one face—past which we all too quickly walk. There are successful congregations—congregations that are living faithfully their calling to embody the reign of God—which, because they don’t look that great according to the ways we’ve been taught to keep score, are always in jeopardy of despair—always in danger of succumbing to the temptation of drama.

These churches limp along on budgets that rarely seem to cover all the costs. They don’t have huge numbers of transfers. They can no longer support a graded Sunday School program. By all popular ecclesiastical accounting measures, they’re failures.

And it would be one thing if they failed courageously, but for the most part their failures are pedestrian, unexceptional, ho-hum.

Decline. Attrition. Death. Not with a bang but a whimper.

But what if there were some congregations, congregations that had no business calling themselves successful, that were actually doing something huge, enormous, earth-shattering? Because of the ways we’ve trained ourselves to think about success, would these churches even know they were setting the world on fire—and if not the world, then at least the worlds they occupy?

“So, where are you going with this?”

Let me try to weave two separate strands together.

The Tsunamis of Drama that Keep Us Preoccupied with Our Inadequacies

Congregations, like the enablers addicts require to feed their addictions, often get caught up in the self-destructive cycle of drama. They move from one catastrophe to another, always convinced that they’re in a life and death struggle. Three hour board meetings, frantic phone calls, endless email threads exegeting each passive-aggressive line of text.

The handwringing is exquisite in its enjoyment of self-inflicted pain, like the ever darting tongue rolling over a canker sore. Drama gives satisfaction, just to the extent that it allows its participants to feel the same apprehension and foreboding felt by people who really are facing cataclysms. Life seems so much more significant when infused with the adrenaline of anxiety.

But here’s the problem I see: Congregations addicted to drama are virtually incapable of doing the kind of reflection necessary to recognize when they’re doing something right. The lizard brain takes over, reactivity sets in, and every external stimulus gets read as a threat requiring all the energy and resources of the body.

What if you were doing something outrageously important, but because it didn’t fit whatever model of success sold to you by a cynical culture you continued to cling to the familiar fears you associated with your inadequacies?

What if caring for that group of aging CWF women was the very thing God put you on the earth to do?

What if as God is busy drawing up the blueprint, your congregation’s role in helping usher in the God’s reign is handing out backpacks and haircuts to the children of migrant field workers?

What if what you have to offer for the cause is a van and a couple of folks willing to go to the wrong side of town to pick up a few kids who’ll never swell anybody’s bottom line?

What if God is busy saving the world with the very resources you discount because you’re so addicted to the drama, so afraid your resources can’t possibly be enough that you don’t even realize it?

In The War of Art, a book about writing and the pursuit of creative passion, Steven Pressfield gets at the crux of the issue:

It may help to think of it this way. If you were meant to cure cancer or write a symphony or crack cold fusion and you don’t do it, you not only hurt yourself. You hurt your children. You hurt me. You hurt the planet.
You shame the angels who watch over you and you spite the Almighty, who created you and only you with your unique gifts, for the sole purpose of nudging the human race one millimeter farther along its path back to God.

Don’t let the drama suck your soul and steal your passion for the very thing God is depending on you to do.