Sunday, July 8, 2012

What Lies Within

While doing my devotionals on July 4th I encountered a quote attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson: “What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” I liked that sentiment so much that I posted it on facebook, only to have my brother-in-law respond, “hence the need for Pepto-Bismol.”

Later in the morning I decided to take myself and my mountain bike and drive to Williamsburg for a nice little ride in the woods of Freedom Park in the 100 degree heat. Things started out fine, but when I got to the place in the park farthest from my car, to the most remote place on the trial, my rear derailleur snapped. My bike ride was instantly transformed into a bike walk.

Fortunately I had a trail map and a compass on my iPhone, so I figured I could get off the winding path and head due west through the woods to the main trail leading back to the parking lot. This plan, if properly executed, would have cut out a mile or so of a six-mile trek back to the car. Well, after 45 minutes I managed to accomplish three things:

1. I saw parts of the forest that no human being had seen in a long time.

2. I had ticks on my legs.

3. I was a mile and a half farther away than when I started on my shortcut.

At that point, drenched in sweat, I decided to stick to the trail as the safest, surest way out. Walking along in the heat, up and down hills, working hard just to catch my breath, I thought about what lied behind me and what lied ahead and told myself that what was inside mattered more. I guess it worked, because I lived to tell the tale.

“What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” This is a pretty fitting summation of today’s Gospel reading. Behind Jesus lies the sound rejection of the people of his hometown. Ahead is the road to Jerusalem and the Crucifixion. But these were no match for what was within him.

I enjoy driving back roads through small, rural towns. More often than not, when you drive into a small town there is a sign proclaiming the community’s love for its favorite son or daughter. It might be a major league ball player or an astronaut or an author. Small towns celebrate when one of their own makes good.

But not Nazareth. They were having none of Jesus’ newfound notoriety and fame. They we not buying into his healings. And they certainly were not going to stomach his teachings. How would you feel if the people who raised you – the people who know you better than anyone else in the world – rejected you the way the people of Nazareth rejected Jesus? I would feel humiliated, defeated, small, insignificant, betrayed.

That is what lied behind Jesus. But it was a tiny matter compared to what was within him. Within Jesus was a love of God and a love of God’s people – especially those who were hurting, despised, or deemed worthless. This love was not merely a sentimental feeling nor was it just a wishing of the best for everyone, rather it was birthed daily through grit, determination, and unwavering resolve. What came before and what was still to come were in fact tiny matters compared to what was within Jesus.

A lesser person might have quit after what happened in his home town, but not Jesus. He decides to double down. He decides that his ministry will now be the ministry of his followers too. He gathers them together, gives them the leanest of instructions, tells them they already have everything they need to carry with them, and sends them out in groups of two. The only concrete advice he gives is to stay where you are welcome and where you are not, shake the dust off your feet as you leave. Do good work where you can and move on when you can’t.

These teams of disciples spread throughout the region and in every home and every small town they are able to do exactly what the people in Nazareth would not let Jesus do there – teach, heal, and bless. It was all made possible because Jesus had something inside him that was more than a match for the challenges he encountered.

His spirit of determination lies within each one of us. Some of us express it boldly, while others may be more on the timid side. But what was true of Jesus is true of each one of us. I don’t care what is in your past (and for some people the past weighs very heavily) and I don’t care what your future holds (although you can be sure that some pretty serious stuff is coming down the pike), none of it can get the better of what you have inside you. You have the ability to deal with whatever lies behind and ahead and to direct your life through it to a better place.

This is a lesson that it took a while for St. Paul to learn. In today’s New Testament reading he writes about a “torn in the flesh.” No one knows exactly to what he is referring, but scholars speculate it might have been a health problem like epilepsy or very poor eyesight. No matter what the source, on three separate occasions Paul prayed that it would go away. He believed that what was within him was not able to stand up to what challenged him. But then came a wonderful understanding, a word from the Lord that said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” He goes on to write that he has found contentment in the midst of insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamites because when he is weak Christ in him is strong. He realized he did not need these things removed from his life because he had something within that was more than able to overcome it.

I read an article this week by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross where she described the experience of having her home burn to the ground, destroying all of her possessions in life. To make matters worse, there was evidence that foul play was involved (perhaps by someone who didn’t like that she cared for dying patients with HIV). Kubler-Ross said that at moments like this we face two options. The common response, she says, is this:

“We collapse, we give up, feeling hopeless and defeated. We focus on the negatives, losing ourselves in the ‘problem.’ We point to our unhappy circumstances to rationalize our negative feelings. This is the easy way out. It takes, after all, very little effort to feel victimized.”

The less common response, she says, is to “view the unhappy experience as an opportunity for a new beginning… to look for the growth opportunities, and find an inner reserve of strength.” That is a wonderful description of how Jesus responded to the humiliating treatment he received in his home town. For Kubler-Ross, she decided to make a new beginning in a new place near where her children and grandchildren lived. It was a decision she would not have made without the fire and she writes that it has initiated a new, wonderful era in her life. She was able to do so because she firmly believed that every disaster in life can be a gift in disguise.

For Jesus, the disaster of Nazareth became the gift of empowering others to share in his work and ministry. For Kubler-Ross, the gift was a new way of living she otherwise would not have embraced. For Paul, the gift was learning that he was strong enough to deal with all that made him weak. For me, my little walk in woods reminded me that I have the physical and mental strength to overcome minor adversity – a lesson I can draw on the next time a face something much greater than a little nuisance. Through the grace and strength of Christ, what lies behind you and what lies ahead of you are tiny matters compared to what lies within you.