Monday, October 6, 2014

Beaten Down / Raised Up!

“The tenants seized the slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another.  Again the vineyard owner sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way.” 

Here is one of my all-time favorite stories.  It will give you a chuckle, not a laugh, but it comes back to me again and again.  A man owned a bakery that was famous for two things: fabulous, fresh-baked bread and a talking parakeet.  The bird repeated almost everything the baker said.  Well, as you can imagine, the shop was very popular and at different times of the day was jammed with customers.  It was not uncommon for multiple people to shout an order at the same time.  In the face of such an onslaught the baker would insist, “One at a time!  One at a time!”  One day the unthinkable happened: the parakeet escaped out the front door of the shop.  The baker, only a step or two behind, dashed outside and spied the parakeet perched on the branch of a nearby tree where it had already attracted the attention of a huge flock of mean-spirited crows.  Dozens of birds were diving at the parakeet from all directions.  It was then that the baker heard his parakeet squawk, “One at a time!  One at a time!”

I suspect each of us knows what it feels like to be that parakeet.  No one gets through life without being challenged, and my experience is that challenges don’t confront us in a nice, orderly fashion.  They tend to come in bunches, don’t they?  Doesn’t the old expression ‘kick a person when he is down’ hint that challenges tend to attract more challenges, hardship seems to begat more hardship, affliction has a way of multiplying, and tough times often test us with even tougher times.  At one time or another, everyone one of us has been that parakeet in the tree.  Some of us are ducking for cover right now and screaming or pleading or begging with all our might, “One at a time!  One at a time!”

Earlier this week I happened upon a blogpost written a few years ago by Christine, a forty-year-old woman who lives in Massachusetts.  She has been diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that attacks the glands that secrete tears and saliva.  Some time after she began to deal with this, Christine developed blood clots in her lungs.  Then she was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, where the immune system attacks nerves and leads to profound muscle weakness.  More treatment led to head pain, nausea, and increased tremors.  Add to this dealing with health insurance, which is not easy even under the best of conditions, as well as the day to day challenges we all face (her computer crashed) and it is pretty easy to understand why Christine gave her post the title “Beaten Down.”

“My body wants to feel pretty again,” she wrote.  “It feels disfigured from the bruises and the rashes.  From the hair that is starting to fall out, from the steroids and the often pale, makeup-less face that stares back at me in the mirror... the darkened eyes that used to be so much more vibrant.   My body does not understand that it is an effort to get it clean every day right now.  Will I ever be able to do an activity again for more than ten or fifteen minutes without needing to sit or lie down,” she wondered?  “Will I ever be able to stoop down again without falling over or needing help to get up?  Will I ever be able to shower and wash my hair again without it being this epic event that exhausts me and makes me shake?”

Some of you have been in that place, others not far from it, and surely the rest of us can sympathize with Christine and her plight.

When Jesus tells a parable he invites us, the listeners, to locate ourselves in the story.  Which person or character are you?  We may see ourselves in multiple characters, or, as our life changes, may recognized that we have shifted from one person to another.  Where do you see yourself in today’s parable of the vineyard owner and the wicked tenants?  If things are going well then you may not identify with the servants and messengers who are treated rudely, disrespected, beaten, and/or killed.  But my guess is there have been times in your life when you are they and they are you.  You don’t have to have been victimized by thugs to fill their shoes.  Sometimes life itself is the thug and it hits us with more than we can handle.  As with Christine, it may be health crisis.  It might center on a relationship.  It could involve employment.  Life has lots of ways to beat us down.

When I was younger I had a problem.  I believed that life should never do me wrong.  It wasn’t like I had never been challenged.  My father died when I was twenty.  I had the girlfriend or two who broke my heart.  I had a friend or two that betrayed me.  But I was making the path for my life laying one brick at a time and it seemed that nothing could or should get in my way.  That assumption was challenged mightily after I graduated from seminary and took my first job as an assistant to the rector of a parish.  Nothing in life had prepared me to work with a person as dysfunctional as he was.  He meddled and manipulated and basically made miserable both my professional and my personal life.  To make matters worse, I was completely unequipped to deal with such a person and that is a recipe for disaster.  Eventually, I was unemployed and nearly broken by the experience.

Last week I told you about a decision I had to make: keep my word and work for a church whose job offer I had accepted, or break my word and accept a new, second offer.  That dilemma came during this time of unemployment.  I hope you remember the counsel I received from priest who had welcomed me into the Episcopal Church (“What do you want your word to be worth?”) and the letter he wrote to me (“Blessed is he who giveth his word to his brother and dissappointeth him not… even though it be to his own hindrance”).  You may recall I said that letter was the most powerful and formative correspondence I have ever received. 

What I shared with you last week was the first part.  Today I want to read the second half, which addressed the residue I carried with me after the pain and disappointment of my first calling:

You may feel your experiences in ministry to date warrant cynical and angry responses.  The truth is that negative experience does not exist.  There is simply experience.  The Lord is with us when we use our experience to deepen our love and to strengthen our praise.  The cross was not a “negative” experience.  On the contrary, it is for us the ultimate witness to the power of God to evoke grace in every circumstance.  I pray that you will be entirely free of the fault of resentment which will rob you of all joy and disable you as a man and therefore as a minister.  Let all clamor cease in your heart, and if that is not possible, lay that fault penitently and incessantly before God in prayer.  Resentment and self-pity are the virtuous vestments put on by unregenerate egotism for disguise.  No one, of course, is deceived, except oneself. 

Congratulations on your new appointment.  Accepted with humility and offered in love, your ministry will be blessed.

Over the years the truth and wisdom of his words have been born out in my life time and again.  Life, like the ocean, is what it is.  Sometimes the tide goes out, sometimes it comes in.  Some days are calm while others are rough and choppy.  There are days when everything is as you would like it to be and other days when a hidden rip current is ready to take you for a ride into the unknown (and unwanted).  More than when I was younger, I now receive moments of grace with thankfulness and humility and I am better at facing adversity with joy, faith, and patient acceptance.  To quote again my friend, “The cross was not a ‘negative’ experience.  On the contrary, it is for us the ultimate witness to the power of God to evoke grace in every circumstance” and “the Lord is with us when we use our experience to deepen our love and to strengthen our praise.”   I see and sense that better now than I did years ago.

At the end of Christine’s blogpost she writes this:

I was sitting in church this morning and looking around at the various people scattering the pews and wondering how many of them were feeling beaten down right at this moment?  Or wondering how many of them had maybe felt beaten down at a different time in their lives?  A time where some things did not make sense or that they felt they had endured more than their fair share of beatings so to speak.  I don’t have to know all of their stories to know that those stories are there in some form or another.  Tales of survival.  Tales of people who became stronger and more compassionate people because of what they had to endure.  Journeys that were easier than mine and definitely journeys that were more difficult than mine.  People who were beaten down but yet rose up.  Again.  And again.  And again.  Just like I will.

Her words remind me of the ancient Japanese proverb: “Fall seven times, stand up eight.”  “My strength didn’t come from lifting weights,” another person said.   “My strength came from lifting myself up every time I was knocked down.”

In the parable he told, Jesus is of course the son who is killed, as he himself one day will be crucified.  He then quotes a rather obscure psalm that describes how the rejected stone becomes the cornerstone.  The message for us is straightforward: Life’s challenges and trials have a way, through the grace of God and the power of resurrection, to make us stronger, better, and more useful than we were before.  We who gather here this morning are stones weathered and hewed by the experiences of life, yet witnesses to God’s grace to use every experience to evoke a working of grace.