Friday, September 24, 2004

A Sermon

So a month ago I preached at UBC in Waco, Texas about transition. I spoke of graduating the day before, packing up my entire existence the day before that, and splitting all my belongings between my landlord’s garage, my ex-boyfriend’s apartment, and my newly rented room in a house in Austin, Texas. In one week I traded in my 23-year-and-counting student status and began a new life among the unfortunately-unemployed. The genius of this move was that I had no job, no job leads, and obviously no income, but now live in a much cooler city than Waco, Texas.

One month later though and I’m not sure I’m singing the same song. Being unemployed kind of sucks, even if I get to sleep in late and not have to answer to a manager wondering why I showed up at 11:30 when I was schedule at ten. Plus the daily calls from my mother telling me of her friend’s cousin’s first husband’s step-uncle who lived just outside of Austin 17 years ago could maybe get me a job (in God only knows in what line of work) are about to push me over the edge. My credit card bill is going to be out of the roof since I’m not making any money, but am spending the same amount, if not more, going to fun bars and coffee shops with friends. Not to mention my poor wart toe that needs surgery that I can’t afford without health insurance which I of course do not have. Plus, I’ve already moved again! Due to a poor choice in location of my first Austin residence being that it was located just outside of San Antonio and I had to drive a half an hour to get anywhere, I stuffed my belongings into cardboard boxes for a second time this month to move to a different house further north. Ridiculous. Even my cats are stressed, bless their hearts – they’re losing weight!

And that’s not all. That’s just the lighter side of transition. The side you can talk about in public, and joke about with your new neighbors. When I preached a month ago I thought the transitioning was over now that I had graduated, packed and was ready to move. Little did I know it was just beginning.

You see, when you’ve got 24 hours a day not to go into work, you have plenty of time to reflect on your life. Everyone around me runs around like chickens with their damn heads cut off: I got called into work, I have to fix my car, I have a test tomorrow, I’ve gotta call my girlfriend, I’ve got a meeting tonight, I’ve got a date, I’ve got a doctor’s appointment, I’ve got jury duty. And while they’re making money, touching people’s lives, learning new things, and being functional people, they rush, rush, rush. But not me, I reflect, reflect, reflect.

And quite frankly, I don’t like what I’m discovering. While other people pray for time off for themselves, I pray for time away from me. They seek to search their being, and relax and know themselves, while I sit daily with the sourness of my soul. And I’m not sure what to do about it. This transition has provided me time with me, and it is pushing me into a serious time of discomfort and disorientation, - an emotional wilderness, if you will.

I mean, what do I do with a bored, bitter, heart that holds on to years of pain? Other people have jobs and lovers and organizations and hobbies to distract them from pain, heartbreak, confusion, and a sense of worthlessness. But I’ve got none of that. I think of jobs left, lovers lost, and the emptiness I feel starting at ground zero in one of the “coolest cities in America,” and I head back to bed hoping dreamland will be more promising than reality.

I’ve been listening carefully to people here at Mosaic talk about transition in their lives: disorientation, exile, chaos and difficult times, and I’ve woven many of their stories into my own. For most of us can easily remember, dig up from within ourselves, that time in our life when we were scared, wandering, belligerent toward God, confused, hurt, angry at the world, or tired of life in general. We’ve all written the occasional sad bastard poem, and we’ve all looked at the world and asked, “Why?” What brought us to these questions and feelings may be very different scenarios but they leave us in a very similar wilderness state of loss, confusion or anger.

Micah 4:6 says, “In that day, says the LORD, I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away, and those whom I have afflicted.” This verse is fascinating to me because it describes two types of people who end up in exile or in the wilderness. The first type of person somehow winds up in a state of bewildered emotional chaos by no fault of her own. Cancer, lost jobs, abuse, divorce, death are things that happen to us that we did not ask for, life scenarios we did not seek. And yet they come, blowing us over and leaving us weak and stranded in the land of disorientation.

The other type of person in the wilderness described in this verse is the one whom God has afflicted: the one lamenting her state because of the bad choices she made and the consequences she’s receiving. I had a teacher in seminary named Dr. Ngan who would “whack” us if we said something sexist or insensitive or stupid. It was always in a joking manner, but she did talk seriously about how God “whacks” us sometimes too. In Micah God “whacked” the Israelites because of social evils. The people were oppressing the poor, and their prophets and rulers were money-hungry hypocrites. And God whacked them. However, because Micah tells us that God whacked the Israelites does not mean that we can look at someone in a wilderness state and assume that God is “whacking” or punishing them. Dr. Ngan always said it was never our place to describe when God had “whacked” someone else. In other words, she made it very clear that when bad things happen, it is not always some vengeful punishment from God. Sometimes shit just happens. Only the personally afflicted know in their own hearts when they have been “whacked” by God.

So there are those who end up in the wilderness by no fault of their own and those who are put there by God to help them sort out their priorities, but God gathers up both together to deliver them from exile. Verse 7 goes on to say, “The lame I will make a remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation.” A remnant is a base, a solid root of a new exciting entity; a strong nation is one that has power to be God’s people. God gathers those who are lame from life, and begins the rebuilding process with us! Not with the powerful or with those who have their lives in order, but with those who have experienced the exile and are now becoming new people rooted in God’s love and grace.

But what I have been discovering through my transition process and now from my bewildered walk through the wilderness of my soul is that perhaps there are some of us, a third type of person, who reject God’s grace to settle for the exilic life. I wonder if there are not some of us who are in the wilderness because of our own undoing. We stubbornly choose to remain in a state of disorientation instead of accepting God’s invitation to grace and restoration. As such, we have allowed our hearts to react to the pain we’ve experienced in the world with anger, greed, bitterness, self-pity, or hate. When we experience loss there is a necessary time of mourning that the wilderness allows and that actually leads to healing. But I have discovered that sometimes when God is ready to help me move past the pain, I have chosen to remain in it. I wonder if there are not some of us whose pain is replaced not with healing and deliverance by God, but with retaliation on our part, a triumph of our pain and pride over any healing God offers. In essence, we tell God we can handle the pain ourselves, and our hearts begin to turn as dark as the world we feel has turned against us.

Now, I’m not saying we entertain dark thoughts of mass murders, the raping and pillaging of our neighborhood or any blatant, enormous, horrible sins like that. Rather, I’m talking about the thoughts and motivations in our hearts that move from being God-centered to being us-centered, me-centered. When God offers healing, forgiveness, courage or strength, we brood instead on our anger, envy, strife, jealously and divisiveness.

Frederick Buechner writes about anger saying, “Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back – in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”[1]

And this is a scary thing because in clinging to the pain that is so familiar and yet so destructive, we simultaneously resist God who waits to gather us in to his healing care. “Bitterness is all I know!” And so we reject God’s forgiveness, reject the notion of forgiving others, and we wallow in our pain. “I was robbed!” we scream, “of my childhood, of my job, of my parents, of my love!” And yes, for those of us who were sexually abused as children, we were robbed; for those of us whose spouse chose adultery over fidelity, we were robbed; for those of us who were passed up for our ideal jobs because of sexism or racism, we were robbed. I do not mean to demean any of these painful experiences. But when we move from honest pain to demanding that the world sees our injustice through our eyes, when we prefer to wallow (sometimes for years) in our pain rather than be helped into a new place by God, we will never experience the freedom of healed life.

Indeed, we deceive ourselves when we go to worship singing songs of deliverance and joy while we harbor angry thoughts about our neighbor. We deceive ourselves when we volunteer at church: set up on Sunday, offer our home for Bible study, and go to weekly community groups while envy rules in our heart. Time and time again God tells Israel, it is not sacrifices or burnt offerings that I desire, but a clean heart.[2] In other words, it’s not all about what we do, but rather, who we are.

The wilderness is not a bad place – a hard place perhaps, but not necessarily a bad place. For our time in the wilderness is a time for us to wrestle with our emotions, fears, anger, and confusion. It is a time often of honest mourning. It is a time to sort out who we are and who we want to be. It is a time when we wrestle with God, a time that brings us to our knees in pain, and a time when God brings his grace to the table to set us free. But when we choose not to accept the embrace of God and choose instead to live independent of God’s love and healing, in essence we choose the death of our hearts and the death of pure joy. We all know people in this extreme: people addicted to their pain, to their sense of injustice. The question then becomes, to what extent do we harbor the same life-sucking sins (even if to a lesser extent) in our lives?

But God aches to give us freedom from these inadequate feelings. God longs to make us whole in and of ourselves, completed by God’s love. God can take our hate and replace it with love, on our anger God can shower peace, to our envy God gives contentment and to our helplessness, self-esteem. But we must be at a place of weakness - of weariness of ourselves - to welcome grace from God. And grace will come. I can’t explain how this happens or how long it takes. For me it took honest prayer, recognition of my sin, a confession of it and prayerful pleading for a change of heart. It took reading old texts about the first wilderness walkers. I don’t mean to sound trite and offer Sunday school answers like “Pray! Read your Bible! and Jesus!” but for me, prayer that admitted my inability to heal myself was the first step to accepting God’s outstretched, healing hand. And I am not happy and forever well, but I am well on my way. We are all works in progress, unfinished paintings needing the touch of the Master Artist’s hand.

How this looks for you, I don’t know. Maybe it means giving up on you, giving up on pain that will never heal you. Perhaps it means joining a faith community that can love you for who you are. Perhaps accepting God’s healing means reading the stories of those aksi healed, and listening to the stories of the people around you who have experienced the same. Perhaps it means talking to a Don or Phil or a professional counselor. We are all at different places, but to each depth, God’s love extends. For, it is not the perfect God seeks, but the wounded: those who ache for healing. Zephaniah calls, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the LORD.”[3] Amen.

Ann Pittman
Sept. 19, 2004
Mosaic Church Austin, TX

[1] Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words. Harper: San Francisco, 2004, 18.
[2] Hosea 6:6, Isaiah 1:11-17
[3] Zephaniah 3:14-20

Sunday, September 19, 2004

so i graduated with my master's degree august 14, 2004. in divinity no less. god only knows why. and now i live in austin, for not quite a month, and as is the way with the disshelved ones, i've already moved twice in that one month. i have joined ranks with the unfortunately unemployed, but will survive (if my creditors don't eat me alive). i preach at my new church mosaic ( ) sunday night, teach a class on genesis tuesday evening, and then leave directly after that for columbia missouri. going to visit the acuffs (milly's hiring me to organize her life in three days - hey jesus managed to bring himself back to life in that amount of time, surely i can clean a damn house!) and also to visit pitts and joel who recently bought a house in columbia where amy is in med school. then i'm off to liberty to hang with emmers at the dz brunch on saturday and then finally on to st jo mo on sunday. fun times!
actually, its been quite a transition figuring out what i want to do with my life, now that (for the first time in 23 years) i am no longer a student. do i sing? act? pastor? preach? write? i've decided on teaching: substituting for now (if Austin ISD ever officially "processes" and hires me) and then hopefully someday in a university. i want to do PhD work in literature starting in fall of 05 so guess who has to take the GRE this semester and apply to schools. that's right, yours truly. why stop with school now? it's all i know. reality can wait as far as i'm concerned.
so that's the scoop. lots of love and peace and learning.