Monday, May 24, 2010

Living a Lie

It’s hard to live a lie. I learned that in second grade. I hated it that I was the only kid in my class who didn’t have a middle name. It made me feel weird, like I didn’t belong. Well, one day we were reading a story about a girl named Nancy Ann and the teacher said to me, “Nancy Ann! Why that’s almost your name.” “That is my name,” I told her. “My name is Nancy Ann Kraft.”

And there it was – the big fat lie. Now I was going to have to live with it. A couple months later my mom came to an open house night at the school and after she got home she told me that she had seen a lot of my work displayed on the walls. Then she laughed, “You know, you’re the only one in your class who doesn’t have a middle name and you’re the only who had to write a middle name on everything she did.” It was true. In the upper right hand corner of every paper I turned in that year I wrote, Nancy Ann Kraft. I couldn’t wait to be in the third grade with a new teacher so I wouldn’t have to keep writing my middle name all the time. Yes, it’s hard to live with a lie.

Have you ever told a lie that came back later to bite you in the butt? They tend to do that. So, why do we lie? Is it because we’re afraid? Or so we can hide? Or to protect ourselves from being rejected? Often it seems that it’s easier to lie than it is to tell the truth, at least in the short run. But lies have a way of catching up with us and we usually learn that, in the long run, we would have been better off telling the truth to begin with.

The greatest challenge we face in the time we spend on Earth may be the challenge to stop lying and live authentically as the people God created us to be. We were created in the image of God. Why is that image so often hidden behind the false self we present to the world?

At an early age we’re taught to pretend we’re someone else, someone who is more acceptable to the people around us. We learn that if we want to be loved, we should be quieter; we shouldn’t whine so much. We should be smarter, more athletic, better looking. We should like the same TV shows our friends like. We should say we’re feeling fine, even when we aren’t. We should control ourselves when we’re excited. The list of shoulds could go on and on. And while we’re learning to follow all the shoulds that make us more acceptable to people we want to love us, somewhere along the way, we lose sight of who we really are. We’re so busy trying to please other people that we obscure the person God created us to be.

To grow in our relationship with God is to become more and more authentic before God. And here’s the part that makes it work. We know that God is all about grace, that God loves us just as we are. So, we don’t have to work to make ourselves more acceptable to God by pretending to be someone we’re not. In fact, just the opposite is true. The way to live in relationship with God is to let go of all pretenses so that we can grow into the people God created us to be.

We don’t have to lie about who we are. We don’t have to pretend we never have doubts. We don’t have to deny our failures and our struggles. We don’t have to hide the truth about our sexual orientation or identity. Nor do we have to hold back from sharing the unique gifts God has given us. We don’t have to show restraint when we’re overflowing with God’s love.

Not only does a life of authenticity feel a whole lot better than living under the burden of lies, but by living as the people God created us to be, we give honor to our Creator. Can there be a better way to live than that?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Can't You Just Work Around My Junk?

When I was at a former church I did campus ministry, and every year we’d take a group of college students on a mission trip somewhere. I’ll never forget the year we went to Washington DC. We worked with a group called “Hearts and Hammers”, which sent work crews out to do house repairs for people who didn’t have the means to do it for themselves. We went to the home of a woman I'll call "Mrs. Black." She wanted us to paint some walls in her house.

Words can’t adequately describe this woman’s house. From the outside it looked like a typical bi-level, suburban home that was about 20 or 30 years old. But as soon as you opened the door, you knew that there was nothing typical about this house. The first thing that caught our attention was the odor. This woman had 17 cats who roamed throughout her house at will and, to my recollection, there was no litter box.

There was trash, everywhere. Her dining room looked like the inside of a dumptster: McDonald’s cups, pizza boxes, milk cartons, you name it. I couldn’t see the table or the chairs, stuff was piled so high. In her living room there was nowhere to sit, with junk mail from years past, newspapers, magazines… piles everywhere. As we walked through the house, it was all like that. A mountain range of garbage, most of it defiled by her herd of cats.

The students had to leave the house and put on surgical masks so they could breathe. And they were upset. When they offered to help clean her house, Mrs. Black refused, insisting that what she wanted us to do was some painting. This was absolutely absurd!

Finally, we convinced her that we wouldn’t be able to paint because we couldn’t get to the walls. Reluctantly, she let us clean, and we went at it for days. We left a much different house than the one we had entered. But after we drove away the last day, we all wondered how long it would take for the place to look again the way we had first found it.

I still think about Mrs. Black from time to time. I’ve come to realize that I have more in common with her than I would like to admit. I come to God, asking him to help me out with some light painting, thinking that’s all I really need. But there’s so much trash cluttering my life that he can’t do much of anything with me because he can’t get to me.

As a Lutheran, I’m big on grace. I know that I can’t save myself from my own self-destructive ways; only God can do that. But I wonder if maybe there’s a big part of me that doesn’t want God to do his work in my life. Because that would mean opening myself up to the very real possibility of having my life transformed. And that’s scary for me. It would mean letting go of the way of life I’ve come to know. Even if it’s not really working for me, it’s familiar, it’s safe. I know what to expect.

So, rather than risk opening myself up to God’s Spirit working in my life, I continue to fill my life with all kinds of unimportant stuff. I pile it up all around me, hoping that it will make it all the more difficult for God to come to me, and maybe in the process, nothing will change. I can be the same person I’ve always been, well-insulated from the one who has promised me abundant life.

Yes, Mrs. Black and I aren’t all that different. But God doesn’t drive away and give up on me the way our mission team gave up on her. And that makes all the difference.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Illegal Immigrants: What's the problem?

The problem, as I understand it, is not that our nation is inhospitable to immigrants. After all, with the exception of Native Americans, we all came here from someplace else, right? But our problem is with illegal immigrants. So I’m told.

Okay. Maybe. But I’m not convinced.

I suspect that what bothers us, if we're honest, is the otherness of people who just aren’t like us. In a discussion at Holy Trinity last week, when I asked why we humans tend toward an us-and-them way of looking at the world, one man observed that it’s hard-wired into us. Way back in the caveman days, it was a matter of survival to be wary of the other. So, maybe that explains why we always have to have someone who is the other, someone we perceive as a threat to our way of life.

Whether it’s the Irish, the communists, the blacks, the Jews, the Muslims, the gays... Our need to protect ourselves from the other may be inevitable. At a meeting of the Homeowners’ Association in my neighborhood, I was both amused and dismayed to hear the people around me blaming all of the negative occurrences in our neighborhood on the condominium dwellers. I live in a huge development that is well integrated in almost every way. However, we still managed to identify someone to be the other. While the majority of us live in houses, there is a section of the development that consists of condos. And, apparently, those who live in the condos are the ones who aren’t cleaning up their dog poop, and are speeding down the streets, and having wild parties all night. Really?

A big part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is going against the attitudes and behaviors of the dominant culture. And while it may appear that the world of Jesus’ day and the world of our day are as different as clay tablets and iPads, our tendency to protect ourselves from the other is common to both cultures. In Jesus' day, the good religious people worked hard to live holy lives by separating themselves from people who were impure. But Jesus flipped the whole idea of holiness upside down. For him, holiness was expressed through compassion for those considered impure and the inclusion of all people in God’s kingdom. Matthew Fox writes about this in his book, Original Blessing. He suggests that the true meaning of holiness is hospitality, which is essentially, the offer of safety, comfort, and nourishment to both friend and stranger.

If holiness is hospitality, there is something very unholy about the behavior toward illegal immigrants in our country. Perhaps, if we could learn to follow the One who put the law of compassion above all other laws, we would see that those we fearfully label as the other are really not that different from us. They risk their lives to come to this country, not because of some evil they have conspired against us, but because they long for a better life for their families. Who among us wouldn’t do all we could to provide food and shelter for our young children or our aging parents? Those who risk so much to care for the ones they love certainly deserve our respect, if not our admiration.

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not denying that there is a problem. What I AM saying is that it is not an us-and-them problem, or a good-guys and bad-guys problem. As much as anything, for those who claim to follow Jesus, it seems to be another one of those which-kingdom-are-you-going-to-live-in? problems.