I Will vs I Want – Chuck Rush (1/25/15)

I will vs. I want
Jonah 3:1-5, 10; Mark 1:14-20

“Immediately they left their nets”. Wow, sounds like they were really spiritual men, until you read the second time this happened. Jesus sees James and John, his brother, mending their fishing nets with the old man. Immediately they leave the old man, with all the gear still to fix, and they run after some stranger they just barely met because it looks more interesting.
Every father of a teenager will recognize this bold move. “Adios Padre” and I’m left holding all the gear that still has to be fixed and stowed away. And what is it about kids, even after they grow up, when they return to your house, they still don’t have time to pick up the dishes or take out the trash? “Padre, would love to help, gotta go.” “Dad, something has come up”.
Before we move on to extol the virtue of making a commitment to Jesus and following in his way, perhaps just a moment of empathy for all of the Dad’s and Mom’s deserted back home, picking up the mess that is left behind. Okay, moving right along…
As it turns out commitment is really quite critical for us achieving a meaningful life. It is what gets us to set a plan, follow through, and actually achieve a goal. We want to develop this in our children. We know that we need it in our lives as adults. We need strength of character to stick with difficult goals, to gut it on through to the other side.
And then there is this other side of us. I want. I want is primordial. We feel it when we are ready to conquer, desire welling up in us. We return to it when we are nervous. I opened the door on my grandson, John John, when he was about 8 months. Scared him. He starts crying in a panic. His Mom picks him up, soothes him. He is still freaked out. What does he want? To nurse.
When he gets older, his therapist will call it stress eating. To John John, the solution to almost every problem at 8 months was to eat something.
When we are young, we don’t really manage our “I want”. Mostly, parents and especially grandparents, just seem to indulge it. “Here have this candy. Here, have a new toy. Here, watch this cartoon. Here, check out this video game.”
But then as you get older, you realize that you can’t just keep living this way. You just can’t keep having a smoke before every exam. You can’t just keep eating a chocolate every time you start feeling sorry for yourself. You can’t keep drinking beer every time you are bored with your life. These I wants start to create their own problems.
Have you ever noticed what you crave after you are anxious? Ever noticed what you do immediately after experience a disappointment for a little instant soothing? Ever reflect on what you do when you feel bad about yourself? Ever stop and make a list? You should.
This part of you is controlling you and it is mostly under the radar. You are probably doing the same things over and over and over and over. But you are not aware of it.
Our researchers now know that every time you feel anger or sadness or self-doubt or anxiety, our psyches shift gears. We leave the rational part of brain. Actually, it keeps going but it gets over-ridden by the reward-seeking part of our brain.
Suddenly, we want something that is going to make us feel better. It is impulsive. We want something that will soothe us.
So we asked people, what is it that you actually do when you are anxious? What is it that you do when you procrastinate because you don’t want to have to do something that you have to do? And people responded.
The most popular things to do to feel better, to soothe yourself? Shopping, eating comfort food, drinking alcohol, playing video games, surfing the internet, watching TV, watching movies for more than two hours, gambling and smoking. These were the answers.
Here is what is interesting. When we actually went back and started to test the effectiveness of these ways of coping with stress and anxiety, they weren’t very effective. In fact, they often made a difficult problem worse, like people who shop because they feel bad about themselves because their credit card debt is too high.
It is an impulsive response, below the radar, which is why we continue to do it even though it is self-defeating. So then we went back and asked people to reflect on effectiveness. When you feel anxious, your characteristic response to make yourself feel better is to go shop. Does it actually make you feel better? And the answer is “No”. Does eating comfort food like chocolate? “No” Does getting drunk? “No”. Does playing video games and surfing the net? “No” Does smoking a cig? “No”. Does gambling or watching movies on TV? “No and no”
So what are we doing? We are engaging in impulsive behavior. By the way, this is the root meaning of ‘demonic possession’. It is when you are controlled by a force outside of you that is making you act in ways you wouldn’t act if you could rationally dissect it. But you can’t stop doing it.
This is the way that the ‘reward-seeking’ part of our brain works, the ‘I want’ part of our brain. It overrides the rational, long-term planning part of the brain, impulsively, right now. And the biggest key to developing some control over this part of our selves is to become conscious of when you feel anxious and stressed, to be aware of your characteristic impulse responses. As long as it is below the radar, you will definitely keep doing the same things over and over and over again.
Our researchers have done extensive studies and they have found that most of our ingrained responses to stress are indeed ineffective as we told the researchers that they were. Shopping, eating, drinking, smoking, gambling, entertaining yourself with diversions, they work. But in the list of 50 things, they work the least well, for the shortest amount of time, and have the most complications that come with them.
You know what actually works best with stress? They are all a whole lot cheaper, last longer, and have no complications at all. Here is the list:
Spending time with close friends and family people that you genuinely love, spending time doing a creative hobby, going for a walk-exercising- or playing sports, getting a massage (a little money, unless you do it with your spouse and that should probably be a weekly requirement that each of you give the other a massage every week), meditating or doing yoga, and finally praying or attending worship services. And I forgot one, the one that has probably kept me from coming apart over the years, reading.
People, exercise, loving (sensual) touch, connecting with God and your body, practicing your music or your painting-creating something cool. These actually mitigate anxiety, diminish those bad feelings we have about ourselves. They actually get us back in the space where we love life and we love the world around us again.
Good news. Just being here this morning, you are moving in the right direction. Part of the answer on developing real will to take control of your life and get your dreams back in the driver seat is to become aware of how you respond to anxiety with ineffective impulse responses. And building into our lives these things that actually will bring us fulfillment and meaning and a sense of just how wonderful our world really is.
And the other thing that I am learning from the literature is to focus on small areas where you can exercise your will power. Don’t attempt the big makeover. Just pick one small area and let that be the place of focus. You’ll get stronger and as you get stronger, keep looking for ways to expand your self-control.
Apparently, way, way too many of us engage in what Professor Polivy and Professor Herman call ‘the false hope syndrome’. From their observations, we spend too much time vowing to lose weight or vowing to quit drinking. And we do this because it is elating. We get filled with hope. We fantasize about what we will be like when we look fabulous darling, how other people will just fawn over us. We will be successful, etc..
But we don’t actually have a plan in place. So we end up exerting some self-control for a protracted period of time and then we give in. Then we beat ourselves up because we are harder on ourselves than we are on each other and a surprising number of us have really quite a harsh task master internal voice that demands stern discipline that we can’t deliver.
Then, ironically, we have put ourselves in a place of anxiety, which causes the reward-seeking part of our brain to become activated, seeking impulse behavior to make us feel better about ourselves and soothe ourselves, so we have that extra chocolate. Worse, we just say ‘what the hell’ and have half a box of chocolates. Then we feel bad about ourselves again.
So we start the cycle over again and fantasize about the future person we will be. In the mean time, little self-control has actually be exercised and our will is not any stronger and we are not actualizing what we want to actualize.
But this pattern can be broken. And strengthening your will is intrinsically important. And you can start feeling more in control of your will, not so driven by “I want”. The experts suggest small changes. Don’t start with the big picture, like trying to quit smoking altogether. It doesn’t work. You set yourself up for failure.
Instead get stronger by making incremental changes. We have to be aware of when the “I want” part of our brain kicks in and mitigate its power to make us impulsive.
So, the most successful programs at getting people to quit smoking, don’t actually start with quiting smoking. They get you to pay attention to what you are doing in your life. When you want to smoke what is happening to you? Record it, write it down. “I’m feeling nervous. I’m feeling trapped. I’m bored.” Whatever it is, record it, so that you understand what triggers your impulse.
Then set a simple rule, “Every time I feel like I need a cigarette, I’m going to wait 10 minutes before I smoke”. Set your watch. Make yourself wait. This disengages that part of your brain that demands “I want”, not forever, just for 10 minutes.
And you are getting stronger. Don’t do anything else for a couple weeks. What researchers have found is that these incremental changes actually produce bigger results. Smokers that used this simple technique of ‘delayed gratification’ actually smoked quite a bit less, even though this was not the goal that they set. All they were trying to do is engage in some ‘delayed gratification’ just to do it.
After a couple weeks, they would increase the time for the delayed gratification, making it into twenty minutes. And every time they did this, they got just a little bit stronger in their will. Then they added another piece to it. During the 20 minute ‘time out for delayed gratification’ they started to imagine their long-term goals and to focus on that prayerfully.
It is a daily discipline that gives you 5 or 10 opportunities a day to make your strength of will concretely stronger and it engages your long-term planning, the rational part of your brain that holds your hopes and dreams and goals. Slowly, slowly, you start transferring away from impulses controlling you to you controlling your impulsive side. Not feeding those impulses starts to diminish their power over you and you get back the sense that you are driving your life.
Small commitments, but they are important ones too. Peter Drucker, the management guru was right. He said that “Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes; but no plans.”
The key is starting small with a commitment to one thing.
I’m going to exercise for 1 hour a day, 3 days a week, for this month. It is manageable, you can stick with it, and as you do, you will feel yourself get stronger. You can feel your will flexing itself.
And why is it that Jesus invites us into this committed life? So that we can lose weight and look fabulous? Not hardly, my friends, although there is nothing wrong with looking fabulous. Jesus was pretty clear that life will throw at us some really tough challenges. And if we are lucky enough to live a long life like 80 years, I can garauntee you that you are going to endure serious tragedy, setback and loss.
I remember talking to my grandmother when she was 85 years old and she had to move from Memphis, where she had lived all of her life to be with my parents. Her husband had died and she just needed some extra help getting around. I was standing with her on the front porch of her house and we’d been talking about all the people that we had known and all of the times of our youth. And I said to her “Grandma, what is it like saying ‘goodbye’ to your home and to everything that you have known?”
She smiled back at me and said, “Darling it is a lot easier when all of your people are dead. It’s just not the same anymore.” I can’t possibly know what that is really like but for a moment, I could picture all of her friends again, drinking Martini’s on the front porch like they did in that era. And I don’t really know what it takes to go on, but she had another 15 years of living, a whole other chapter alone without her generation.
And I know what she did have. She had spiritual grit, a force of will that was slightly stronger than the disappointments and tragedies that she endured through the depression, through the war when he husband was overseas, through two bouts of cancer that knocked her down hard, through her husbands death. The woman had impressive spiritual grit.
And Jesus knows that tragedy too, is part of our living. We don’t want it to be. It just is. I hope you don’t have to endure much of it but I’m quite sure you will. I hope you are not swamped by it but I’m fairly certain you will eventually be rocked pretty damn hard.
At the end of Samuel Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot”, the characters are flummoxed by all of the uncertainty of human existence. And one of them says to the other, “Where will we go now?” And the other one says, “On”. And so may you. On.
Amen.

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.

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