Sunday, November 13, 2016

Dealing with Painful Change

I was in my hometown of St. Louis the last two weeks where, among other things, I was helping my brother make my mother comfortable in a very nice nursing home. It doesn't look like a nursing home; though rather recently constructed, it looks like a sprawling old home with a large screened-in porch and cozy little rooms. There are no hospital beds. It's all carpeted and there are lots of comfy chairs and her name is on a brass plaque outside her room to which she has a key. It's lovelier and more homey than any nursing facility I ever worked in. Not that my mom sees it that way. Well, some days she does and some days she doesn't. She misses her house, which she bought and paid for by herself and where she lived for more than 50 years. Though she can't live by herself any more, not even with a live-in caretaker, she resents being moved. And it is hard on my brother, whom on her bad days, my mom sees as the villain. 

Change is hard. It means some things end. We miss what was. Some things that we had, tangible and intangible, are lost when our lives change. Some of our dreams for the future must also change or be let go altogether. Change often leaves us nostalgic. It can even leave us mourning.  

Change means we have to adapt to the new state of things, the new normal. The old ways were familiar, even if in retrospect, they weren't really better than the new ways. But we knew how things worked. We knew where we stood. And now the landscape is different and we need to get reoriented to the way things are now. Looked at one way, it can be fun, an adventure, an undiscovered country to be explored. But it can also be a tremendous pain in the neck.

Change can be a real challenge. I know that from my recovery after my accident. I'm getting better at standing and walking but the act of standing up and the act of sitting down can still be difficult. Transitioning from one state to another is tough. And sometimes literally painful.  

The biggest changes come from disasters. A tornado, an earthquake, a hurricane can take away everything you own and anyone you love. That includes man-made disasters like the Great Recession. People lost jobs, pensions, homes. And the worst part is not necessarily the disaster itself but the aftermath. Even if you survive, rebuilding your home, your business, your life is a daunting task. 

In today's gospel (Luke 21:5-19) the disciples are curious about the ultimate disaster: the end of the current world order when God's kingdom comes. Jesus does not paint a comforting picture of that transition. Things will get worse. There will be wars. There will be destruction. There will be persecution. There will be false messiahs and doomsayers. "And he said, 'Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them." (Luke 21:8)

I find it interesting that certain Christians will study every prophesy in scripture and build up these elaborate timelines of the end of the world and even predict when it will be and yet they ignore the fact that Jesus tells us specifically not to do that. Things will get bad, he says, "but the end will not follow immediately."  In the parallel account in Matthew 24 Jesus says, "All these are but the beginning of birth pains." Anyone who's had a kid knows that means it's going to be a long, drawn-out process. My wife's labor when we had our son was about 20 hours, and that was after a few false alarms. All my nursing texts said the second birth would be faster and more regular. Wrong! My daughter also took about 20 hours to make her appearance. So Jesus is saying, Cool your jets! It ain't going to happen all at once and it isn't going to be as predictable as you think it is. The scenario found in the Left Behind series is totally fictional.

Jesus also says, "But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only." (Matt 24:36, emphasis mine) Even Jesus, at least in his earthly life, didn't know when this would happen. How arrogant do some so-called Bible teachers and preachers have to be to think they have it all worked out! 

If we don't know when Jesus is coming what should we do? Jesus says, "Stay awake!" (Matt 24:42) Be alert. Keep your wits about you and think of this not as a disaster but as an opportunity to represent him. (Luke 21:13) When everyone else is losing their head and blaming you, stand up for Jesus. Testify to what he has done for you. Endure. It won't last forever.

Again in Matthew, Jesus asks, "Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find doing so when he comes." (Matt 24:45, 46) In Mark Jesus says, "It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to stay awake." (Mark 13:34) Jesus doesn't want us spending our time on end times seminars but doing the work he has given us to do. 

And what is that work? To love God with all we are and all we have. To love our neighbor as ourselves. To love our enemies. To love each other as he loves us. To treat the least person we encounter as if he or she was Jesus because how we treat them is how we treat Christ. 

That's what we are supposed to do every day so that on whichever one Jesus returns he finds us doing those things he commanded us to do. We don't want to be like that servant who slacks off and indulges himself and starts abusing the other servants. Things don't go well for him. Jesus says, "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matt 24:48-51) And if that doesn't clue you in as to who is really serving Christ, Jesus said, "You will recognize them by their fruit." (Matt 7:20) And Paul enumerates the fruit of the Spirit as "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." Jesus doesn't care what you say you believe with your lips; if it is contradicted by what you say with your life, things will go as well for you as the heart patient who claims he's following doctor's orders while actually smoking 3 packs a day and eating junk food for every meal and not exercising at all. That person obviously doesn't believe in or trust his doctor in any meaningful sense. And if you don't show even the early buds of the fruit of God's Spirit, you don't really believe in or trust the Great Physician in any meaningful sense. We are saved by grace through faith. Like any doctor, God can't save those who don't trust him. 

Our gospel is talking about the biggest change we can imagine: the transformation of the kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. Most of the changes we have to deal with pale in comparison. For instance, right now our country is transitioning from a president we've had for 8 years to another. Whoever got in, this change was going to be hard, more so for those who supported the other candidate. Yet the strength of our country is the fact that from its beginning we have had a peaceful transition of government.That's built into our constitution. We don't need a revolution to change leaders. We don't have a monarchy or a dictatorship, either. We have a constitutional government and a balance of powers. Nobody can rule by fiat. The 3 branches of government keep each other in check. But that means to get things done people from different parties or different wings of the same party have to cooperate for the common good. To do that we have to recognize that our political opponents are not enemies of our country. We all love our country, even though we all see flaws in it as it currently exists. We all want to fix those flaws, though we tend to focus on different flaws and have different solutions for those problems. We can either keep pulling in different directions or we can decide to sit down and talk with each other and find common ground. 

As Christians we are called by our Lord to be peacemakers. We have been given the ministry of reconciliation. Jesus never told us it would be easy, as today's gospel shows. After all, to reconcile us to God Jesus was crucified. How can we compare our task of enduring the discomfort of listening to different viewpoints and having painful discussions to that? There are those who cause harm in this world and those who bring healing. I think we know which group Jesus wants his followers to be part of. And the aftermath of this very contentious election is a good place to start. Our new president is going to need a lot of help bringing this country together. As Christians bringing people together in love is a big part of what we are commanded to do. Reach out to someone who voted differently than you did. Listen to their hopes and fears. Share yours. Pray together for our leaders and for our nation. 

And be thankful that God put you in a country where what unites us is not where we are from or what we look like or how we worship but a commitment to freedom and justice for all. And be thankful that as hard as this change may be, it is not the end of the world. And if it were, what matters is the person to whom we owe our ultimate allegiance: Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. His kingdom is not from this world. It doesn't come about through rage and violence but through love and reaching out to help and to heal.

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