Shame, Bellies, and Bullies

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What do Presbyterians do during Lent? Do we celebrate it? How? Sure, in our congregation, we change the paraments and stoles to purple. We take out the “Alleluias” and the Gloria Patri from worship, and we add in the Kyrie. We hold special services to celebrate significant moments in the life of the church – both past and present. These are all very important shifts in what we do as a worshiping community. These are all things we do to remind ourselves that God is God and we are not.

These are things we do to prepare ourselves as a community for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, through which we have hope and comfort in all of our struggles. Not only that, but these are things we do to remind ourselves that God is active and present now, and that our salvation does not begin when this life ends. Our salvation begins when we realize that our citizenship is in heaven, and we set our minds on heavenly things.

That’s hard to do – since we live, and move, and experience the world around us in these limited and physical bodies. Someone at the Presbytery meeting the other day said that we are not physical creatures looking for and having spiritual experiences. We are, instead, spiritual beings experiencing creation in a physical state. Who knew there was such good theology at a Presbytery meeting?!

So, the question remains – what do Presbyterians do during Lent? Do we eat meat? Do we give things up? Do we take things on?

The answer is a resounding, “It depends.” The reason is that according to our Book of Order, “Christ alone is the Lord of the conscience.” And also, “We are to exercise mutual forbearance in regards to the interpretation of scripture.” This basically means that I cannot tell you what to do, but we do believe that God does. Not in some weird voice in your head kind of way, but God speaks to you through your intuition – your gut – and in relation to your study of scripture.

As I studied today’s passages my gut intuition was to think on three things – shame, bellies, and bullies. Abraham was worried about what others were saying about him for following this God of his. He was feeling regret and shame because someone else’s child will get all of his stuff when he dies – which he was expecting to happen sooner rather than later.

The church in Philippi was being discouraged from living in ways that glorify themselves rather than God. Paul worried that their God was the belly! That is one of my favorite scripture passages. 

It reminds me of a study called “The Second Brain” that suggests that there is a nervous system in our guts which can originate impulses that affect our emotions and our decisions. So, the phrase “gut feeling” is more accurate than you think. I think what matters to us about this is the idea that we make the belly into a God when we are more concerned about our own hunger (physical, emotional, or just plain selfishness) than someone else’s. Not only that, we make the belly into a God when we confuse our instinct for taking care of ourselves and those we love with following God. Our faith then becomes like that Sheryl Crow song, If it Makes You Happy, it Can’t Be That Bad. 

What I mean by listening to our gut for the voice of God is that we don’t just listen to the part we like, but we also listen to the nudge of God toward the uncomfortable and slightly dangerous opportunities for compassion, wisdom, and for vulnerability.
As I thought on these three things, I thought of three old friends – the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion. I wasn’t really sure why at first – then I stumbled on an article on leadership called Everything I learned from 'The Wizard of Oz' by Col. Cheryl Allen of the Ogden Air Logistics Center Aerospace Sustainment Division. Apparently she attended a workshop on leadership where she was subjected to the classic film, The Wizard of Oz, and she realized that it is something deeper than a child’s film. She realized that instead, it is a visual representation of “the three C’s of leadership.”

Compassion. A leader is nothing without compassion. Love for the people you lead enables you to do "the right thing" when it is not the easiest thing to do. Compassion drives you to do your best when you don't feel up to the task. Compassion insists that you adapt your life and style to fit what your people need. You don't belong to yourself anymore.  You belong to them.

Cognitive: Cognitive power or ability is what you have upstairs and how you use it. Just how "smart" are you? I am not referring to being the biggest brain in the room. What I am talking about is how adept you are at seeking out information, how well you process that information then formulate and execute a plan of action.

Courage: Courage can be more than combat courage -- or being fearless in battle. For one thing, many of us (thankfully) will never have to face an enemy eyeball to eyeball -- that is the ultimate test. But there is a fundamental measure that lies at the core of true courage. Mark Twain once said: "Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear." I think he had it right. Only someone truly mad is never afraid. The key to true courage -- as it is with most of life -- is how you deal with the moment. 
It takes courage to show compassion. It takes courage to think through problems, make decisions and see things through to completion. Courage is what holds a leader together.

Although she is speaking about a particular kind of leader in a particular organization – I think the scriptures we have read today would agree. More than that, I would say that they tell us that these are not just characteristics of leaders. They are characteristics of followers and lovers – followers of Jesus and lovers of God!

And for those who follow and love God there is more to the proclamation today than don’t be ashamed, live for God, and don’t let the bullies get to you. In this passage there is also the action of a God of providence, devotion, and faithfulness.

For God answered Abraham with a son. Paul encouraged devotion to the one God who is also devoted to those who truly believe in and love God. And Jesus – Jesus spoke truth to power and demonstrated that faithfulness has a high price, but it is not one that we pay by ourselves.

I think that’s the main difference between the scriptures and Col. Allen’s deep and meaningful reflections – courage like Abraham, wisdom like Paul, and compassion like Jesus are not something we conjure up on our own. They are gifts of a very present and very active God who made us and knows that sometimes we seem to have no heart. Sometimes we seem to have no brains, and sometimes we seem to have no courage. But thanks be to God that through special seasons, through being in community, and by loving one another into a new reality we find that we can rely even more heavily on providence, devotion, and faith.

It may be that giving something up will help you experience God’s presence in a new way during these 40 days before Easter. It may be that taking on a new discipline will help you to explore God’s presence in a new way. It may be that listening to that nudge of God toward an uncomfortable and slightly dangerous opportunity for compassion, wisdom, and for vulnerability will help you to express the love of God in some new way. 
After all, if it makes God happy it can’t be that bad – or at least it won’t be bad forever. For God “will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of God’s glory, by the power that also enables God to make all things subject to God’s self. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.” Amen, amen, and again I say, amen!
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