Sunday, September 30, 2012

Dancing with Two Left Feet


Everybody wants to be special.  But there aren’t many of us who want to be abnormal.  We want to stand out enough to be noticed and appreciated as unique individuals.  And yet we want to fit in with other people.  Fitting in means being recognized as normal.  In other words, we want to be ourselves, and we want to be accepted.
Here’s the hitch.  We keep some things about ourselves hidden precisely because we find them unacceptable.  We are sure that no one else has ever done that sort of thing, had those sorts of thoughts, struggled with those kinds of feelings, or yielded to those kinds of urges.
In our heart of hearts we feel certain that everybody would reject us if they caught a glimpse of that mess we keep hidden behind our various masks and veils.  We can keep up a good front most of the time, but we know we’re hiding something.  A big part of us is not normal.  
Vincent Van Gogh, "Self-Portrait, Orsay"

Working so hard to be normal presses us to put our best foot forward all the time and burdens us with the fear that at any moment somebody will see that we really have two left feet.  
And yet, paradoxically, we yearn to be found out.  We want others to see us at our worst, simply because that is the one time when we can receive what we crave.  Unconditional love.  Acceptance, care, and friendship that we did not earn and that we cannot lose.  Mostly, we assess the risk of rejection as just too high to come completely clean.
So we find ourselves straining every day to be normal in order to fit into our little corner of the universe.  We figure that the vast majority of people are normal, and you have to be normal to fit in.  
Oddballs get kicked to the curb.  So it’s best not to let everybody else know how much oddball you have in you.  It might not be nice, but we figure that’s just how it works.  And in fact, in many human communities, that is precisely how it works.
The Jesus-following community has news for the world.  Really good news.  We operate according to a very different logic.  One of our basic tenets is summed up in one of John Ortberg’s catchy titles: everybody’s normal till you get to know them.  In other words, our starting point is that everybody has two left feet spiritually and morally speaking.
As a result, healing happens within the Jesus-following community.  Listen to what James says, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”  (James 5:16)  That healing happens because of how we get into this community in the first place and how our membership begins to shape our relationships once we’re in.
Explaining just how healing happens in the Jesus-following community involves answering three questions:
First, how do we gain membership in this community?
Second, what does it mean to confess to and to pray for each other?
And third, how do confession and prayer heal us?
First Steps
Our custom of baptizing infants provides a clue to how we gain membership into the Jesus-following community.  Now that’s not to say that we don’t baptize older children, youth, and adults.  In fact, I was baptized in late childhood.  I remember it fondly.
But the custom of infant baptism defines the very nature of our community.  Jesus marks us as his own forever before we can do anything to earn membership in his community.  
Baptizing older children, youth, and especially adults simply underscores this message.  The older we get, the more time we have to demonstrate that we were born with two left feet.  Sure, we do lots of good things.  But even the best among us will stumble on life’s dance floor with greater frequency than we would like to admit.
We are all clumsy at making God our chief delight and loving our neighbor as if our own life depended on it.
Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, "Dance at the Moulin Rouge"

We may learn to dance awkwardly.  In fact, learning to dance with two left feet is our first impulse.  Recreating ourselves with one left and one right foot exceeds our abilities.  Fortunately for us, Jesus does not wait for us to recreate ourselves or even to reach a certain level of competency in the double-left foot shuffle.
He invites us to dance with him in the clumsy, awkward fashion we find ourselves.  He knows that no amount of dancing on our own or with partners other than Jesus will ever repair our basic problem.  Instead, we are healed by dancing with him.  And we dance with him by dancing in community with the rest of his followers. 
Confessing and Praying
Two of the common steps in our dance are confessing and praying.  So, our second question is this, what does it mean to confess to and to pray for each other?
When you hear the word “confess,” you may think of reciting a list of wrongs you have done and of reporting the remorse you feel for having acted in that way.  This is a good and helpful thing to do, but James has something more in mind.
Remember that we are a community that admits from the start that we were all born with two left feet.  So there is no real sense in pretending to be more moral or more devout than you actually are.  In the Jesus-following community we have the freedom to just admit who we are and where we are in our walk with Jesus and other people.
We can finally quit trying to be what we are not, and this sets us free to become who God means us to be.  When the specter of rejection is removed, we can admit how graceless we actually are.  That is the first step to the new life that only Jesus‘ redeeming, transforming love can offer.  
The flip side of confessing to each other is our commitment to pray for each other.  In the Jesus-following community we commit ourselves to responding to every confession with prayer.  But let’s get clear about what this means.
Edward Hopper, "Summer Evening"

I promise to hear another person’s admission that she has two left feet as a variation on my very own story.  My prayers do not arise from moral condescension, but from solidarity and compassion.  And because you have shared your tender, vulnerable, imperfect self with me, my own sense of well-being is forever caught up with yours.  Your joy and sorrow will always intersect in my heart.
It’s something like the experience I had with my oldest son Andrew when he was just a baby.  I was lying on the sofa with Andrew napping on my chest, lulled to sleep by the beating of my heart.  My chest was bursting for love for that tiny guy, and that was when it struck me.  My own happiness was now utterly beyond my control.  That’s because I am forever vulnerable to the changes and chances of his life just as surely as I am vulnerable to the circumstances that confront me daily.
We are all in this together, precisely because Christ himself is in our messy midst.
Personal and Social Responsibility
And this brings us to our final question.  How do confessing and praying heal us?
It’s important to be clear from the start.  Confessing and praying do not in themselves heal anybody.  On the contrary, Jesus alone heals us.  Confessing and praying are signs that Jesus is healing us as we follow him along life's way.
But there are two character traits that mark the progress of our emerging wholeness.  Let’s call them personal responsibility and social responsibility, respectively.
Personal responsibility means being honest with ourselves about who we are and what we are doing.  Freed from the fear of rejection, we can admit where we fall short and see what we need to do to follow Jesus more enthusiastically.  
This is a familiar concept and routinely abused by various politicians of both a liberal and a conservative stripe.  It has nothing to do with getting ourselves off the hook or pulling ourselves up by our own moral and spiritual bootstraps.  Instead, personal responsibility in the end comes down to admitting how utterly we must depend upon Jesus as the Savior of our everyday life.
Less familiar is the notion of social responsibility.  Jesus-followers are committed to Jesus and to all of his other followers.  We know that we are connected to each other so intimately that to show indifference to or to condescend to even the least of his followers is to turn our backs on Jesus himself.  (Matthew 25:31-46)
Edgar Degas, "The Ballet Class"
And yet more than this, each of us begins to see that the quality and character of our local faith community hinges upon our own actions and attitudes.  We will be a loving and welcoming and compassionate and exciting congregation only if I do my part.
I must show up and look alert.  My absence diminishes the community.  And since this community is the Jesus community, I can give no other group or activity a devotion that can compete with it.
To put it simply, social responsibility means that when I am dissatisfied with my faith community, I don’t simply stay away or abandon it for greener grass elsewhere.  I ask instead, “What am I going to do to make this the sort of community that I’m dreaming of?”
And remember, as you take your place in the community's dance, lead with your left foot.  It’s the only kind you have.
This sermons was preached at Redeemer in Ruston, Louisiana.

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