Bringing Out the Best in Us

October 20th, 2018

Bringing Out the Best In Us

Romans 12:1-2

October 21, 2018

Last week, we made it only about a verse into the twelfth chapter of Romans.  The force of what Paul was saying was this:  take your everyday life—the decisions you make, how you do what you do—and offer it up to God.  In other words, forget about acting all religious or sounding all religious or being any holier than anyone else.  Start from a place of gratitude that you are alive at all, that you are already loved by God and many others and that you have been made free.  Then, ask yourself, “What would it mean to do what I have to do today as an expression of gratitude?”  Paul says that this is as close as we are ever going to come to having a way to say, “Thank you!” to God:  to treat our lives, moment-to-moment as something to be relished and cherished.  And he insists that we ought to be able to do this, no matter how mundane or challenging the moment might be.

This is the point!  This is what Christ came to show us!  One of my favorite quotes says, “Your changed life might be the only Gospel someone ever reads.”  If we live the way Christ taught us to live, we will be changed, “From the inside out.” And when we are changed, someone around us is going to be stopped in their tracks and say, “Holy cow!  What’s the deal with him?”  Or, “Holy cow!  What got into her?”  They’ll say this because your actions will distinguish you from most of what’s going on around you.

In other words, if you really follow Christ, if you really open yourself to God’s presence and try to live gratefully, you will no longer fit in.  In fact, you may stand out like a sore thumb.  In Paul’s words, “Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking.”  Now, to even consider this point, we have to be really honest about ourselves as human beings.  The drive to fit in, to be accepted, to not stand out is pretty huge for all of us.  Of course, we can name folks with whom we don’t want to fit in.  We can name the people whose declaration that we are unacceptable is something that we might wear as a badge of honor.  However, all that really shows us is that we are tribal.  There are “tribes” I don’t care about. There are things that I just plain have no interest in doing.  Because those things are true, I might try to fool myself into thinking that fitting in doesn’t matter at all.

The problem is that we all have people whose approval we do want.  We all revel in the moments when we want to fit in and we join the ritual (singing all the words to “Born to Run” with 38,000 other people who love the same song that we know and love on a rainy night at Wrigley Field) and we feel the rush of being included.  Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with fitting in.  It’s nice when there’s peace in our family or in our church or in our community.  It’s nice when the connection between us is tangible.  However, those moments come and go.  They are fleeting.  If we make acceptance and fitting in the point, rather than an occasional gift, then we are in trouble.  When such things become the “be all, end all” of our lives, we become extremely vulnerable to being manipulated by others.  Eventually, we will most likely become bitter and jaded about all sorts of things…because what we want so badly we cannot have.  Trying to please everyone, trying to be chameleon-like in our ways so that we can blend with anyone…does not work.  (Trust me on this!)

So, Paul argues, if we are not going to take our cues from everyone around us about who we should be then maybe we should take our cues from God.  In Paul’s words, “Fix you attention on God.”  Again, I don’t think this means that we should just hang out at church.  I think what Paul is saying to us is that we should follow God’s lead (and, in my mind, pray like crazy that God will help us see that path).  I think this is easier than it sounds…honestly!  I think it starts with questions that we ask ourselves when we step back from things and take a deeper look at what’s going on around us.  We might ask ourselves, “Who is being ignored or overlooked right now?”  (That question seemed to matter a lot to Jesus.)  We might ask ourselves, “What would it mean for me to be the servant in this moment?” (Do you remember that whole, “He who would be first should be last” thing?  This Jesus…he thought of everything!)  We might even ask ourselves, “What’s the last thing in the world that I would do right now if it were just up to me?”  Then, we would go and do that thing! (Remember, the prayer is not, “My will be done” but “Thy will be done.”)

Paul doesn’t pull any punches here.  It is not enough to just see things differently than the culture around us.  We actually have to make different choices and do different things.  However, the differences in those choices or actions won’t be just so that we can be some sort of contrarian or have some easy way to stand out.  Rather, the whole calculus will change.  I might ask, “What’s everyone else doing?” because I want to fit in.  I might ask, “What’s everyone else doing?” because I just want to choose the opposite and stand out.  Neither of those approaches are what Paul is talking about.  For Paul, what everyone else is doing isn’t even part of the equation.  Rather, the question is, “Where is God in the middle of this moment?” And as soon as I ask that question, I should be on my way to doing something which responds to and brings that presence to life for someone else.  The world pulls us down, makes us less than we might otherwise be, leads us to the lowest common denominator.  To really mature, to be our best selves, we have to discover what it means to live with integrity, driven by something deeper and higher than, “What’s in it for me?” or, “How can I get these people to like me?”  Paul’s question is, “Who is God calling me to be, right now?”

I heard a story this week about a woman who is a nurse in a nursing home.  One day, a man came to visit. He was there because his father had dementia and needed a caring place to live.  He explained that his father was a physician who cared for others his whole life long.  Now, even with the dementia, his father still considered himself a physician.  The nurse listened to the man and felt the love and respect that he had for his father.  She suggested that the man come back with his father the next day.

When they arrived, the nurse asked if she could have a little time alone with the older man.  She suggested that the son come back in an hour or so.  Then, she took the father on a tour of their facilities, not as a potential patient but as a physician.  She showed him their state-of-the-art medical equipment.  She introduced him to a number of other nurses, all of whom seemed, somehow, to be prepared ahead of time to meet this physician.  

After the tour, she took the older gentlemen into a room and had him fill out an application, not to live there but to work there as a part of their medical team.  She took him to an empty office and told him that this would be his work space.  The only problem, she explained, was that though, they would love to hire him, they could not afford to pay him.  What they could offer, though, was room and board and plenty of care and attention.  

When the son returned, he was shocked at the look in his father’s eyes.  There was joy and meaning and purpose in that look.  The father said to the son, “I think this will work out fine.”  When the son caught the nurse’s eye with a glance, she just shrugged and gave him a glance back that seemed to say, “I’ll tell you all about it some other time.”

That nurse went out of her way to be gracious and caring to someone in need.  The challenge of that moment brought out the very best in her.

I heard another story this week about an older couple.  It seemed that years ago, their daughter had been in a mall in Toronto and left the mall just minutes before a mass shooting.  Just a few weeks later, when she was back at college in Colorado, their daughter decided one night to go to a movie with a friend.  It was that friend who called to tell those parents that he had been shot twice and that their daughter had been killed by a mass shooter in the movie theater in Aurora.

These poor parents were devastated.  Yet, six months later, when the shooting happened in the grade school in Sandy Hook, they knew what they had to do.  They drove across the country to be there for people whom they had never met but with whom they shared a terrible experience.  Since then, they have been to Las Vegas and Parkland High School, just opening their arms wide and holding on for dear life to strangers as they grieve, hoping to offer comfort and hope.

These two people took the worst moment of their lives and turned it into the inspiration to be there for others in their worst moments.  The worst brought out the best in them.

That’s the thing about lived faith:  you know it when you see it.   You know it because the person living it isn’t keeping track of who is getting credit.  You know it because the person living it isn’t grabbing the spotlight or even pointing the spotlight at God.  You know it because what you see is how, when someone allows themselves to be immersed in being there for someone else, what shines through is the presence of God.  You know it, too, because that humble person who is just trying to help not only becomes his or her best self.  They also make the people around them better. 

So, in a world in which lots of folks try to get away with things, God calls us to be helpful…and do our best to not get caught.  In a world in which people seem so willing to step on one another to get ahead, God calls us to help bring out the best in each other.  In a world in which the measure of your success is how many “likes” you accumulate, God calls us to be the people who say, “I don’t really care about those likes.  What I care about is you.”  The promise of living this way is unimaginable meaning and an absolute guarantee, that you will never really fit in again.

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