GROWTH and the Shattering of "Happily Ever After"
The term "growth" is often portrayed with positive connotations. We read and study complex works for intellectual growth, we lift weights and eat the right kinds of foods for physical growth, we establish friendships and date for emotional growth, we save and invest for financial growth, and we pray and meditate for spiritual growth. So growth, then, it seems, is a term that's primarily associated with the upside of human development. With knowledge comes power, and with power comes the ability to do great things. Years have turned to decades, which have given way centuries and millennia; there has been significant growth for our species. With the advancement of science and modern medicine, diseases that were once considered life threatening as recently as only a few decades ago are now easily cured with a series of pills or injections. It's absolutely incredible; a little Ibuprofen to break a fever here, a shot of insulin to balance sugar levels there, and voi-la! Life goes on! Advancements in technology have made for both incredibly realistic as well as fantastical cinematic and gaming experiences (if you're into that sort of thing), and, what's more, we're currently living in a time when we have instant access to not only information, but each other with email, text, cell phones and other personal electronic devices. All great things, right?
But what about the negative that comes with this socio-normative human growth pattern? Life, as they say, is all about balance; if we are to presume the universal correctness of Newton's Third Law, which reads "for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction", then there cannot be good without bad, positive without negative. The consequence of the establishment of the one conversely establishes the other; balance. But I digress. As previously stated, with knowledge comes power, and with power comes the ability to do great things, but great doesn't necessarily mean good. Uncle Ben understood this when he said to his nephew, Peter Parker (any Spider Man fans?), "with great power comes great responsibility"; without focusing the power that accompanies growth through the lens of grace, we end up falling into the same traps that humans have fallen into throughout our existence. For example, the atom was once considered the smallest known particle; when it was discovered that the atom could be split apart, humanity learned two things: 1) the atom was not in fact the smallest particle in existence and 2) it had tremendous energy when split, a process known as nuclear fission. With this revelation came power in the form of knowledge, but what about the equal and opposite side of the equation? Unfortunately, with atomic energy came nuclear weapons, also known as weapons of mass destruction, weapons that brought the 2nd World War to a horrific end when dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th, 1945 and August 9th, 1945 respectively. With this knowledge of nuclear energy came the ability wreak terrible havoc on one another on a mass scale. Equal and opposite. Balance. Now, to be clear - I'm in no way commenting on or advocating for or against the United States' utilization of atomic bombs to end the WWII. That can be a conversation for another day. I'm simply using it as an extreme example for the double edged sword that is GROWTH.
Let's think about the equal and opposite reaction of all the examples I mentioned a few moments ago that are a little less extreme; it's not uncommon for people to fall in love and, over time, grow apart. Some become so obsessed about physical appearances and nutrition that they develop eating disorders, putting the very bodies they're trying to transform into society's standard of perfection at risk, while others go so far as to neglect relationships in their attempt to attain physical perfection. The quest for financial growth and security in our capitalist society can easily transform into greed; how many occasions have we seen people develop such affinity for money and the lifestyle and status that accompanies that they fall prey to lying, cheating and stealing from others? Think Charles Ponzi (ever heard of a Ponzie Scheme??), Bernie Madoff, and the infamous Enron scandal. There is very much an equal and opposite reaction to all things; there can be a dark side to growth, one that can very easily cause us to lose our humanity if not kept in check.
Let's examine for a moment a prerequisite for growth - change. Be it physically, mentally, academically, spiritually, or emotionally, we cannot improve, advance, or develop as individuals, a community, or a species if we remain the same. In his work, The Gift of Being Yourself, David Benner asserts that we are all born with absolute uniqueness - a TRUE SELF in Christ - and it is our mission in life to uncover this TRUE SELF so that we might live out our God given vocation. Wait, what? If we are born with absolute uniqueness, a TRUE SELF in Christ, why do we need to work throughout our lives to uncover it? That makes zero sense, that is, unless at some point we change, develop, advance or GROW into someone else, someone other than who God intended us to be.
When I was a child, my family and I would visit my grandparents out in Cleveland, OH every summer. My favorite place to eat was a restaurant called Shooters, which was located in an area called The Flats, which at the time was very similar to Oklahoma City's Bricktown. We would always eat at Shooters and then walk up and down the flats, going on what my family calls a "benture" - i.e an adventure. One summer when I was about 8yrs old we were walking around the flats and we came across a homeless man, who had his head buried in his knees and a sign next to him that read, "Homeless. Hungry. Anything helps. God bless." I don't know if it's that I'd never been exposed to a homeless person at that point in my life or if it was simply the first time I'd consciously internalized the fact that there are people in the world who are in fact homeless, but that moment absolutely shattered me. It didn't take long for my family to figure out something had upset me, so after they sat me down and figured out what was bothering me we walked back by and gave him some money so that he could go get something to eat. As my mom was tucking me into bed that night, I told her that when I grew up I wanted to earn money and give it to those who were in need so that they would have food to eat and a place to sleep.
Fast forward - I just turned 31yrs old, and throughout the first 3rd of my life I've come to think of myself as a hard working, loyal, honest, empathetic, principled, loving human being; however, I'm a far cry from the 8yr old boy in Cleveland who would have given anything, literally ANYTHING, to a complete stranger in need. Why is that? What happened to that little boy's bleeding heart? What happened to his compassion? Part of GROWing up, I feel, is developing a conscious awareness to just how unfair life can be; in our youth, we're conditioned to believe that every story ends with a "happily ever after" and that we can (within reason) do anything we set our minds to. What's wrong with that? As parents we want our kids to be moonshot thinkers who, when they fail, try and try again, right? Sure! The problem, though, is that not all stories do end in "happily ever after" and, practically speaking, we can't do anything we put our minds to; try as I might, I'm never going to be an Olympic gold medalist in the shot put, nor will I ever be a neurosurgeon. The equal and opposite reaction of teaching our children to think like this is that, at some point, the fantasy has to shatter and our hearts must harden in order to cope with our new reality - Newton's Third Law demands it. As this relates to my Cleveland Flats story, too many times since my "happily ever after" was shattered had I seen those people claiming to be "hungry" and "down and out" squandering the few dollars I'd give on booze, cigarettes, or drugs, and my post "happily ever after" self simply couldn't handle that; as a result, I became jaded and calloused toward panhandling.
My 8yr old self clearly understood something that my more worldly 24yr old self didn't, which is perfectly lined out in the book of Deuteronomy. "When you happen on someone who's in trouble or needs help among your people with whom you live in this land that God, your God, is giving you, don't look the other way pretending you don't see him. Don't keep a tight grip on your purse. No, look at him, open your purse, lend whatever and as much as he needs and don't count the cost" (Deuteronomy 15:7-8). That right there was the exact mindset I had when I was a child, but somewhere along the way I'd grown into someone who just didn't buy into that. How messed up is that? I'd actually GROWN into that kind of thinking.
I remember when I first met Kathryn and we'd spend all weekend together getting to know one another. We'd spend pretty much all weekend every other week together, often times going on lunch and dinner dates. En route, she'd constantly have me roll down the car window and give me a few dollars to hand to people we saw on the street corners with the signs saying, "Homeless. Hungry. Anything helps. God bless." I finally asked her why she always gave to people who were almost certainly going to squander her gift on something that's what ultimately brought them to their current state in the first place. Her answer shattered the jaded mindset I'd developed that was born out of my previously shattered "happily ever after" mindset - she said, "it's not my place to question how they're actually going to use the money. My job is to give to and support those who are in need, and whether that person uses my hand out as a hand up or as a means to substance abuse is between them and God." Mind blown. Now, am I still skeptical about the motives of people asking for handouts? Absolutely. But have I started giving without hesitation a few dollars when I have them to spare to those who are purportedly in need? Absolutely. At the end of the day, it's not my place to judge or withhold my ability to help those in need; in fact, it's my job to believe that people can change and transform and GROW into their True, God given selves.
Let's shift gears for a moment.
Simplicity's Mission Statement reads: Bring+Grow+Go. 1/3 or our identity is to grow, and not just grow, but to grow together in the love of Christ. Why together? Why do you think Michael, our Senior Pastor and teacher, threw that word "together" into the growth portion of the mission? (Not rhetorical). Personally, I think together is the only way we can really become our True Selves in Christ. Life is hard; much of the time it's messy, unpredictable, and unfair, so we need others, our family and friends, to be there for us when our "happily ever afters" shatter. In his book, The Voice of the Heart; A Call to Full Living, Chip Dodd asserts that we are "emotional and spiritual creatures - created to live fully in relationship with ourselves, with others and with God. We are image bearers of God, actually stamped in our hearts with a hunger to live fully. However, this hunger cannot be gratified unless we are emotionally and spiritually nourished by relationships."
Think about something horrible you've been through or are currently going through; a death, literally or metaphorically; the diagnosis of an untreatable medical condition; a divorce or a break-up; trying out and not making the team; a child moving out or a family member moving away. The scope of "happily ever after" being shattered can and will vary depending on age and life experience, but I'm a believer in and an advocate for the concept of, "your pain is your pain", meaning you feel what you feel regardless of circumstance and you can't help it because feelings aren't rational. Point being you're never too young or too old, too wise or inexperienced for your world to fall apart; it's part of growing, and as Dodd states and as we've heard Michael say several times before, "unless we take full ownership of our needs (as emotional and spiritual creatures), we will use illegitimate ways of meeting legitimate needs.
Take a look at this excerpt from the book of James: "Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective." (James 5: 13-16). Notice how nowhere in there does it say, "work through life's trials on your own without the support or aid of others"; in fact, it says the opposite. And the reason why, I feel, is because God very much recognizes and understands that we can't do this alone. In his book, Sex God, Rob bell points out that "to find some answers, we need to go back to the garden of Eden, to God declaring everything "good." The only thing God declares "not good" is Adam's being alone." The equal and opposite reactions of living, or the "growing pains" so to speak, are far too great for any one person to endure on their own. There's a big difference between living and surviving; if we are to truly live and not merely survive, not only do we need to surround ourselves with people who are patient, kind, loving, and full of grace, but we must also reach out to those who may not be fortunate enough to have that kind of support system. Thus the BRING and GO portion of our mission statement.
I wanted to close with a quick video clip. For those of you who don't know, every week we record the worship and message portions of our services, and I'm the guy who edits the clips and posts them on our website and social media platforms. I was on a plane this past weekend en route to perform in a wedding in Essex, Connecticut, so I decided to do a little work and edit some of the Worship portions of our service from the weekend prior. My focus, which at that time was the music, was quickly diverted during to the greeting portion of our service. Take a look.
What do you see? I see relationships transcending age, socio-economic status, educational backgrounds, and personality types. I saw a community of people loving on each other and growing together with the sole purpose of filtering their lives through the hope and goodness of Jesus Christ. I saw a safety net for shattered "happily ever afters"; an equal and opposite reaction for the growing pains of life. What I love, what I've always loved, about Jesus is that he clearly operated under a "we are all in this together" mentality; the fact that he sacrificed his life so that we might live life to the full makes that undeniable. As a Church, we are all in this together, and what I think makes this community so incredible is that we all seem recognize that the "we" must go beyond these walls (or lack thereof in our case since we don't have a building) and incorporate everyone, especially those with whom we have disagreements. We aren't all going to agree on the small stuff, so there's no way as a species we're going to agree on the big stuff, but that doesn't mean that we aren't all in this together. Real transformational knowing our ourselves, as David Benner calls it, the kind of growth that leads to discovering our True Selves in Christ, is absolutely going to have equal and opposite reactions - i.e. blowback. Too many people who hunger for truth fall prey to the dogma of control or rigidity. This was a model that Jesus Himself understood and was very much familiar with, which should give us some comfort. My hope and my prayer is that as we go forward and our Church grows, because it will GROW, that we continue to be the kind of equal and opposite reaction that helps pick up the pieces to the shattered "happily ever afters" rather than the kind that does the shattering.