Monday, December 11, 2017

Making A Change

"Making A Change"
Mark 1:1-8

What is the hardest thing for a person to do?  What would be your guess?  (responses)

I think the hardest thing for a person to do is change.  But I’m talking about a certain kind of change.  There are a number of kinds of changes.

There is straightforward change, like changing your car, or changing your hairstyle, or deciding on making a change of clothes.

There is changing something you do, and relearning a new way; like changing your golf swing or learning a new style of carpentry.

There is changing something that obviously needs changing, but you either don’t want to, or you can’t quite see how it could be done.  This kind of change usually involves a habit--smoking for example.  You know you shouldn’t, but you can’t seem to make the change and stop.

There is the kind of change that’s imposed upon you, and over which you appear to have little or no control.  This kind of change often feels like suffering, and the suffering may be real, especially when the change is caused by a medical prognosis like cancer, or lupus, or MS.  We have no say in the matter, and it feels like something is being done to us, or someone is doing it to us.  Companion feelings like being cheated or unfairness tag along.  When change is forced upon us, we can easily feel disempowered by the experience.

The first three kinds of change we deal with, in one form or another, almost every day.  We make little changes all the time.  You may never completely give up smoking voluntarily (until the doctor tells you you have lung cancer), but at least it’s a kind of change you are conscious of.  You can choose fairly easily how you will deal with the first three kinds of changes, and even the fourth kind--forced change.

But making those kinds of changes, for the most part, isn’t going to fundamentally change your life.  And when I say making change is the hardest thing a person can do, these first four kinds of change are not not what I’m talking about.

What I’m talking about is a fifth kind of change:  changing something we absolutely, positively know we can’t and don’t want to change.  This kind of change is about our beliefs.  This kind of change is a confrontational kind, because it rubs up against the beliefs and truths we’ve created for ourselves that underpin our whole lives.

This type of change asks, either gently or by demand, that we change a dearly and closely held point of view.  It’s a kind of change that challenges us to adopt a way of seeing the world that is at odds, or very different with the the way we are used to seeing our world.  It’s a matter of changing our world view.

This kind of change, this fifth kind, this seemingly impossible kind of change, is the kind of change that John the baptizer is demanding the people make, in order to prepare for God’s entrance into the world through Jesus Christ.

Even the imagery from the prophetic quote in these first few verses of Mark’s gospel has to do with this kind of change:  “Make the road smooth and straight.”  The assumption behind the image is that the road is not as it should be at the moment.  That the road is not smooth, but bumpy, pot-holed, rocky and washerboardy.  That the road is not straight, but windy, curvy, and irregular.

The imagery is about making the road what it is not; to effect a major change upon the road that would make it starkly and characteristically different.  That would make it unrecognizable from what it was before.

Transfer that imagery to your life.  Think about the meanings of the changes of the road, to making changes to your world view.  That’s the force and purpose and intent of John’s message of preparation and change to the people on the eve of the coming of the Messiah.

John expects change to happen, or expects that change should happen in the lives of his listeners.  The changes he speaks about to the crowds, and the change he expects them to make aren’t just little tweaks here and there.  They aren’t about the first four kinds of change I mentioned earlier.  It isn’t like just saying to yourself, “I’m going to smile more.”  They aren’t surface kinds of adjustments, like changing your hair color.

The kinds of changes John expects from his listeners are deep life-shifts.  They are changes like the changes to the road, that transform you from one kind of person to becoming a significantly different kind of person—by changing your world view.

And John assumes these kinds of changes are entirely possible, else he wouldn’t have asked people to make such changes.

If it is possible for us to make such changes, then it is possible also for us to resist making those changes.  John can preach, and rant and rave all he wants about the deep changes people need to make, but the people can say, “No.”  “I just can’t.”  “I just won’t”

I dealt with a couple in counseling when in California.  He was an abusive alcoholic.  She was tired of it and hauled him into my office “to set him straight.”  We talked for a short while about his drinking and behavior.  We talked about making changes.  Once we started talking about the C word (change), he got defensive and blaming.  In a word, resistant.  He started up a monologue that was all too familiar to his wife, by the expression I saw on her face.

“Look, this is the way I am.  I’m going to be like I’m going to be.  If you don’t like it--if you don’t like me the way I am, that’s YOUR problem, not mine.  You’re not going to change me, so you’re going to have to change YOUR attitude about me.”

In other words, according to him, his abuse both of alcohol and of his wife was not his problem, but hers (and by inference, mine).  He resisted the major world view shift he needed to make away from some deeply held beliefs about himself and his situation in life.  The first shift was to deal with his denial (“I have no problem!”); and then with his blame (“If there’s a problem it has to do with her, not him.”).

One side of resistance to change has to do with control.  We want control of our lives.  If we are told by someone we need to change, and that someone tells us what we need to change, then we are giving them control to effect and have power over the direction of our lives.  But our need to be in control, and to be so self-entrenched, is an awful way to live that causes blind spots about the kinds of people we are.  We don’t want to give up that kind of control, even if it’s John the baptizer, or the Lord who is asking us to make that kind of life shift.  Our desire for control is largely at the heart of our resistance to change.

I’ve also read that in counseling situations, the greater the resistance by the person being counseled, the closer you’re getting to that person’s pain.  No one wants to confront their pain, so they resist any effort to get close to it.  I thought it interesting that personal pain is linked to resistance to making significant change.  Dealing with the pain in our lives, facing our painful memories or feelings, healing the open and ongoing wounds to our spirits, and courageously dealing with that pain could free us up to then make significant changes in our approach to life.

Maybe that’s what John was talking about when he told the people that the Messiah “will change you from the inside out.”  That is, the Coming Savior will deal with us where we hurt most.  And by taking care of that pain, by letting him inside our pain, he will then free our spirits to make great changes in life.  To make life smooth and straight, so that his coming into our lives is an easier process.

Even though the outcome of change will be a smoother and straighter life, our pain, which in turn creates low self-esteem, limits and restricts our willingness to change.  Letting go of our pain, transforming our low self-esteem are hard nuts to crack, and may seem impossible for us.  The reason is that we allow these negative self-belief systems and patterns of pain to become stronger in us than the evidence and promise of positive changes.  We have held on to misguided and deeply held negative beliefs a lot longer than we should have.  Because they have been part of us for so long, we just assume we should continue in them, and die with them, rather than experience the straightening and smoothing John speaks of.

Whatever John was telling the people, it’s clear he’s making the assumption that people need to make a change.  People need to be changed if the coming Messiah is to be understood, recognized and embraced by us.

But, as I said from the outset of this message, change is one of the scariest words we hear, and one of the hardest things to do.  We are more comfortable with pattern and routine.  We set the patterns of our thinking, values, and beliefs very quickly.  Just as quickly, they become deeply set.  To make a change feels like it’s just asking too much.  We’re giving up too much; giving up something we’ve held on to for so long.  And now someone is telling us we need to let go of it, heal it, and discard it.  We intuitively know that to make such a change will hurt.

We don’t like change because we don’t like the disorientation part of letting go, discarding and healing.  Sometimes the disorientation happens to us, like when God tried to changed the people’s hearts through the Exodus from Egypt, or the Exile into Babylon.

But the kind of disorientation that John is asking of his audience is a “self-inflicted” kind of disorientation, where you must choose to embrace a major change, and thus embrace the disorientation that comes with it.

The question people may ask themselves when challenged to make such a change and enter a period of disorientation is, “Why?  Why would I do that to myself?”  Plus, such a change won’t just affect you.  It will affect the whole system of relationships around you.  When one person makes a life-change, everyone close to them must now change.  “Why,” you may ask yourself, “would I not only put myself through the disruption of making a major change of my world view, but also to those around me whom I care about?”

Take for example Paul.  When he had his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus that day, and changed the whole direction and meaning of his life, think of all the people that change had a ripple effect upon.  He was probably married.  What happened to his marriage relationship when he became a Christian?  Any children?  We don’t know.  If so, their life was changed that day as well.  What about all the other Jewish leaders who were backing Paul, had taught Paul, had mentored Paul.  All those relationships made a major shift as well, the day Paul gave into the summons of God, and shifted his world view about his religious beliefs in a whole new way in response to Christ.

Even though John’s summons to change seems huge, seems like he’s asking way too much, seems like maybe we’ve piled up too much to sweep away, lived too long in some set of beliefs that just haven’t worked but were held on to anyway, we still have to respond.  It is possible.  It can be done.  The Lord can enter your life and change you from the inside out, straighten out what’s crooked, smooth out what’s been pot-holed for way too long.  This kind of life-shift change is possible.  It’s needed.  It’s necessary.  End the resistance.  Just say to God, “OK.  I’m ready.”

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