One of the mistakes many of us make is that we keep trying to have a better past. Life does not work that way. Your past is never going to improve, but your future can improve if you turn loose the past.
A few years ago there was an Associated Press story from Boston, Massachusetts, about a very unusual person. Her name is Marie Balter. At the age of 17 she was suffering severe depression and panic disorder. She was misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic and sent to Danvers State Mental Hospital where she was confined under that diagnosis for 17 years. With the help of friends and the strength of her faith, she was finally released. Her recovery was very painful and gradual, but she was determined to take charge of her life. She got an apartment, got married, earned a degree in psychology from Salem State College and a master?s degree from Harvard in administration planning and public policy. Recently, Marie Balter returned in triumph as the administrator of Danvers State Mental Hospital where she had spent 17 years as a patient.
What a victory for Marie Balter! She made up her mind not to continue to be a victim. She said that she would not have grown at all if she had not learned to forgive. ?If you don?t forgive your parents or your children or yourself, you never get beyond anger,? said Marie Balter. ?Forgiving is the way of reaching out from a bad past and heading out to a more positive future.?
Not many of us will face problems of such magnitude as did Marie Balter. Not many will experience such a dramatic victory over such a traumatic situation. But we all have our problems which are important to us. We are embattled by forces of evil and unfortunate circumstances which threaten our balance, our sanity, and sometimes even our lives.
We live in a dangerous world where accidents happen even to the most careful persons. If absolute safety is our goal, then being born was a fundamental mistake. We have difficulties of our own making. Our lives are affected by the sins, mistakes, and poor judgments of other people. There is evil in the world which brushes up against our lives at unexpected times. There are natural disasters that inexplicably and capriciously destroy. We are not always able to control the forces that cause us grief. No matter how hard we try or how careful we may be, we cannot avoid suffering, pain and sorrow.
The greatest battle in our lives, however, is not with these forces that lie beyond our control, as frightening as they may be. Our greatest battle is with ourselves. Most of our defeats come because we have not learned to fight effectively against the enemy within. We can seldom control what happens to us, but we have a tremendous margin of control over how we respond to what happens to us. That margin of control is more often than not the difference between victory and defeat.
The basic proposition of this sermon is that in order to win the biggest battle of your life, you have to do wisely and intentionally all that you can, but that you do not have to do it all by yourself.
When Marie Balter got out of the mental hospital, she had some choices to make. If she had chosen to direct her energies against the people and the circumstances that caused her problem, she may well have gone back to Danvers Hospital again but not as administrator. She more likely would have gone back as a patient. She struggled to forgive rather than to get revenge. She worked to improve herself rather than to tear down the people and the institutions that had harmed her. She could not change what had happened, but she could control how she responded to what had happened. This was the key to her recovery and to her return to Danvers State Mental Hospital as administrator rather than as a patient.
There are emotional habits and styles of living which lessen our chances of winning the biggest battle in our lives.
One of the most insidiously dangerous developments in our lives is the compulsion to perfection. This usually begins with the perception that the more perfect we are the more people will love and admire us. It does not seem to matter that the very premise of this perception is untrue. People will first admire but finally fear a person who appears to be perfect. The compulsion to perfection has an illusion at each end. It is an illusion to think that people will love you more if you are perfect, and it is an illusion to believe that it is possible to be perfect.
Let me comment on each of these illusions. How many people do you know who are perfect or think they are perfect? Are they people in whose presence you feel safe? I don?t know about your experience with perfect people, but mine is not very good. I really do not enjoy the company of perfect people. They are a pain! I have never been helped much by perfect people. If you were able to achieve some degree of perfection, your friends would distance themselves from you in direct proportion to the perceived perfection. Who were the perfect people in Jesus? day? The Pharisees. Jesus did not like them. They did not like Jesus. Their pride of perfection was a barrier. Beware of the illusion of perfection. It is a real trap.
People who have a compulsion to be perfect sooner or later begin to fudge when their performance does not measure up to their expectations. We begin to lie to ourselves and to others. Now we all suffer some from wanting to appear better than we are. We put up some kind of front that leads others to think that we have it all together when, in reality, we have some fundamental fragmentation. Sometimes we become so good at misrepresenting ourselves to others we can literally fall apart before the people around us realize what?s going on.
British physician John Abernathy recalled seeing a patient suffering depression. After a thorough examination indicated no apparent physical problem, Dr. Abernathy said to the patient, ?You need amusement. Go hear the comedian Grimaldi. He will make you laugh, and that will be better for you than any drugs.? The patient said to Dr. Abernathy, ?I am Grimaldi!? Can you hear that? The fact that an outwardly successful person may have serious inner difficulties is dramatically illustrated in a poem by E.A. Robinson titled Richard Cory. Listen.
Whenever Richard Cory went downtown,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.
And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
?Good morning,? and he glittered when he walked.
And he was rich ? yes, richer than a king ?
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish we were in his place.
So we worked and waited for the light,
And we went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
The battle within is the battle to forgive ourselves for not being perfect and to expect others to forgive us also. It is an internal battle based on our attitude toward ourselves much more than upon what others may think or expect of us.
There is another battle often externalized, but the essential nature of which is within. It has to do with how we respond to the wrongdoing of other people. It is not just the wrongs they do us, but the wrongs we see them doing. We forget the admonition of the Psalmist who said in Psalm 37, ?Fret not thyself because of evil doers.? It is bad enough to be harmed by our own wrongdoing but sadder still that we be done in by our attitude toward the sins of others. We want to see them get what we think they deserve. We tend to think that punishment and revenge will help our feelings, but as strange as it may seem, this only compounds our problem with the sins of others. It has been correctly observed that ?revenge is the sweetest morsel to the tongue ever to come out of hell.? The problem is you never get the taste of ashes out of your mouth.
Whether the sins of others is against us personally or against someone we love or simply against our principles of decency, only love and forgiveness will properly settle the issue so that we may get on with our lives without letting their lives stand in our way.
We expect the church to help us deal with imperfection, failure and sin. Ironically, the church has not always been successful in helping people deal honestly or creatively with their own sin or the sin of others. There are solutions we have inherited from the past which, more often than you might expect, do not fit the dilemmas generated by our life experiences. There is a frightening tendency on the part of those of us who are religious in conventional ways to think of society as them and us. And, thus, we fail to see any of them in us or any of us in them.
For instance, we tend to regard the homeless with a condescending pity that suggests there is nothing of them in us or us in them. But we all know people with houses who are homeless. We may be people with houses who are homeless. We are horrified by people who are addicted, but the truth is we live in a society of addicts. Most of us are caught up by or recovering from something that drags us down.
Dr. Cecil Williams, long-time pastor of Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in The Tenderloin in San Francisco, put addiction into perspective when he said, ?When you become obsessed with anything to the extent that you rely on it for your grasp on reality, you are addicted. Some of us are addicted to substances like drugs, alcohol, nicotine or food. Some are addicted to abusive relationships. Some of us are even addicted to religion. We crave being absolutely right about what we believe and think everyone else has to become like us. Toxic relationships, toxic substances and toxic religion all are addictions from which we need to recover in order to live fully.?
If the list of addictions was exhaustive, you would find most of us somewhere on it. Does that mean that we have to win a complete victory over our sins and addictions in order to be persons of worth? Once again, Dr. Cecil Williams, who has modeled grace better than any pastor I know, touches a sensitive nerve with this startling reminder: ?Listening to church folks, you would think that getting the spirit makes you good, perfect, and holy. But read the Bible for yourself. The Bible is full of real, spiritual people who have messy, imperfect lives.?
In order to win the biggest battle in life, it is necessary to give our best efforts to letting the philosophy of our faith rule our lives so that forgiveness and love will have dominion over our inclination to bitterness and revenge. As important as it may be, this is not enough. There always comes a time in which we reach the margins of our own strength. We need help?both human and divine.
What a joy it is to find a community of faith where truth and grace dominate ? where pretension and judgment are seldom seen. It is my hope and prayer that you have a place like that. How fortunate we are if we belong to a loving fellowship of people who reflect the spirit of Jesus as they pull with us and for us in our time of need. It empowers us to victory.
During the Great Depression, I had an uncle who had a little sawmill at which I worked from time to time. He would haul saw logs to the mill on a bobtailed log truck. One rainy afternoon he was bringing a heavy load of logs on a slippery dirt road. The truck slid into the ditch and could not pull itself out. Uncle Joe walked a mile up the road to a farmhouse and asked the farmer if he would pull the truck out with his tractor. The man said, ?I don?t have a tractor, but I have a very fine mule ? Old Blue.? Uncle Joe said, ?I don?t think a mule can do the job. I have a heavy load of logs.? The man said, ?You don?t know my mule, Blue.? Uncle Joe said, ?Well, bring him on and we?ll see.?
They hitched Blue to the truck. The man cracked his whip and said, ?Come on, Blue!? Blue pulled but the truck did not move. He cracked the whip again and said, ?Come on, Mack!? The truck moved slightly. He cracked his whip again and shouted, ?Come on, Maude!? And the mule pulled the truck out of the ditch.
Uncle Joe thanked the man and said to him, ?Let me ask you a question. Why did you call that mule by three different names?? And the farmer said, ?Old Blue is blind, and if he had thought he was the only one pulling, your truck would still be in the ditch.?
We are greatly empowered when we believe that someone else is pulling with us and for us. We need not go it alone. There is help ? human and divine. It is incumbent upon us to do all that we can to win in the battle of life. But we are not in this fight alone.
Let us pray.
We confess, O Lord, that we cannot handle the big battles of life alone. Help us to begin the process of forgiveness of those offenses too heavy to carry, too serious to turn loose. Teach us to love people we do not like, enemies we had rather hate, and friends who have been careless in their relationships with us. When we reach the margins of our strength, give us loving friends to help us and when we come to that time in which humans cannot help, we pray that you will be our strength and guide. Amen.