Northaven United Methodist Church, Dallas, Texas
Reading for the Second Sunday in Lent and Trinity Sunday: John 3:1-17
In case you haven’t figured it out, there is something advertisers know about us. There is something that the sellers of consumer goods know about us. There is something that salespeople of all persuasions know about us. What they know about us is that we are inherently dissatisfied.
We are inherently dissatisfied. We strive, in our culture, with a restless and obsessive abandon, to improve ourselves … to change ourselves … to recreate our image and our lives in some new and, hopefully, more exciting and fulfilling way.
Walk into a bookstore, any bookstore, and you’ll find an ever-growing self-help book section. According to a Wall Street Journal story of a few years back, the self-help book industry now accounts for one out of every ten book sales. Now, I am not out to slam self-help books this morning. But I would point out that one of the things their popularity indicates is a rise in the dissatisfaction that we have with our lives. People who are entirely satisfied with their life are not out buying self-help books.
And so, we find that advertisers, producers of consumer goods, and salespeople of all kinds are marketing to our dissatisfaction. They are selling the dream of a better life to us, and we, my friends … we are literally buying it. We buy abdominizers on late night TV. We buy Rogaine and Propecia. We buy sets of Ginsu knives we have no room for. We buy exercise equipment we use for a month. Then we get dissatisfied with it too, and it goes out to the garage, or is used as a hanger for our dirty clothes.
We get botox treatments. Our professional, and even high school athletes are using and abusing steroids, endangering and shortening their very lives. We have plastic surgery done. By the way, were you aware that some people actually have plastic surgery done on their pets? Apparently, it’s gotten so out of hand, that West Hollywood, California is contemplating a ban on pet plastic surgery. So, if you live there, and are dissatisfied with your pet, in the future you may just be out-of-luck.
We use Prozac and we use Viagra… My friend, Chris Chandler, who is a poet and performance artist, says in one of his routines that he now keeps his Viagra right next to his Prozac, although, he muses, if either one of them really worked, he probably wouldn’t need the other.
Now, my critique of our dissatisfied culture doesn’t mean that we have no room for improvement. It doesn’t mean that any of us is “perfect” in every way. Or that we should simply be resigned to life as it is now. But this culture of dissatisfaction is at odds with the theme that we’ve set out for our worship this day … and that theme is the “Journey of Acceptance.”
The Journey of Acceptance… You know, acceptance is an attitude that perhaps many of you assume might belong much later in the journey. But when our Worship Commission was discussing the order of our Lenten journey, I think they did some very wise discerning. They discerned that before you can ever really embark on a long journey, it’s important to come to a level of acceptance of yourself and your situation. First, as did last week, we must do some reflection … we must seek to reconnect with God and with our deep selves. And one of the first byproducts of that reflection is, or at least should be, acceptance.
Acceptance, seen this way, is a reality check. It’s breaking down the barriers of our own self-deceptions and seeing ourselves for who we are. It’s admitting to ourselves that there probably ARE some things about our lives that we’d like to change, but that change does not come from rushing right into some new workout program or buying some new toy. Change, along life’s journey, comes first from accepting who we are — and even if we ARE dissatisfied, finding some way to love who we are RIGHT NOW. It’s acknowledging that if we hope to change something major or important about our lives, that the change may take a good bit of time … that it may not happen overnight.
I don’t remember many of the Super Bowl ads for this year. But I do remember that in one of them, there’s a man who’s obviously somewhat obese, standing on a gym scale. He checks his weight, then hops off the scale and runs around the small gym room one time. He comes back to the scale, steps back up and checks his weight again. And when it obviously hasn’t changed, he hits it real hard on the side. That’s a guy who is clearly dissatisfied with his life, but is still not ACCEPTING who he is right in that moment. He is not accepting the long road to recovery that he still has to take.
But it is HARD to find that middle-ground between acceptance of ourselves and self-loathing of ourselves. Last year, when I was in the middle of a pretty intensive low carb diet, and losing about twenty pounds, I used to get my coffee every morning from the same 7-11. Every morning when I went to the cash register, the perky sales clerk would ask me the same question: “Would you like two cookies with that? It’s just fifty cents more!”
You see, that’s where that culture of dissatisfaction gets us! It says to us, it’s not that much to buy two cookies. Go ahead … it’s just fifty cents more!!!
But I always told her, “No.” Now, I know she started recognizing me, and I know she heard me tell her “no” day after day after day. And yet, she had been well-trained to ask the question: “Would you like two cookies with that? Just fifty cents more!” Finally, after this cat and mouse game had gone on for WEEKS, I just lost it one morning. When she asked me if I wanted two cookies, I shot back, “Have you actually LOOKED at me!? Do I look like a guy who actually NEEDS two cookies?” She never asked me the question again…
Acceptance is about taking a hard look at ourselves, and not flinching from who and where we really are right now. Perhaps the most powerful prayer of acceptance is a prayer that many of us know from Alcoholics Anonymous. We know it as the “Serenity Prayer.” What many of you may not know is that the prayer is actually longer than what is commonly recited at AA, and that it was likely written by the great theologian, Reinhold Niehbuhr. (Niehbuhr has said he wrote it … his wife said he wrote it … his daughter said he wrote it … and our own Robin Lovin, one of the most influential Niehbuhr scholars of our time, also thinks he wrote it. So, even though there’s some debate about it, I’m gonna say he wrote it.)
Niehbuhr’s original prayer went like this (with some changes to the language, to make it more inclusive): “God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
That’s the part you probably have before in some fashion or another. But the prayer continues: “Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as the pathway to peace; taking, as (God) did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that (God) will make all things right if I surrender to (God’s) will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with God forever in the next.”
As I just mentioned, we are blessed with the presence of one of the great modern scholars of Reinhold Niehbuhr and his theology … our own Robin Lovin. People always ask me if I’m nervous preaching in front of the great theologians and preachers at Northaven. And I usually say “no.” But then, I’m not usually preaching on their specific area. So I’ve already warned Robin that I was going to invoke Niehbuhr today, and that it’s possible I’ll get it all wrong…
But I’ve been thinking about this prayer, and how it is commonly used. In our modern time, it’s commonly used to pray about accepting the limitations and reality of our PERSONAL lives. But I hope you’ll notice that in Niehbuhr’s original version, the first part of the prayer doesn’t refer to “me,” (“help ME accept the things I cannot change”) but to “us.”
“God, give US grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
Robin Lovin might remind you that this prayer, in some ways, points to a cornerstone of Niehbuhr’s theology…which is something Niehbuhr called “Christian realism.” Christian realism seeks not to only advocate for social change, but to do so in with a realism about how fast or how slow things actually DO change in our world. Reinhold Niehbuhr’s original prayer does not just call for us to accept things that “I” cannot change, but instead to accept things that CANNOT be changed … that is, things I may have no control over, or things that may not change within the event-horizon of my own life … things that may not be within my control.
At the same time, the prayer calls us to change the things that SHOULD be changed. And the prayer asks for the discernment to know the difference between the two.
The second part of the prayer suggests that even God accepts the world as a sinful place … accepts it AS IT IS, and not just as we would have it. This really is the heart of a realistic acceptance. Whether our dream is losing ten pounds or creating world peace, one of the most important starting places is a realistic acceptance of who we are, where we are, and where the world is. This acceptance acknowledges that we have SOME control, and that some things SHOULD be changed. But it also acknowledges that changing anything outside our own actions is never up to any of us entirely.
Our culture of dissatisfaction would tell us that we can control almost anything in our lives, if we just work hard enough at it. And, certainly, in terms of addictive personal behaviors, thanks be to God, we can learn to control our choices and change our lives. But acceptance is also about admitting that there’s much we cannot control, too. And this morning’s scripture seems to hint at this. We tend to see this scripture as a scripture all about a choice WE make.
You have probably often heard this scripture used when someone talks of being “born again.” As if it’s all about a choice we make. But if you listened to the version we read this morning, the better translation of this passage is probably not “born again,” but “born from above.” And, in case, you’re wondering what the difference is, Jesus himself explains it in when he says: “Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.'”
Jesus says that being born of the Spirit is like accepting the wind. We cannot CONTROL the wind. We don’t know where the wind comes from. We don’t know where it is going. We can see what the wind DOES. But we cannot make it stop, and we cannot make it start. Believe it or not, Jesus seems to be saying that is something of what God’s Spirit is like. There may be times in our lives when God’s Spirit moves strongly and powerfully through our lives.
In such times, we may even believe, wrongly, that we’re CONTROLLING God’s Spirit in our lives. But the Spirit is like the wind. It cannot simply be called up on demand. It cannot be conjured up by our actions or will. The Spirit of God is as wild and uncontrollable as the wind … as wild and uncontrollable as this crazy world we live in. So perhaps accepting this nature of God’s Spirit is also a part of our Journey of Acceptance. And perhaps, then, in the end, we see a Journey of Acceptance that has three parts:
— We accept who WE are as human beings, right now and in this place.
— We accept things that can change and things that cannot change.
— And we accept that God’s Spirit will move in and out of our lives in ways we cannot control, and cause new things to be done.
Niehbuhr’s original prayer ends with this kind of acceptance, it seems to me. Niehbuhr prays that we might trust in GOD to make things right … so that in this life we might be reasonably happy, and that in the world to come we might be supremely happy. For those of us who want social change, and want it now … for those of us who want to lose ten pounds yesterday … that might sound frustrating.
But perhaps our acceptance can itself change things. Perhaps a realistic acceptance of our lives and of our world can allow us to be open to new paths and new solutions we might not even be able to imagine yet. And the further Good News is that God’s Spirit is also working in this world, moving through our world like the wind … and causing new things to be born in our world.
The Journey of Acceptance understands that there are things that we can change, and things that cannot change. But that there is also a Spirit of God that we can trust in to do a new thing, and to continue with us down the path of our journey.
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