Friday, February 26, 2016

A Humility Born of Fire

We are several weeks into Lent.  Are you feeling bad yet?  We can experience Lent as a time of sober self-reflection leading to self-recrimination leading to a guilty discouragement.  A Lenten observance driven by guilt has little power to transform us, and that is the point of Lent after all:  transformation.  On the other hand, a Lenten observance driven by a humility born of honesty opens a door to change.
I learned about humility six months into my marriage.  I came into the marriage with a 1980 Datsun 210 station wagon.  The car had no optional equipment whatsoever.  I installed a radio myself.  I made floor mats out of AstroTurf remnants and upgraded to radial tires at some point. This car was the very picture of basic transportation.  My wife came into the marriage with a recently-painted 1979 Pontiac Grand Prix with air conditioning, an automatic transmission, and quite likely the last working 8-track player in America.  It was a nice ride.
One day while she was at work, I decided to replace the fuel filter in her car.  The job turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined.  So I gave up and retightened the fuel line, planning to take it to a professional. As I retightened the fuel line, I heard a distinctive “creak.”  I thought this was the sound of a tightly connected joint.

When I started the car, I found the “creak” was not the sound of a tightly connected joint; rather it was the sound a metal fuel line makes when you crack it.  The engine began to shoot gasoline onto an increasingly hot exhaust manifold.  Within a few moments the engine was on fire.  As the engine kept pumping more gasoline onto the manifold, flames engulfed the car.  A pumper truck came and put out the fire.  What had quite likely been the last working 8-track player in America was now toast.  As I stood there looking at the charred relic, the firefighter said:  “So now we’ll see if she really loves you.”  I suggested he not become a grief counselor.
I went to pick up Debbie at work and with sobs told her I had incinerated up her car.  There were no recriminations, lectures, or icy silences.  That weekend we bought a car, one with an automatic transmission, a radio, and air conditioning.  These were accommodations I needed to make.

I learned about humility that day.  I am not perfect.  I have made other mistakes since then, and I am sure I still have a few more mistakes in me. Being forgiven for destroying something precious gave to me the freedom to live my life at ease, not always fearful of error.  I knew that when I messed up, I would still be accepted, trusted, and loved.

This is economy of Lent.  We take an honest look at ourselves, owning up to the destructive things we have done and the good things we have left undone; and we realize that we are not done messing up.  We make this candid appraisal within the larger frame of God’s mercy and continuing love for us.  God has not given up on us.  So we do not give up on ourselves, nor do we give up on those around us.  In this fertile framework newness can be birthed in us and in others.  Lent is about new and better things growing out of the failures of our living.

Friday, February 19, 2016

On Carpentry and Prayer

Debbie, my wife, and I have been watching “This Old House” and “Ask This Old House” each Thursday night for three years and have recently found the confidence to undertake some small projects.  We put crown molding over the sliding glass door and around our bathroom mirrors.  We bought a fireplace mantle from and mounted it.   We removed several ceiling-mounted kitchen cabinets and even worked with drywall to patch the holes. In most of these projects, power tools were used.  The scope of our expertise is expanding.

Truth be told, in reality I am recovering from decades of regression.  My father was a talented carpenter and cabinetmaker, and my younger brother works as a carpenter and builds cabinets and furniture.  I never had the talent of either of them, but I could be productive on the jobsite.  I could sink a nail into subflooring with three or four hammer swings.  I could nail down shoe molding along a floor with two hard and one soft swing of the hammer.  I have lost that ability; my present hammering is of unpredictable aim and unreliable force.  I have lost the muscle memory I once had.  Muscle memory comes through repeatedly doing a specific motor task until a “memory” is developed in your muscles, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort.
I believe our minds and hearts can be trained in the same way.  The “Jesus Prayer” is one way that believers can create a type of “muscle memory” of faith and obedience in their minds and hearts.  The prayer is quite simple: Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”  This prayer dates from the 5th century.  It has always been more popular in the Eastern Orthodox Church than in the Western branch of Christianity.  In thinking about sin, Eastern Christianity has preserved a greater emphasis on the dynamic of sickness/ weakness and healing.  We in the West are more prone to give a central place to the dynamic of guilt and forgiveness when contemplating our sinfulness.  Repentance in Eastern Christianity is fueled more by a belief that we can change and less by the need to have our sense of guilt disarmed.
I see the “Jesus Prayer” less as a reminder that we should be continually wallowing in our guilt and more as a reminder that we can change.  The prayer begins by invoking the name of Christ, who is the ground of all hope in our lives. We ask for mercy, the only durable way forward for us.  Then we acknowledge the truth about ourselves:  we are sinners.  This confession does not discourage us because we have already initiated our way forward through the prayer bathed in the healing mercy we find in Jesus.  The prayer is a candid but hopeful confession.  Repeated recitation of the prayer conditions our hearts and minds to live our lives under the mercy of God, fueled by an honest admission that we do not have to remain the way we are; we can change.  I am working to create a “muscle memory” in my heart and mind that frames each day with the mercy of God and creates a hopeful urgency that lets God change me. 
I am also continuing to condition my eye and hand to achieving a greater level of carpentry skill.  Next will we replace the fronts on the bathroom cabinets or the broken faucet.  Neither will necessitate the use of power tools, unfortunately.
Jim Kelsey