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Getting Unstuck

March 13, 2017

“Getting Unstuck” Genesis 11:27-12:9 3.12.17 Lent 2A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Around the turn of the century, I drove from Owensboro, KY to Albany, GA to preach for the 150th anniversary of my home church. It was a very long trip, but fortunately most of it was four-lane, and I made pretty good time on the trip down. I even stopped off for a while at Robins Air Force Base near Macon, GA to look at their magnificent collection of vintage and modern aircraft.

The journey back was a different story. I hadn’t been on I-75 North very long at all when the traffic began to slow to a crawl, out in the middle of nowhere. The line of cars I was in moved by fits and starts, but finally it was no use. I turned off my engine just like everyone else and sat there. I found out that there was an 18-wheeler overturned up ahead. It figures, I thought. An accident. Somebody was careless and stupid. Through no fault of my own, I was stuck.

At other times, though, I get stuck because I want to be or because I’m reaping the fruit of my actions. And, I suspect, so do you. Even if we prefer to talk about being “settled” or “set,” it amounts to the same thing. Now don’t misunderstand. I’m not speaking of the routines we adopt to help us get through the day a little more easily, like the order we do things in the morning when we get up or a procedure that seems to work well to accomplish a difficult task in a minimum of time. I don’t mean the traditional rituals and order of the Church. Instead, I’m talking about the kind of emotional processes that keep us glued in place when the call of God is, in the words of the text, to go forth from our country to a land he will show us.

The late Murray Bowen pioneered work in what’s known as “family systems theory.” He observed that some of our behavior is reactive, instinctive, not chosen or planned. It’s what he termed “automatic functioning”—what we do as a matter of habit, for the sake of stability and familiarity, in order to keep balance, and above all else, to deal with our anxiety.

Those are the ways of thinking and acting that convince us it’s OK to settle in Haran and give up our dream of going to Canaan. That’s what Terah did. He left Ur with his family for reasons we don’t know. Maybe he was tired of the congestion of the city or the crime or the prices. Maybe he just wanted to see what was out there, to boldly go where no one he knew had gone before. But when he got to the spot in what is now eastern Turkey, he decided that was good enough.

And apparently life was fine for Terah and his kin. It was not without its sorrow, of course, as no life is. One of his sons died, and left Lot without a father. Uncle Abram had to take his nephew in. Terah’s daughter-in-law Sarai wanted to have children, but never could. And finally, he died, never having seen Canaan, the land of his dreams. His life was long, but was it as full as it could have been?

Abram buried his father, and went about his business. Here at mid-life—that’s what 75 would be in this story—here at such a time there was still plenty to do. Yet even with a full agenda, Abram must have felt his life was at a dead end, for he had no son with whom to share his possessions or to whom he could pass on his knowledge. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of that one single fact for this man in that culture. Walter Brueggemann observes that this family was in a situation of “irreparable hopelessness.”

But then something happened that got Abram unstuck, moved him from his settled state, and most certainly from his anxiety and automatic functioning. I wonder if Abram ever thought that among the items on his personal to-do list would be completing the journey his father began. Whether he did or not, that’s what God had in mind.

The Lord, Yahweh, came to him with a promise that seemed impossible. And if everything had been up to Abram and Sarai, it would have been. But there is little of those two in the speech in the text. God speaks, just as surely as he did when the earth was without form and void, and darkness covered the face of the deep. He speaks to make possible new life. He speaks to bring a fresh perspective. He speaks to summon to a risky journey which can only be walked in faith.

Are you and I anything like Abram or Sarai today? Maybe we’re stuck in the sort of functioning that serves to soothe our anxiety, but life has no spark anymore. Maybe we got burned one too many times trying something new, and now we’re extremely cautious, never venturing beyond the familiar and known. Might be we keep making the same mistakes, even late in life or we can’t get shake the prejudices and fears we grew up with or have developed. Perhaps with some difficult co-worker, relative or neighbor, we have the very same conversation and conflict over and over. How about being stuck in reverse, reliving the past with its regrets and failures? We know there’s got to be something better, but we’re not sure what. If so, it’s precisely to people like us that God has a word to say.

It’s first of all a word that invites you and me to a new outlook. It’s a point of view that can be summed up in one word: blessing. How do you see your life? How do I look at mine? What are the scripts we keep playing out? Do they tell us we can’t change or are victims of circumstance? Do they keep us wallowing in our despair or believing that evil will always have the upper hand in the world? What would life be like if we heard, as if for the first time, this good news: “I will bless you. I have blessed you.” What if we believed such a word against all the evidence, simply because God said it? Would that make a difference?

The author Frank Rivers believes it will. He writes: “We don’t see what we look at, we see what we look for. Expectation directs attention. We see what we expect to see. If you expect to see a friendly universe around you, you will probably see compassion, altruism, and good humor. If you expect a hostile universe, you will probably see violence, selfishness and treachery. Anticipation distorts perception. Previewing distorts viewing” (cited in The Christian Century, 4/7/99: 388).

But the blessing is not just to make us feel better. It’s actually to be the personal turnaround that enables us to get our eyes off ourselves and move out in mission. Or again in the words of the text, we are empowered to be a blessing. A new attitude provides fresh choices that will enable us to focus on a vision for service.

The gift is not without its demand, though. Abram was not going to be a blessing staying where he was, settled in Haran. His finally having offspring and bringing life to the nations was only going to happen if he left and took up his father’s vision again. And that meant a pretty big risk. Of course, he did not go alone. He had his wife, his nephew, considerable resources of people and livestock and money. But still, there was no map, no assurance that he would be welcomed by the Canaanites. But he went. Because his imagination had been captured again by something bigger than himself. It was Yahweh’s dream that was going to be fulfilled through him and the family Sarai and he were to have.

Risk like Abram’s is different for everyone. I don’t know what it will look like for you, but for me it’s been stepping out of my comfort zone with an idea or a food or learning some new skill or approach. Shifting out of reverse to live in the present and look hopefully toward tomorrow. Trusting again after being terribly betrayed and hurt by the Church. Giving up control and believing that God goes with me and those I love, and will see that things work out.

Can we change, move forward? I suggest it takes at least two factors to make that happen. One is a faithful imagination. Now, we might consider imagination something sensible people don’t approve of, like Mr. Dursley in the Harry Potter books. It’s not real; “it’s just my imagination, runnin’ away with me,” says the singer. It’s the land where anything is possible, like flying motorcycles or beaming up to a starship, with no boundaries. And we know such things can’t be done. But imagination keeps on asking “What if?” and “Why not?” and “Who says?” It’s thinking outside the box, the first step toward a different life.

I once read the story of an army that was seeking to thwart the flow of enemy men and supplies across some rivers. They demolished bridge after bridge, but still the foe kept coming. Finally, someone discovered that the other side was building new bridges six inches under water. Unheard of! No one does that; bridges are above water, right? Apparently not. Building a bridge under water traverses not just a river, but a way of thinking. As an old commercial said, it’s imagination at work.

Imagination opens us to “more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet). Or as Walter Brueggemann puts it, when we have lively, faithful imagination we are “unembarrassed about another rationality, not anxious about accommodating the reason of this age.” We are invited to and empowered by a freedom of thought and speech that “pushes out the [closed, managed] world in which most of us are trapped.” He suggests that “the church…may be the last place left in our society for imaginative speech that permits people to enter into new worlds of faith and to participate in joyous, obedient life.”

Brueggemann’s focus is on proclamation of the Word in community. But I suggest in addition that when you and I watch science fiction or, if that’s not your cup of tea, when we read poetry, we are also doing the holy task of keeping our imaginations honed as sharp as a saw, to use the late Stephen Covey’s term. Ministers and ruling elders particularly are to be the ones who lead with imagination, breaking the boundaries, speaking in ways that open up new realities, inviting the congregation to adventures for God. We promise to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.

Our imaginations, captive and captivated by the One who acts on our behalf, can enable us to see ourselves differently. But a new way of thinking is not quite enough. There’s a second factor that enables transformation. We need someone or something to act as a catalyst to get our own juices flowing or maybe even to give us permission to move forward. A guide we can trust to show us tomorrow or a coach who will help us stretch beyond what we thought we could do, even if the guide or the coach is our own intuition.

In the wonderful Lenten film Chocolat, Juliette Binoche’s character is driven from place to place by the north wind. She and her daughter never settle anywhere. Binoche carries the ashes of her similarly-driven mother with her everywhere. One night, as the wanderers prepare yet again to leave their home and the chocolat shop, mother and young daughter argue over leaving, and pull the luggage this way and that between them. The urn with its ashes falls out of the luggage, down the steps, and breaks open. It seems to be a sign; Binoche casts her mother’s ashes on the north wind, and she and her daughter stay in their little village. The cycle is broken by an accident, an unexpected gift.

My friend Gerald was once a missionary in the Congo. On one of his furloughs, he and I sat drinking coffee in a bookstore in Birmingham. We talked for hours before we realized that we had skipped lunch, and it was now three in the afternoon. Gerald went on to try to redevelop a small church in a growing area of Birmingham, transforming the congregation to reach new people with a relevant gospel. The experiment ultimately failed when the congregation decided it just wanted to be a sleepy country church after all. Gerald now teaches high school students and is very happy and successful in that work. But he told me once that it was that conversation at Joe Mugg’s that opened up the possibility and gave him the courage to seek and risk the new thing trying to revive the little church. All I thought I was doing was catching up with an old friend.

All those years ago, as I sat there in that traffic jam, I noticed that other people were driving on the shoulder and up the entrance ramp. There was a truck driver out of his truck, directing them. He happened to be a local, I found out, and he knew a better way to where I was going. I just had to trust that what he told me was true.

We also have someone we can trust, who has walked this journey. His name is Jesus. Reflecting on what he did, Paul said “If anyone is in Christ, there is the new creation. The old has gone, and everything has become fresh and new.”

Anybody want to get unstuck?

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