Truth, Pain, and Freedom in Christ

Truth Pain and Freedom in ChristA sermon preached at Lutheran Church of the Atonement, Florissant, Missouri, for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, October 29, 2017, on John 8:31-36 and Romans 3:19-28. This is my farewell sermon before moving from St. Louis to Frisco, Texas.

We’ve all heard that “the truth hurts.” If you google this phrase, you will find hundreds of "the truth hurts" pages on Pinterest.

You will know the truth and the truth will make you free. Jesus's words, yes—but he doesn’t mention that the truth will hurt. He seems to skip the part about pain being involved in those moments between "knowing the truth" and "being free."

Our unwillingness to feel the pain of facing our truths is one of the biggest reasons that we are not set free in so many ways. Jesus is not talking about propositional truth—statements and doctrines of fact that we simply accept—but rather he is talking about the truth of who we are, the truth of who God is, the truth of our relationship with God in Christ Jesus, and the truth of how we live out that relationship in this world.

Psychologists write entire books about what they call defense mechanisms—all the ways in which we can try to avoid the pain encountered when confronting the truth of who we are:

• We repress what disturbs us. 
• We project what we don’t like about ourselves onto others, and then criticize them.
• We rationalize our errors. 
• We regress into childish behaviors and thought patterns. (We can look forward to this dynamic as the holiday season approaches, when the whole family gets together and we feel like we’re eight years old again!)

And let's not forget denial, the way we just reject a reality in front of us until we’re ready to deal with the pain that comes with facing it. (When someone I love seems stuck in denial, I like to sidle up to them, smile, and say, “You know ‘denial’ is not just a river in Egypt!”)

While in seminary, I dated a fellow student. We looked like such a good match on the surface, and I knew my parents would approve, so gosh darnit, I would make this relationship work! To this day, he’s still a great guy and he's become a great pastor. But the truth was, our personalities, needs, and ways of expressing ourselves back then were not all that compatible. I didn’t want to deal with the pain of that truth. I didn’t want to experience the pain of being alone. I certainly didn't want to feel the pain of admitting that, no matter how many ways I had tried, I couldn’t be my true self in that relationship. The truth hurt, and so for nearly two years, I repressed, rationalized, and denied my way into trying harder, over and over again.

While learning about the 12-Step program, I visited an open Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. The speaker that day was talking about Step 1, and I'll never forget his message. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and our lives had become unmanageable,” he said. He went on to explain that the problem is that we think that just by trying harder, we can kick addiction or end a painful situation. But no matter how much we try, we fail and repeat the cycle—over and over again. Talk about pain. Maybe the pain of facing truth isn’t so bad after all. “The truth is,” he continued, “Step 1 happens not when we try harder, but when we admit that we cannot do this on our own at all!” Now, that’s a painful truth: We really are powerless, and left to our own devices, our lives are a mess. But the moment we accept this is also the very moment when we are ready to receive help from God. That’s when freedom happens!

And that’s what happened to me, in this relationship that I was trying so hard to make work. When I admitted that on my own I couldn’t fix or change it, that I needed God’s help, I was finally facing the truth—a truth that unleashed all of the pain of a broken relationship, the pain of being alone, the pain of knowing my own limitations.

It was the end of December and very cold in Chicago. We talked and cried late into the night because, well, the truth hurts. He would have been unwise to drive back to his parents’ house that night, so we pumped up the air mattress. We weren’t married, so when there were no alternative sleeping arrangements, we had gotten into the habit of trading off who got the bed and who slept on the air mattress. That night, it was my turn on the air mattress. As it turned out, the air mattress had a new leak. As I slept, all the air seeped out and I ended up on the cold hardwood floor. It sounds horrible, I know, but it turned out to be the best night of sleep I’d had in months—the truth had set me free! I was enveloped in the forgiveness and love of Jesus, and I was finally trusting him with my whole life, whether or not I remained alone. The pain of realizing that I couldn’t make my life work by myself was momentary, while the relationship with Jesus would last for my lifetime.

We see this pattern throughout Scripture and in the lives of the saints, who sought to be faithful to the truth of who they were and the truth of who God is in Jesus Christ.

When Jesus appeared to the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road, Paul had to experience the pain of confronting the revelation of who he was: a man who was persecuting and killing early Christians. He endured blindness and confusion, deep sorrow and regret. But the truth of God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus Christ freed Paul from that pain, and it freed him from his former life as a Pharisee. Paul was set free by a relationship with Jesus that lasted a lifetime; the pain of facing who he had been before accepting his truth was only momentary by comparison. Paul experienced being justified by grace as a gift, and we still hear about his freedom today, two millenia later, as it is written in his letter to the Romans.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther grappled with the pain of his own sin and of the truth that he could not by his own work or merit—no matter how hard he tried—make himself right before God. Would the Reformation have happened if Luther had repressed, denied, rationalized, even projected the pain of his sin on someone else, rather than experiencing it and discovering in the process forgiveness without price and grace without merit? The pain of his sin was only momentary. Luther was set free by a relationship with Jesus that lasted a lifetime, even through excommunication and a threat to his life.

This evening, we will come together, Roman Catholics and Lutherans, at the Basilica to commemorate the Reformation and the truth of the Gospel that both Luther and Paul preached: We are saved, not by trying harder, but by confessing that alone we can’t do it at all. Telling this truth about who we are can be painful. The law convicts us and makes us aware of our brokenness and sin, but because grace opens up a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ, that pain doesn’t last.

So now here I am, at another moment of embracing both the pain and the truth of who I am. I have resisted moving and the pain of saying goodbye for as long as I could—two years, at least! Yet the moving truck comes on Thursday. It’s time to say farewell to a city, my home, my church, my ministry, and to so many people I love. I do not have a call. I do not have a clue what God has in mind for me in Texas. Maybe I’ll be a little tempted to grab Texas by the longhorns, to try hard to make something happen. But I've learned that God calls us all to ministries and endeavors, expecting us to step forward in faith, even though we cannot see the ending or even the way.

Our future is held in the same place it has always been—in our abiding relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “If you continue in my Word, you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” This Word is the Bible, yes, but the Word is also Jesus himself, the Word made flesh.

Trust in the truth of who you are in relationship with Jesus Christ—that you are freed from your own sin and limitations, enveloped by God’s grace to love and serve with your whole heart. Wherever you are trying harder, but resisting the pain of change—that’s the very place where Jesus Christ is calling you to greater freedom and to put your trust in him.

So be willing to experience the pain of change—of trying ever-new ways to connect with Millennials—and to proclaim Christ in our ever-changing post-modern era.

Pastors and programs come and go, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever! Jesus sets us free for a relationship with Him that lasts for not only a lifetime, but for eternity. That’s freedom, indeed!

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The Candygram Gospel

blogpic.candygramI was looking at the local Dollar Store for some Lifesavers to give away during the Children's Sermon last Sunday. The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures was Isaiah 45:1-7, where God says two times "I call you by your name." I had planned on saying that I was going to be moving away soon, and that although pastors move on, and life changes, God always stays with us and knows us by name--God is our Lifesaver.

As I stood in the aisle looking at the candy possibilities, I remembered a candygram gift my daughter had made for a friend's birthday during middle school. Phrases with candy names began popping into my head. Phrases like "God created the Milky Way" and "you may not be Mike & Ike, but God knows your name." And behold, a candygram Gospel message was born.

Here is the good news according to Halloween that became my Children's Sermon--and giving away candy with it certainly increased the number of children who came forward!

Please don’t Snicker at my story!
God made the Milky Way and God made you!
If you’re a Smartie or you made a
Whopper of a mistake,
God’s love for you is Good ‘N Plenty!
You may feel be-Twix and between, 
or that you don’t know the Reisen God loves you,
but God goes the Extra mile by sending Jesus
to be our Lifesaver (or LifeSavior!) forever.
So whether your name starts with M&M
or you’re called Baby Ruth or Mike & Ike ... 

God knows you by name!


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Seeking Emotional Sobriety in Times of Change

blogpic.shoesIn two and a half weeks—17 days to be exact—I will leave St. Louis, Missouri and move to Frisco, Texas. As you can imagine, October has been fraught with more tasks to accomplish than are humanly possible in this short time, each one evoking a whole new curtain of feelings—grief, gratitude, anger, fear, hope, melancholy, happiness, nostalgia, and all their many variations.

The hardest part is giving myself time and space to experience these feelings, to express them in a healthy way, learn from them, and release them. That’s what emotional sobriety is—the willingness to acknowledge our emotions, positive and negative, and to actually feel and experience them.

“Sobriety” is a good word for this process. It is so tempting to bury our feelings and opt for familiar, potentially addictive coping strategies—strategies that are readily available and even encouraged for making ourselves feel better—like eating chocolate (or too much of anything, really), drinking alcohol, over-functioning to the point of exhaustion, shopping, Netflix-binging, or using prescription or recreational drugs. These can create a new set of problems with the power to wreak havoc on how we behave and what we say, while the feelings are still there, buried under all the muck.

Yet when we allow ourselves to just experience them, those feelings often dissipate more quickly. I still find this surprising. I’m afraid if I actually feel them, my emotions will be erupting all day, getting bigger and never going away. But what really happens is the opposite: When I just have a good cry, express my fear and anxiety surrounding these changes to a trusted friend, yell at God in the shower, and say “thank you” for the beauty (that I will miss) in the backyard, the intensity passes and I am freed to move on to the next task (and the feeling it will evoke)!

Richard Rohr offers The Welcoming Prayer as a guide to safely experiencing uncomfortable feelings and suffering. Briefly, the steps he identifies include the following:

1. Identify a hurt, offense or negative emotion. Remember the feelings you first experienced with this hurt, and feel them the way you first felt them.
2. Notice how this pain shows up in your body. Paying attention to your body’s sensations keeps you from jumping into a dualistic, analytic mind.
3. After you identify the hurt and feel it in your body, welcome it. Stop fighting it. Stop blaming. Welcome the grief. Welcome the anger. It’s hard, but when we name it, feel it, welcome it, transformation can begin.
4. Stay present in the moment. Any kind of analysis will lead you back into your ego. When you welcome your own pain, you will in some way feel the pain of the whole world. This is what it means to be human, and also what it means to be divine. Remember that you, too, are being held by the very One who went through this process on the cross, when Jesus held the pain of the whole world.
5. Now hand all of this pain—yours and the world’s—over to God. Let it go. Ask for the grace of forgiveness for the person who hurt you, for the event that offended you, for the reality of suffering in each life. The pain may or may not leave easily, but letting go frees up soul-energy that liberates us to move toward our True Self.

Truth to tell, my own emotional sobriety and welcoming prayers during this moving process have been a mixed bag. I have accepted some feelings and welcomed them, acknowledged the loss or the truth that accompanied them, let them go, and moved forward. Other times, not so much. For example, I have been projecting my mixed feelings about moving onto my sister who lives in Dallas, as though she didn’t want me moving nearer to her. The truth is that I haven’t wanted to move away from my two adult children, who are remaining in Missouri. Oh! And did I mention that I’ve bought four pairs of new shoes in as many months?

Which reminds me—a part of achieving emotional sobriety and the forgiveness we seek in The Welcoming Prayer is finding self-acceptance and self-forgiveness. I am not doing any of this perfectly, and that’s okay. And, yes, I did apologize to my sister!

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A Prayer to Savor the Moment

blogpic.prayerbeadsGod has made everything beautiful for it's own time. God has planted eternity in the human heart.   ~Eccl 3:11

At the "Savor the Moment" Women's Retreat I mentioned two weeks ago, we made prayer beads to go along with the prayer I wrote below.

Why beads? As our fingers touch each successive bead, the physical action helps keep our mind from wandering, and the rhythm of the prayers leads us more readily into stillness. They are a way to help us enter into meditative or contemplative prayer by using our mind, body and spirit. 

A Prayer to Savor the Moment

O Holy God, Loving Jesus, Blessing Spirit

You have made everything for its own time.

Help me open the gift of this moment,

A present from your heart to mine.

Draw my soul to your presence,

Grace me with acceptance for what is,

Bend my will to be present in the present,

Release my urge to control,

Unclutter my mind, quiet my spirit.

You are all I need in this moment.

As I see your beauty in this time,

I feel your eternity in my heart.


Thank you to Brenda Blight and friends, who edited this prayer to a manageable length, and to Carol Ruppar for designing the prayer beads, and teaching us to make our own strand! Thank you also to Cher Stuewe-Portnoff, my new blog editor!

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Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.