Getting Stuck And Moving On
Fr. Dale Matson
My homily is based on our Old Testament reading for Sunday.
"Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I teach you to observe, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 4:1)
As we mature, we hopefully gain a sense of mastery and self-efficacy. Whether we like it or not, there is a sorting process we are thrown into about the time we enter elementary school. We quickly find in our neighborhood and in our school, who is the smartest, fastest, strongest, prettiest, most artistic and most popular. When baseball teams are formed in gym, we know who will be picked first and who will be picked last. We also learn early on, who is trustworthy and who is a tramp. From these early experiences we know by the 6th grade, where we stand on the social ladder.
In my case, I learned that I was ordinary in every way. I don’t want to brag but I am extraordinarily ordinary. From a developmental standpoint, we grow in many domains including intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual. There are certain necessary developmental end points to almost all our developmental domains such as limits on physical growth. But there is no end point for our potential spiritual growth. Our spiritual growth is like a fish. A fish grows until it dies.
As fluid intelligence diminishes, we compensate with acquired knowledge. Acquired knowledge is also referred to as crystalized intelligence. As an older adult I know that the American flag I pledged allegiance to in grade school only had 48 stars. Most children don’t know that fact. Am I smarter? No, children have more fluid intelligence which means if both of us face a novel task, a task neither of us has seen before, the child will figure it out first.
Spiritually, we develop our entire lives. The Christian lives in the present with eyes looking toward the future. The three theological virtues of faith, hope and love do not look back. They do not dwell in the past.
My sadness and pain is for those I know who have become mired down and live in the past. They have established a developmental beachhead or benchmark by which they orient their lives. Folks who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) are often stuck developmentally at the point of some major trauma. They have not learned to view the experience through God’s eyes. They are like Humpty Dumpty who had a great fall off the wall and all the kings’ horses and all the kings’ men could not put Humpty Dumpty back together again. They have circled the wagons and ended their development. They have chosen a life of victimhood. They are bitter and angry. They are hyper reflective and increasingly isolated. They self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, and gambling, illicit relationships other addictions and generally lead the passive life of a spectator. They have chosen the path of death. It may be death on the installment plan but it is surely death. This is a no risk, no gain, dried up, and stuck existence. Sentences begin with, “I suppose I should have done this or done that but…. [fill in the blank]” The point of orientation for their lives is in the past. The gravitational pull toward the past is a seemingly irresistible force. Like many Israelites, they have returned to the captivity of the past in Egypt. They are no longer pilgrims, they are refugees.
By the senior year of high school some folks have hit the peak of their lives. Our class president of 1962 simply disappeared and was never heard from again. Our valedictorian was hitting a tennis ball against the gymnasium wall when the senior awards were handed out. He never made it through his first year of college at Yale because he committed suicide in his parents’ house during semester break.
I’m certain you folks know people like this from your experience. They had so much promise and they gave themselves over to the dying process. The dying process is the default ever since original sin. The late Karl Menninger, a Christian Psychiatrist wrote the book, “Man Against Himself”. St. Paul talks about this struggle in Romans Chapter Seven. “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (18b-20)
Each person on this earth is either committed to life or committed to death. Scripture states in the 30th chapter of Deuteronomy (verse19) “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”
I have been both places, seeking life and seeking death. I used to plan my life around alcohol and always made sure there was enough around to get the job done. While I never drank at work, I had a string of jobs over the years where I fouled my own nest over time. I was stuck. I wasn’t moving on. I had been stuck for a long time.
God in His grace can even reach into the heart of the active unrepentant addict. Having nowhere else to turn, the 8-year-old child that accepted Jesus as his savior in Sunday School 30 years before, got back on his knees and cried out to God for help. I signed up for an adult bible study called “Life With God” in the local Lutheran Church. It was actually an adult catechism course. I was so spiritually hungry I attended the next three sixteen-week sessions in a row. I went to church on Sunday and mid-week too. I absolutely loved the adult Bible study. I had nearly starved to death spiritually and didn’t know it. The crucial question for me was the same one Christ posed to Peter. “Who do you say that I am?” To see Christ as God opened the door for my return. I began attending Bible class between services and enjoyed the experience immensely. I came to love my spiritual mentor Jim Bolling as a father. Jim was the first of many men and women God placed by my side. The Holy Spirit spoke words of instruction, correction and comfort through them.
God’s will is not initially heavy but the cumulative effect is a rod of iron. I gradually became aware following my adult baptism that there was no turning back. I remember the thought that came to me before I walked down the aisle for my baptism. “You are throwing your life away for this Jesus”. The statement by Satan, like all his statements was both the truth and a lie. It was true but the life I was throwing away wasn’t worth living. I was now another ambassador of God’s Kingdom and as an ambassador; it was not fitting for me to be a drunk or a smoker. At one time, I actually believed Satan’s truthful lie that I would die if I quit drinking. That drunk man did die. I prayed about this and was delivered from the need to drink. I was trustworthy again. I had to pray for two more years to get the desire to quit smoking and when I quit on January 10th 1983, I never smoked again. This is my 36th year without a cigarette. I believe there can be conversion from addiction.
What is the remedy for such a wretched life headed toward death? Why do so many people seem stuck at some point in their life and not able to move on? For example, if the child is repeatedly told by his parents that he or she is a loser and will never amount to anything, it can become an identity that would find ways to steal defeat from the jaws of victory. He could later be the person who would enter a job interview and in so many ways, tell the interviewers not to hire him. He really knew the outcome because he helped make it happen. Tom, one of my best friends from college was an absolute genius. When he was a child, he heard his father talking to his mother one night saying, “I wish I had never had the S.O.B.” Tom has never recovered, he remains stuck at age 75. He suffers from chronic depression and retired as a custodian. He has rejected God and will not reconcile.
Unlike the schizophrenic who struggles to establish an identity, stuck people establish a negative identity. They allow a negative self-concept to defeat their natural giftedness. This scenario is actually more common than the Peter Principle. They are the reverse of the Peter Principle. The “Peter Principle” states that people are promoted one step beyond their ability level.
Stuck people do not become who they could be because frankly, they feel they don’t deserve success. It would not fit the unconscious template in their brain. They are like the famous Marx Brothers line, “I would not belong to any country club that would have someone like me as a member.” But in Christ, we are born anew.
Are we moving on, seeking life or stuck seeking death? With Christ, we have become new creatures. We have a second chance. We have a fresh start. In 2nd Peter, it states, “But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation, and God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for He called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.” Why are we God’s own possession? We were purchased by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ with His very own blood.
St. Paul often used the race as a metaphor for life. Each race however requires training, self-discipline, and incremental stages of progress. Training is “goal specific”. Muscle development is task specific. You cannot swim a mile by running a marathon and you cannot run a marathon without incrementally increasing a long run. Training for a goal is future oriented. It pulls us forward. This is not just true in the physical domain. It is also true in the other domains of life as well. Completing an interrupted college degree can be a new point, a benchmark for the future. Goals given us by our Lord are our pillar of cloud by day and our pillar of fire by night.
Have you or someone you knew lost a great deal of weight and are no longer obese? This is how God intended us to be. He gave us a heart, lungs, organs and bones for our skeletal frame. As a backpacker, I am continually reminded how much extra weight I used to carry when I was overweight. I used to weigh 230 pounds. I weighed in yesterday at weight watchers at 162 pounds. On our recent trip to the Sierra Nevada, Fr. Carlos had a pack that weighed about 50 pounds. Imagine me putting on his pack and adding another 18 pounds and that was how overweight I was. I need trekking poles and two knee braces to go downhill on the steep mountain trails because of the extra weight of a backpack. Our joints simply break down sooner with the enormous weight. Having a goal of weight loss can set a waypoint in our future which will become a new benchmark. It is getting unstuck. It is moving on. It will make us forward looking but this too must be an incremental goal. I am now 70 pounds lighter than I was before I was an ambassador for Christ. God understands incremental preparation for the future. Incremental means one step at a time.
Yes, David faced Goliath but before that he had killed both a lion and a bear. God had prepared David for the moment he faced Goliath. There are few goals beyond the ordinary person who applies disciplined training. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)
It is the realization and desire to employ the talents given us by God. If we remain stuck, we have buried the talent God has given us. It is a decision to leave the past hurts behind and to continue the pilgrimage. Rivers of living water are to come from the belly of the Christian. We are streams not stagnant ponds with no inlet and no outlet. God calls us forward and it is a call to life not death. Also seek the leading of God the Holy Spirit on this. It is a way out of the misery of the past and a way toward the Kingdom. It is time to get unstuck! Each day the choice is ours. Now is the acceptable time. Chose life! Amen.