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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Discomfort Zones

Luke 18:9-14
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income. ' 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner! ' 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

I love Camp John Knox, but I also fear it. I fear it because whenever I'm there, I'm filled with irrational fear. I'm filled with fear that once again, I'm going to allow myself to be harnessed into a zip line. I'm filled with fear that Dennis is somehow going to force me to water ski. It doesn't matter that Dennis is at home in Knoxville, reading the paper. In my delusions, he's lurking behind every tree with a life jacket and a ski rope. He'll leap out, and in seconds he'll click the straps and signal the boat, which will yank me full speed through the forest, or off the dining hall balcony, into the water. The logical, thinking part of my brain knows Dennis is not to be feared. The logical, thinking part of my brain does not understand the meaning of public face-plants that have a way of showing up on Facebook with captions like, "Here's another preacher who can't walk on water." The thinking brain doesn't remember the ache of ligaments. So, as often as possible, I ignore my thinking brain. As Stephen Colbert points out, those who fear are those who survive. Were our ancestors not fearful and paranoid, our species wouldn't be what it is today. So, for the good of the human race, when I get to Camp John Knox, all my instincts tell me to run away.

Providentially, the scripture assigned for today's reading is about allowing yourself to be humiliated. More correctly, it's about humbling yourself, "for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

When talking about the camp, Bri often talks about "comfort zones." I prefer my comfort zone wide, and with pastries. Bri talks about how one of the key ministries of Camp John Knox is to safely nudge us out of our comfort zones, after we've signed insurance release forms. The theology of the Camp presupposes that the camp is part of "the other." Camp is a place of "the other." There are other people there, people who if they walked up to us on the street, we wouldn't trust to fasten us into a rappelling harness. There are other creatures there, bugs and who knows what that crawl through the bathhouse and invade our personal space. There are other sounds there, other sights there, that by their vivid there-ness remind us that we're in the "other," we're not in Kansas, or Knoxville, anymore. Camp itself shrinks our comfort zones as soon as we exit our climate-controlled cars and step foot onto the crunching gravel.

One of the current mantras of the camp is, "Kids meet God at camp." It's not because God is more there. God is not more at camp than God is anywhere else. Rather, it's because of what's not at camp. At camp, our comfort zones are smaller. Our imaginary force-fields of safety - and that's what they are, imaginary force-fields - shrink down. At camp, what we're used to is gently, but firmly taken away. No cell phones, no video games. No worn-in beds, no worn-out daily routines. The imaginary dividing zone between who we are and what we fear is exposed as the illusion that it is. Camp is a place of intentional, but loving, dis-comfort zones. And, ironically enough, the discomfort zones are where we find God.

In the parable, the Pharisee is thanking God for his comfort zones. "I thank you, God, that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income." We all know, or at least know of obnoxious, arrogant people like the Pharisee. Thank goodness we're not like that. At least not in public. Wouldn't be polite to say things like that, at least not openly, at least not to anyone but our closest friends, whom we know are going to agree. Gossip networks, online or off, are part of our comfort zones. The Pharisee's social network was the town square. Unsophisticated bumpkin.

The tax collector in the parable, on the other hand, was thanking God for a very small zone of comfort. In fact, he was thanking God for his dis-comfort zone. "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." Today, we'd say he obviously had very low self-esteem syndrome, and might want to get some help to work on that. Or maybe, he had come from water-skiing out on the River Jordan. Maybe he had done a few face-plants. Maybe something had happened that had moved him just enough into discomfort that instead of shoring up his comfort zone, he found God.

I heard someone say, "It's a shame we have to get sick to find out how many people love us." Suddenly, people we haven't talked to in years are popping out of the woodwork with casseroles, and phone calls, and cards. Those people love you; they always have loved you. Just like God loves you, and has always loved you. The shame is that we all so resolutely reinforce our comfort zones, that these invisible force-fields keep us from rubbing elbows, and offering shoulders. The shame is that the irrational fear of looking stupid keeps us from experiencing the truth of other people. The embarrassment is that irrational fear keeps us from accepting the love of God. We're so dug into our comfort zones that it takes catastrophic force to crash through them. And that is a shame.

We read how the Pharisee thanks God he's not like the tax collector. What we know, from the vantage point of our own safety, is that while the Pharisee is obnoxious and arrogant, that's not his sin. The Pharisee's sin is that he's deluding himself into thinking that he's not like the tax collector, when, in fact, he's exactly like him, in every way, but one. The difference is that the tax collector is facing his fear of discomfort, and the Pharisee isn't.

Last summer, one of the volunteer helpers at Camp, one of Dennis's posse, went to camp to help teach some kids to water ski. He ended up being assigned a little boy with Autism. The boy was not comfortable letting anyone touch him, much less letting anyone teach him how to get into the water, or get up on skis. Children with Autism have zones that put the rest of us to shame. But over the hours they spent together, that protective zone of comfort got smaller, and smaller, until - at last - the boy not only got in the water, he got up on the skis. I can only imagine he thought he was walking on water. And I'll bet, in Spirit, Jesus was skiing right there beside him.

James McTyre