Saturday, July 30, 2011

Why Is It So Hard to Change?

Proverbs 26:11

Matthew 12:43-45

July 31, 2011

43“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. 44Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. 45Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So will it be also with this evil generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45)

“Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.”

Phil Connors is stuck. He has been stuck for a very long time. When we meet him in the movie “Groundhog Day,” Phil has become cynical and sour. He thinks he is God’s gift to television station WPBH Channel 9. A meteorologist with dreams of moving to a bigger market, Phil hurls insults at his co-workers, assuring them that he is a lot bigger than they are. He has nothing but scorn for the people around him and the places they inhabit.

If you remember the old 1993 film, you will remember what happens. He goes on assignment to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. It’s February 2, and he has to cover the weather report outside of Gobbler’s Knob. Predictably he despises the people in that small town, and hustles back on the truck to return to Pittsburgh.

Then comes a snowstorm that he did not predict, and it puts him back in Punxsutawney for the night. When he wakes in the morning, it’s February 2 all over again. Same alarm clock, same people, same script, same everything. Just barely getting through it, he gets up the next morning to discover it’s February 2. He is stuck in a time loop. Phil is conscious of it, but everybody around him remains in place, repeating the same words, eating the same food, thinking the same thoughts.

The movie has gained in significant in the nearly twenty years since its release. Critics put it on the top of lists of classic American movies. The theme is a good one: what would you do if every day was the same? What if nothing ever moved forward, if you were stuck and you knew it? What if you kept doing the same mistakes in the same way around the same people? Or to merely ask the title of the sermon, “Why is it so hard to change?”

Is it too much to say that this is the same old human problem? Some three thousand years ago, a wise sage quipped the pungent little proverb that is our text. “Like a dog that returns to its vomit is a fool who reverts to his folly.” It’s a line attributed to wise King Solomon, and copied down by the King Hezekiah (25:1). It’s also one of the only Old Testament Proverbs that gets remembered and written down in the New Testament, in the letter of Second Peter. Wherever it comes from, no matter how it smells, it offers a stinky truth – that some people keep doing the same stupid things over and over again.

Now, I picked this passage months ago, long before Congress got stuck in debt ceiling negotiations. It made the cut for my summer series on “I Can’t Believe That’s In the Bible.” But certainly the folly of a dog who returns to gobble down its lost lunch is a pretty graphic description of what we’ve seen and heard in some corners of the nation’s capital. People get stuck saying the same things, seeing the same issues from the same perspective, strangely incapable of stepping outside of themselves and attempting something new.

The fact that this brief little proverb has been around for so many centuries suggests that personal change is a persistent difficulty. People do not change. Or if they do, they don’t change in any significant degree.

A few women got together for lunch recently. They were welcoming back Diana, who recently ran off to a Caribbean island to get married. It was her fourth wedding; the first three marriage happened in a Catholic church, the second in a Protestant church, the third in a non-denominational church, so she gave up on church weddings and got married on an island. She arrived to lunch a little late, deeply tanned, and her friends welcomed her.

One of them noticed, however, that their friend had her big diamond ring on the pinky of her right hand. “Diana,” she asked, “are you wearing your ring on the wrong finger?” “Of course,” she answered, “I keep marrying the wrong man.”

This may be our human predicament. The dieter tries again and cheats again. The man gets another speeding ticket five miles past the first one. The thief can’t help but steal again.

Or something worse. The drug rehabilitation counselor told some of us that few people get it right when they go through drug and alcohol rehab for the first time. If they are smart, they learn to say the right things, go through the right motions. But they do not always fill the hollowness in their souls that caused the problem in the first place.

Perhaps the flaw is woven into our genetic make-up. Imagine old King Solomon, looking out over his castle veranda, observing the neighborhood dog. After a dinner of garbage is turned into garbage once again, the dog returns for the second course. How can it do that? Is the dog that hungry? That desperate? That pathetic? Is it congenital trait? Solomon cannot say.

According to the Bible, King Solomon was addicted to women. One of the court historians wrote that he had seven hundred wives and three hundred extra girl friends (1 Kings 11). Maybe the best thing you could say about him was he was full of love, although others assume he was only bragging. If he ever sat down with an honest psychiatrist, the shrink would have a field day. Sounds like a relationship addiction. Or a relationship avoidance. Certainly it’s safe to say whatever the king was into, it wasn’t working.

The proverb for today is part of a larger section of proverbs. The central theme is foolishness. Over twenty-five times, the word “fool” is used in this chapter. It points to a repetitive stupidity that leads to an inept life. Folly of this magnitude has little to do with intelligence. As most of us know, there are a lot of A+ students who flunk common sense.

A fool is the person who cannot learn from a mistake. All of us make mistakes. Not all of us learn from them. The image is of a foolish man who has walked around the track so many times that he has worn a groove in the soil and cannot climb out of the furrow. So he concedes and says, “I guess that’s the path that I have to walk.”

Consider Phil Connors. His script on Groundhog Day goes from bad to worse. He snarls at the people around them, and then decides to do them in. He takes advantage of reliving the same day with no long-term consequences: he robs an armor car, learns secrets about the townspeople, seduces women, and gets thrown in jail.

Yet life keeps sinking lower. He grows despondent and tries more desperately to end the time loop. He gives abusive weather reports, punches an insurance agent. Then at the lowest point, he steals a truck, kidnaps the groundhog, and drives into a quarry to kill himself – only to wake at 6:00 the next morning to the recurring song of Sonny and Cher, “I Got You, Babe.”

In the wisdom of the Bible, this is a glimpse of the human condition. We live by patterns and routines. Somehow we get stuck within ourselves, and it seems nearly hopeless to change. This is a downward spiral of destructiveness. The Bible calls this “sin,” not merely sin as something wrong that we do, but as a condition that affects us all. Sin is the power that threatens to destroy us, always nipping at our heals, always pushing for an opening, often dragging us into the sewer and serving up a meal that we ate once before.

Sin is the habit of foolishness. It is insisting on our own way, even if the way is destructive. We know these people and we can describe them. They define insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Even if they know the choices are bad, they keep doing them.

Sometimes it is returning to the spouse who abused you. Sometimes it is sticking with the bad habit that is destroying you. Sometimes it is taking the same job that brings out the worst in you. Always it is a kind of foolishness. It threatens to do us in, as long as we lack the courage, the clarity, and the persistence to stand up and say “no.”

In the strange little parable that we heard from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells a story about a person who had an unclean spirit expelled. He said, “The spirit wandered around without a home, and then decided to return to the very person from who it had been cast out. Finding seven other evil spirits to join it, the foul spirit returned to invade a clean, orderly, and empty life. All eight evil spirits took up residence, and the damage was worse than the first.” (Matt. 12:43-45)

This is what happens, he said, to an entire generation if it is not vigilant, strong, and resistant to destructiveness. What we have to say is, “Stop! Wait a minute. What I am doing is no good for me or anybody else. I have to cease right now.” This is a way for us to claim our God-given dignity as God’s sons and daughters.

Harold Ramis was the director of the movie “Groundhog Day,” and he finally shows us how Phil Connors breaks out of the endless pattern of emptiness. Somehow he decides to use the time on his hands to improve. He uses his experience of the same day as an opportunity to learn about his neighbors and improve their lives. He takes piano lessons and learns French. Most of all, he breaks free of his obsession with himself and starts helping the people of Punxsutawney, who themselves become a little less stuck in the process.

In his commentary on the film, here is what Harold says to us all:

Everyone feels to a certain extent that they are living the same day over and over again. I feel like I’m stuck with myself. I keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Every time there is the potential of disagreement with my wife, I say, “Don’t say that.” I know I shouldn’t say that. This is really going to tick her off. Don’t say it. And then I say it. How many times to you have to relive the same argument with someone, or make the same mistake with your life?

The key for any of us is having the insight, the courage, and the energy to make those changes when you come to those moments when you could make the same mistake again. We face those choices every single day. The things we tell ourselves we are going to do, the things we tell ourselves we shouldn’t do. If you could change one little thing, then everything might change. And to that extent, I feel somewhat stuck… I’ve known people who are not afraid to walk to the edge to shake things up, to take big chances in life. I’ve come to appreciate in my own life what risk-taking can mean in a positive sense, how positively you can change you life if you’re just willing to act on it.

Here’s another way to say it: we were created better than fools, perhaps even better than the most foolish of dogs. And one of the gifts of Jesus Christ is the power to break us free from the habits that enslave us. It takes hard work and a good bit of encouragement. If there is some constructive change that you need to make in your life, I want to say, “Good for you!” Keep it going. Take small steps to build momentum and keep going. If you fail, return for a word of forgiveness, but try again. Ask for God’s help and keep going.

There’s a story that I like by Portia Nelson. Maybe you have heard it before. It goes like this:

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters – Portia Nelson

Chapter I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost... I am hopeless.
It isn't my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don't see it.
I fall in again.
I can't believe I am in this same place.
But it isn't my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in... it's a habit... but, my eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault.
I get out immediately.

Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

(c) William G. Carter, except for those portions that belong to somebody else.

All rights reserved

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