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Article for February 19, 2012

Pick Up Your Mat and Walk

(Be sure to locate a couple of Lenten ideas for you at the end of this article.)

It took awhile for me to notice, but finally I woke up to what was happening.  The eight-foot high juniper bushes in front of our first house were little-by-little swallowing our 900 square-foot home the way a boa constrictor slowly digests a struggling goat.  Not a moment too soon, I determined that it was time to free our house from these predator bushes.

All day long during my mild mannered workday, I imagined myself a kind of suburban Crocodile Dundee.  I kept picturing how I would pack my weapons–a hatchet, a spade, and a hand-saw-and then, with the stealth and agility of that 1980’s outback swamp cowboy, I would sneak up on those bushes, and before they knew what hit ’em, they would be stacked into neat little bundles of kindling.

When I got home, I slyly whistled past the boa-constrictor bushes and smiled at them like everything was normal.  When I got into my bedroom, the “Mission Impossible” theme song played in my head.  Like “Mr. Phelps” shedding his identity-changing rubber mask, off came the counselor tie and the leather loafers.  I stepped out of my room a transformed man in my weathered, cut-off cargo pants, paint stained sweatshirt, and trustee old work boots.  Weapons in hand, I plunged into those bushes as if I were Stan on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom jumping into the Amazon to wrestle a writhing python.  Forty-five minutes later I realized that the bushes were getting the better of me.  I stepped back and realized, like many suburban weekend warriors often do, that this project threatened to swallow me whole.

Just when I was ready to despair, Ed, my sixty-something year-old next-door neighbor, (the real suburban Crocodile Dundee) came to the rescue.  He backed his truck onto my lawn. He pulled out his chains, wrapping one end around the first bushes’ trunk, and fastening the other end to the hitch of his truck.  He stepped onto the gas, and presto, one-bush-at-a-time, my house and I were free.

 

This was to be the first of many episodes over the next ten years.  Ed would patiently watch his green neighbor, Tom, getting up to his neck in trouble.  He would then say something like, “I think I might have a tool that’ll make that easier on you.”  But more often than not, he would hop over the stonewall that separated our property, and become the foreman on the job.  Frequently, the little weed of a project had a hidden, weekend-long root system.  Even if, eventually, a treble light had to be hung to push back the night, Ed would stay until the job was completed.

 

When my wife was pregnant with our third child, we determined that it was time to stretch into a larger house.  As we packed our moving truck, I looked back over the years living next to Ed.  It was hard to estimate how much money and time Ed’s Good Samaritan Ways and expert knowledge had saved me.  I figured that if I could ever lay up some extra money, I would enclose it in a card and thank Ed for being such a good friend and neighbor.

 

In the chaos of moving and welcoming a new baby into our lives, my proper “thank you” to Ed never materialized.  As time accumulated like huge dust balls under a bed, I became aware of a gathering burden of guilt.  When I would think of Ed, or happened to run into him, I would feel something like a leaden weight of shame and remorse in the bottom of my gut.  Over a two-year period, I found myself actually avoiding contact with this man whom I genuinely loved.

 

In this Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 2: 1-12), Jesus had a man drop in on him whom the author of Mark described as, “paralyzed.” In the story, this man had some good friends who bore their comrade to the Lord, and tore the ceiling tiles off of the place where Jesus was speaking so that they could lower him down for the cure.  As the story unfolded, it appeared as though Jesus had diagnosed at least two varieties of paralysis in this man:  one spiritual, the other physical.  In order of priority, Jesus set about healing him.  “Your sins are forgiven.”  He announced.  Later in the story, he addressed the external paralysis.  “Pick up your matt and go home.”

 

After hearing for the umpteenth time about my paralyzing guilt, my wife found a way through the thick ceiling tiles of my mind and heart.  She pointed out that the remorse I was lugging around was as spiritually debilitating as two paralyzed legs.  She ordered me to “pick up my matt,” and to do something about it.  “Ed won’t be on this earth forever.  Tell him how you feel.”  She pointed out that Valentine’s Day was just a week away.  And so, with her challenge and encouragement, I put together a card with a “thank you” gift enclosed.  I was finally able to let Ed know how much his generosity and know-how meant to me over the years.  Together we renewed our friendship over a cup of coffee.  Thanks to God’s grace and my wife’s chutzpah, I laid down that useless burden of “could a, should a’, would a.”

 

Is there some area in your life where you need to pull back some ceiling tiles so that the light of Jesus’ healing love can pour in on some area of darkness in your life?  Is there a relationship paralyzed because the healing words, “I’m sorry” haven’t been spoken in a long time?  Is there some postponed labor of love you have been avoiding?  Perhaps now is the time to hear Jesus inviting you to stretch some old underused spiritual muscles…to pick up your mat, and to start walking in the right direction.

Pick Up Your Matt and Walk Exercise

In the story I just told you, an overdue “thank you” is what broke my psychological paralysis.  More frequently, it’s an apology that is overdue that leads to relationship paralysis.  This exercise is for people who owe someone an overdue apology.

Directions:  (Step One)  Write a mock letter to this person, expressing your sorrow.  You may, or may not decide to send this letter to your person, but the exercise will help you create an outline of what you may wish to say at some later time. (Step Two) Having written your letter, read it to a trustworthy friend or mentor, and listen for their feedback.  On the basis of what they said, you may want to edit your letter, or your approach to the person you have offended.  (Step Three)  Having rehearsed what you want to say, contact the person for a face-to-face apology, or send them your letter, and contact them for a conversation afterward.

If your person has died, construct this letter anyway, and consider prayerfully reading it to them in a sacred place, perhaps with a priest or spiritual friend present.

The recipe for a good apology includes: (a) a statement of care for the person you have wronged; (b) a concrete thing, including specific instances for which you are sorry; (c) a statement that shows that you are aware of the negative impact of your action; (d) a request for forgiveness; (e) a concrete, and realistic plan for how you will avoid this behavior in the future.

How not to apologize

  • “My intentions were good” non-apology  While making their apology, many people make the mistake of describing their good intent behind the hurtful behavior.  The assumption behind this approach goes something like this, “If my friend only knew that I didn’t intend him or her harm, then they would feel better.”   Unfortunately, this tends to come off as minimizing the apology.  Better to spend your efforts getting into the shoes of the person you have hurt, and letting your apology flow from your empathy and sorrow.  If you simply must describe your good intentions behind the hurtful behavior, then resolve to spend no more than five percent of your time spelling out why you did what you did.  Consider ending this part of the dialogue with a phrase like this, “While I didn’t mean to hurt you, I can see that is exactly what I did.  I’m sorry.”

 

  • “If what I did hurt your feelings, I’m sorry” non-apology   This is a subtle way of avoiding responsibility by shifting the focus from your negative behavior to the feelings of the person who was hurt.  Such an apology sends the hidden/unconscious barb, “perhaps if you weren’t so overly sensitive, my action wouldn’t have hurt you!”  Rather than sending this highly ambiguous message, take full responsibility for what you did or said.  “I’m sorry that I….(fill in the behavior) because I know….(fill in the impact this had on your friend)…And I won’t behave this way in the future because (here list your own values, and how what you did offends your value system, not just their feelings).

 

  • “For anything I may have ever done to hurt your feelings, I’m sorry” non-apology  Again, notice the lack of responsibility in this statement.  There is power in concreteness.  Your statement of sorrow for a very specific wrong, helps the person you harmed let go of the pain of it.  At least one half of the benefit of a good apology is that the one who offended can receive forgiveness for something that is on his/her conscience.  Leaving something you’ve done vague and unnamed is like doing a superficial housecleaning.  Being thorough in your apology is like stepping into a kitchen that has undergone the kind of cleaning your grandma used to do.  It will make them, and you feel cleaner.

What if the person you harmed would be further harmed if you got into contact with them?There is an ancient tradition form-fitted to this problem.  Sometimes, we can harm someone badly enough where even contacting them to apologize would create more harm than good.  If you have significantly harmed someone, and you cannot right that wrong, then each and every time you think of this person for the rest of your life, you must pray for their healing.  Our tradition teaches that prayer is effective.  Your prayer is a powerful tool in their ongoing journey toward wholeness.

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