How do you fit insights from the latest Great American Novel, the recovery community, Psalm 37, and some wordsmithing around “explanation & excuses” all into the opening message a series called Love Handles?
Well the result is below.
I knew from reading Nathan Hill’s The Nix that memories get etched into the biochemistry of our brains … that many of us really do have memory scars. And those scars often explain why we are vulnerable to certain tendencies in our lives, ranging from alcoholism to avoidance to aggression.
However, I also knew I wanted to talk about what happens the explanations for our tendencies become excuses for our pathologies. When explanations become excuses we lose our handle on love.
Finally, I wanted the first six verses of Psalm 37 to bring it all together. Which it did, leading to this bottom line:
When you stop turning your explanations into excuses, God will start turning your scars into strength.
Afterwards, I loved hearing from people who said things like“thanks for the therapy session,” “well, that felt like one of my Al-Anon meetings,” and “how did you know all that about me?”
Maybe you have heard of the guy who asked his neighbor if he could borrow his lawn mower. The man answered, “No, because all the flights between NYC & LA have been cancelled today.” And the other guy, the asker, says, “well, what in the world does that have to do with whether or not I can borrow your lawn mower?” And he answers, “Nothing. But if I don’t want to let you borrow my lawn mower, that one excuse is as good as any other.”
Yeah, I’ve got a thing about excuses. They’re used in a variety of ways, aren’t they? For why we don’t do homework: the dog ate it? (DO THIS AV, Family Feud style???). For why we missed a day of work: golfing with a client. To why we missed church: We overslept! (Oh, c’mon people! You can do better than that. At least be like, ‘oh because that guy on TV is so much more interesting.’ Or: ‘really we just want to rock & roll all night & party every day.’) So there are excuses all around, from the harmless to the deceptive to the dangerous. But perhaps the way our excuses become the most dangerous is the way that they have been confused with EXPLANATIONS. Or, more accurately, so many time we turn our EXPLANATIONS into EXCUSES. And this pattern that so many of us live has everything to do with Love Handles AND everything to do with Psalm 37.
Because here’s what I mean. Almost everyone here, somewhere in either your recent past or distant memory has an EXPLANATION for your tendencies and your temptations. Like let’s say that for some of you food had a central role in your home growing up. Someone in your household – often mom, but not exclusively so – derived their identity from preparing, cooking, and serving copious amounts of delicious food. Food was always around, in abundance, way more than anyone needed. That reality explains your tendency to gluttony today – IT’S THE WAY YOU WAS RAISED, they say. It even explains your vulnerability to anorexia or bulimia or both. And then others here may have been raised in home with a lot of prejudice. Some of you Anglos were taught to use the vilest of words in describing other races. And some of you Africans & African Americans were taught that whites aren’t really to be believed or trusted. And Asians and Latinos are often wondering how you fit into this combustible brew. And all this upbringing EXPLAINS some of your own knee jerk reactions, some of the ways you have suspicions towards people of different hues and languages and cultures.
And the list of EXPLANATIONS for your vulnerabilities and tendencies goes on and on and on. A LOT of you were raised with an absent dad. It explains why some of you men have trouble with fatherhood today and why so many of you females have trouble with lasting attachments to guys. Or that pattern of deceit in your early years EXPLAINS why you struggle to be forthcoming today. And then, saddest of all I think, some of you grew up in abusive situations. Verbal, physical, emotional, sexual. You were the observer or it. Or the recipient of it. And all that explains why when the tables have been turned and YOU’VE been the authority in the relationship, you’re susceptible to doling out to others what was doled out to you. At some level, all of us are victims. It EXPLAINS that vulnerability many of have towards becoming villains.
But the trouble happens when we turn our EXPLANATIONS into EXCUSES. Consciously & unconsciously, verbally or silently, knowingly & unknowingly. We create a cycle of inevitability. Daddy drank so I will too. Mamaw used that language so I guess it’s just part of me. I was raised that way. I had no dad to role model fatherhood, so I can’t really help it. This was done to me, all around me, it’s all I know, so I might as well. It’s as if these traumas from our past become hard wired into our brains. I don’t know if you knew this or not, but brain researchers have discovered that memory is such a vital part of brain function that the past is literally etched into our frontal cortex (AV). Bad memories, you could say, leave a SCAR. A brain scar. That which was inflicted on you remains within your biochemistry and that scar is impossible to erase & so you feel destined to repeat the same old same old. And the way your explanations have become your excuses is ruining your ability to love honestly & intimately. It’s why you hop from romance to romance to romance. And it’s why despite all your vows to the contrary, you’re raising your kids in a mirror image of the ways you were raised. Your explanations have become your excuses.
Why is why I want to dive into Ps 37 today. Now this particular song from the songbook of the biblical library contains a generalized bit of wisdom. It packs incredible insight into all 40 verses, but we’re diving down into just the first six. Look how it starts in 37:1:
Do not fret because of those who are evil
or be envious of those who do wrong;
I love the KJV which puts it this way: Fret not thyself. Sounds even better with a Scottish lilt! Classic! What & who are we not to fret about? Those who are evil! IOW the ones who put those scars into your brain. Because you know what it means? Fretting = Repeating. The more you dwell on, obsess over, those who did THAT, the deeper into the cycle of inevitability you go. And, for a lot of us, it is easier to be angry at someone for ruining your past than it is to get about the difficult business of forging your future. Living your life & planning for today is HARD. Dwelling on the wrongs of yesterday is natural and easy. And note the command of it all: Do NOT fret. Stop turning the explanations for your tendencies into excuses for your realities. Stop turning the reasons for your vulnerability into the rationale for your pathology.
And then 37:2: for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away. So while it’s true that those who have caused us pain have in many cases gone on to the next life, nevertheless their influence rages on in this one. But then at 37:3 the Psalm changes, both in direction and in tone:
Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
4 Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
5 Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him and he will do this:
I love those imperatives: TRUST, DELIGHT, COMMIT. Ah! Your anger at ppl or your vulnerability to ppl morphs into a passionate trust of God. Even a pleasure in the ways of God. A commitment to him that is independent of your circumstances. Then there is one final, glorious change in 37:6:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun.
Who is at the center? God. What is the main word describing his action? WILL. He WILL – underline it, circle it, highlight it, whatever. The “will of God” is not a noun you endure; it’s a verb you celebrate! He will take that private shame and turn it into a public triumph. He will stop the cycle of inevitability – doomed to repeat! – and make it into a public victory. Really it all boils down to this: When you stop turning your explanations into excuses, God will start turning your scars into strength. Yes! You can break that cycle of inevitability – daddy was ‘bad to drink’ so I guess I will be too – as you lean into God’s “will”! We’re not here to minimize the scar on your brain. We’re here to acknowledge it and in so doing rob it of its power! We’re here to live the truth of I John 4:4 (AV) – He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world. That means the one who made your brain is so much greater than the one who scarred it up! Lean on that truth. Celebrate its reality. And stop allowing your excuses to ruin your ability to love intimately and well.
Man, it is so much like what happened to George HW Bush (Bush 41, they call him. DAD.) In WW2 he was a Navy pilot and on one mission after being hit by Japanese gunfire, he had to bail out of his bomber. It didn’t go well. His banged his head, his parachute tore and if he hadn’t landed in the ocean he would have been killed. Fortunately, as you know, he was rescued. Well, as you might imagine, that experience leaves some brain scarring. Skydiving: BAD! Wouldn’t be prudent Not gonna do it. Read my lips: no new skydiving. Except 5 decades later, to conquer the memories, he did at the age of 72. And again. And again: AV. He closed the book on a bad memory. When you stop turning your explanations into excuses, God will start turning your scars into strength.
Or it’s like this from AA’s Big Book, an explanation that I find both inspired and masterful:
There can be no recovery without responsibility. When we were caught in the web of alcoholism, we used our emotions to protect us from reality. In recovery, however, we stopped hiding from ourselves. We understand the importance of examining our life, and we accept responsibility for everything in it. We realize that a deeply painful past does not let us off the hook. Nothing lets us off the hook. We are always responsible for what we do and decide. When we practiced our alcoholism we thought that life without it would be painful & empty. The truth turned out to be exactly the opposite.
Or it’s like the friend of mine who actually wrote this painful, poignant song about his distant father. Lump in throat moment hearing. So I asked him: how are you making sure you don’t repeat that cycle with your kids? Here’s his answer:
It’s a struggle sometimes. In the average week I spend more one on one time with my daughter than I ever got in childhood from my Dad. He was always around but never there. Know what I mean. My daughter and I both have similar struggles and that’s been a huge bond and connection point for discussion. I’m also teaching her guitar which she is taking to a whole new level. I play to her at the end of her bed almost nightly. I’m an emotional transparent mess of love & disaster.
Yeah, I love the way when people distinguish well between their explanation and their excuses that God then empowers then to reverse that which had been perverse. And if there’s anything I love as a pastor, it’s getting a front row seat to that kind of divine activity in people’s lives. When you stop turning your explanations into excuses, God will start turning your scars into strength.
The “he WILL” there 37:6 . . . some of the best language in the bible. It comes from the recognition that the best posture in life is one of joyful desperation. Yes! You need God for everything and that’s the best thing about life! What a realization. Joyfully desperate, joyfully helpless, joyfully, daily living out Colossians 3:11: Chris is all and is in all. Man, the richest season of my own living relationship with Jesus Christ came when I was soaking up and repeating that verse day after day after day.
Because in him, through him, and by him those scars in your brain really do become strength. You’re like: I have survived! I am resilient! You know what’s been so helpful for me in all this? Because while I am not the victim of any kind of abuse, I still gots issues. A few things happened that make me scared of being left out, that make me react to any disagreement like it’s a prelude to disengagement; a fight means it’s FINISHED. Not healthy. But it’s so good to see the generation advancement. One of the things about visiting with a 101 year old mother like I did a couple of months ago is that you find out stuff about your ancestors you never knew. Like I learned my dad’s dad (hey! That would make him my GRANDFATHER!) was a BOOTLEGGER. In my family tree! So I see that and I remember, “yeah, my dad wasn’t perfect, but he was a whole lot better than running moonshine down the hills of Alabama!” Scars fade when you put the trauma in generational context. When you stop turning your explanations into excuses, God will start turning your scars into strength.
Your resilience will help those scars fade in your brain, too. It’s uncanny the ways people find strength in the very areas they experienced trauma. You get to the point where you’re no longer, “Might as well … everyone else does it” and instead it’s this sober, reflective, “Yes, that happened, that hurts, but it no longer owns me. Jesus does. And he who is in me is greater than he who is in the world.” That kind of sober assessment leads to a super ability to overcome. Much like happened here in the life of a woman at Good Shepherd: