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Steal the Script this Lent

Ash Wednesday 2017

The Reverend John Ohmer, Rector, 
The Falls Church Episcopal

Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent -- and for that matter Christian spirituality in general -- has two general messages.

On the one hand, there is the message or theme of sin, brokenness, and dis-ease…

…on the other hand, there is the message of forgiveness, grace, and healing.

Several years ago, I had an epiphany about people’s relationship with God, and these two themes. And the epiphany came not from a spiritual resource, but from some advice column, some very wise advice for retailers or restaurateurs or  anyone who deals with customers or the general public.

The columnist said that whenever there is an aggrieved person, and you – as a retailer or restaurant owner or cashier – are dealing with that person, you need to realize there are two scripts.

One script – call it “script A” -- goes like this:

“I can’t believe this is happening!” “This is OUTRAGEOUS!” “I demand something be done about this!” “Nothing like this has ever happened before!” “This is terrible!”

The other script – call it “script B” -- goes like this:

“What’s the big deal?” “This is nothing.” “Let’s just drop it.” “This happens all the time.” “This isn’t so bad.”

Now, according to the columnist, retailers need to decide which speaking part – which script – THEY are going to adopt, and which speaking part or script their aggrieved customer is going to adopt – because it is psycholically nearly impossible for both parties to read from the same script for very long. Eventually – usually pretty quickly -- one party will switch.

Think about it: if a diner calls the restaurant owner over and complains about the slow service, saying, “I can’t believe this is happening!” “This is OUTRAGEOUS!” “I demand something be done about this!” “Nothing like this has ever happened before!” “This is terrible!” and the restaurant owner adopts the other script (in tone or words or actions)  -- “What’s the big deal?” “This is nothing.” “Let’s just drop it.” “This happens all the time.” “This isn’t so bad” then the customer has to keep playing their role. Usually louder.

A wise restaurant owner or retailer, on the other hand, will steal the script of the aggrieved customer and say, “I can’t believe this is happening!” “This is OUTRAGEOUS!” “I am going to do something about this!” “Nothing like this has ever happened before!” “This is terrible!”

Tha’s very disarming to the customer…eventually, once he or she sees their complaint is being taken seriously and is going to be dealt with, they start saying, (in tone or words or actions) “Oh, don’t worry about it, it’s no big deal, it happens all the time.”

I go into this in some detail to make a point about a similar phenomenon with our relationship with God.

We can hear God speak to us in one of two ways. We need to decide which role we are going to play, and which role we are going to leave to God.

If we take a cursury look at ourselves – at the sin in our life, at the way we treat other people, at our selfishness and what the Book of Common Prayer calls “our self-indulgent appetites and ways,” and say,  “What’s the big deal?” “This is nothing.” “Let’s just drop it.” “This happens all the time.” “This isn’t so bad” then we will hear God say “I can’t believe this is happening!” “This is OUTRAGEOUS!” “I demand something be done about this!” “Nothing like this has ever happened before!” “This is terrible!”

If on the other hand we take that role – if we take a good, honest, deep look at our life at the sin in our life, at the way we treat other people, at our selfishness and “our self-indulgent appetites and ways,” and say,  and say, “this is terrible!” “No one else treats other people this way.” “I need to do something about this,” then we will hear God speaking words of comfort: “It’s okay…you’re not all that different than others…I will help you do something about this…”

That is part of the reason we give things up for Lent…to put ourselves in touch with “our self-indulgent ways and appetites…” “our exploitation of other people…”

Lent is a good time – starting today if you can go cold turkey – or Sunday if you need to prepare, to give up something as an exercise in self-denial…

what that thing is will be different to each of you but if you spend some time in thought and prayer about it, it will be revealed to you –

perhaps something that’s become an addictive, like nicotine…caffeine…facebook, news feed

or perhaps something not genuinely addictive for you but if you are honest with yourself, has become habitual, a habit that you justify, like a nightly drink, or checking your email when your attention is needed elsewhere. 

Perhaps you need to give something that is neither addictive nor habitual, but is just some pleasure you allow yourself that you need to set aside for the season of Lent, like chocolate, or mindless snacking, or sweets, or television.

And now let me offer another observation…

Picking your own thing to give up for Lent is a little like offering a child a chance to pick his or her own punishment…we will not pick the thing that will affect us the most.

Our capacity for self-deception is enormous.

We are not very good about noticing our own bad habits, faults, and shortcomings.

We are on the other hand very adept at noticing the bad habits, faults, and shortcomings of others.

Our shortcomings, faults, and sins are a little like the ashes on our foreheads…other people’s are very obvious…but you really can’t see your own!

When we look at other people’s habits they have flashing neon lights, when we look at our own, they are draped in camouflage.

So that suggests a strategy:

If you have the courage – and I’m still trying to decide if I do – have the following conversation with three or four people who are closest to you, your spouse, your best friend, your closest work colleagues, and so forth.

Say, “it’s the beginning of Lent…I’d like to give up some bad habits, and I’d like your help…what are some bad habits I’ve fallen into?”

Again, this takes courage, because once people get over the initial shock, you’ll find they have been very keen observers of your faults for quite some time!

For that same reason, it also takes a great deal of humility…not only to hear the answer, but to resist the temptation – once you’ve heard the answer – to respond “well, you’re no picnic to live with either!—let me tell you a thing or two…”

If you do accept this challenge, and have this conversation with several people this Lent, you might find that what you need to give up is a less obvious bad habit…
…such as daily inconsideration, 
…impatient, fast, or aggressive driving…
…working too many hours/hiding from home…
…not really paying attention to people speaking to you…

then we’ll really be taking on the fast that God chooses…
then we’ll be offered a chance to change some truly bad habits,
then we’ll be offered a chance to do daily acts of service…justice, human kindness, and then we’ll be in the realm of rooting out habits of the heart, changing from within. 

Then we’ll be playing the right role, reading from the right script. focused on our own brokenness, we'll experience God as companion in this journey, and hear God’s encouraging, healing, comforting words.  



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