Friday, September 27, 2013

Focusing on the Positives

I went shopping with mama at the local plus-size clothing store last night. I was hoping for a belt. They had none.

The did, however, have a black skirt that would work with my suit jacket. I grabbed the smallest size they carry (0X or 14/16) and slipped into a  dressing room. The skirt was too large. I can no longer shop at this boutique.

After we headed to a cross-over store that carries Misses' (4-16, S-XL) and Women's (14W-24W). I headed to the Misses section and tried a couple of sweaters. I grabbed a buttoned sweater in a large.

I tried the sweater on and showed my mama. It fit perfectly and was quite flattering. I liked the color.

It felt weird. I've been shopping in plus-size clothing stores for 20 years, almost 2/3 of my life. Suddenly, I find myself out of place in these shops. I do not fit. I have to find a new place to purchase clothes -- crossover shops work well.

Shops that cater exclusively to thinner women are terrifying, with their size 0 mannequins and their anorexic models. My Misses size 14 hips, waist, and bust scream out "fraud," "faker," "does not belong here," when I think of crossing the threshold into one of these stores.

So, I stood there in the cross-over store, wearing this Misses size large sweater, knowing my face had fallen, struggling not to cry, as an unfamiliar and frightening world opened before me.

In the meantime, I focus on the experiences that are enjoyable to me -- improvements in my physical abilities; more reps, more sets, higher load when lifting weights; running, farther all the time, looking forward to faster someday, too; enjoying how I look in my clothes; feeling physically healthier; sleeping more deeply and awaking more refreshed and restored in the morning.

And finding that perfect dress that elicits compliments from my co-workers. Yes, I did look like one HOT Tamale.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Getting Real About Stuff


I know I have a few readers who manage to find my posts even when I do not share them via facebook. I fervently hope my family is not amongst them.

If we share DNA, STOP READING RIGHT NOW!!!!! Please.

*****

I struggle with disordered eating patterns. I do not have an eating disorder.

I eat healthy foods. I do not eat in a healthy way.

I use food to manage my emotions. I have to work really hard to use food to fuel my body.

People often ask me for my secret. "What are you doing? How have you lost so much?"

I tell them the truth: I eat a lot of vegetables, lean proteins, and legumes. With very rare exceptions, I do not eat processed food. If I cannot tell by looking at it what it was in nature, I'm not likely to put it in my mouth. I do not eat refined sugar.

I do not tell them that both my primary care physician and my therapist are concerned about how I talk about food.

People assume this is difficult or requires some enormous degree of discipline or will power.

I do not them the truth: it is simple. Quite easy, in fact.

I made a choice to change my eating habits. Having made that choice, all other options ceased to exist for me.

Because I have an incredibly high need for rules. I am rigidly structured. I have a high need for control.

That so much of my life in the last year has felt out of control (multiple deaths and multiple other traumas), it is not surprising to either myself or my therapist, that I have become rigidly structured and highly controlled in how I eat; in what I eat.

I started it as a way to manage my anxiety.

And it works.

Until it doesn't.

Because losing weight and the focus it has put on my body creates a whole new kind of anxiety.

As I discussed these disordered eating habits and the distorted thought processes that contribute to it, with my therapist yesterday, I made a startling discovery.

It really is possible to choke on your words.

Literally.

I also discovered the source of so much of my anxiety, so much of my need for control, so much of my desire for a rigidly structured life, so much of my inability to function in chaos and uncertainty.

I choked on the word "acceptable." It took me three tries to get the word out. I finally managed it, but barely.

We were talking about my food and body issues and my need for control and my distorted thought patterns and how to change those thought patterns.

"Is there any other way to do it? I mean, is there a trick to it? A shortcut? Or do I really just have to constantly re-affirm that my body is good and healthy? More than good, that it's okay. Do I really just need to retrain my brain, rewrite those tapes through repetition, that my body is acce...."

I took a breath. I cleared my throat. "Acce...."

I took a deep breath and blew it out. I cleared my throat again. "Ac...cept...able," I nearly whispered, as tears streamed down my face. "I know exactly what triggered it," I told my therapist.

I know the trigger that started me down this path, back in April. The words that remained unspoken that left me fighting waves of nausea on a daily basis, restricting calories, and increasing my physical activity in an effort to feel in control so that I would not feel like I will never be good enough, that I will never be valuable, that I will never be lovable, that I will never be worthy, that I am not acceptable for so many reasons. I had already lost 30 lbs in the previous 6 months by cutting sugar out of my life. I've since lost an additional 70 lbs.

New mental tape. New thoughts. Rewrite the script.

That's the hard work.

That's the part that takes effort.

Not eating sugar is ridiculously easy by comparison.

I am good enough.

I am valuable.

I am lovable.

I am loved.

I am worthy.

I am acce....

Still more work to be done.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

My Name is Hester Prynne

It has been years since I read The Scarlet Letter. I remember when I did read it, I absolutely loved it.

I fell in love with Hester Prynne, this woman who was strong, confident, and powerful. She was a woman who chose her own path and built a life for herself in spite of great opposition. Hester loved deeply and well.


When Hester is punished for the crime of adultery, she bears her punishment with quiet dignity and grace, even a touch of defiance in the elaborate way she fashions the scarlet "A" that will adorn her chest for the remainder of her life.

The women of the town, it seems, hate Hester, both for her striking beauty, the way she carries herself with dignity and grace, all things essentially feminine, and yet also her bold, daring, and powerful life. I believe they feel threatened by her dignity, grace, strength, confidence, power, and self-assurance. Hester is punished as much as for her beauty as for bearing a child of unknow paternity.

In spite of being the subject of scorn of the local townsfolk and having no husband to provide for her, Hester manages to make a life for herself and her illegitimate child by working as a seamstress. As is still common in our world today, we have a tendency to look down on those we consider our moral inferiors, and yet we continue to associate with them when they have something we want. In Hester's case, she was the most talented seamstress in the town.

Hester also continues to serve others with no thought of reward, ministering to the sick and poor. And though having been rejected by her Puritan fellows, Hester herself rejects the church, she raises her daughter to know the Christian faith.

Hester bears the assigned punishments and bears up under the scorn of her neighbors. However, the manner in which she does so makes clear that Hester has re-defined the scarlet letter rather than allowing the scarlet letter to define her.

I love Hester Prynne.

Which is why, when I learned this past week that one of my parishioner's refers to me as "that woman," my first thought was, "Oh, my goodness! I'm living in the 17th century and I'm Hester Prynne to her Puritanical beliefs. Best. Compliment. EVER!!!!!"

As was explained to me, this particular individual is gravely offended by the fact that I am 1) a woman, 2) "well endowed", and 3) looked at by the men in the church.

I am no Douglas Fir....
First, let me assure you, I am a woman. But seriously, my boobs are NOT that big, and I wear reasonably modest attire -- revealing no cleavage at church. Ever. And I spend an hour every Sunday morning standing on stage, before an entire congregation, behind a lectern or pulpit (depending on my role that week), leading the Call to Worship, praying, singing, and on occasion preaching. Where exactly do you think the men should be looking!?

I wish I had as much quiet grace and dignity as Hester. I wish I were as strong, confident, and powerful.

While I have no desire to commit adultery or bear a child out of wedlock, I do genuinely hope that one day, I might care about what others think of me as little as Hester cared what others thought of her. I hope one day to know that kind of dignity, grace, strength, confidence, power, and self-assurance.

In the meantime, I'm satisfied to know that someone sees these qualities in me. So much so that after 2 years, rather than calling me by my name, I am referred to simply as "that woman." (Incidentally, for the first year of my time in this church, before I lost 100 lbs, this woman called me by my name).

Some day, I really will be that woman. That woman of dignity, grace, strength, confidence, power, and self-assurance.

Some day, I really will be that woman. That awesomely bad-ass woman.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How Humans are Like Lichens

It occurs to me that it is not at all inappropriate to liken humans to lichen.

(See what I did there?)

Lichens are composite organisms living in a symbiotic relationship. Fungus and either bacteria or algae.

Like so much in life, the whole is different than the sum of its parts.

It occurred to me that humans are like this. We are made up of two parts: a body and a mind.

The body is made of muscle, bone, tendons, ligaments, vital organs, and brain.

The mind is the part of you that carries the youness that make you you.

The body needs the mind for animation, like the captain of a ship.

The mind needs a body to live out its purpose.

Much as lichens are different than the composite of their parts, and much as different parts will get you different varieties of lichens, so too a person would be vastly different than they are if their mind resided in a different body. For the body is the vehicle through which the mind engages the world. Just as the mind drives the body, so our bodily experience of the world shapes our minds.

For the longest time, I believed that I was not my body. I separated my me-ness completely from my body. As I lost weight and regained weight, there was never a sense that I was different. Just that my vehicle had changed.

Yet during that time, I came to appreciate my body and how it existed in the world. I came to experience my me-ness within the particular body I have. I began to identify myself as not just a mind which happened to reside in this body; rather I began to think of myself as a whole person who was body and mind and different than the sum of those parts.

Losing weight again has left me feeling confused at times, as I feel like my body is a stranger, as though it does not belong to me, and I do not know myself because I do not know this body.

I cannot separate the two, however. So, I look to the whole and I acknowledge the ways my new body engages the world and all of the wonderful things I can experience differently now because I experience them in a different body.

And perhaps I will become more adaptable as a person because I must adapt to my new and different body. Maybe this will be a wonderful growth opportunity.

Or maybe not. Who knows.

Maybe I just like being likened to lichen.

Monday, September 9, 2013

An Open Letter to Leering Creepers

Dear Creeper:

Let me begin by saying that your actions this evening were not appreciated.

I love running. I try to do a bit of running each day. Most days I get a 1/2 mile in before work. On particularly good days when my knees aren't hurting and my shins aren't beginning to ache in a way that makes me wonder how I'll manage to get up the stairs at the end of my run, and when it's hot enough that I'm finally feeling warm just being in the sunshine but not so humid I feel like I'm swimming through the air, I can get in another 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 miles after work.

And that's what I was doing this evening.

In my running shorts (which I finally realize are NOT a fashion statement but serious exercise equipment) and my two-sizes-too-big cami and my beloved Brooks.

And this is where I was this evening, a half mile into my run, when you showed up.

I love running. For me, running is a meditative act. It is a time when I am fully present in the moment. All that matters is this moment, this breath, this step.

I love running. When I am running, I feel strong, confident, and powerful. I love those feelings even if I cannot yet carry them over into other areas of my life.

There are very few things that can pull me out of this meditative state. One is most certainly traffic, because body shame runs deep and is taught to women beginning in their girlhood and it is something we will likely battle for the remainder of our lives. I understand we have begun teaching this body shame to men and boys in recent years, and this makes me sad.

But, there you have it. A car on the roadway will usually snap me into a state of self-conscious awareness of what I might look like to the individual driving past and what might they be thinking and what business does a fat girl have running anyway, slightly thinner or not?

Because I am self-aware, because I know that this is where my mind tends to go; because I know that this is my struggle, I can acknowledge that vehicle on the roadway, I can acknowledge the feelings it evokes, and I can re-center myself on this moment, this foot fall, this breath before our paths actually cross.

Not so this evening.

Whereas most cars will continue on their way at 55 or 60 mph, crossing the center line to give me a wider berth, you slowed down to about 30 mph. And then, you turned your head and leered at me as you passed by.

Not cool.

Let me tell you a few things about myself so that you can know me more as a human being rather than merely as an object of your leering gaze.

Although I was mistaken for a high school student as little as a month ago, I'm 32 years old. (That many people remark upon my youthful appearance and believe that I must be younger than I am, if you're among those who cannot tell my true age, your leering makes you an even bigger creeper).

Because I am in my 30s, let me assure you, I am not working off a little extra baby fat. I've lost 98 lbs since I started making lifestyle changes 11 months ago. This weight loss has carried a heavy burden.

Beneath my short running shorts and two-sizes-too-big cami, I carry loose, saggy, and rather wrinkled extra skin that bears the marks of having recently been stretched over a great deal more body. Rather than my skin holding my body together, it seems that my body is holding onto my skin.

Furthermore, beneath that loose, saggy, wrinkled skin, I'm carrying another 88 lbs of wobbly, gelatinous, excess fat. And as I run, it wobbles and jiggles like Jell-o; the saggy fat filled pockets of skin across my abdomen swaying from side to side like a flesh-toned, silent metronome. You could pull out an instrument and time music to its swy. I'd recommend a funeral dirge, considering my incredibly slow pace.

Additionally, I am fully confident that were I one of those women who felt comfortable running in nothing but tiny shorts and a sports bra, rather than slowing down and leering, you would have instead averted your eyes, sped up, and fervently prayed, "Dear God Almighty, please burn that image from my retinas."

As it happens, your slowing down and leering not only pulled me out of my meditative state and evoked feelings of self-consciousness and body shame, it also left me feeling vulnerable, at best, weak and terrified, at worst. Which, given the culture in which we live, I imagine was, if not your intent, certainly an effect of which you cannot be unaware.

Having this effect on women does not make you strong, powerful, masculine, macho, or important. Engaging in these behaviors with the intent to frighten women makes you a bully; someone who is dangerous and threatening.

In the event that you are simply willfully ignorant of how your behaviors dehumanize and objectify women (and which, as a result, can be quite frightening to the women at whom you leer), you're just a garden variety douche-bag.

So, please, the next time you see me running along the side of the road, do not slow down, do not leer, do not watch me in your rear view mirror. Keep your eyes on the road! It's safer that way for you as a driver anyhow.

Do that and rather than being disgusted by and frightened of you, I might instead respect you and appreciate the respect you've shown me.

Sincerely,
A Slightly Thinner Fat Girl, running

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Conditions Are Right

The conditions were right.

That's why you died.

It was not because I messed up or made a mistake or failed.

It was not because God was punishing me.

It was not because God does not love me, or because you did not love me, or because I deserved to lose you, or you deserved to be lost.

The conditions were right.

You spent the whole of your adult life battling an eating disorder. I do not know the specifics. I never asked. Maybe you were bulimic at some point and used food to numb yourself and worked out to keep the weight off.

Maybe you were just a compulsive over-eater and you never compensated and you just used food to numb yourself until you were 550 pounds.

I only know that by the time you came into my life, you had been in therapy and you were making healthier choices and you had lost a couple of hundred pounds. You were still obese. You were still working to reach a healthy weight.

But that didn't matter.

The conditions were right.

You were fifty and that means you'd had at least 32 years of adulthood in which you'd abused your body and who knows what your youth looked like.

So, your heart was not healthy. And in one moment, it stopped. And there was nothing that could be done to start it again.

The conditions were right. It did not matter that you were white, male, upper middle class; that you were a block from the ER when it happened and you received medical attention within seconds of the event.

The conditions were right.

The conditions were right.

Your heart stopped. Your body shut down. With no blood and no oxygen, your brain died. You died.

You died because the conditions were right.

It had nothing to do with me, though it affected me terribly, because I am not the center of the universe, neither cause nor effect, and I do not have the power to control such mundane things as when people die, and because much as I would like to believe that I am so all-important God would, in fact, be interested in punishing my sins so severely as to take you from this earth because I made a mistake, I know this simply is not true. I am not so powerful. I am not so all-important. I am not so proud as to believe that I am the cause (in any way at all) of your death.

The conditions were right.

And that is hard to believe and to accept because it seems so random and meaningless.

It is easier to believe that I can apportion blame in some regard because apportioning blame means I can identify the cause, the contributing factors, the reason for it, and if I can identify those things, then I can prevent the next big catastrophe by being good enough which means perfect, which I can surely never be.

The conditions were right.

I had no control over the conditions that led to your death. I have no control over the conditions that do or do not lead to anything else in this world.

What I control is the choices I make, the behaviors I engage in, the way I engage the world.

I can control what I eat and how much. I control how much I exercise. I control (to the extent that I can) how much sleep I get. I control how much stress and anxiety I have in my life.

I could not control your choices, because if I could have, you'd have eaten granola that night instead of two chocolate bars.

I cannot control the choices anyone else makes either.

The conditions were right.

And you died.

And at some point, the conditions will be right for someone else in my life to die. And it will have nothing to do with me. Just as your death had nothing to do with me.

This is not punishment.

This is not the result of an angry God who does not want me to make mistakes or be anything other than human, which is to say fallible.

When horrible things happen, it is because the conditions are right.

When the good things I want to happen do not, it is because the conditions are not right.

I may never know what conditions are necessary in every circumstance to produce the best outcome (from my own limited perspective). But I can acknowledge that the conditions were right for the outcome produced and the conditions were not right for any other outcome.

And I can look at the role I played in those situations and I can decide whether or not I will make changes in the future, not because doing so means that the outcome in similar future circumstances will be dependent upon my doing things differently or the same; rather because I want to be able to say, "This is an area where I recognize a need for growth and these are the ways I am going to make different choices for myself because I want to grow in these ways" or because I can look back and say, "I am proud of who I am and the choices I made in those specific circumstances and I would do it all again."

The conditions were right.

And while I would surely make different decisions than I did in the days leading up to your death, because I know you died not because I made a mistake but because the conditions were right, I would make those choices based on what I know to be the best choice for myself and my life, and not because the weight of the whole world and the issue of life and death reside on my shoulders.

The conditions were right and it had nothing to do with me.

The conditions were right.

But the conditions were also right for you to be who you were to me for the limited time we had. For that I am grateful. In that, I wouldn't change a thing.

Everything happens for a reason. Everything happens because the conditions are right.

Good, bad, or indifferent. What happens happens because the conditions are right.

So, here we are, six years later. Six years after the right conditions led to a fatal heart attack. Six years after you died.

You did not leave me. You were not taken away from me. You died. You died because the conditions were right.

And because the only conditions I can affect are my own, I choose to believe that I will see you again. I choose to believe that I carry some portion of you with me. My memories and the love I have for you. The relationship has not ended. It just looks different.

I can still love you and honor you. Because those are the conditions that I control. And when it comes to choosing to love others, and especially you, though I may not do it well or perfectly or consistently, the conditions are always right.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Confessions of a Slightly Thinner Fat Girl, Part III

I focus on my body and the changes I feel.

I focus on my body and the changes I can see in the parts.  I still cannot see changes when I look at the whole.

Looking in the mirror, I visually carve my body into bits and pieces -- clavicles, ulnar processes, patellas, scapulae, zygomatic bones, hairline, double chin.

This segmenting of my body is disconcerting.  The idea that I am cutting myself into sections, if only visually, leaves me wondering about possible connections to my history of self-mutilation.

My therapist says I'm focusing on the changes in my body and may be losing sight of what hasn't changed -- who I am.  I know that she is right in this regard:  When I feel fear or panic or discomfort, I'm connecting my identity, my sense of self, to how I understand my body to appear/work rather than to who I know myself to be as a person.

Still, there are questions, concerns, fears, and anxiety about my body.

Who I am has not changed.  Yet, I still want my body to be the best possible body.  Not my best possible body, taking into account where I started and what I've been through.  I want the best possible body of all human bodies.

A friend of mine recently forwarded me a blog post about the recent resurgence of the modesty debate. This debate has not waned with the closing of summer as he had hoped, and so he threw in his two cents.

Now, I love my friend.  I appreciate him.  I have a great deal of respect for him.  He is simply amazing.

And I really appreciate his stance, particularly as a Christian leader, that we as a culture, particularly in the church, need to stop policing women's bodies.

What I had not anticipated in editing his post was feeling inadequate, unlovely, unworthy, worth less and deeply hurting because of the shape of my body, and in particular, the shape of specific parts of my body.

I'm not blaming my friend or his honesty.  In fact, that he would write so bluntly and that he consistently demonstrates himself to be a man of integrity is one of the reasons I count him among my closest friends.

That his truth was hurtful to me did serve as a signpost of work I still need to do.

I do not know if I will ever have the body I want.  I do plan to continue striving to reach a healthy weight and have a body that does all the things I want it to do, with ease.  I hope when I have transformed my current body into my new body, I will want the body I have.

What frustrates and frightens me in this, however, is the focus I find myself putting on making certain aspects of my body more "acceptable" and appealing.  Parts of my body that are not likely to be seen by anyone other than me.

I find myself considering what it might be like not just to cut up, segment, reduce my body to parts and pieces as I gaze at my reflection in the mirror, but rather wondering if it might be possible to cut up, segment, and reduce my body, in parts and pieces, under a surgeon's knife, in an effort to make there be less of me physically, in the hopes that it makes me more.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Divine Dinner Parties

I quite enjoy cooking and baking.  For a variety of reasons.

Mostly, cooking and baking acts of self-care for me.  It makes sense in circumstances that often feel senseless.  It has a scientific certainty to it when so much in life seems to lack any certainty at all.

There are rules to cooking and baking.  Lots of beautiful rules.

I wasn't among you last week.  I was over at Salem talking to them about my love of rules.  And my day job.  Which involves highly logic, perfectly rational, stringently consistent rules.  And I talked to them about how much I love that aspect of my job -- the rules.

It just so happens that there are times in my life when it feels like nothing makes sense, where there are no rules, or no one is following the rules, or the rules constantly change from one moment to the next.  During these times, it is not unusual for me to retire to the kitchen and cook or bake.

As luck would have it, I also happen to know a number of people who like to eat.

It started in seminary.  I would be in the kitchen, making dinner, relaxing at the end of the day.  I would be making something fragrant, adjusting the temperature or cooking time to compensate for changes in weather or humidity.

A neighbor would walk past the kitchen and remark on the delicious aromas wafting through the halls.  "It'll be ready in 1/2 an hour," I'd tell them.  "Why don't you make a salad and join me?"

Not long after, another neighbor would walk by.  "MaryBeth, what is that amazing smell?" they would ask.  "Oh, I"m just throwing together a little of this or that for dinner.  Our neighbor is bringing a salad.  It'll be ready in about 20 minutes.  Why don't you bring a bottle of wine and join us?"

And not long after, another neighbor would walk by.  "That smells absolutely heavenly," they would say.  "Well, it'll be ready in about 10 minutes.  Our neighbors are bringing a salad and some wine.  Why don't you grab your fiancee and join us for dinner?"

These impromptu dinner parties would take place 2-3 times a month.

Now, this kind of thing is much easier to pull off when you live in a dormitory and share a common kitchen and living room with 30 other people.

Currently, I do not have the space or ability to host dinner parties.  This is sad.

It has not, however, stopped me from feeding people.

Whenever I have the time and the resources, I like to head to the kitchen, whip up something fun, and send care packages to friends near and far.

Back in April, I went to Kansas for a week to celebrate my birthday.  I visited a very dear friend of mine, and spent my afternoons in his kitchen, preparing meals for us, and insisting that he invite over any stray friends who might not have alternate plans that night.

Over the course of the week, I made a Chicken and 40 Cloves, bbq ribs, chipotle lime pork roast, roast chicken, homemade pizza, and on the day of my birthday:  Puff pastry cups with blue cheese and truffle honey, Bacon wrapped dates with blue cheese, Baked brie en croute, Risotto with bacon,  blue cheese, and caramelized onions, and a Dark Chocolate Cheesecake with Hazelnut Ganache and Sea Salt for dessert.

We invited a few people and had a wonderful time.

In our scripture today, Jesus is at a dinner party.

Now, when I would throw dinner parties, there was no favoritism shown to anyone.  People came and sat and talked and ate and drank and laughed and we all had a wonderful time.  We all came to the table as equals.  None was more highly valued than any other.

This is not the case in Jesus's day.  Jesus notices people choosing places of honor, seating themselves more closely to the host, the choicest spot at the table.

It would be like everyone in church making a concerted effort to sit in the front pew.  At some point, an usher would simply have to come forward, and ask that the "less prominent" members of the church take a pew farther toward the back of the sanctuary.

This illustration, of course, is completely foreign to one and all here today.  You guys are so humble, not a single one of you wants to assume the place of greatest honor!  And aren't you fortunate that the ushers have not approached you and invited you to "move up to a better place" in church this morning?

Jesus, it seems, is not striving to get the best seat for himself at this dinner party.  Much as he is being watched by those present -- the Pharisees who are the moral authorities of the day -- Jesus is watching those present as well.  When he sees them scrambling to get the best place, he tells them a parable.

Not the traditional story type parable we are used to, but rather, he lays out a basic rule for behaving at dinner parties:  Do not seek the best seat and risk being asked to move down to make room for someone more prominent.  Rather, choose the lowest seat, that you might be invited to move up to a better place.

"Choose humility," Jesus said, "that you will not be humiliated."

This was not a lesson in social etiquette, as one might assume at first blush.  Rather, it is a lesson in how things work in God's kingdom, what it's going to be like at the Divine Dinner Party.  "Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

This is something Jesus tells us repeatedly:  the first shall be last; the last shall be first.  Those who seek to lift themselves shall be humbled; those who humble themselves shall be esteemed.

One of the ways people today often seek to lift themselves, seek to be esteemed by others, is to surround themselves with those who are their social equals or "better."  Those who have more social capital, in the ever-present struggle to make it.  The notion of "Keeping up with the Joneses," leads many to choose their companions with care: friends, relatives, wealthier neighbors who can advance their position at work, in life, in the neighborhood.

It's not about what you know, they will say.  It's all about who you know.

Tit-for-tat.  You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.  Trading favors so that we both get ahead.

And this is appealing!  It's how the world works.  It's what earns us respect and esteem and perhaps the envy of those around us....

Yet this is not what we, as Christians, are called to.

We are called to give sacrificially of ourselves, with no expectation of a return.  We are called to love, serve, and bless those who cannot repay us.

We are not to invite our friends, relatives, or rich neighbors to our banquets.  If we invite them, they may repay us.  They may seek to balance their account, to repay the debt of our kindness -- and they have the ability to do so.

"Do not do this!" says Jesus.  "When you host a dinner party, invite the poor who cannot repay you in kind.  Invite the crippled who cannot serve you.  Invite the lame, who cannot prepare a meal.  Invite the blind, who in Jesus's time had no ability to provide for themselves let alone anyone else.  Do this, and you will be blessed."

It is better to give than to receive, we are told.  For the greater blessing is in the giving.

This isn't always easy to remember or even believe.  Who among hasn't spent him or herself on behalf of another, perhaps repeatedly, with no reward?

Who among us hasn't sought to love someone others find unlovable, only to be rejected time and again?

What of Paul's charge to show hospitality to strangers?

This is more than showing hospitality to those whom we have not met.  It goes deeper than that.  This speaks to the notion of showing hospitality, gracious regards, radical welcome to those who are different, who are not just strangers but strange to us; different; not just unknown, but seemingly unknowable.

Maundy Thursday this year, Pope Francis showed this kind of hospitality in washing the feet of Muslim woman.

Many of you were here for Maundy Thursday services.  Many of you had your feet washed by Bob, your head anointed by me.  Would we have shown such gracious hospitality to a Muslim had one entered our worship that night?  I'd like to believe so.

Love those who cannot love you; show hospitality to strangers; store up for yourself treasures in heaven.  Invite to your dinner party those who cannot reciprocate.

Do this, and you will be repaid.  Your reward will be waiting.  Certainly, as Jesus said, "You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."  But you will also be repaid here, now, in this time.  Repaid by a present, active, infinite and loving God who declares, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you."

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  The one who leads us out of bondage, who cares for us through times wilderness, through deserts and ravines, through times of spiritual drought and darkness, is met in the stranger, the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.

If he has done so much for us, let us do as much for him.  Let us seek him in the face of the oppressed.  Let us love him by loving others.  Let us serve him by others.

God has radically welcomed us, we who cannot repay the kindness and generosity of such a powerful and glorious God.  Let us radically welcome the image of God that we find in those who cannot repay us.  In doing so, we will be rewarded.  And what an amazing dinner party that's going to be.