Friday, May 09, 2008

My Lame Expectations: A Pentecost Meditation

So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them (Acts 3:5).

I am married to an optimist, for nearly twleve years now. After eleven years you might think that some of that optimism would have rubbed off on me. It hasn’t happened, much to the chagrin of my dear wife.

My problem doesn’t merit a diagnosis. As far as I know I’m not depressed. But there’s something in the wiring of my brain that predisposes me to see what won’t work, what might go wrong, what won’t happen according to plan.

Even today, my ability to find the cloud’s dark lining has been at work – literally. The skies are overcast and our staff is scheduled to go the Braves game this afternoon. My first thought: “Great . . . we’ll get to sit in the rain . . . can’t wait for that.” I allow this to simmer in my brain even though I’ve heard the forecast predicting that rain won’t roll in until this evening.

On most days this sour inclination is simply annoying, to both me and my wife. But there are times when the knee-jerk woes are more than irritating. They are an affront to God. Pessimism is a nest that allows faithlessness to hatch into other things like anxiety and bitterness and lack of trust.

Categories like pessimism and optimism may be meaningless when you’ve been crippled since birth. Each day is what it is. In Acts 3 we’re told about a man who took a beggar’s post every day near the gate called Beautiful. The story says nothing abut his internal world – hopeful or desperate. All we know is that he can’t walk, never has walked. He lives by the pity and generosity of others. Carried by others, he is placed near the gate and waits for those moving about on two good legs to notice him and be moved at some deeper level to part with their spare change.

A good day could be measured and counted; an extra handful of coins, enough for a meal or two. Does he sit with optimistic eagerness, just waiting to see how well he’ll do on any given day? Or does he just sit, cynical about the ease with which he is ignored and the meagerness with which people express compassion?

His expectations don’t appear to be high. As Peter and John make their way to the temple to pray, the beggar asks for money, but he doesn’t ask with real anticipation. He makes his request but doesn’t really take notice of Peter and John. Peter has to get his attention. “Look at us,” Peter says.

The beggar looks, and here we get a glimpse into his expectations. He turns to Peter expecting to get alms. He hears Peter’s summons as a call to extend the hand and receive the only income he can manage to collect. The beggar expected a few more coins, but he received so much more than he expected.

Peter has no coins to give, no silver, no gold. But what he does have is power, and he gladly gives it. With authority, in the name of Jesus, Peter tells the beggar to walk - this man who has never stood up on his own two feet and never felt the firm foundation of his own thighs and knees beneath him. His ankles became strong and he stood up. Not only does he stand, he does things he’s never dreamed of doing, leaping and jumping, and all of it done as an act of praise. The leaping and jumping become a personal worship liturgy. The praise catches on and observers are caught up in it, “filled with wonder and amazement.”

Our expectations are defined by our experience. Even the naturally optimistic can be conditioned by repeated results. For years I served in a church tradition that ended the service by inviting people to make spiritual decisions. Those decisions were shared publicly when people came forward during the final hymn of the worship service, what is commonly known as the “altar call.”

I won’t say that people never came forward, but it happened rarely enough that my expectations at the end of the service were fairly low. I sang the hymn and went down front simply because that was what I was supposed to do.

To read Acts 3 is to confront my low expectations. I live far too many of my days like the beggar, content to get what I need to survive, but never dreaming that anything more than mere survival might be possible. Our expectations get conditioned by a handful of coins, but God in his power makes us stand up and leap about and worship.

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. Many churches will celebrate the gift of God’s Spirit and tell the story of how the Spirit was poured out on God’s people. I believe every word of that story. I believe the Spirit is still around, still changing lives. But my expectations are low. Perhaps that’s where the Spirit needs to work in me, taking lame and weak expectations and empowering them to leap and jump and worship. The same Spirit that made a lame man walk can probably make me an optimist. Thanks be to God.

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