I’m an introverted person. One of the distinctive marks of an introvert is that they don’t mind going to a restaurant and asking for a table for one. Don’t get me wrong, I love eating and being with people. I love a good dinner party, or going out to eat with friends. I also enjoy a meal by myself. I enjoy the calmness of a table for one. There are no social expectations, no awkward silences. There might be a book, or a crossword puzzle, or a legal pad and a pen.
I enjoy a table for one. It can be a space for reflection, meditation, or even prayer. Sometimes though, it is not…
God “prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” reads Psalm 23. What if it is a table for one?
What if the enemy is within?
I’ve sat with myself on dark and lonely nights.
What if the enemy is my own apathy?
I’ve walked by pain, turned a blind eye to the suffering of my neighbor.
What if the enemy is my own comfort?
I’ve chosen to settle for the inertia of inaction over disrupting the status quo.
What if the enemy is my own pride?
I’ve avoided the one that hurt me. I’ve held onto bitterness, even when the taste in my mouth was too much to bear.
What if the enemy is my own fear?
I’ve walked away from persecution, and participated in unjust systems for fear of the wrath would be turned onto me.
So Jesus, what then?
You tell me to love my enemies. Am I to love my enemy when the enemy is looking back at me in the mirror?
I know the answer. I’ve sat at that table before. Still, God meets me there.
I sit at the table in the presence of my enemy, and can only confess to my God and myself the times I have fallen short. I sit with myself and have no choice but to forgive, so I may be forgiven. I sit at my table for one and am confronted with the profound absurdity of the gospel. There is good news in sitting at the table for one.
There is confession. There is forgiveness. There is grace. There is bread for me to eat, and a cup overflowing. There is oil being poured out on my head with such exuberance and abundance it seems shocking. There at the table for one I learn that goodness and mercy are following me. No, they are doing more than following me. They are pursuing me. Actively, purposefully, God is pursuing me.
Goodness and mercy are pursuing me, even when I flee. Goodness and mercy are pursuing me, even when my apathy and my comfort and my pride and my fear seem to get the best of me. God is pursuing me, and sometimes it is only at a table for one that I pause long enough to sense it.
Few of us ever plan on going to prison. No one wants to spend time in a jail cell. Yet many of us spend time in one every day.
We spend time in jails built around us. Sometimes they are barely noticeable. Like the fish that doesn’t know it is in a fish bowl, or the bird that doesn’t know the world outside the cage, we spend our time in prison. These are the prisons of injustice. They are the prisons of systems that keep us from fulfilling our dreams. They are the walls that are built by those that want to keep others oppressed. Hope and possibility are kept out, and all that remains is a cycle of despair.
Sometimes we are in prisons that we built ourselves. We guard our pain and our torment and make sure nothing is able to penetrate the walls we build. We have been hurt too many times, so we build walls. We remain in the cell because the outside world is full of pain, and at least inside the cell we have the illusion of safety. Intimacy and friendship are kept out, and all that remains is superficiality.
Sometimes we are in prisons that have been built for us. These walls are built by sickness, or by those that hurt us. Sometimes great wrongs are inflicted upon us. Sometimes the tragedy is too much to take. Some say, “God doesn’t give us what we can’t handle.” I don’t believe it, because I don’t believe it is always God that is giving it. Sometimes the pain is just too much, and the walls of the prison are too strong to break free. Healing and joy are kept out, and all that remains is pain.
In Matthew 11:2-11, we find John the Baptist in prison. He was imprisoned by a King that did not want to hear the truth. John spoke the truth to power. He called for repentance. He called for a change of heart. He called upon people to follow the path of righteousness, and he prepared the way for the one that would come. But he was not imprisoned until he demanded too much of the King. When he impeded the powerful from having his way, he had to be stopped. He was kept alive, for awhile, by the will of the people.
John was called the “greatest of all those born of a woman,” by Jesus. And yet as he was in jail, he wondered. It can be dangerous to inject too much of our own thoughts into figures in the Bible, but here it is almost impossible not to wonder what John was thinking when he sent a messenger to Jesus.
“Are you the one? Or are we to wait for another?” he asked.
John was in prison, so all he could do was wait. And yet he wanted to know, “Are you the one?” Sitting in jail, still alive at the whim of a tyrannical King, looking back at his work, his ministry, and looking forward to a future that was unlikely to have a happy ending, he asked, “Are we to wait for another?”
And likewise I wait. I wait in my prison. I wait in the prison of sin that I have built around me. I wait in the prison of injustice that is all around. I look to Newtown and Columbine. I look to the Liberian Civil War and Apartheid South Africa. I look to violence on the streets of our cities, and violence in the homes our children. I look to hungry children at the school in my neighborhood, and to the cold families looking for coats at our Wardrobe ministry. I look into my own heart at the choices I make, the hurts that I cause, and the prisons I build. I wait and look back at my work, my ministry, and look forward to the future and wonder. “Are we to wait for another?”
Is the question a sin unto itself? Maybe. But at least I know that I’m in good company. I’ve never felt that doubt is the opposite of faith. .
So, trapped in our prisons, what do we do? What is Jesus’ answer? Of course, Jesus doesn’t give us a straight answer (That is why I think doubt is not an obstacle to faith, but lines the pathway of faith. If Jesus wanted us to never doubt or question, he would have given us more straight answers.).
“Tell John what you have seen,” Jesus says. Tell John to look beyond his prison walls. Tell him to look beyond the pain and the heartache and the bleak outlook. Tell John “that the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
This Advent, we still wait. We wait like John in prison. Not held in by despair, but looking always outward. Looking from within our own prisons at the world all around. Waiting and watching with God’s eyes to see the signs. Waiting is never a fun activity. We do everything in our power to avoid waiting… for anything. We fill our time with noise. We go to restaurants designed to limit waiting as much as possible. We go to grocery stores where the lines are filled with things to read, and last-minute items to buy. What are waiting rooms filled with? TVs, magazines, some even check out ipads.
Yet here we are waiting, but not idly. We are purposefully waiting. Waiting with eyes open to the love of God that is all around. We hear one of the Newtown mothers declare “Love wins,” and are left in awe of the power of the human heart to heal. We hear stories like the one Peter Storey tells here, of a woman in South Africa who said to the man that killed her son, “You took my son. So now you must be mine.”
Advent is a season to wait. Wait and watch for Christ in our midst. In a world addicted to instant gratification, the act of purposeful waiting is a revolutionary act. It is a soul-cleansing act. We wait with eyes wide open. We wait with hearts open for Christ, seeking the answers to our questions in the stories of hope and grace. We wait, seeking forgiveness. We do not rush into anything, because you cannot rush something as powerful and painful and precious as forgiveness.
This Advent, we wait like John in prison, who was called to notice the signs all around.
This Advent, we wait like Mandela in prison, who refused to let the walls hold him. We wait like Mandela, who transformed his prison into a crucible of learning, organization, and reconciliation. Who practiced forgiveness even as he was tormented. Mandela, who befriended white guards who were supposed to hate him, who used their friendship to secretly write his manuscript for A Long Walk to Freedom. Mandela, who wrote in prison, “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death” (from A Long Walk to Freedom)
We are called to look beyond the walls of our prison. Don’t ignore the walls, but do not let them defeat you. Look beyond the walls, and do not let them contain you. See the signs of mercy, justice, and love. See Christ all around – not in holiday decorations or TV specials. See Christ in the hearts of others. The prisons made by sin and injustice can feel impenetrable, but there is freedom in Christ. No prison held Mandela. No prison held John. Let none hold you.
I high-fived my doctor today. I had my annual physical. It was a year and a day after stepping on the scale at that same doctor’s office and reading that I weighed 329 pounds. Today my doctor looked back at what I weighed last year. When he saw that I today I weighed 259, he gave me a high-five.
I have gone through a transformation in the last year. I have transformed my habits. I have transformed my priorities. In so doing, I have transformed my body. More than this, I have experienced spiritual transformation. I pray more. I study the Bible more. I have discovered that when I am more disciplined in my eating and exercising, I am also more disciplined as a follower of Jesus Christ. I am still transforming. I am striving every day to Love God, Live Well, and Do Good.
I have lost 70 pounds in 366 days, but let me be clear – I am still The Fat Pastor. For one thing, I am still overweight. One year ago I was 34% body fat. Today I am 25% body fat. That is a great improvement, but it is still too high. I literally have too much fat on my body.
Yet even if I lose another 70 pounds, have 7% body fat, and can run a marathon in under 3:00:00, there will always be fat that I can trim from my life. I am, like John Wesley said, moving onward to perfection. Until I am there, I will be laden with fat.
The difference between fat and fit is choices. I make fat choices when I choose a mindless television show instead of time in study. I choose fat when I spend too much time on facebook instead of cultivating relationships. I choose fat when I refuse to help a neighbor. I am fat when I objectify a woman. I am fat when I contribute to an unjust society. I am fat when I forget the needs of the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the oppressed. I am fat when I am blind to racism, sexism, homophobia, or any other way that humans try to divide and separate and subjugate.
I’m trying not to be fat any more. I’m trying real hard. I draw strength from the love and support of family and friends. I draw strength from the encouragement of a remarkable facebook “following.” I draw strength from the words of the prophets that remind me that God’s love and God’s promise of a new day is something for which we can all strive. I draw strength from the Church as the Body of Christ in the world. Above all, I draw strength from the grace of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. I draw strength from knowing that it is not my strength on which I must rely.
Jesus said “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being,and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.”
I try to love God. I worship, and I pray, and I read and listen to God’s Word. I come to Table of Grace. I fall down in confession, and I rise up with the Holy Spirit. I try to live well, because I take seriously the oft-forgotten command to love yourself. I try to do good, because it is through doing good for others that we best express our love of neighbor.
I am The Fat Pastor. I’m trying not to be. With God as my strength and my salvation, I will be The Fit Pastor someday. Until then, I’ll keep on my journey of transformation. Thank you for going on this journey with me.
“I cry out to you from the depths, LORD — my Lord, listen to my voice! Let your ears pay close attention to my request for mercy!
I hope, LORD. My whole being hopes, and I wait for God’s promise. My whole being waits for my Lord—more than the night watch waits for morning; yes, more than the night watch waits for morning!” (Psalm 130:1-2, 5-6 CEB)
Today I stared at a picture of kindergarten students in tears being lead away from a nightmare. Tears poured down my face, and my body shook with grief. I cry out to you from the depths, Lord. How long must we wait?
There is so much wrong with our world. There is so much pain. There are so many people hurting. Sometimes I feel like it would be easier to just close my eyes and hide. I cry out to you from the depths, Lord. How long must we wait?
All I want to do is go to my daughters. I want to take my oldest from her kindergarten. Hold her. Smell her hair. Brush her cheek. Fit them both on my lap and wrap them in my arms and never let go. I cry out to you from the depths, Lord. How long must we wait?
The sadness of this day seems magnified by the season. But there is no need to magnify this kind of pain. It is as big as we can handle on its own. For me, it is Christmas that makes endurance possible. When the world tells me again that there is no hope, I cling to the last strand I’ve got. There is hope in the Lord. There is hope in a baby. There is hope for light in darkness, and hope for healing in the midst of despair.
Still, I cry out. I cry out of the depths. My tears flow. My body trembles, and I wonder, “how long, Lord? How long?”
5K 36:00 (Race for the Cure, Jun. '12)
35:15 (Firecracker Run, Jul. '12)
33:47 (Crimestoppers, Aug. '12)
31:40 (Lagomarcino's, Oct. '12)
26:52 (CASI St. Patrick's Day, Mar. '13)
26:28 (Railroad Days, Jun. '13)* *2nd place in age division
26:40 (Casa Guanajuato, Nov. '13)
30:30 (Modern Woodmen Knockout Hunger, Sep '14)** **3rd place in age division
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