September 18, 2005

Why We Need Each Other: Acceptance
Romans 12:1-22

In our recent visit to the Chobe Game Park in Botswana, I was totally captivated watching the elephants. There are, our guide told us, some 45,000 elephants in Chobe, and I and those with me enjoyed watching several of them playing together during the afternoon. Trunks dancing, water splashing, mud flying: massive animals acting like little kids with a new toy.

One scene, however, struck me even more than this elephant square dance. As we watched a herd of elephants make their way down to the very edge of the Chobe River, we suddenly sensed considerable tension in the air. Imagine finding yourself close—almost too close—to a herd of angry animals, some standing 13’ high, measuring up to 24’ in length, and weighing 7 tons! They were kicking and screaming, and I for one wanted to relocate as quickly as I could. As I wondered what had aroused their furor, I noticed a few of the elephants feverishly chasing off another one. The scene ended with the herd of elephants walking off into the distance down beside the river, and the isolated elephant wandering alone up the hill and into the trees. The other elephants had literally run him out of town.

Frankly, I was caught off guard at just how sorry I felt for the loner. I really did. He looked pitiful as he walked away alone while all of the others went on their merry way. Perhaps the image was, in and of itself, enough to rouse my sympathy. But I think it was more than that. In reality, watching that isolated elephant walk away stirred up deeply buried but powerful feelings of my own, lingering feelings from when I myself experienced rejection and isolation. It really did. I thought, for example, of the many times when I refrained from smiling throughout much of my life because of the large gap between my two front teeth—I had it corrected a few years ago. I remember a kid once making a snide remark when I was still quite young. “You could put a pencil between your teeth,” he said. I’ve never forgotten it. I thought also of my “hidden secrets” over the years, “blemishes” that if people around me knew about, they would not want me around anymore. All these years later—I guess I am still an insecure person in some ways—I sensed the pain of that elephant, the pain of rejection.

I understand, however, that I am hardly alone in experiencing and dealing with feelings of rejection. My guess is that everyone of you—some very deeply—know exactly what I am talking about. In fact, virtually every person writing on the subject of human development lists being accepted by others as among the most fundamental of all human needs. Rudolph Dreikurs, Abraham Maslow, William Glasser, and on and on. Glasser, in fact, reduces the wide range of human emotional needs to these basic two: (1) to love and be loved, and (2) to feel worthwhile to self and others. An awareness of acceptance nourishes the human spirit. Feelings of rejection often lead to pain, heartache and pathological behaviors.

An interesting study to this effect recently appeared in an online journal entitled Evidence Based Nursing. The study focused on adolescents with cerebral palsy and the success with which such people typically transition into adulthood. Cerebral palsy, as many of you know, is a condition involving either faulty development of or damage to motor areas in the brain. This condition, which typically first appears in children before they reach the age of 3, disrupts the brain’s ability to control movement or posture. While the severity varies from person to person, typical symptoms include the inability to perform fine motor tasks (such as writing) and maintain balance while walking. In many cases, people with cerebral palsy are also victims of involuntary movements, including seizures. People with cerebral palsy, like a good friend of mine in college, cannot “hide” their condition. The signs are typically obvious and often leave the person open to sarcastic and hurting remarks.

In this study, the evidence was clear. Three factors are crucial in patients with cerebral palsy moving successfully from adolescence to adulthood. Among those, once again, is being accepted by others. Again and again, cerebral palsy victims typically transitioned well into adulthood if they sensed others’ acceptance and affirmation. Among the greatest fears experienced by human beings, after all, is the fear of being rejected, left out, ignored and unloved. At the top of the list of human anxieties is that of being all alone—like that ostracized elephant walking up the hill in Chobe National Park. “It is not good,” Genesis 2:18 reminds us again, “for man to be alone.” When God formed us, he created us, not as isolated and independent units, but as individuals intimately intertwined with one other. We need to feel accepted.

The Apostle Paul, though neither a psychologist nor human development specialist, clearly understood this, as his instructions here in Romans 12 indicate. Romans 12:1-2 is undoubtedly among the most familiar passages in the New Testament. In the chapters of Romans leading up to this passage, Paul discussed such far-reaching topics as the nature of sin, salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. Now, in order to help his readers apply these truths to their lives, he transitions to this familiar exhortation: “Present yourselves totally and unreservedly to God, resist conforming to the patterns of the world, and be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” We’ve no doubt thought about these words before: “Don’t conform to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” We’ve probably reflected on how they relate to the ways that we think about money, power and sex, as we should. If we are transformed into the likeness of Christ, we will think differently than the world about such issues.

But note carefully what Paul has to say immediately after exhorting his readers to be transformed in their minds. When he begins to consider areas of life that must be profoundly affected by our transformation, he first highlights these two: (1) the way we think about ourselves, and (2) the way we think about others.

Paul, first of all, concludes that, if we resist the world and are transformed by the renewing of our minds, we will think differently about ourselves (vv. 3-8, 16). Rather than clinging to inflated views of who we are and what we can do, we will adopt a more balanced perspective. While affirming that we are created in the image of God and therefore bursting with potential, we will at the same time accept the fact that we have been fashioned out of dust and live with certain limitations and weaknesses. We will, to quote Paul, think with sober judgment.

Dennis Kinlaw, former professor at Asbury Seminary and president of Asbury College, used to say that people typically—and understandably—come to Christ initially for primarily selfish reasons. They follow Christ because of what he might do for them or what he might save them from. As a person grows in Christ, however, this self-seeking tendency increasingly falls away, and that person thinks less and less about himself—what he wants, needs, or can do—and becomes more aware of Christ, to be sure, but also more aware of others.

Paul says as much when he continues his thoughts here in Romans 12. Being transformed into Christ not only leads to a person formulating a more balanced understanding of himself, but it also results in that person thinking more highly of others (vv. 9-21). “Let love be genuine,” Paul suggests. “Hate—despise—what is evil, hold fast—cling—to what is good.” Then, he continues, “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” In short, Paul instructs the believers in Rome to affirm—to “accept”—one another.

Even a quick reading of Romans 12 calls to our attention several factors that often lead to people rejecting others. In each case, Paul encourages his readers to set such factors aside. Followers of Jesus—people with renewed minds—do not look down on those who they might believe have either lesser gifts or greater gifts than they themselves do (vv. 4-8). We don’t look down on or run out of town people who are unfamiliar to us: “extend hospitality to strangers” (v. 13). We don’t seek the harm of people who give us a hard time: “pray for them and bless them” (v. 14). And we do not dismiss those who have less than we do (v. 16). Instead, we increasingly affirm the importance of every person among us, as different as we might be. As the Holy Spirit works within us, we become more affirming—more accepting—people.

I remember a situation at a church in New Jersey several years ago. One of the adult Sunday School classes had a ritual of sorts. Every week they drank tea and coffee and ate pastries before their class began. Then after ten minutes or so of fellowship, they all took their seats and worked through the lesson together. One Sunday, however, their pattern was disrupted. An unfamiliar woman walked into the class as everyone was eating and drinking, and the room grew quiet. Living so close to New York, not to mention Newark, virtually everyone in the class knew a prostitute when they saw one. Before long, the many class members took their seats on one side of the room, and the “stranger” sat down—all alone—on the other side.

Just imagine, if you can, how the members of the class felt the following week when the woman returned, although dressed quite differently. As it turned out, she was actually the wife of a pastor from a nearby town, and she had dressed the part the previous week in order to see how “average” Christians might respond! While she had hoped that first Sunday to find a group of people who would welcome her, the mess that she appeared to be, she walked away instead, rejected and alone.

I should, I suppose, add three brief words of clarification before closing. First, the need that we human beings have to feel accepted by others can at times become obsessive and unhealthy. Henri Nouwen, in Life of the Beloved, warns us of the dangers of constantly craving other people’s attention and affirmation. While it is true that we need the honest and genuine acceptance of others, it is also true that we must first and foremost receive the acceptance of Christ. Our ultimate security lies not in our being popular among our peers, but in knowing that we are deeply loved and accepted by Jesus.

Second, this matter of acceptance is a two-way street. Part of the responsibility for helping people to feel accepted here does fall on the church, and it is important that we as a congregation do all we can to take this responsibility seriously. It is no less important, however, that those of you who long for acceptance do your part in developing ties and connections. When people comment that they do not feel accepted here, I always ask them if they’ve come to Eat ’n’ Run, visited a Sunday School Class, or thought about joining a small group, at least on a trial basis. Gaining acceptance and forming meaningful relationships is, as I’ve said, a two-way street.

And finally, I am aware—very aware—of the tension that exists between accepting sinners and accepting sins. The various factors leading to feelings of rejection in Romans 12 are primarily surface distinctions: levels of giftedness, economic standing, and so on. Prostitution, you might respond, is an ethical category. Because the woman in New Jersey was sexually immoral, the response of the members of the Sunday School class was understandable. Let me simply remind you that Jesus modeled so beautifully how to welcome and accept people, regardless of who they were or what they had done, while at the same time offering them hope for genuine change. We accept sinners here at the Grantham Church, and then together, with God’s help, set those sins aside.

The world out there can be a lonely and inhospitable place. You know that. Even in a relatively sane area like Cumberland County—a far cry from inner city New York—people are often so hard on and unaccepting of others. In fact, I sometimes think that I’ve heard more people in Grantham and the immediate area speaking about feelings of loneliness, isolation and rejection than I ever did in New York city! Children push each other aside and say the meanest things. Teenagers can be downright brutal, alienating their peers for any number of reasons—wearing the wrong clothing, sporting the wrong hairstyle, or simply acting “odd.” And adults, who often ought to know better, have this category or the next to marginalize others. It happens all of the time out there—the elephants run the loser out of town. But it should not happen here, not in the church. This should be a safe place, a place where we love one another and outdo each other in showing honor. Human beings have a profound, indeed God-given, need to feel accepted. If they do not find acceptance here, they certainly will not find the Lord.