Skits for Worship: Little Words That Matter

Against or Through? With or For? But or And?

(Skits for worship)

(From BIRDLIKE AND BARNLESS by Jim Burklo (2008: St Johann Press)

AGAINST or THROUGH?

AGAINST withdraws from communion table.
THROUGH approaches it.

I’m going to fight AGAINST my (diabetes/cancer/heart disease/aging process) with (money, prayer, medicine, exercise, therapy) and I’m going to beat it!

I aim to live in as much health as I can, and use every available approach to be healed, and I aim to get THROUGH what ails me gracefully, no matter what the result.

I’m going to put up an emotional wall AGAINST my partner or relative or co-worker so that he or she can’t hurt or disappoint me any more.

I’m going to engage with my partner or relative or co-worker so that we can work THROUGH our conflicts.

The Christ within us transforms AGAINST into THROUGH.

The cross is the central symbol of the Christian religion. Yet I know a lot of Christians would prefer to ignore it or avoid it. And for good reason. It is strange to be part of a religion that puts an instrument of torture and death at its very center. I’m not comfortable with it, either.

And yet that might be the very point. To take us out of our comfort zone, and get us to confront the tough realities of our existence. Instead of ignoring the cross, setting it aside in our minds as an obnoxious thing that just detracts from an otherwise nice religion of love and compassion; we do well to face it squarely. To recognize that it’s not just a strange symbol from 2000 years ago, but that indeed, each of us is on the cross with Jesus, one way or another.

So often, the only way out of that tough spot between the cross and a hard place is to go through it. I think of the cross in the same terms that St. Paul thought of it in his letter to the Ephesians. He said that salvation comes THROUGH the cross. It’s no good to fight against the crosses in our lives. So often, fighting against things is what puts us on the cross in the first place. We are fighting AGAINST our mortality, our emotions, our friends and enemies who fail us, fighting against them so hard that we get stuck in the fight, stuck in a state of resistance and tension and anger and angst. But if we can with open hearts face the truth of our struggle, see it for the cross that it is, we can go THROUGH the cross to its other side.

What are you fighting against, that you really need to go through?

WITH or FOR?

(FOR talks on a cell phone, away from communion table.
WITH touches the communion table, facing it while talking.)

Hi honey! So you want to plant a vegetable garden in the backyard! I’m all FOR it. Oh! Incoming call! Catch you later!

I’ll plant that garden WITH you. When is a good time for both of us to start?

Hi! So you are running for city council! That is so great! I’m all FOR you! Oh! Incoming call! Catch you later!

I think you’ll make a great city council member. How can I work WITH your campaign?

Hi, Billy! So you’re having trouble with that term paper? No problem, Billy, I’ll call your tutor and I’m sure that for a little extra, she’ll write it FOR you. Oh! Incoming call! Catch you later!

Billy, I’d be happy to sit down WITH you and look over that term paper WITH you, and if you want some suggestions about how you might improve it, maybe I can help that way.

Thank you, Jesus for dying FOR my sins! All those years of acting like a jerk – you erased them FOR me! I promise that I’ll never sin again, but if I do, it sure is nice knowing you’ve taken care of it FOR me and that I get off scot-free from any consequences for the bad things I do! Oh! Incoming call! Catch you later!

Thank you, God, for reminding me, through the example and words of Jesus, that you are WITH me no matter how tough it gets, that you are WITH me when I fail to do the right thing and need forgiveness, that you WITH me, giving me inspiration to seek and to do the right thing, and that you are WITH me when others hurt me and lead me into forgiveness.

The Christ within us transforms FOR into WITH.

When President Carter reinstated the draft registration for young men, the memory of Vietnam was fresh. Many were either afraid the draft might start again or were angry about having to register. I was the associate minister of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Palo Alto at the time, and I volunteered to become the area’s primary source of draft counseling. My role was to explain the draft laws and procedures and to counsel young men who wanted to understand the system and make conscientious choices. A lot of my work was done on the phone, but some young men wanted to meet with me or our other draft counselors in person. One of those encounters is still fresh in my memory.

Although I suggested to him that its actual reinstatement was unlikely any time soon, this young man was very worried about the draft. He asked me a lot of questions about how the system worked, especially about conscientious objection, and I answered them. Finally, he asked me: “What should I do? I think I’m a conscientious objector. Should I register, or resist the draft and not register?”

And my answer was, “Conscientious objection is about just this: a personal conviction. It is up to you. Nobody can tell you what you should choose. It’s between you and the inner voice of conscience within you. And in any case, I really don’t have an opinion about what you ought to do.”

And his response was, “But I came to you for advice! Tell me what I ought to do!”

And I said, I’m here to give you information and support, but I’m not here to make up your mind FOR you. This is what it means to be conscientious: to make your own choice, on your own.”

And the look in his eyes, as he quietly pondered these words, was all the response I needed. I could see it sinking into him. I could tell that for him, at that very moment, childhood was over and adulthood had begun. For him, at that moment, a profound shift had occurred. I was there WITH him, but I didn’t flip the switch FOR him. I never found out what he decided. But that wasn’t nearly as important as what he had discovered in that moment. He found his conscience, and realized that it was up to him to listen to it and make his own choices.

A few years later, when I was working with homeless people, a couple with a little baby came to our drop-in center. The woman was young, but her face was worn. The man was a pretty rough-looking fellow. The baby was fussy. They sat down with me and the woman smiled toothlessly at me and said, “We come down to stay at his uncle’s, but his uncle got mad at me and threw us out on the street. We ain’t got no food. We ain’t got no diapers. We ain’t got no gas for the truck. We ain’t got nothing!” And she cheerfully asked, “Whatcha gonna do FOR us?”

I remember being uncharacteristically speechless. Just what could I do FOR them? I could write them a motel voucher to keep them off the street for a few days; that was before we developed a half-decent shelter system in the area. But then they’d be back on the street when the motel money ran out. I could tap a fund to pay for some gas, but the truck was on its last legs anyway. I could give them food. That was no problem; we could feed them indefinitely, but it wouldn’t solve their underlying problems of chronic poverty and homelessness and lack of life’s skills that resulted in making so many bad choices. Where would they cook the food I gave them? They could come to our soup kitchen every day for the rest of their lives, but what kind of a place was that for a baby? I looked at that baby and wished to God that I could do it all FOR the kid, much less the kid’s parents.

I did what I could. But the best I could do, besides vouchers and referrals, was to be WITH them. To listen to them, and show them compassion. To let them know I cared, and that I’d keep caring.

I tried to do what Jesus did with the people he served. His promise wasn’t to fix all their problems. He could only do healings FOR a few folks; the rest of the healing work was theirs. He could only find food FOR a few thousand hungry folks, for a few times. The rest of the hunger work was theirs. But he promised us all: “I am WITH you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
How do you need others to be or do “for” you? How do you need others to be or do “with” you?

BUT or AND?

(BUT speaks and withdraws from the communion table. AND speaks
and approaches it.)

“I love you – BUT your habits annoy me to
distraction.”

“I love you very much, AND because I do, I’d like to
work with you on our mutually annoying habits.”

“I love you – BUT you are too fat or too thin or too
poor or too rich or too imperfect or too perfect for
me.”

“I love you, AND I accept everything about you, AND I
want to join you in growing and changing in positive
ways.”

“I would help you with your problem, BUT I’m way too
busy right now.”

“I’m busy with a project right now, AND when I’m done
I
will give you a hand.”

“When you get sick, our insurance will cover you, BUT
if you lose your job because you are sick and can’t
pay for the insurance anymore, you will be uninsured
and your assets will be wiped out.”

“Someday we’ll all have health insurance when we get
sick, AND we’ll all stay insured if we lose our jobs
because we’re sick.”

“I’ll follow you, Jesus, BUT it’s just too much to ask
me to give up my status or my privilege or my comforts
when following you leads to such sacrifices.”

“I’ll follow you, Jesus, AND that means I’m willing to
risk it all for the sake of divine love, AND I hope
you’ll be there for me when the going gets tough.”

—–

Jesus had a simple test to see if a person was a
candidate for his inner circle of most dedicated
followers. It was to find out whether they were AND
people or BUT people. The AND people were like the
fishermen, James and John. When Jesus invited them to
follow his path, they simply dropped their nets, left
them behind, AND followed him. But when Jesus offered
the same invitation to the others in this story we
read this morning, they said “Yes, BUT…. – I have
to do this or that before I can follow you.”

Now we can ask a pretty appropriate question – were
James and John and the other disciples responsible
people? A wandering holy man comes along and these
AND people quit their jobs and leave their families,
on the spot. Without giving Jesus any background
check, without reading his resume, they follow him.
They were focused on adding themselves to Jesus’
followers, and not concerned at all with what they
would have to subtract in order to do that. At least
the BUT people had the good practical sense to
hesitate, consider what they would have to subtract,
what they’d have to give up, and then go home and tidy
up their affairs, before committing to be Jesus’
disciples. To the BUT people, Jesus said, “No one who
puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for
the kingdom of God.” When Roberta and I were in Peru
visiting her son Nick who is in the Peace Corps there,
he pointed out some fields which he had helped to
till. This is third world agriculture – with bulls
pulling wooden plows on steep hillsides. Nick
reported to us that it is quite an art to plow a
straight furrow – it takes all your attention and
plenty of muscle-power to keep the plow pointed in the
right direction. Jesus was saying that if you put
your hand to the plow, you better be looking ahead,
not behind. No time for BUT’s – a big strong bull is
pulling the plow, the dirt is sliding over the
plowshare, and there’s no time to look or go back.
Jesus was on an urgent mission, and for his core team
of disciples he needed AND people, not BUT people.

I suppose each of us is a mix of AND and BUT. A mix
of the exuberant urge to embrace, to add ourselves to
others and to add others to us, and of the fearful
hesitancy that we might lose who we are or what or who
we have. A mix of willingness to go for it, to risk
for the sake of love and creativity, and of cautious
consideration of what might be lost in the risk. The
walk of faith, the road of Jesus, is just this: to
turn all our BUT’s into AND’s.

My wife and I have been dithering for months about
whether or not we should move into the house she so
beautifully remodeled in Mill Valley. For months, we
were BUT people. Our conversations went something
like this: We like our new house BUT we can’t afford
it. We like our new house BUT our rent in Sonoma is
so cheap. We like our new house BUT it’s way too
small. We went around and around about it, stewing on
it, over and over, and after a while we got sick and
tired of being stuck on our BUT’s! So we decided to
move – to put our hands to the plow, so to speak – and
keep our eyes aimed ahead – and take our chances and
go for it. We like our new house AND we’re going to
try to make it work financially. We like our new
house AND we will rise to the challenge. We like our
new house AND we are going to find a way to fit
ourselves and some of our belongings into it, and get
rid of the rest. We feel differently now that we’ve
made up our minds – it feels really good, even though
all the issues about the house are just the same as
they were when we were stuck on our BUT’s!

So often we poison relationships with BUT’s. It’s
tough to work for a boss who has a BUT about you.
Even if you earned the BUT! Most of us have had to
deal with this at some point in our working lives.
Your boss says, or implies, that he or she accepts you
and your work BUT thinks you are too slow, or you are
not capable enough, or you are not aggressive enough
at sales, or you are too aggressive, or you are not up
to speed at your tasks, or you know too much, or that
you are too shy or too outgoing. Your boss may not
say the word BUT. But you can feel it!

And you can also feel it when your boss has an AND for
you instead of a BUT. What a difference it makes if
your boss lets you know he or she appreciates your
work, and appreciates you, AND wants to help you do an
even better job by coaching you with new skills and
approaches that you may need.

Kids are very sensitive to the difference between BUT
and AND. If they feel their parents’ love for them is
conditional – if it is stuck on one BUT or another –
they will feel less emotionally secure. If kids feel
their parents love them absolutely unconditionally,
and if there are problems, they will love them AND
help them solve the problems, they will be more likely
to thrive as they bask in this unconditional love.
Think of the difference: “I love you, son, BUT you
aren’t working hard enough at school.” The challenge
of parenthood is to turn that BUT into an AND: “I
love you, son, AND if there’s some help you need to do
better in school, let’s talk about it.”

Faith is the conviction that there is hardly a BUT
that can’t be turned into an AND…..

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ABOUT JIM BURKLO
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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