How to Know When to Walk Away (second in series, “Problem Solved!”)

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I.

Wouldn’t it be nice if every cause we decided to invest ourselves and our resources in turned to be worth our investment?  Wouldn’t it be nice if every relationship in which we decided to invest our emotions and time turned out to be healthy and a productive?  Wouldn’t it be nice?  We all know things don’t always work out that way, and there are times when we have to walk away from situations and people for our good and its or ours?                                              

There are plenty of people who, once they commit to a cause or a relationship will not walk away even when they discover what they committed to is crumbling or has become unhealthy or dangerous for them.  Sometimes staying turns things around; sometimes if we stay we go down with the sinking ship often with diminished finances and/or diminished emotional and not atypically physical                                                                                        health.                                                                                         

Some thirteen years ago, a gentleman by the name of Charlie Wiswall was chair of the pastor search committee for this congregation.  He arranged a meeting with me.  I was pastor the University Church in Baltimore.  The church here had gone through some tough times, and its future appeared to some to be uncertain.  Charlie, a very gently persuasive gent, told me that if the church extended a call, I could come in confidence because a core group in the church had gotten together and made a pact as it were to be certain at all costs that the church would live on no matter what.                                                                         

Well, Charlie has since then passed into the next realm, but the church is still here; and we have had some very strong stretches of healthful movement forward since the invitation was extended, and I said yes.  June 1 will mark the thirteenth year of my arrival here, and I for one am more than delighted that Charlie and the group whom he never identified to me stayed, saying that they refused to leave no matter what.                                                       

There are churches all over this country–well, all over the Western world–for whom no critical mass remained in the face of hard times, and those congregations no longer exit.  Their buildings are now restaurants, museums, or inns.                                            

There are some causes not worth staying with, though, and part of being a mature person is knowing when to stay and when to go.  Then we have to be willing to act on what you know is right.  Donald Trump said somewhere, “Part of being a winner is knowing when enough is enough. Sometimes you have to give up the fight and walk away, and move on to something that’s more productive.

 

II.                                                                                                        

Jesus was certainly convinced of the importance of his message, and one of the tasks, therefore, with which he challenged his closest followers was to go into areas, perhaps areas Jesus did not have time to get to himself, and share the message they had learned from Jesus. There came times, early on in these preaching mission assignments, after which some of the disciples were coming back from their trips and presenting Jesus with a real life problem, something that we could have expected if we considered the situational context. And the situation with this:  the disciples were perplexed because some of the places where Jesus sent them brought them into contact with people wouldn’t even give them a hearing. It was one thing to hear their message, ponder it, and then say, “Well, I don’t understand it,” or, “It doesn’t seem to fit me,” or something of that nature.  It was something else, though, to come upon people who said flat out, “I don’t want to hear what you have to say. I don’t care what you have to say.  Please leave me alone.”                         

In response to this, Jesus offers a surprisingly blunt directive; it was no canned response.  “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them” (Mark 6:11 NRSV). I’m thinking of something else Jesus said once upon a time, not in this context–though it fits nicely here I think. He might also have said to the rebuffed missionaries, I guess we could call them, “Don’t cast your pearls before swine.”  Perhaps we initially hear that as more harsh than Jesus meant it; although he could be harsh at times.  For a Jew to refer to any person as a pig was more than an entry-level insult.  Pigs in Jewish experience were filthy animals, among the vilest of creatures.  Calling someone a pig would be just about the worst insult possible.     So the people who would not even give the disciples a hearing were, to use Jesus’ metaphor, implied that they were on the same level as swine.                                                                     

On a more surface level and the level at which Jesus’ advice could most readily be understood, he simply tells them it’s ok not to waste their time on hopeless cases.  Said another way:  don’t give the best you have to people who won’t appreciate it; don’t take your time trying to help people who don’t want to be helped, something of that nature.       

Frequently we are confronted with the need to make a decision about what we can most appropriately, most productively and healthfully invest our time and talents and energies and knowledge and skills in.  Is a given cause worth the best we have to offer?  Is a relationship in which we’ve invested worth more of the same?  When we begin to see that it’s not working, do we stay and try to salvage it, fix it, or do take the advice of Kenny Rogers when he’s singing “The Gambler”?                                                                              

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,

Know when to walk away and know when to run.                       

You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.                                                    

There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.                                                                         

If you just woke up, those are not the words of Jesus but a reasonable paraphrase if you’re at a casino.     

Sometimes walking away isn’t a particularly emotional experience. It’s a matter of logic; it doesn’t make sense to keep trying where what you have to offer isn’t working.  At other times it is just the opposite and is deeply emotional, and even though it isn’t working by anybody’s standard, your heart still gets ripped apart when you have to walk away.               

I’m thinking of a few battered women I have known in my pastoral years who deeply loved their husbands, but their husbands periodically went on drunken sprees and came home and beat the wives who loved them. In some cases these women were members of fundamentalist Christian churches, and we’re aware that this goes on as well in fundamentalist Muslim groups, where the spiritual leader–pastor or Imam–tells her that she can’t leave because of a standard set in Holy Writ. There been some instances across the world when so called spiritual leaders have sent battered women back to their husbands because holy writ teaches that wives must be submissive to their husbands.  They go back after having been told it is God’s will for a wife to be submissive to her husband no matter what, and some of those women are beaten so badly that they die. Needless to say, that was very bad advice they received from their spiritual leader.      

I began reading over the holiday break an autobiography by one of my great spiritual mentors and teachers, Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, who is one of the most kind and gentle people I’ve ever known–not to mention his astounding brilliance evidenced in part by two earned doctoral degrees, the final one from Oxford. Who could imagine his early years were spent in a home where seeing his father beat his mother was the order of the day.  Again it was a case of a father who was fine until he got drunk, which for Glenn’s father the car salesman was just about every time he lost a sale.  Though a diminutive person, Mrs. Hinson tried to fight back, always unsuccessfully, but eventually she did part ways from this man and lived to tell about it.                                    

I’m not sure the emotional wounds received during the kind of abuse I’ve just described ever completely heal.  When is the right time to leave a situation of domestic violence?  Answer:  the first and only time someone ever becomes physically violent with you. One strike, and she or he is out. That is unacceptable every time, and, sadly for those of us who want to give practically everybody a fresh start, an abuser is likely to strike again; it’s probably not a one-time thing.

 

 III.                                                                                                                                     

Sometimes it’s easy to know when to walk away, or run away.  If we want to remain safe, we have to run; there isn’t any brooding over the decision.  The old fight or flight urge takes over. 

There’s a story recorded in the Gospel of John about which you probably have heard very little.  Several of Jesus’ detractors were trying yet again to engage him in a debate about his true identity, specifically his identity in relationship to God.  He, in this case as John told the story, went into extraordinary detail.

They interpret his response to their inquiries as blasphemous, and they, the detractors, decide that day and will take the law into their own hands and do Jesus in.  The writer tells us that they attempted to seize Jesus—the implication being that it wasn’t the first time they’d tried—but that he escaped; the image is that he slipped through their fingers.  Jesus was nimble and quick, and he got away that time unscathed.

Plenty of people walked away from Jesus too.  Not everyone who heard his message was enamored with him or it.  Here’s a little snippet from the tenth chapter of our oldest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark:

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”  He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

I don’t know the source of this quote, but I find real wisdom in it:

Sometimes walking away has nothing to do with weakness, and everything to do with strength. We walk away not because we want others to realize our worth and value, but because we finally realize our own.       

Here’s another quote connected to our topic for today that I like a lot, and I know who said it, Faaris Naz:

Sometimes you have to walk away from what you want to find what you deserve.

One more for now; this one is from Tony McCollum:             

When people walk away from you, let them go. Your destiny is never tied to anyone who leaves you, and it doesn’t mean they are bad people. It just means that their part in your story is over.

When we think of walking away, we may more readily think about walking away from empty or dying or dangerous relationships, bad jobs, or complicated situations so negatively complicated that they can’t be fixed or redeemed.  At any given time in our world, there are people deciding whether to stay or walk away from the religious tradition in which they have been reared.  In some contexts, to walk away from your family’s religion of choice is to be disinherited or disowned by the parents who’d told you all your life how much they loved you.  In some cultures to leave the religion of a family or a community means that someone offended by your decision may gun you down in the streets because of a matter of conscience, and there is no penalty to them for rubbing you out.                                            

I cannot answer questions today about all of the signs to which one should pay attention when deciding to leave a dying marriage or a useless friendship or a town or a bad job.  But I think I can in the time allotted point out the signs someone should pay attention to when deciding to walk away from the religion to which they have long been connected.

In our country we know that the largest growing group connected to any or all religions has the name “the nones,” because they have decided that no religious option available to them can enrich them and suit their needs.  Let me be quick to say that if all someone is looking for in a religion or a religious connection is materialistic rewards, those are there, but they are the ones that should most readily be walked away from because religion isn’t about learning how to appease the deity or deities so that you become rich and famous.  A religion that expects nothing from you isn’t a legitimate religion; it may be an offshoot of a legitimate religion, but never anything more than that.

1)   Walk away from a religion that diminishes you as a human being.

2)   Walk away from a religion that uses any type of coercion for any reason.

3)   Walk away from a religion that presumes to know the thinking of God, particularly as it relates to divine judgment in the here and/or hereafter.

4)   Walk away from a religion where you are encouraged to let others, especially the higher-ups, do your thinking for you.

5)   Walk away from a religion that urges you to vilify those who do not affirm its own tenets.

6)   Walk away from a religion that is really nothing more than a set of rules making prayer, mindfulness, or meditation pointless.

7)   Walk away from a religion that claims only to help you find your rewards and asks nothing of you in terms of sharing with and caring for the people in this world who are in pain.

Amen.

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