April 19, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE CIRCLE OF INFLUENCE
Genesis 37:17b-20, 26-28, 39:1-6a
What a strange time we are living in! It’s been so long since we’ve been able to be together for worship! Some of you I’m used to seeing several times a week I haven’t seen in over a month. And the only person I’ve seen at a distance of less than six feet is my wife.
Speaking of six feet – we’ve been enjoying this beautiful spring weather, spending as much time as we can outdoors. Helen has been working on a project. I don’t know if I should be worried or not.
As I heard from one of you, better six feet apart than six feet under.
I was at the store the other day. It was my first time since all the restrictions came down. As I waited in the checkout line, there was tape on the floor to indicate how far apart we needed to be. That made the line extra long. I noticed about half the people in our line were wearing face masks. I wasn’t. A masked shopper scolded those of us who weren’t. And we probably deserved it. But it kind of rubbed me the wrong way.
There’s a word for this. It’s not a very nice word, and I’m not even sure it fits. The word is “busybody.” The definition: “A person who is too interested in things that do not involve them.” I’m not sure it fits because controlling the spread of the coronavirus involves us all. Your behavior affects me. My behavior affects you. But when it comes right down to it, even during a pandemic, I can’t control you and you can’t control me. The only person you have control over is you. The only person I have control over is me. And sometimes I’m not even sure about that.
There is a chapter in Stephen Covey’s book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People that I keep coming back to. He draws a circle. This circle represents everything you care about. If it’s not inside this circle, you really don’t care about it.
There are a lot of things out here. You probably don’t really care about the Kardashians. Or maybe you do. You probably don’t care that somewhere in Nigeria right now there is a baby being born. You probably don’t care that somewhere in Norway right now there is an old person who is dying. There are 7.7 billion people in the world. It’s not that you don’t care but that you can’t care about each one of all these people. There are way too many. Only God has an infinite capacity to care.
So we each have this circle. We call it a “circle of concern.” It’s not a small circle. We have many concerns. You care about your health. You care about your children. You care about paying your bills. You care about the stock market. Especially lately. You care about having food. You care about having toilet paper. You care about all the problems you are facing. You care about people who are facing far bigger problems than you are. You care about the coronavirus pandemic and how soon we can put all this behind us. The circle gets bigger and bigger the more you think about all the things you really care about.
There are a lot of things in your circle of concern that you can’t do a thing about. The stock market for example. Jesus said, “Which of you by worrying can add a single dollar to the share value of your Micron stock?” What Jesus actually did say might be even more in your circle of concern: “Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:27) There are many, many things we care about and worry about that are completely beyond our control. However, there are quite a few things within this circle of concern that we are at least able to influence.
So Stephen Covey would draw a smaller circle within this larger circle. This smaller circle is our “circle of influence.” An example would be how long we live. We can’t control that. Only God knows how long we have to live. But we can influence that. We can take good care of the one and only body we have. Diet, exercise, rest, washing your hands, staying away from people with COVID-19. Healthy living doesn’t guarantee a long and healthy life, but it helps. There is a correlation. It is within our circle of influence.
Most of us spend way too much time here (outside the circle of influence) and not nearly enough time in here (inside the circle of influence). When it comes right down to it there is only so much you can do. “All you can do is all you can do, and all you can do is enough.”
There’s a very old story in the Bible that helps us with this. It’s the story of Joseph. This is the Old Testament Joseph. He’s the one his brothers sold into slavery. That was a horrible thing for them to do, but in their defense, Joseph was not the easiest person to get along with. He was their father’s favorite, and he knew it. He kept reminding his brothers of this. His father gave him a “coat of many colors” and he loved to parade around in front of his brothers wearing that special coat. Only a special person gets to wear such a special coat.
Maybe you’ve been there. Maybe you can understand why they couldn’t stand their baby brother. Some of them wanted to kill him, but cooler heads prevailed. They settled for selling him to slave traders on their way to Egypt.
So 17-year-old Joseph is now a slave in a foreign land. As horribly unfair as this was, you might say he deserved it. But from this low point in his life, from this pit into which his brothers had thrown him, Joseph started his long, slow climb up to the life God meant for him to live all along.
He is Potiphar’s slave. When Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce him, he refuses her advances. She tells her husband a lie. She tells him Joseph had tried to seduce her. So Joseph ends up in prison. Which doesn’t sound like he’s making much progress. But really he is. He is not blaming others for his problems. He’s living within his circle of influence, doing what he can do to be the best Joseph he can be.
God had gifted him with the ability to interpret dreams. This ability did not serve him well with his brothers. He kept telling them about the dream in which they all bowed down to him. They didn’t appreciate that. But in prison, being able to interpret dreams was what got him out.
It took 13 years, but eventually Pharaoh gets word that he has a prisoner named Joseph with this unique ability. So Pharaoh gives Joseph the opportunity to interpret his own strange and troubling dream. Joseph tells Pharaoh exactly what the dream means. It means seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph advises Pharaoh that stockpiling grain would be a really good idea. And Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of this project. He has risen from slave and prisoner to the second most powerful person in all of Egypt.
Long story short, the famine Joseph predicted reaches the brothers who had sold him into slavery. They travel to Egypt hoping to avert starvation. They don’t recognize that it is Joseph who is now generously filling their bags with grain. Not at first. Eventually they do.
Now they are scared. They figure Joseph is just playing games with them, and the game will end with brutal revenge. But no. That is the furthest thing from Joseph’s mind. He forgives his brothers. He tells them, “What you meant for evil God has used for good” (Genesis 50:20).
There were a lot of things within Joseph’s circle of concern that were not within his circle of influence. He couldn’t do a thing about his brothers’ cruelty, or his loss of freedom, or his unjust imprisonment, or his deplorable living conditions in that prison for 13 long years. The more he lived his life as a helpless victim, the more helpless and miserable he would have become. But he realized that even as a prisoner he was free. Free to choose how he would respond to his circumstances. There was a lot that was beyond his control, but he still could control his controllables. And he did. His story in the Bible shows us that we can, too.
Within our circle of influence, we have more influence over certain things than we do over others. The first category we might call our controllables.
The one and only person I can control directly is me. I can’t change you. I can only change me. It’s not easy. Old habits are deeply ingrained. Without God’s help, it might even be impossible. I think of Joseph. He was a spoiled brat. But he didn’t stay a spoiled brat. He changed. God changed him. But first he had to take responsibility for the person he was. He had to control his controllables.
There is so much beyond our control these days. But there is more than we realize that is within our control. We can do more than we think we can. Here are three controllables:
1) We can be in control of our faith. We remember that when it comes right down to it, God is in control. We aren’t. So we direct our attention to God. I know you are doing this, because you have taken the time and made the effort to listen to this sermon. Worship is important, especially when we can’t be together. Prayer is important. However much you are used to praying, pray more. The Bible is important. However much you are used to reading the Bible, read it more.
One thing that might help is to find a verse or verses that you’re going to hold onto. Commit it to memory. Go back to it several times each day. There are lots of good possibilities. Here’s one that has been important to me: Jeremiah 29:11 where God says, “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a future and a hope.”
2) We can be in control of our outlook. Whether we give into despair or grab onto hope is within our power. It’s our attitude, it’s our outlook, that makes all the difference. Thoughts are powerful. If you can change your mind, you can change your future. So what do you expect will happen as a result of this whole coronavirus situation? Do you expect that, in the big picture, good will come from it? “What could have been meant for evil, God has meant for good”?
Here is a hint. There are plenty of negative voices out there. There is plenty of gloom and doom. Get away from that. Look for the positive. Be positive.
3) We can be in control of our actions. We decide what we are going to do. Guided by our faith, guided by our outlook. Most of us have had extra time on our hands these past few weeks. Time can be wasted or time can be redeemed, by taking action that will make things better.
So these are controllables. These are things within our circle of influence that we can influence in a direct way. Because these have to do with us – our choices, our actions. As soon as we deal with other people, we start to lose control. But we don’t have to lose influence. So now we come to limited controllables.
When it comes to other people, the harder we push, the harder they push back. Nobody likes to be told what to do. Especially when you aren’t told in a very nice way. As I was standing in that line at the store, I didn’t like being told I should be wearing a face mask. Politeness would have helped, but there is a better way.
The best way to influence another person is to work on yourself. If you become a better person, you will be a better influence. If you want to see more patience in that other person, try being more patient yourself. If you want to see more kindness in that other person, try being more kind yourself. If you want see more understanding in that other person, try being more understanding yourself.
That’s the best way to influence another person. It won’t always make the other person better, but if it makes you better, it was not a wasted effort.
Finally, we have the uncontrollables. They are within your circle of concern, but beyond your circle of influence. As we’ve already seen, it’s a long list.
We have no control over the past. Or death. Or taxes. Or computers. We have no control over the weather, disabilities, health problems, COVID-19, aging, crime, poverty, climate change, our Congress, our President, the national debt. It’s a very long list.
On this list there are a few where we might be able to exert some small influence. But the bottom line is that even though we can do little or nothing to change these, we can change our bottom line. And our bottom line is the line above our chins and below our noses. We can accept the things we cannot change with a smile.
Your circle of influence is bigger than you think. And life goes so much better when you live there and not out here where you just get frustrated.
You are a free moral agent. God made you that way. God is in control, but God has given you more control than you think. There are people who will tell you that you are a product of your heredity and your environment. Nothing more.
There is a cartoon that shows a convicted criminal standing before a judge. He says, “Your Honor, I am the product of heredity and environment over which I have no control. I cannot help what I do.”
The judge says, “Neither can I. Twenty years.”
You can help what you do. You can help who you are. With God’s help.
“I may not be the person I want to be, but thank God I am no longer the person I used to be.”
Thank you God for your gift of free will. Forgive us for failing to put that gift to use. Help us to see that even in the most difficult of circumstances, we can respond in a way that will make things better. Help us to trust that in every circumstance of life, you are there. Thank you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.