Saturday, February 21, 2015

Stop the Show

1 Peter 3:18-22

            We shouldn’t be surprised to find that a fair number of people really despise Lent.  The whole notion of concentrating on repentance is repugnant to quite a few.  One friend of mine recently commented, “As a former Roman Catholic, I don’t miss Lent at all.” I recall from early days of my ministry a conversation with a woman who had grown up in a church that emphasized blaming oneself for Jesus’ death.  It made her sick, so much so that she stayed away from church for Lent.

            Sometimes I respond to my atheist friends that the god they don’t believe in is the one I don’t believe in either.  Similarly, I want to say that the Lent that you find somewhere between distasteful and revolting is the Lent I find so too.  But that is not the whole story.  Another friend of mine recently told me, “I love Lent.  It is a chance to begin anew.  I feel as if I am at last freed in Lent from the tyranny of a judgmental God.” Go figure.  Why these mixed reviews and what do they matter? 

            Lent addresses a fundamental question that is as psychologically profound as it is spiritually central:  what shall we do about our undeniable tendency to do wrong when we know what is right? It is possible to do wrong when we don’t know any better, even if we should know.  It is possible, too, to do great wrong when we actually think we are doing right.  But there is on top of all that, or perhaps underneath it, a pattern of human behavior of doing something totally contrary to what we consciously value.  To come to the point very quickly:  we need a way to acknowledge when we are seriously off base and in the wrong.  And we need a way to get back on track.  In fact, we need even more to develop the capacity for being appropriately—not neurotically—self-critical. 

            To that extent, Lent is definitely and radically counter-cultural.  For one thing, we in this society labor under an enormous weight of shame.  The chief tool that society has of socializing us is to create in us a sense of shame to keep us in line.  Shame is different from guilt.  Guilt is about something you do.  Shame is about who you are.  The two rub together and then fuse for a great many of us, so much so that we cannot tell the difference between being ashamed of who we are and guilty of something that we ought not to have done.  Not only that, but sometimes we feel needlessly guilty for things and actions that are perfectly natural, understandable, and healthy, such as getting angry and expressing it appropriately.  Perhaps as a reaction to shame, we go to great lengths in this society to excuse ourselves from bad behavior, telling ourselves that this or that is not really bad, justifying others and ourselves sometimes by blaming someone or some personal or social condition for what others or we do.  Sometimes people don’t even want to talk about “bad behavior” thinking that to do so just creates more problems. 

            At stake is what Lent is all about.  And what Lent is all about is what Christianity is all about.  And what Christianity is all about is transformation.  And transformation is not a self-improvement program that we can sign onto like an exercise regimen or a diet.  It is being reborn, rebuilt, and rehabilitated from the inside out. 

            Now if you can grab ahold of that idea, it might be time to turn to the reading from 1 Peter for today.  Listen to some of it:   “And baptism…now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a conscientious orientation Godward, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”  Where we get off track is by thinking that somehow taking responsibility for our behavior is not at all Good News.  But we get off track equally by thinking that the gospel is all about good behavior.  The process of transformation, which begins with baptism and must consciously go on throughout life  is about learning to live the resurrection.  Resurrection is not a carrot at the end of earthly life for those who have performed up to standard, no more than is Easter the reward at the end of Lent for those who have managed to grovel, grovel, grovel.  Resurrection is one name by which the New Life in Christ is called, and it refers to the power, for one thing, by means of which we acknowledge our own inadequacies, our willingness to compromise our principles for expediency’s sake, our complicity with the structures of the world that twist and destroy the creatures of God, human and non-human.  This is not useless and stupid breast-beating to make ourselves feel bad so as to feel better.  It is a direct attempt to get real, to be true, to be honest.

            You might have noticed that until now I have not used the word sin.  The reason is that we generally do not understand sin at all.  It is not one of a thousand or so things on the list of no-no’s that we mustn’t do.  It is the condition of being estranged from our real Self, our deep Truth, the Being in whom we live and move—namely God.  The fact of the matter is that we cannot get on with living our lives in any healthy way unless we address that condition, which is a basic and pervasive sickness of soul.  Getting more religious won’t help.  Doing a lot of pious things won’t help.  Ignoring it and imagining that it will go away certainly doesn’t help.  Only turning again to the Source, getting reconnected to our core Self, reestablishing communication with the Truth and listening to it diligently is how this great transformation begins.  And always it is from the inside out, not the other way around.  Changing your script or your looks or your façade will never bring you to the person you are created to be nor to the joy that can be yours.  Only opening ourselves to the Presence that is already within us will allow that to happen.

            The great mystic G. I. Gurdjieff once likened the human person to a great equipage that one might imagine from, say, the 18th century.  There is a coach with an impressive coat-of-arms emblazoned upon its door.  A team of spotlessly groomed and indescribably handsome horses pulls the coach.  High on his bench sits the coachman, holding the reins, clad in the rich uniform of the day, top hat and all.  Voyages sometimes go well, and all perform according to role and plan.  But sometimes wind blows hard, knocking the hat off the coachman.  Horses sometimes rear out of control, even to the point that the coachman loses grip and balance, falling from his high perch.  And again the interior of the coach can become an unspeakable mess.  But all the while, there sits silently inside the coach a lone figure patiently waiting to be noticed.  Unhurried, courteous, always present.  It is the Soul Maker. 

            You may recognize this as not too far from a similar image that Plato once developed.  You might give the coachman the name of “Ego,” the part of you that is consciously directing the trip.  And the horses?  They are our drives and desires that lead us.  The coach itself is our carefully constructed presentation to the world.  And inside every one of us sits the silent Soul Maker, waiting patiently to be noticed, wanting to be drawn into conversation, desirous of simply being involved with all the other parts of us. 

            If Lent is about anything, it is about stopping the show just for a little while, simply to re-ground ourselves by conversing with the Soul Maker.  With that pause begins, either for the first time or the first time after awhile, what amounts to an amazing journey, which some call resurrection, and some call repentance, and some transformation, and some know as Love.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2015

Monday, February 09, 2015

Search Me

Mark 1:29-39

            It seems I spend half my life searching for things that I’ve misplaced.  Umbrellas, sunglasses, keys, mail all have a way of mysteriously disappearing.  Then sometimes, after I have lost something, it suddenly turns up.  Several years ago I had a ring, one that I liked well enough, but not one particularly dear or important.  It was a little loose on my finger, and one day it slipped off when I was in the living room.  I looked high and low, in every possible corner and crevice, and could not find it, though I distinctly heard it drop.  Several years later, I opened a frequently used closet in my study—nowhere near the living room—and there on top of a frequently used backpack, lay that ring.  How it got there I will never know.  And why there I will never know. 

            It is not so much about mysterious disappearances nor about equally mysterious reappearances that I talk with you today.  It is rather the perennial condition of searching for something.  Or more particularly, searching for someone. 

            This sentence leaps out to me in today’s gospel:  “everybody is searching for you.”  Yes, everybody still is searching for you.  But who is the “you” we are looking for?  Take a closer look at the story.  Jesus has appeared in the town where he is headquartered for the time being:  Capernaum.  It is the village of Simon Peter, whose mother-in-law is ill.  Jesus heals her.  Suddenly all manner of people appear wanting their own personal miracles.  Some are demon-possessed.  Some are just sick.  Some have one thing or another that begs to be healed, cleansed, made whole.  Little wonder that everybody is searching for him the next day.  That sort of appearance with those sorts of effects can make one instantly popular.  And the poor people in and around Capernaum can hardly be blamed for wanting health care.  Notice, however, that Jesus does not hang around Capernaum, great as the need there may be.  He insists that he go on to other towns in order to “proclaim the message,” for that, he said, is what he came to do.

            Everybody in 2015 is looking for something.  I think that is a fair statement.  Trouble is we are not at all agreed on what it is we are searching for.  (Nothing says that everybody either is or ought to be searching for the same thing.)  But I suggest, broadly speaking, that we are indeed looking for two things that are fairly constant and universal.  We are looking for solutions to problems, and we are searching for meaning.  And if I am at all right about that, it is precisely at the intersection of those two things—solutions and meaning—that we find ourselves engaged in a search for God. 

            I suspect that few here would challenge me on that.  You are, in my experience, a rather congenial audience.  You are in church today expecting to hear something about God, and you probably aren’t surprised to hear a sermon offering you something along that line.  But I want to push us this morning to examine a bit more closely what it is that drives this search, and where it is that the search might lead.

            It should come as no surprise that the search we are engaged in is a part of what it means to be human.  St. Augustine famously said in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.[1]  To have a heart restless in its tossing and turning until it find its Maker is quite a different thing from looking for a solution to a problem.  It is quite different even from looking for a miracle—a healing, for instance.  Is it possible that we could start out searching for something that we are very sure we need, only to find out somewhere along the pike that we actually seek something different from what we initially had thought?  That seems to be the discovery of a huge number of people on the path to Truth.  We start looking for protection or help in specific situations or for things that we think we need (and perhaps do need).  But if we keep at it long enough, and if we are growing in awareness, we possibly come to the place where we are interested in things that are a little bit more removed from our immediate desires and wants.  We might even begin to desire things that we have little to benefit from personally, but which can be enormously important to others.  So we add to our search not just things that will make us personally whole and well and protected from harm, but also things like justice and peace for the entire human family.  And if we search even longer and more diligently, we might possibly begin to see the center of our search become not just virtuous things like justice and peace, but a search for a kind of grounding in charitable living, for example.  And if we continue searching, we might begin to see that the search is leading us to more openness to Presence all around us and within us. 

            That seems to be what we notice in Jesus, and so also in the people that were seeking him.  It would have been understandable for him to stay in Capernaum, open up his own hospital or medical practice and treat an incessant stream of folk who truly needed his healing touch.  But he didn’t.  He kept moving, going to other towns so he could bring them the message (could it have been a message about the great Search itself?).  That is why he came in the first place.

            Don’t miss the thing that bridges the healings in Capernaum and the decision to move on.  It is a big chunk of night spent in prayer.  And what is prayer, if not the explicit search for God?  Jesus engages in his own search, one can well imagine a searching out of his own purpose and mission.  He models for us what searching is.  He invites us into the great search, which is, ironically, not just the human search for God but the Spirit of God’s own search of the human heart.  “You have searched me, O God, and known me.   You know my sitting down and my rising up.  You discern my thoughts from afar.  You trace my journeys and my resting-places and are acquainted with all my ways.”  So says the Psalmist, one of the wisest of Hebrew poets.[2] 

            So, far down the avenues that we are scanning with our hearts in restless gear, it begins to dawn on us that while we are doing our searching for meaning, this untamable God is doing a kind of searching too—searching out the human heart, looking for the return of this creature in whom God has set a squirming restlessness.  And if we are ever so lucky as to be able to say that we have at last found anything, don’t be surprised to hear yourself saying something like, “I walk, I find, I love, but O the whole of love is but my answer, Lord, to thee.  For thou wert long beforehand with my soul.  Always thou lovedst me.”[3] 

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2015     

[1] Augustine, Confessions, Book 1:1 in Great Books of the Western World, vol. 18 (Encylopædia Britannica, Inc.,1952), p. 1.
[2] Psalm 139:1-2.
[3] “I sought the Lord,” from an anonymous source in The Pilgrim Hymnal, 1904, used in The Hymnal 1982 (NY:  Church Hymnal Corporation, 1982), hymn 689.





Hymnal 1982 (NY:  Church Hymnal Corporation, 1982), hymn 689.