Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sermon for October 16, 3016

Relinquishment: Tending Our Traumas
Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. 1 Peter 5:7
A little over a week ago, a video surfaced showing a candidate for President of the United States bragging about how and where he could touch women. Those of us watching the debate last Sunday night heard him dismiss his vulgar and violent behavior as locker room talk. Since then, I’ve amazed and inspired by the number of people who have come forward to talk about their own experiences of sexual assault. I’m not just talking about the women who came forward last week to talk publically about how this candidate abused them. I’m also talking about the many women, and some men, who heard these vile comments and found the quiet courage to tell their stories of rape and sexual assault; people who are releasing their shame; people asking for prayer; people who convinced themselves that it wasn’t that bad or that it could have been worse; people who have been kissed and groped in ways that have betrayed their worth and violated their wonder; people who were told it was their fault and have blamed themselves for their own sexual assault. Thankfully, a mighty chorus of faith voices, including many on the Christian Right, are reminding us all that this this candidate’s words cannot be dismissed as ordinary locker room banter. His attitude is indefensible in a country where 1 out of every 6 American women has been the object of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, and about 3% of American men as well. Bragging or joking about sexual violence is offensive and unacceptable. Perpetrators of violence, whether in action or in speech, do not recognize their victims as unique and worthy of respect. With such deep disregard and dehumanization comes shame: the internal sense of being “less than human.”

Today I’m talking about how we, as people of faith, and faith communities, can respond to emotional traumas -- not just sexual violence, but all of our losses and tragedies. We all bear the pain of those traumas within us. We all have had moments when a harmful life event takes us by surprise and overwhelms our physical, emotional, and spiritual coping mechanisms. Traumatic events are like earthquakes that fracture our core beliefs, our bedrock values, and our ways of coping. The more life- and self-threatening the shockwave, the greater the likelihood of trauma for individuals as well as for families and communities.

Spiritual practices provide ways for trauma survivors to counteract life-limiting spiritual beliefs that trauma may generate or reinforce. Whether we know it or not, we all have a theology about trauma. We all have a set of values, beliefs, and practices that inform what we think about God and how God responds to our suffering. Sometimes, our beliefs, values, and practices are life-limiting because they don’t bring freedom or justice to those who suffer. Life-limiting theology uses God to blame, shame, and cut-off survivors from healing. Unfortunately, some religious beliefs and faith communities reinforce self-blame and shame. Shame is an overall feeling that one is a bad or unworthy person. Shame is one of the emotional reactions to violence that comes with the dehumanizing dynamics of violence, an experience in which a trauma survivor’s basic dignity as a human being is violated. Sometimes, religious authorities are abusers themselves. They use religion-sanctioned shame to silence those whom they have wounded and make them feel responsible for traumatic experiences. Sometimes, people who experience trauma-related faith struggles believe in and experience God as punitive and abandoning. Trauma can cause us to question God’s love and humanity’s goodness.

On the other hand, survivors of trauma may be able to practice life-giving beliefs, values, and practices that connect them with God, with goodness, and with healing support systems. Life-giving theology can decreases anxiety and depression and increases emotional and spiritual growth after a traumatic event. Life-giving theology can help care seekers resist violence and compassionately accept the traumatic aftermath of violence in whatever ways possible. Life-giving theologies believe that God holds perpetrators accountable while taking into account the ways persons and families easily become caught in systems and cultures that often condone or ignore violence. The more we can learn to integrate life-giving theologies into our everyday lives, the more we can create spiritual practices that enact compassionate justice and wholeness into our personal lives, our families, and our cultural lives.

In church, we talk about the idea of wholeness quite a bit. Wholeness refers to a sense of completeness -- not leaving anything of significance out of the picture. In faith terms, we say human beings can become what we are created to be: being made whole in the image and likeness of God. If we strive to know God and the good, and to love God and the good, and to live God’s loving will, and if we work to integrate these three human powers in our minds, hearts and behavior, then we can become whole in the image and likeness of God.

How many of us can say that we have that kind of wholeness? That sense of completeness? That kind of integration? It’s not too difficult to see that we live in fearful and painful times. And in response many become tired, bitter, resentful, or simply bored. Where are we supposed to find nurture and strength? What will it take to survive our times? What is required of those of us who feel called to enter fully into the agony of our times to speak a word of hope?

One of the spiritual practices I want to introduce is the idea of relinquishment. The Medieval Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart said, “God is not found in the soul by any kind of addition, but by a process of subtraction.” All great spirituality is about letting go. I am not saying just get over it. That’s just irresponsible and cruel. I’m talking about a spiritual process where we become aware of our needs, empowered for change, and able to hand over shame, blame, and life-limiting theologies. Another word for it is detachment. The monk Thomas Merton put it this way: “We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our own bosom. When we let go of them we begin to appreciate them as they really are.” Spiritual relinquishment says, “I willingly yield my care about what other people might think of me. I allow myself to keep an open mind to other interpretations of my religion and my personal spirituality. I let go of my attachment to the material things that surround me—I can take these or leave them; it is all the same. I release the negative emotions that have created a comfort zone for me—they no longer serve me. I give up the need to judge others’ thoughts and beliefs.”

Relinquishment has to do with giving -- giving all your worries and cares to God because God cares about you. Relinquishment has to do with forgiveness -- deciding not to hold on to the ways that coping with trauma makes us want to hold on to our pain, get revenge, or reinforces our role as victims. Life-giving theology, and life-giving spiritual practices speak truth to power with compassion and love. They are formed not from denial and repression, but from struggle and prayer. When we forgive we don’t forget the harm someone caused. We don’t ignore the pain or say it does not matter. I’m talking about how each of us can release bitterness and hatred, how each of us can free ourselves to move on and make choices grounded in our strength rather than victimization. Forgiveness opens our closed hearts to give and receive love fully.

Let me be very clear: Relinquishment, detachment, letting go -- these are all ways to open the heart to someone who has caused you tremendous pain. This is a practice not a test. Forgiveness is not a test of your spirituality. Many people put themselves in company with family and “friends” who are profoundly painful to be with because they feel they “should.” If your heart's not ready, then pushing harder does not create more compassion. This is not like getting through a grueling Zumba class at the gym where you feel a sense of accomplishment by being able to make it through without collapsing or fleeing. The choice to exclude a person or experience from your life can be the more compassionate choice for yourself. When your heart opens to your own suffering, and your own well-being, that compassion for yourself can open wide enough to include even the one who caused you suffering. But this is something that your heart will tell you — not something that your mind can decide or force.

Let me say it again: Spirituality is not a test. If you feel toxic when you are in the company of someone who has hurt you, then you earn no points by forcing yourself to be there and enduring the pain. Deciding to not be with someone who makes you feel terrible, even if that person is your family or “friend,” is an act of courage — honoring yourself and the truth being spiritual means we stop “trying” to be a more spiritual. It’s about practicing ways to open your heart without judgment to who you are and how you are. Trust your heart; if it is ready to embrace someone who has harmed you, it will open, without force.

Jack Kornfield offers a meditation for those who seek to offer forgiveness for those who have hurt or harmed us. Recite: “There are many ways that I have been harmed by others, abused or abandoned, knowingly or unknowingly, in thought, word, or deed.” Let yourself picture and remember these many ways. Feel the sorrow you have carried from this past and sense that you can release this burden of pain by extending forgiveness whenever your heart is ready. Now say to yourself: “I now remember the many ways others have hurt or harmed me, wounded me, out of fear, pain, confusion, and anger. I have carried this pain in my heart too long. To the extent that I am ready, I offer them forgiveness. To those who have caused me harm, I offer my forgiveness, I forgive you.” Let yourself gently repeat these directions for forgiveness until you feel a release in your heart. For some great pains you may not feel a release but only the burden and the anguish or anger you have held. Touch this softly. Be forgiving of yourself for not being ready to let go and move on. Forgiveness cannot be forced; it cannot be artificial. Simply continue the practice and let the words and images work gradually in their own way. In time you can make the forgiveness meditation a regular part of your life, letting go of the past and opening your heart to each new moment with a wise loving-kindness.

Sermon for October 9, 2016

Empowerment: Claiming Your True Self

Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. Behold, all who are incensed against you shall be put to shame and confounded; those who strive against you shall be as nothing and shall perish. You shall seek those who contend with you, but you shall not find them; those who war against you shall be as nothing at all. For, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I am the one who helps you.”  Isaiah 41:10-13 ESV
I love that first verse I just read. I use it at funerals all the time. It’s comforting to me. Fear not, God says. I’ve got this. I always stop at verse 11, though. Behold, all who are incensed against you shall be put to shame and confounded; those who strive against you shall be as nothing and shall perish -- not as comforting to me. Verses like that confirm our first fears about God: God is vengeful, and angry. I was talking with a conservative Christian friend who told me that I misunderstood God in those verses. God acts in ways that seem cruel to us, but they are really God’s way of disciplining us so that we will follow God with our whole hearts. Consider them course corrections. To my ears, it sounds like God says, “Follow me or die.”  It sounds abusive to me – power used for the sake of power; power used to manipulate. The church picked up on this idea and applied it to Jesus. Early theologians wanted to make Jesus into a victorious monarch. This is how the writer of the book of Ephesians puts it:
I pray that you'll begin to understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe. This is the same mighty power which he brought about in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things in subjection under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.
And man-oh-man did the church eventually run with that one! Jesus, who rejected religious exclusivism and triumphalism, became equated with the end all and be all of God’s power. In the name of Jesus, the church has done some terrible, terrible things. And, in the name of the all-powerful Jesus, churches argue over some rather petty things. Tradition claims that Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher is built over the cave in which Christ is said to have been buried.  In July 2002, the church became the scene of ugly fighting between the monks who run it. A Coptic monk sitting on the rooftop decided to move his chair into the shade. This took him into the part of the rooftop courtyard looked after by the Ethiopian monks. Ethiopian and Coptic monks have been arguing over the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher for centuries. In 1752 the Ottoman Sultan issued an edict declaring which parts of the Church belong to each of six Christian groups. Despite the edict conflict over the church remains. The rooftop had been controlled by the Ethiopians, but they lost control to the Copts when hit by a disease epidemic in the 19th century. Then in 1970 the Ethiopians regained control when the Coptic monks were absent for a short period. They have been squatting there ever since, with at least one Ethiopian monk always remaining on the roof to assert their rights. In response a Coptic monk has been living on the roof also, to maintain the claim of the Copts. And so we get to a Monday in July 2002, when the Coptic monk moved his chair into the shade. Harsh words led to pushes, then shoves, and then an all-out brawl, including the throwing of chairs and iron bars. At the end of the fight 11 of the monks were injured, including one monk unconscious in the hospital and another with a broken arm.

We know it’s not about who gets the shady spot. So what’s really going on here? Some theorists say that all humans have certain essential for well-being. As humans, we have a need for safety and security. We need freedom from fear and anxiety. We need love. We need to be accepted by others and to have strong personal ties with one's family, friends, and identity groups. We need to be recognized as strong, competent, and capable as we reach our potential in all areas of life. We need personal and cultural security, in other words, we need to know that our sense of self, as well as our community language, traditions, values and ideas are recognized as valid. We have a need for fair and just distribution of resources among all members of a community. We need the freedom and access to partake in and influence civil society.

Many of the deep and unresolvable conflicts we experience may go back to these essentials. When social conflicts are caused by the denial of one or more of these crucial needs, victims will fight indefinitely for their realization and will not give up until their needs are met. Sometimes the conflict become such ingrained and patterned responses, certain people or groups are unwilling to change their attitudes towards their opponents, even when their opponent's attitudes and behaviors have changed.

We can’t talk about needs and conflict without talking about power. How do we use or claim power to create change in our lives, our church, and our world? We have a variety of ways to exert power. I was at a workshop recently where I was given a three page handout listing different types of power. Today, I’m going to boil it down to four.

First is coercive power. Coercion involves trying to make the other side yield by reason of fear or force. Coercion and force are often used as synonyms of power, and all too often are seen as the only type of power. Coercion can take many forms, like violence, bullying, intimidation. I may prevent you from doing something you wish to do by withholding some resources (physical or emotional or spiritual. Or, if I have the means, I can force you to do something you would not otherwise do. Coercive force is not always bad. For instance, on a global scale, we can think about UN economic sanctions on North Korea as a form of coercion. In the workplace, a manager can combat sexual harassment by applying the force of sex discrimination laws. While there are limited occasions where coercion is necessary, at CCC we do not abuse coercive power to make decisions. We realize authority maintained by coercion is ultimately untenable because at the end of the day, it relies on threats to make people behave a certain way. So, let’s try something else…

How about exchange power? I want you to do something which I value. To convince you to do it, I offer you something, which you value. In other words, I buy you off, either with money or something else that’s important to you like my time and attention, my affection, or my favor. Of course, if I give something to you, I will want something back. Trade and exchange is a very basic idea. When one group has control over resources of value to their others, trade and exchange can help improve trust. But, it only works if I have something of value to offer you and you have something to offer me. Think of a time or situation in our church when people wanted to get something done that was not a popular decision, and an exchange was offered? Were the benefits fairly exchanged? Was it a just allocation of physical, emotional, and spiritual resources? If people felt sour about the exchange, or there was no trust, I wonder if that parties actually valued what each gave to the other.

A third type of power is called cooperative power, otherwise known as “The Hug.” We tend to respond with the stick, but almost never the hug. Cooperative Power is the capacity to obtain what we need and want, in concert with others. Coercion and competition are win-lose, power-over situations. The Hug is power with, not power over. People work together to shape solutions to conflict.  Think about human needs, again. Our need for belonging cannot be satisfied simply by being in the presence of other people. Our relationship must have depth and endurance. In the news, especially in this current political climate, all we hear about is division, and discord. Who is moving the narrative towards cooperation -- towards building a shared social identity? In order for conflicts to move toward resolution, political parties must rebuild their cooperative power, their capacity to live together, to be a community.

Here is the fourth type of power -- a word we use all the time and I think is misunderstood the most: empowerment. It means the restoration of a sense of your own value and strength and your own capacity to handle life's problems. Empowerment is the capacity to sense that one is capable of handling life's problems and is able to transform damaging social policies and structures. The word "empowerment" can be disempowering when we think it means the powerful give power to the powerless. That definition is actually a mild form of coercion. I cannot empower another person. I can share power, but I can’t impose it. If I give or even lend you my power, you are beholden to me for it. You owe me. If I help you build your own power base, the power is yours, not mine.

Again, think of a perennial conflict in our country, in our church or in your own life. Think about the ways people have worked toward resolution without success. Which model do we tend to use? Do we try to fix it by claiming power and imposing our will over another? When do we ever use cooperative power, or “Power With?” How have we acted in ways that promote the welfare of all?  And when do we acknowledge the need for empowerment: I can construct what I need all by myself. I don't have to get it from someone else. I decide to engage in meaningful conversation and claim my voice in key decisions.

I began my sermon by reading from Isaiah. Fear Not Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God.  At the end of that passage, God says, “Fear not, I am the one who helps you.”  Notice it does not say “Fear not, I am the one who gives my power to you.” I think God helps us claim our own power. Empowerment comes from deeply mutual relationships.  Look what happens when we refuse to think of coercion and force as synonyms for God. When love motivates one to seek to control the other for the other's good, the exercise of unilateral power seeks to transform the other in one's own image. If I seek to transform you in my own image, I pressure you to suppress your authentic feelings and intimacy is blocked.  I have sinned against you by seeking to limit the possibilities for the self you are becoming and the possibilities for the selves we can become together.

Look what happens when, in a moment of grace, God reminds us that God is unlimited mutuality. God does not force us to be God’s image. We, together, are God’s image. We participate in God becoming complete. 

So, what’s going to change? What needs to change for you to claim your role in making God complete? What needs to happen for you to find your voice and let it be heard? What needs to shift for you to build your power and share it with others? What do you need to create for you to participate as a full partner in your relationships? What do you need in order to get a grip on your problems? What can you do to be part of the transformation of our church, our community, and our world? What can you do to shift detrimental systems to promote people of peace and structures of reconciliation? Don’t you dare think it can’t be done.

Sermon for January 21, 2018

How Far Would You Go? 1 Samuel 17 I had a sermon all ready to go today. It was a NICE sermon. You would have felt really good about i...