Monday, October 1, 2012
TO LISTEN ONLINE:
Good morning. It’s really nice to look out and see some familiar faces. For those of you that don’t know me my name’s John Newton and I work as Bishop Doyle’s Canon for Lifelong Christian Formation, which means a big part of my job is to give voice to that process by which God takes us into His arms and makes us more like Himself. But before going to work for the Diocese I was here. And I have say, standing up here, it feels awesome to be back and I’ve been looking forward to this ever since Mike invited me. (Thank you, by the way!)
And so in returning to this place I love, where I learned to be a priest; I had big plans to preach a fluffy, upbeat sermon about love or heaven or puppy dogs, you know something to make us all feel good! But then I got the readings. And they put me in touch with something I’ve been present to in my own life lately – and that’s the massive amount of pain we experience in life. As Jesus once said “in this world you will have trouble.” Thank you Captain Obvious, but what are we supposed to do with it?
Well, I’m reading a book by Daniel Kahneman (KAH-neh-mun) called Thinking (comma), Fast and Slow. Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for inventing behavioral economics, but his specialty is thinking about how we think. And what he says is that we’ve two brains (metaphorically speaking) – a fast brain, and a slow brain. Our fast brain, which runs the show, is always generating a narrative about reality and the meaning of our place in it, and our slow brain, or what we call “thinking,” is lazy, limited and typically accepts whatever story our fast brain spits out. Now this wouldn’t be a problem if our fast brain cared about truth. But it doesn’t. All the fast brain cares about is giving a tidy, coherent narrative to the slow brain. And so our brain prefers a coherent lie to a complex truth. But second, pain lingers before our story-telling, “fast” brain much longer than beauty and joy. And because we’re hell-bent on being the hero of whatever story our brain spits out, when we experience pain, our natural programming is to take on the role of the victim. And as a result we control, blame, manage, manipulate and diagnose others because we’re the victim and they – whether it’s our spouse, co-workers, the Democrats, the conservatives, the Aggies, God, Eldad, Medad, someone casting out demons that shouldn’t be – they are the problem and they need to change. The problem of course is that changing people and most of our circumstances doesn’t work, and so as a result we complain, choosing the way of ingratitude.
Now maybe that wasn’t necessary to tell you about Kahneman’s book. Perhaps my “fast brain made me do it” to impress you. But looking at today’s reading from Numbers – makes sense, doesn’t it? The people of Israel are in the wilderness because there are certain lessons God wants them to learn. Because biblically speaking, the wilderness is that painful but good place where God lovingly refines and breaks and shapes us into people more like Himself. But the Israelites don’t want to be refined or broken or shaped – and so they complain, choosing the way of ingratitude.
You see the Israelites don’t like the food. Apparently, the supernatural manna that God’s been sending from heaven isn’t quite up to their standards and so they complain. And because complaining’s contagious Moses starts complaining, too: “God,” he says, “is there a reason you put me in charge of these whiners? I’m not their mother. And so either get a new leader for these people or, if you don’t like that option, kill me.” (Now just so you know, we priests are much holier than Moses and never think that) But here’s Moses – chosen to play the leading role in the great salvation story that’s unfolding – but because the wilderness is painful Moses does what he’s programmed to do. He complains, choosing the way of ingratitude.
And from there the complaining only gets worst. Joshua gets word that Eldad and Medad are prophesying and Joshua wants them to stop. Because if just anyone can start prophesying things will get out of control. (Makes you think Joshua would have made a good Episcopalian). But anyway Joshua complains, choosing the way of ingratitude.
Now, something I do want to be clear about: pain isn’t good, but it reflects the brokenness of creation, and of course God isn’t cruel. In fact, the mystery of our faith is that God endured more of humanity’s pain than we can fathom, and that even now He shares in it. And so pain isn’t good. But, I do believe Jesus’ witness is that God can use it for good, and that whether or not we believe this will decide whether or not we live grateful lives.
You see life’s complex. There’s a lot of heart breaking pain and life-giving beauty and to live in that tension, taking it all in, the good, the bad, the known, unknown, that requires more prayer and thought-full-ness than we often admit. It’s a lot easier to buy whatever coherent, albeit untruthful narrative our broken mind is spitting out – where we’re the victim, and someone else is the problem. It’s easier to complain than to cry. It’s easier to blame than to pray. It’s easier to take up our case than it is to take up our cross. But the latter is always what Jesus invites us to do.
And so here’s the word I believe the Spirit’s given me to speak this week – let me come back during Easter and I promise it’ll be more upbeat.
Let the pain you feel in your own life descend into the center of your heart and trust that in time Jesus will use it for good. I’m almost certain that this is what Jesus means in today’s Gospel when he tells his disciples to “have salt in themselves.”
Because – we’re all deeply wounded and our temptation is to numb those wounds with more stuff or more achievements, or to spend an inordinate amount of time being angry and complaining about the people we think are keeping us down. But you know what we’re not inclined to do? Put salt on our wounds. Because yes salt can heal but it also hurts! But don’t you see, that’s exactly what Jesus is offering in today’s Gospel – which is an extension of what he’s been offering them all along – and that’s the cross, both His and ours.
You see in a world of pain we’re incredibly creative at numbing and blaming complaining, but what I believe Jesus would have us do is run into His arms, like the child in last week’s Gospel, with all of our wounds, warts and pain, so that as we learn to rest in Him we might be healed and transformed. One of my favorite authors, Henry Nouwen, puts it like this.
You have been wounded in many ways. The more you open yourself to being healed, the more you will discover how deep your wounds are. You will be tempted to become discouraged, because under every wound you will find others. Your search for true healing will be a suffering search. The great challenge is living your wounds through instead of thinking them through.
And I think Nouwen’s right. It’s when we live our pain through, or take up our cross, that whatever wilderness we find ourselves in becomes the fruitful soil that prepares us for the Promised Land. You see whenever we break the Eucharistic bread, we’re not just making a statement about what happened to Jesus, but also to God about what we’re asking Him to do to us. For as we eat the broken bread we at the same time ask God to break us: to break us of our self-sufficiency, to break us of the stories we believe where we’re always the victim and not the recipients of God’s love; and to break the stone wall we’ve erected around our heart so that it can become soft and tender like Jesus’.
Apparently when the great Michelangelo was asked how he carved his magnificent David, he replied, “Well, I looked inside the marble and just took away the bits that weren’t David.” And I would submit that each one of us is like a wonderful block of marble, and that our job is to run into Jesus’ arms. But God’s job is to chisel, which is a painful image – kind of like having salt in our wounded selves. But don’t you see, that’s why living our wounds through, or taking up our cross, is so important. It’s the primary way God makes us more like himself.
And so I have no idea what’s happening in your life right now, but my guess, because you’re human, is that there’s some place in your life that’s hurting. And again, that’s not good. But do you believe God can use it for good – that the wilderness has a purpose? That’s a different question altogether, which every week we give you the opportunity to answer. You see in a few minutes you’ll be invited to receive the Eucharist, a word that means “thanksgiving.” And so when you approach the altar, hold out your hands in gratitude – especially if you feel broken – and receive God’s provision for the wilderness.