Sunday, February 24, 2008

Thirsty Anxiety

Sermon preached February 24, 2008

Incarnation Episcopal Church, Santa Rosa CA

The Rev. Matthew Lawrence

I want to begin this sermon by reminding us that the job of the preacher is to proclaim the Gospel and by Gospel we mean... what?

Good News, that’s right.

We are gathered here this morning to hear the Good News. Not the bad news; not even the interesting news – I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ll try to be interesting but what I’m saying is that’s not my primary goal. I can’t guarantee interesting.

I can’t even guarantee that this will be news you can use – because, I don’t know, maybe the Good News isn’t always that useful. I mean, a Cuisinart is useful. I think sometimes the Gospel Good News is more like a Rembrandt than a kitchen appliance. Imagine the look on my wife’s face as she brings home a beautiful painting and hangs it on the wall and I say, “Well, what does it do?”

What I’m saying is I don’t think Rembrandt sat down in front of his easel and said, “Today I’m going to paint something really useful.”

But I will attempt to preach the Good News.

That is the standard by which I am willing to be judged.

So: do you see what I did right there? What I did was I started out by clarifying expectations: “This is what I’m trying to do. If you’re expecting something else, you might be disappointed.” Because the key to any satisfying relationship is having clear expectations.

Take a look at our Bible readings this morning for example. In the book of Exodus Chapter 17 the people of Israel are in the middle of the desert, and man, have their expectations taken a beating! They’re camped out there at Rephidim, in that place that would later be named Massah and Meribah; and there is absolutely no water to be found anywhere – they’re practically dying of thirst. And they are not happy.

This is not what they expected! So they go to Moses and confront him: “Why did you bring us out here? To kill us and our children and our livestock of thirst?” (Ex. 17:3)

Wow. Pretty extreme language. Can you imagine how Moses must have heard this? I can just picture him, staring at these people whom he had led out of slavery just 4 months earlier. Especially since these are the very same people who, just 40 days and one chapter earlier, had come to him and complained that they were hungry.

In Chapter 16 the Bible says, “The whole congregation of Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread...’” Oh, the good old days, right? “’...for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill us all.’”

But then what happened? God sent the manna from heaven, and the people ate and had their fill.

That was just 40 days earlier; and now they’re coming to Moses complaining again; and again saying he must be trying to kill them.

Can you imagine the look on his face: “You think I’m trying to kill you? This is me, Moses! Don’t you know me by now? Haven’t I done enough to win your trust?”

But the thing was, and this is the important part, the people were desperately thirsty. They were literally afraid for their lives. Their anxiety was sky high. Poor Moses didn’t have the benefit of modern science and brain scans but what the scientists tell us now is that when we’re anxious, we’re not exactly thinking with our highest brain function. When we’re anxious our thinking almost goes on auto-pilot; all the activity is happening down here, around the brain stem; what they call the reptilian brain – that part of the brain that controls automatic reflexes and fight or flight responses. When we’re anxious we’re literally thinking more like reptiles than like mammals. And so of course they’re not seeing Moses as a friend or a liberator or a person they can trust. They’re feeling anxious and they think he is the reason for it and so they almost go blind to what their heart tells them and all they see is a threat.

The Bible calls these moments the “hardening of the heart.” Which is exactly how this moment is remembered, centuries later in Psalm 95, which we also read this morning:

95:8 Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,

95:9 when your ancestors tested me, and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

The “hardening of the heart” is such a good way of describing this phenomenon – because the the emotions are controlled by the mammal brain -- in the limbic system, I’m told -- and when we’re anxious, that area of the brain almost shuts down.

The other crazy thing that we do when we’re anxious is we do that thing called triangulation. Triangulation is that thing we do when we experience something painful or unpleasant and we enlist another person or object into the relationship to relieve us of our pain or discomfort.

The people experience anxiety because they’re thirsty and they think they’re going to die, so they enlist Moses to fix the problem: “Give us something to drink!”

We all do this – this is how we manage our anxiety. When we feel things we don’t like, we look for someone to take the bad feelings away. And since the whole system only works if we believe that the triangulated person or object has the power to fix our problem, we will insist that he or she does – regardless of whether or not they do in reality. We will convince ourselves that that person has the power to fix our problem; and we will expect him or her to take care of it. Often times we will just decide that our problem is the other person’s fault in the first place.

And of course it’s irrational – because that kind of thinking isn’t happening in our rational brain. It’s all taking place down here in the brain stem – where all sorts of magical thinking makes perfect sense. When we’re feeling anxious, the last thing we want to see is some therapist come along and say, “So I understand you’re thirsty. How do you feel about that?”

No! We want somebody to fix it! We want a miracle worker!

We all do this. A lot of us men, for example, are taught to be afraid of any feelings of vulnerability and weakness. So when we have those feelings it makes us anxious; and so we triangulate someone into our lives who will make those feelings go away. So we look to a woman who will tell us we’re strong and powerful; we’ll take unspeakable, private pride in the fact that we can unscrew that mayonnaise cap for the little lady; we’ll spend enormous amounts of money in sporting goods stores and hardware stores – power tools! - we’re triangulating objects that promise to take away our anxiety. We actually believe those commercials that tell us if we drink that beer and drive that car and wear that aftershave we’ll be stronger and more powerful – not because it makes sense rationally but because our anxiety – our fear of weakness and vulnerability – is driving us into our reptile brain, where that magical thinking goes on.

And women, of course, are taught a hundred times a day that their value depends on how closely they resemble the models on the magazine covers; and so of course their anxiety around their appearance is enormous, so much so that just about every woman – even supermodels – hate their bodies. What a tragedy that is!

And so women triangulate men to take away that anxiety. I’m talking about women who really, if they were thinking with their full brains, would know better than to ask, “Does this make me look fat?” But they’re not thinking straight; they’re thinking with their anxiety; they’re triangulating their partner with that question, so that, you know, God help the man who answers rationally, right? Because that poor guy doesn’t understand that she’s not looking for a rational response; she’s not in her rational mind when she asks that question – she’s feeling anxious and she’s engaging in magical thinking and she’s triangulating the partner to magically take the anxiety away. And if he won’t do that, then he’s the enemy -- instead of the real enemy, of course, which is the twisted and fallen culture that teaches every single woman that she is not exquisitely beautiful just the way she is.

Which is where we find Jesus, talking to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4: 5-42); looking into her eyes; and seeing her clearly; as she is. Here Jesus finds a woman who has every reason to hate herself. She is a Samaritan and she is a woman, for starters. That’s enough to be despised right there. But she has had five husbands – in that culture she might as well have been a prostitute – and the man she is in relationship with now is not her husband. She is, in other words, an expert at triangulation – she keeps recruiting men into relationships with her – she’s got so much anxiety and self-loathing that she can’t stop looking for another man to relieve her of it.

And then along comes Jesus – who shouldn’t even be speaking to her.

The Gospel reading is very long; it has a lot of dialogue – but the Good News is not so much found in all the words that pass between them as in the fact that Jesus speaks to her at all. And it’s the way he’s speaking to her: he shows absolutely no anxiety. I imagine the woman wondering, why is this guy not nervous; why isn’t he looking over his shoulder? This man is violating about 15 different rules in the Purity Code – he could get shunned, lose his reputation, even his job (if he had one) just for looking at me -- and he’s not even nervous! He’s sitting here, looking into my eyes; and he’s seeing me like no one has ever seen me before. He sees me as a person of dignity; he even speaks to me of eternal life – he actually wants me to drink this water of life.

The woman gets a taste of this living water just by speaking to this man who sees her as she really is: he sees her dignity; he sees her pain and he sees her love and he sees her soul and for the first time in her life she is exquisitely beautiful – in the eyes of God.

This is not recorded anywhere in the Bible but I believe I can say this with some confidence, that after this conversation by the well, the Samaritan woman never again asked, “Do I look fat in this outfit?”

And if that were all that this Jesus ever did; if all he did was freed us from the self-loathing and anxiety that we are taught from our earliest moments – so that we knew how beautiful we were – that would be enough. But that is just the beginning of the story; the rest of it is here; at the altar; where we taste the bread; and drink the wine; and step into that Kingdom of God that Jesus inhabited so completely. From there it goes to our every waking moment, as we remember to breathe; and to trust in God; in so doing, we let our anxiety wash away; and our let eyes open to the world as God sees it -- as it really is: alive with love.

And so I don’t know about you, but to me that’s pretty Good News.

And maybe even news you can use!


Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Moon Was On Fire

There was a lunar eclipse last night. I didn’t see it myself – the paper had said the night would be overcast so I didn’t go out to look. But the next day I read in the paper that the clouds had opened just in time. The great event had been there for anyone with eyes to see – anyone, that is, who had not let the paper tell them to forget it, stay inside, don’t even bother. The paper printed a picture of the moon in eclipse: as the great shadow approached, it “turned a fire red.”[i]

Apparently the moon itself could catch on fire and some of us wouldn’t notice.

So tonight, on my last night of retreat, I took the dog for a walk. No eclipse tonight – just the deathly lunar brightness of a full moon. We walked to a point overlooking a valley; the fog had rolled in beneath our feet, and covered the earth with a glowing blanket. The dog lapped at water from a broken font. I meditated on a tree, black in silhouette. Then I turned to the sky, and breathed, and said a prayer: “Speak to me.”

This is what I heard:

“No, you listen.”

[i] “Well, the night I was born
Lord I swear the moon turned a fire red”

Jimi Hendrix, “Voodoo Chile

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Our Inner Fish, Our Inner Christ

Sermon preached February 10, 2008
Themes: Evolution, Adam and Eve, Temptation
Scripture: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4: 1-11

Many of us have heard the story of the 4 year old boy who was overheard speaking to his newborn baby brother. Mom and Dad have just come home from the hospital with their brand new baby, they place the newborn in the crib and step back to give their 4 year old son a little time with the baby; they watch as the boy leans into the crib and whispers, “Tell me about God – I’m starting to forget.”

Probably an apocryphal story; but a good one nonetheless... and I am reminded of it as we read this story from Genesis – Adam and Eve and the fateful bite from the forbidden fruit – because this story is like an answer to that question – "Tell me about God -- I'm starting to forget." Because this is a story that comes to us fresh from the very dawn of human consciousness.

We lean into this story like the boy leaning into the crib.

This is a story that traces its roots way back into our primeval memory; it is a story that has shaped our sense of who we are for thousands of years

It speaks to us from a time when humans were just beginning to ask the big questions about our place in this whole scheme; and how we got here.

I imagine the ancient people who began to piece together the elements of this story; huddled around campfires for generation after generation, staring up into the brilliant stars, straining to remember where they came from

They had this memory -- vaguely, in their bones – a memory of a kind of lost paradise; that time before the blessing and the curse of human consciousness

A book came out recently by the Paleontologist Neil Shubin called Your Inner Fish

Shubin demonstrates how our bodies are a living record of our evolutionary history

He shows how different parts of our bodies still reveal our earlier history – he shows how our fingers and arms, for example, evolved from the fins of a fish; how the structure of our brains resemble a shark’s brain. He demonstrates how the inner ear shares the same bones as a fish; he even traces our tendency to hiccup to a time when we breathed through our gills through a kind of spasm in our glottis.

And just as our bodies contain a physical memory of the time when we were just animals, so do our minds, too, contain that memory – the memory of that primordial time before we were human; before we started asking questions; before the Fall.

For hundreds of millions of years, we were simple organisms; immersed in the flowing sea of impulses and drives and that constant brutish struggle for survival

For millions of years – that was us. We didn’t just used to be monkeys. We used to be amphibians; we used to be fish; we used to be jellyfish and worms. Our very genes carry that history inside us.

We carry a memory of that time

and we call it paradise... lost.

We remember that time;

before we knew how to name things

before we had the capacity to choose

before we had categories of good and evil

before we became conscious of our suffering

That was our paradise

we were nothing but animals

we didn’t know any better than to survive and to fight; to eat and get eaten; to procreate and to die.

and because we didn’t know any better; we didn’t know there was anything better; we just lived and died in a unity with nature

and we were innocent.

Here’s a poem I discovered recently:

The Wind, One Brilliant Day

by Antonio Machado

The wind, one brilliant day, called

to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

“In return for the odor of my jasmine,

I’d like all the odor of your roses.”

“I have no roses; all the flowers

in my garden are dead.”

“Well then, I’ll take the withered petals

and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain.”

The wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:

“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”

(translated by Robert Bly)

“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?”

on one level, of course, this is God’s question to us,

on another level, it is our question to ourselves,

the first accusing voice that rises within us when we first come to terms with our separation from the creation:

“What have we done?”

The story from Genesis represents our first awakening; our first awareness of that separation from the creation; and in the process, our guilt

The story says that God appointed us to till the soil and keep the garden

this is not something that animals do

It’s one of the dreadful differences between us and the animals -- that somehow got put us in charge of it all:

God charges us with being good stewards;

this responsibility is an essential feature of being human

and of course this responsibility is the source of such great sorrow and grief

Just as our bodies contain the physical record of our evolution from animals, so do our minds:

our passion, our diversions

We seek the sweet release of pleasure and distraction;

we see it in the behavior of young people: the constant pursuit of sports, promiscuity, drinking and dancing into the night – lost in that never-ending quest to lose their self-consciousness:

seeking that primal moment when their bodies and their environment are one:

finally freed from the monkey mind,

freed from regret or guilt or loss

throwing ourselves completely into the material moment

Behaviors that might look hedonistic to us, can actually be driven by that pursuit for a lost innocence, the innocence of animals at play in the world.

We go to the zoo and watch the animals and we might envy their innocent unity with nature

we envy their freedom from the tyranny of propriety and guilt;

I imagine a pride of lions on the hunt,

they are prowling, plotting, picking their prey, on signal they make their move, rush the herd, separate the slower and the weaker from the rest; they take down a juvenile antelope

they are innocent; without self-consciousness, living beyond any sense of right or wrong, living in the immediacy of the moment;

innocent, and yet unspeakably vicious

If the animals are innocent, and yet vicious,

what makes us so guilty?

why are we so ashamed of our nakedness?

at what point did we start covering ourselves?

This ancient story from the Bible tells us it must be at that point that we stopped being animals

when we started asking things like,

“Why does life have to be so hard?”

“What is the point?”

I met a man a few days ago who despite a good education and an intelligent mind and a gifted ability with others could not for the life of him stay out of the clutches of the creditor

after talking to me about his debt and his struggle, he asked me, “What’s the point of it all?”

What is the point? Are we nothing but animals? Is this all we can expect from life – a brutish dull existence, the spoils go to the strong, and in the end everyone becomes weakened by age and eventually dies? Is that it?

The answer of course is not found by looking backwards into the dictates of our evolutionary past

the answer is found by looking forward – into our gospel reading

When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness he was offered the elements of evolutionary advantage: material goods; food; power; strength to dominate.

If we were mere animals, these would be the natural choices we would make

We would seek more strength; more power; more resources; we would seize the advantages and opportunities offered to us by our superior powers

But we are called into a new place

Jesus is showing us a different path for our evolution

an evolution toward the place of angels

we choose compassion over ruthless competition

we would rather fast for the sake of mercy and compassion

than eat like an animal whatever food is offered to us

we would rather serve humanity than dominate it

These are not choices that an animal would make

these are the choices that a god would make

as we are called to follow Jesus; we are called into the perfection of our humanity

we are called into a new paradise: made real through him

a paradise in which the sum total of all our vain striving

the sum total of all our evolutionary struggle

is brought to fulfillment and perfection

in love

Now our purpose is no longer merely to survive

our purpose is to love

our purpose is to serve

and to that purpose we dedicate our lives

our hearts, our souls;

even our genetic heritage

We stand before God and we say yes to our humanity

and declare that in Christ, the new creation is fulfilled

to use Paul’s language, the new Adam has arrived

and this is what gives us the courage to defy millions of years of self-serving behavior in order to say, We no longer live for ourselves, but for him who died and was raised from the dead, that we may find our perfection in him, who lives and reigns, now and forever.

Somebody say, Amen.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

New Blog!

I used to have a blog called "The Skeptical Priest." It's true that there's a side of me that's skeptical. I am quickly bored by easy answers and false piety; a lot of theology seems self-serving to me. I love conversations with people who have honest, challenging questions about faith; I believe in "Living the Questions" and in the truth of existential authenticity.

But I'm also a priest and it's not because I'm skeptical. It's my faith (strengthened by questions) that led me to dedicate my life to God; it's my faith that has carried me through pain and into joy. My faith is informed by skepticism, but it leads me to hope -- and hope is in short supply these days.

So I'm changing my blog to "The Hopeful Priest." I hope that we'll continue to find this a place for honest conversation, deep questions, and, in the end, a stronger and more engaged faith for all of us.