What if it is true? Sermon from 2/26/12
What it it were true?
What if that one accusation against yourself that you most fear is true?
What Joan Rivers realized that it was true -- she did not look young anymore? She has spent all this time and money in an effort to not look like an old lady, but she does; she looks like an old lady who has had a lot of work done. What if it were true that she was getting visibly older?
What if it were true?
What if Mitt Romney came to understand that he persuades no one when he tries to convince people that he is a regular guy, that he does not see the world through the eyes of a wealthy man? What if it were true that he is wealthy, and it affects the ways he looks at the world?
What if it were true?
I would bet that each one of you faces an accusation that you are defending yourself against every day. Everyday is another day in court, where you are the accused, and the prosecutor making the case against yourself, and the defense attorney arguing for you, and where you are also the judge and the jury, which is forever deadlocked.
The defendant stands accused of first-degree laziness.
The defendant stands accused of flagrant self-centeredness.
You, the defendant is charged with multiple counts of inadequacy and inappropriateness and having bad thoughts -- how do you plead?
Not guilty, your honor. Not guilty, not guilty. I didn’t do it; it was an accident; someone else made be do it; it wasn’t that bad; I’m sorry and I’ll never do it again.
There are criticisms that we are very sensitive to. Things about ourselves that we cannot admit. For many, many years, I had a very time admitting to any sort of self-serving motivation. Coming up in the family I did, I understood that I was to have noble goals in life: the common good, justice, fairness. If, back in high school, I had announced at the dinner table, that my goals in life were to make a lot of money, have a lot of friends, be popular, and have a lot of fun, my mother and father would have been very disappointed in me. So like many people in that kind of family, I have been drawn to great causes and noble professions all my life. So most of my life, I have been silently defending myself against the accusation of crass and superficial motives in life.
I eventually had to give up this charade of nobility; after all, nobody believed it; everybody could see right through it. And most people are more comfortable with self-interest than my tribe.
But what if it were true?
This is not only personal, but collective. Caucasian people in the US are extraordinarily sensitive to any sort of criticism that they might harbor any sort of racism, or racial prejudice. Not only about ourselves, but by extension, to others. Someone sent around one of those doctored photos of President Obama dressed as an African Witch Doctor, with a bone in his nose. Other people said it was merely a satire on Health Care Reform and that it had nothing, nothing, nothing to do with racial prejudice. Seriously? White people will extend the benefit of the doubt to others, because we want the same benefit of the doubt extended to us. Most of us are deathly afraid of being accused of being racist, because it is morally unacceptable and shameful.
But what if it were true?
We’re talking about shame here. Joan Rivers is ashamed of being old. Mitt Romney is ashamed of appearing wealthy. I have been ashamed of having self-interested motives. White people are ashamed of their racist prejudices.
We live in a very shame oriented culture. And shame is one of those reversed emotions that most people don’t indulge. People like feeling love; people even enjoy feeling hate. They will indulge those emotions. Our obsession with shame appears in the lengths that we will go to avoid feeling it and to avoid any situation in which it might arise.
The biggest mistakes, long-term errors, blind alley I have gone down and fool’s errands I have on have all stemmed from my desire to escape the self-accusations I make against myself.
I had an old Dodge police car once. 400 horsepower. It could pass anything but a gas station as they used to say. The seat was totally caved in, from the butts of policemen -- the driver sat about six inches lower than the driver.
Now, I hold it against myself that I am not good mechanically. I am not skilled with tools. So one rainy night I get a flat tire on this Dodge Police Car. I am trying to loosen the lug nuts with my tire iron. I cannot loosen them. I try again and again and again. To fail at this is to admit that I am a failure as a man -- every guy in the world can loosen the lug nuts on a flat tire. If I cannot do this, in my mind, I might as well move to San Francisco and take up ballet. So, I wear those lug nuts as smooth and round as donuts. I am sitting in the pouring rain, spinning my tire iron around those smooth round lug nuts, weeping, weeping when Sue finds me, observes that what I am repeatedly doing doesn’t seem to be working and that if it hasn’t worked the first 200 times, it probably isn’t going to happen, and that I might want to call somebody and get help.
The guy who finally comes to help with the tow truck, the burly tattooed young guy, with the airpowered wrench noted that somebody tightened those bolts too much with another air-powered wrench so that nobody with a hand tire iron would ever be able to get them off. He thought that guy was the idiot. As for me, he didn’t seem to notice anything obviously wrong with me -- or was at least too polite to mention it.
What if what I feared was true? What if it was true that I wasn’t able to do this task? Indeed, what if it was true that using tools was something I did not know how to do very well and that I was going to need help more often than my dad ever did?
Folks, people do everything they can do to push our shames away. The most popular spiritual advice that anyone can give these days is that they have no reason to be ashamed of anything.
But the more we push that which we consider shameful away, the larger and more fearsome it gets. The more we try to defeat what we fear about ourselves, the more power it has over us.
Who lives a life more governed by aging: Joan Rivers or Betty White?
Lent is the antidote to shame. Or to be less tied to a particular religious tradition: honest self-reflection and self-critical awareness is the antidote to shame.
And honest self-reflection starts with doubt. It starts with the doubt of the self’s defensive story, by asking the question: What if it is true?
If you ask the question: what if it is true? sooner or later, you get to the question: “so what if it is true?”
Joan Rivers: “What if it is true that I am getting older and that I will never look like a young woman again? Which turns to “So what that I am getting older -- so what if I never look young again -- so what? I can still work, find friendship and love, be funny.”
Mitt Romney, So what that I am wealthy man, whose life experience is not like most people’s. Many politicians and Presidents have been wealthy people. It didn’t seem to hurt the Bushes or the Kennedy’s. So what?
So what if we have unacknowledged and unknowing racial prejudices that we may hold or express in ways that are hurtful to others and embarrassing to ourselves? How can we expect to get this right the first time and every time. We don’t expect that we will be able to speak French just because we want to. If we make mistakes, can we not just admit them and learn from our experience and allow ourselves to be taught by those who see us from the point of view of people of color?
The Taoist masters believed that the cycles of the Moon and Nature start when the moon is dark == when we cannot see it -- the moonless night. It is as Genesis says, that before the world was made, there was a darkness and a void. Everything starts from nothing. The moon appears as a tiny sliver and grows until it is full and round and then recedes again to nothingness. Out of nothing comes everything.
Out of the void at the beginning comes the entire Universe.
Out of self-doubt comes self-knowledge. Out of the question “suppose it is all true, everything a person doubts about themself, comes a realistic truth, a realistic appraisal. You do know more than you think; you do more good than we count; you just have more to learn than you thought and should try harder than you have.
Lent is a season of growth and preparation. It dates from the early church and it was the period of preparation and purification before a new member was allowed to join. People were asked to leave their old lives of sin behind, all the ways that they had participated in the customs of the non-Christian society which were thought sinful by the Church.
What I am asking you to give up and leave behind, this Lent, is a life governed by a defensive self, a self that is both ashamed and grandiose, a delusional self.
Our selves are like the boy David at the story of David and Goliath. Everyone is afraid that he is too small and too weak to fight a giant like Goliath. They are afraid that it might be true that they are sending a boy to fight a giant. So they load him up with Saul’s armor -- oh, this small boy is well defended with armor and a big shield and a heavy helmet. Unfortunately, he cannot move.
That’s us -- we are afraid we are small and weak and so we defend ourselves to the point of immobility.
So what if it is true that David is a small boy -- he is still brave and with weapons appropriate to him, he can still fight.
So what if we are not all we expect ourselves to be? If we name that doubt, we can still have power and do good.
So what if it is true?