Tranquilizers or Transformation

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When my sister and I were kids, we hated doing our chores.  She hated cleaning her room, and we would find old sandwiches under her bed.  One of my chores—which I found so odd at the time—was dusting the baseboards throughout the house with a wet rag.  I hated it, and I didn’t understand why it was important.  I also hated mowing the yard.  I would find any shortcut I could, sometimes lowering the blade so it would cut the grass shorter (hence needing to mow less often I thought), but then I would shave off whole clumps of grass on high spots in the yard.  That didn’t go well.

She and I both hated vacuuming when we were kids.  We had a very small house, but we hated vacuuming.  So, we bargained with our mother to crawl on our hands and knees and pick up every single speck of fuzz or dirt that we could see.  So we would crawl forever and pick rather than just vacuuming and being done.  Made sense to us at the time.

Needless to say, we were stubborn children who wanted to badly to control what we could control…finding ways to push back against any sense of accountability and responsibility that our parents put out there.  Now, of course, we both have children…and we smile and cringe thinking about how we treated our parents as these petty, little stubborn kids who think they knew what was best.

It’s stubbornness that struck me when I read over the Gospel text this past week.  Outright stubbornness…and pride.

The landowner sends in folks to gauge how things are going, to hold the tenant responsible.  He wants to see how they are managing their life there—how the economy was going in that space.  How they were managing things.  How responsible they were being.  Holding them accountable.

But apparently they didn’t appreciate someone coming in to see how things were.  Meddling with their life. Who is he to ask what we’re doing, to question how we’re doing things?  Just leave us alone.  We have a right to do what we want to do, how we want to do it.  Who do you think you are?  So, they killed one, stoned the other, and beat the other.  When the landowner sends in another set, same thing.  Then, the son—of course they would treat the son better—but no.  They killed him.

And then, they thought, they could just maintain things the way they are.  Everything is fine.  We don’t need anyone asking about the decisions we make.  You should have known better than to come in here prying.  Serves you right.

Outright stubbornness hits me between the eyes.  Those times in my life when I recognize my own resistance to anyone questioning the way I view things, or approach things.  Who are you to make me clean and do chores?  I’ll show you, I’ll skip whole spots on the baseboards when I wash them.

It’s the stubbornness that hits me.  The pride and the way we so easily fall into patterns of living, patterns of thought…and how we resist anyone or anything calling those perspectives into question.

It’s why one of the most common responses we hear in the wider world, when someone wants both to dismiss a position or defend a position is “Well, it’s in the Bible.”  The moment we say that, we position ourselves in an impenetrable tower, a fortress of righteousness, that protects against the baseless incursion of whatever poor, misguided soul stands before us.

Real transformation can only occur in our lives when we are willing to be open to something more than the perspective we so tightly grasp.  And, transformation lies at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, to be a disciple of Jesus, to practice Christianity.

I included this quote from David Benner in my pastoral letter to the parish:

Awakening always starts with the heart.  The mind may experience insights but, unless this leads to the awakening of the heart, insights will never be truly transformational.  Responding to an awakening with openness and emptiness is a heartful expression of consent to the transformational action of Spirit within our depths.[1]

We are in the business of transformation, of awakening.

Now, one might ask, does this mean that everything is just wide open and there is no guidelines?  Is it just an “anything goes” space, a free-for-all?

By no means, to paraphrase St. Paul.  We have over two millennia of the Christian tradition, centuries of reflection on the texts, and the Gospel teaching to ground us.  We have our mandate to love God and love our neighbor to anchor us.  We supply the asterisks to protect ourselves against unwanted incursion to our way of being.

If I’m honest, when I encounter these vulnerable places in my life—where transformation can take place—I may say that I am concerned that we’re just going into a free-for-all space where anything goes, but what I’m really concerned about is letting go of my tightly grasped opinions.  I know deep down that not everything goes.  That’s not the risk.  The real risk rests in my own heart when I have to realize how stubborn I have been, what I have purposefully avoided in order to maintain the control I so badly crave.

And the call to transformation means that I must examine my life in the light of the Gospel—not examine the Gospel in the light of my life.

It’s why I cringe when I hear folks say the love The Episcopal Church because we don’t make anyone feel guilty or uncomfortable.  If you’ve never felt uncomfortable, then we have failed in our ministry.  Lord knows my knees knock every time I stand here or sit with someone to listen or talk.  Discomfort is part of our daily life.  Those vulnerable moments of truth and realization.  I think of it like when my daughter’s legs hurt at night: it means she’s growing.

I don’t have time for some sense of warped guilt, but there’s no question that we all should feel convicted when we view our lives in the light of the Gospel’s call.

I think of a recent conversation with my sister, when she shared how my niece loved her soccer team.  Now, I am not picking on soccer families, so don’t kill me, stone me, or beat me.  She is a soccer parent, and this is a struggle with my own family that I’m holding out here.  My niece loved her team with her friends.  The coach told my sister that she would need to travel one Sunday a month.  And, she was willing to make that work.  When it suddenly slid up to two or three Sundays, she and my brother-in-law had to examine their lives.  They prayed and talked together and decided that what was best for their family was to quit the team.

They realized in the world today, with what we are all facing, with their particular struggle as a family with people of color in a town where the KKK comes to hold a rally just last week, with the violence, the greed, the everyday struggle of raising kids and trying to do it well…they needed to prioritize and make a conscious decision that facilitated transformation and growth for these children.  They needed to simplify their lives.

So, they quit the team.  My niece was, of course, sad, but, as my sister said, she’s eight and to make a decision based just on an eight year-old’s sadness that she won’t see those kids every weekend felt a bit irresponsible.

Our kids need a space to grow and learn about their faith.  We all need a space to grow and learn, to be transformed…to allow the Spirit to transform our lives.  As David Benner said, Responding to an awakening with openness and emptiness is a heartful expression of consent to the transformational action of Spirit within our depths. 

One of the principles of contemplative Christianity is that we cannot force such a transformation.  We don’t make the Spirit move, yet we are called to consent, to yield to God’s movement in our lives.  We are responsible, and we’re empowered to live into the fullness of Christ.

Make no mistake about it, our broader culture encourages tranquilizers rather than transformation.  We are saturated with distractions, while our hearts continue to struggle for something more…for wholeness.  We think we can do it all, and that, somehow, things will just work out in the end, yet our faith tells us we are called to make conscious choices to participate with God.

That means saying no to some things and yes to others—like in our Baptismal Covenant: the phrase “do you renounce” is put before “do you accept.”

And, we do this together, as a community.  This is what it looks like to strive together, to seek wholeness and reconciliation, to name out loud those parts of our lives where we are distracted…where we are misguided.  To hold one another accountable not out of warped guilt but out of an honest encouragement that seeks growth and depth.

We stand together as a community and say what we believe, shoulder to shoulder, as we say

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty…

Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Proper 22, Year A
Exodus 20:1-20; St. Matthew 21:33-46
October 8, 2017

[1] David Benner, “The Heart of Deep Change,” Onening: An Alternative Orthodoxy Vol. 5, No. 1, The Center for Action and Contemplation, 2017, 21-29.

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