Preacher: The Reverend Doyt Conn
Let me reread for you the text I want to consider this morning. It comes from Paul’s 2nd Letter to the Corinthians; the second part of verse 11 in chapter 5, it reads: “we ourselves are well known by God, and I hope that we are also well acquainted with our own conscience.”
Thomas Merton writes,
“You cannot tell me who I am and I cannot tell you who you are. But if you do not know your own identity you probably don’t have one.” (para: p> xii No Man Is An Island) I would further add: if there is no one to hear the rumination of our conscience, are we even conscious at all?
Desmond Tutu says it like this: “A person is not a person without other people.”
We become who we fully are when our souls are enlivened and laid open within the context of Christian community. I qualify it as Christian community, because it actually makes a difference.
Let me tell you story:
I recently returned from Montana where I met with my prayer group from Seminary. We graduated from Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria VA in 2003,and every month since we catch up over the phone, and once a year we gather for a retreat.
Our retreat usually involves updating our stories. Each morning and each afternoon we listen to one person, then reflect with him on what we heard, and in the end lay hands on him and pray.
These are men who I know well, and they know me. We can hear each other and tell each other the truth, and the insights are often extraordinary.
But one of the great gifts of having long standing friendships like these is that there is a lot of water under the bridge. We have some on-going arguments that we nurse, and it is through these that we occasionally experience the grace of God. Which is what happened this year.
One night after dinner as we sat around the table one of those on-going disagreements surfaced. It had to do with the terrorist attacks of 9-11.
9-11 was a formative date for us. We were in Seminary at the time, only 4 miles from the Pentagon, and we shared a common memory of the event.
The range in the conversation ran from Government conspiracy theory to unwavering defense of all the Government said and did. Facts and antidotes swirled through the room, all partially substantiated, none thoroughly informed. Of course no minds were changed… for in the realm of false prophecy the only answer a prophet accepts is the one he provides. And there were six false prophets pontificating around that table toward no insight or resolution.
Then suddenly, as if guided by an unseen ringmaster, one man mentioned that he believed the Government could be both good and bad, because he saw that duality of character in his own father. His father provided for his family and abused his family. And with these words my dear friend jumped…he jumped into his own skin, and when he did the room caught fire! It was a Pentecost moment, where we all leapt from the kingdoms of our making into the kingdom of God. Everyone started to jump as we all began to share our jumping off points around the events of 9-11. Mine came from the perspective of privilege, being a white male in America; raised in the mid-West. Another fellow grew up in Fort Apache and the Bronx, and by age 13 had witnessed 4 murders. Another grew up in a household that only spoke Spanish.
Another went to boarding school in India; Another’s parents wrestled with mental illness. Context is critical for understanding the jumping off point.
Now we knew many of these stories about each other but somehow they seemed fresh and new that evening.
Suddenly the argument vanished as we jump into our selves, and the world as it was made to be suddenly came into being.
Sharing our jumping off points made us vulnerable, which is a scary thing. In the kingdom of the world vulnerability may get us stabbed in the back. Vulnerability in the kingdom of the world is code word for weakness and it can provoke judgment that isolates, intimidates and represses.
But in the kingdom of God, vulnerability is the fertile ground from which love grows. After all, God so loved the world that God came as vulnerable man, the man of Jesus. Who allowed himself to be vulnerable all the way to the cross. He died in disgrace, as a means of showing us the fullness of his being, that is his being the Son of God and the Savior of the world. Only by his vulnerability was he fully known, and only by our vulnerability are we fully known; to our self and then to others.
And when we witness this, as anyone in our EFM small group will tell us; as anyone from our Minyan small groups will tell us, vulnerability doesn’t provoke judgment in a Christian community well situated in the kingdom of God quite the contrary, it inspires love and compassion, and even admiration.
To find ones own jumping off point in the midst of a conflict is a particularly grace-filled experience. For what happens is the conflict itself vanishes, and insights into one’s own conscience gets carved in its place.
And so on-going arguments can really be sign-posts that point to a convenient location in which to jump into our own skin. If we are in a long term, intractable disagreement with a friend or partner, it may be an invitation to become better acquainted with our selves.
Now the easier questions that come to mind as we encounter an intractable conflict are: “What fuels the fire that so inflames my advisory?” “What is driving their perspective?” And these are good questions. But they are questions that will never be given or heard or understood, if we don’t offer the same questions up to our selves… “What is driving our perspective?” “What fuels the fire of our point of view?”
They are risky questions. They make us vulnerable; and our training in the kingdom of the world is to step back from the edge of vulnerability and build a safety rails for protection. Our training in the kingdom of the world is to fight back, to argue, to hold our ground particularly if we are feeling pushed.
We hear in the back of our mind, “don’t go there!” “You better not go there… if you open that can of worms you won’t be able to close it and they may crawl all over you.”
So we hide our vulnerability thinking that it is really hidden, when it is not, neither from God, nor from those who really know us.
All of us around that table that night knew of our friends tough growing up years, and the horrors his father inflicted on the family. We could make the connection between his lack of trust in Government and the lens through which he viewed the 9-11 attacks, but knowing this is not what made it an ah-ha moment. Knowing this is not what unleashed the Holy Spirit in that room.
The ah-ha moment came when he took the leap in front of us, and then we all followed, not like lemmings, but like super-heroes. And when we jumped our souls didn’t fall… they soared.
Everyone has a jumping off point, the question is, are we willing to risk figuring out what it is and are we willing to risk sharing it?
Sometimes our jumping off points don’t seem scary until we find ourselves right at the edge.
That is how I felt that night as I sat with my closest Christian companions around that dinner table.
My jumping off point at first blush looked pretty good. But as my story unfolded the questions that came to mind the questions that triggered my “don’t go there” voice were about competency and capacity and accomplishment and control.
Did I achieve, succeed and thrive on my own account, or because of the random circumstances of my birth? Am I only as good as I am lucky to be the beneficiary of the white male dominant status in America? Have I don’t anything on my own…? (based on my own capacity or ability?)
And so to jump is to risk jumping out of the constructs that surround us; and the hope is that something else is there.
Our Christian brothers and sisters by their actions and with their words assure us that there is.
And so we jump. We jump and the myths that we cloth ourselves with fall away; and the terror of our childhood falls away; and the constraints of our own competency and accomplishment fall away; as do the scars of addiction and illness and abuse, they fall away; and the wind of God catches the wings of our souls…it happens when we take the leap into our own skin.
This brilliance is woven into the fabric of Christianity–that identity comes with self-knowledge inspired through the relationships God has set us in, starting with Christ.
And when together we go to the precipice and jump into ourselves… we find that we are flying not falling, as our souls soar together into the sole source of all things….God.