A Reconciling Presence – Chuck Rush (9/17/17)

A Reconciling Presence
Romans 12:16-21; Philippians 2:1-4

I’ve been reading the latest book by John Gottman, the expert on marriage at the moment. Professor Gottman has studied over 30,000 couples in his love lab at the University of Washington. His work is simply empirical. But lately he has started to draw some conclusions after two decades of research on how to get along and what predicts divorce.
Gottman first became famous because he can predict divorce 94% of the time. That is pretty good and it turns out relatively simple. There are four elements they were able to identify that are toxic and signal that couples are choosing to be separate rather than together, even if they occupy the same physical space. Over time, they eventually choose to divorce because they have been living independently of one another for quite some time.
In his latest book, Gottman wonders what makes love last? What keeps the snap, crackle, and pop alive? And he raises the question, in part, because it turns out the actual data suggests that the typical American bedroom is a lot less fulfilling than you might imagine. And I raise the subject in the pulpit because the answer turns out to be a lot more spiritual than you might imagine either.
I just happened to see a scene this week from the poignant movie Fried Green Tomatoes. It harkens back to traditional America when women were in the kitchen, gays were in the closet, and the races were segregated in Alabama.
It is the 70’s and the protagonist of the film, played by Kathy Bates is on a quest for self-discovery. Like a lot of women in that era, she just wasn’t fulfilled, she wasn’t happy and she doesn’t know why. So, she gets involved in these feminist workshops, meditation groups and the like and decides that she is going to take her life in a new direction.
One night, she decides to make her husband a special meal. She sets the table with the fine placemats, flowers in the middle of the table, candles. As she is putting the finishing touches on everything, her husband swoops into the kitchen after work, grabs up a plate of food, compliments her on the fried chicken and jumps in front of the TV set, completely missing the table that his wife set.
She says, “I was hoping that we could talk” as her face falls with disappointment.
“Football is on” he replies over his shoulder.
She slumps in her chair, feeling rejected, unappreciated, unacknowledged, unimportant.
The scene cuts away. The next scene, we see the couple both lying in bed in the dark, each staring at the ceiling, alone, frustrated, trying to soothe their feeling of isolation or hurt, each thinking that the other is not able to meet their needs.
You’ve been there.
That scene took me back to my childhood in a minute, so familiar. We had a lot of different male models. The independent, take care of yourself and do what is right guys like John Wayne. You had the decisive leader, responsible for the whole crew, like Captain Kirk on Star Trek. You had the charismatic, raffish handsome leader like John F. Kennedy. And we had the anti-hero, anti-PC, I’ve had enough of the shuck and jive of our world, Archie Bunker.
All these different male role models had one characteristic in common. No woman could move them. Independent, self-directed, they called the shots. Take it or leave it, this is what you get. It wasn’t exactly machismo but it was the default Male identity.
I got to thinking about that identity model because Professor Gottman says that the single most important quality you can develop in order to make your love actually last in your marriage is... the ability to let your spouse genuinely change you.
Professor Gottman was at a dinner party, observing a phenomenon we are all familiar with. One man is telling a story about getting his truck stuck in a ditch during a snow-storm. Another woman interjects, “My family was actually in a head-on collision during the last snow storm.”
The man continues right on with his story, “So I go inside to get a blanket to put under the wheels for some traction”… leaving the rest of the guests unsure of which conversation to follow.
Professor Gottman leans over to the woman and says, “Oh my God, you were in a head-on collision?”
It is a three-way exchange, replete with non-sequitirs. People talking past each other. “The famous Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget called this phenomenon ‘Collective monologue’. He was describing the conversations among preschoolers… but we adults do the same thing too, particularly when alcohol is involved.
These days, our discourse in Washington too often is ‘collective monologue’, people reciting their talking points to make sure they get the sound byte in without actually engaging their opponents, just talking past each other.
Professor Gottman says this, “Many people think that effective conversation entails making yourself sound interesting to others, when actually it is all about being interested in others and listening.
As we mature in our love for each other, the Professor says, we should be growing towards attunement with each other. That is when we understand each other well enough that we anticipate what the other needs and we give it to them and a relative harmony ensues.
The team in the Love Lab categorizes our conversation exchanges in the negative, positive, and neutral categories. And they note that the successful long-term relationships have very few negative interactions, quite a few positive interactions and a lot of neutral exchanges.
In other words, fewer fights- particularly fights of consequence- and a lot of contentment. I’m reminded of an article I read about prairie dogs that have high levels of Oxytocin. They spend a great deal of time each day just standing next to each other in contentment. Love that picture.
But Professor Gottman says that when they look at thousands and thousands of couples, “boring is good.” He says that we find the reality drama of “Atlanta Housewives” or “The Kardashians” entertaining. But in real life, attunement brings us real contentment. When we are attuned, being present together brings a quiet contentment.
O, yes, and allowing yourself to be changed by your spouse, is also the single biggest correlate with a fulfilling romantic life over time… Someone asked him the question once on how active your sex life should be to be happy. The Professor answered that the key is not how often you romance each other, the key is whether you both agree that it is about right. Someone asks him an external question- how much/how often- and he responds with an internal spiritual disposition. “Are you attuned to one another? Are you both meeting each other’s needs?
But what strikes me is that these are both fundamentally spiritual quests, being open to being changed by your spouse and becoming attuned so that we compliment one another and live in harmony.
In the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus turns towards Jerusalem to complete the work that he came to do, three times he says to the disciples. “The Gentiles use hierarchy to Lord it over one another, but it shall not be so with you. For whoever would be the greatest, must become the least. Whoever will lead must serve other people.”
Usually when I was a child, I heard these texts expounded upon with some story of heroism, of people who give up everything to serve the poor like Mother Teresa in Calcutta. Jesus, as we know, had to lay down his life in the cause of service to others, so there is this heroic dimension to these texts.
But these days, I’m wondering if we didn’t way over shoot the mark. Maybe we don’t need extraordinary heroes so much as we need quiet heroes that daily work toward putting others first, thinking and acting in ways that get the collective needs of others met, so that we might develop resonant harmony and attunement in our marriages, in our close friendships, in our families, with the team of people that we work with day in and day out?
Professor Gottman says that it is critical for us to routinely communicate to our spouses, “I have your back”. Psychologists call it trustworthiness. In small acts of caring, in paying attention to our spouse as they unpack the difficulties of the day, our main goal is simply to pay attention. We are communicating with our words and our non-verbal cues that you are important to me.
Christians call this “faithfulness”, being there for one another in season and out of season. We all repeat this part of our vows when we marry, “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.” And that kind of love, the reciprocal kind, when both of you put the other person first. That is the most profound love that we humans are given to know.
That love is transcendent. One pair of my grandparents had a profound love relationship. Everyone around them knew it. When my grandmother was about 85 she got Alzheimer’s, eventually not able to recognize us. Sometimes she would become agitated and one night the staff called my grandfather because it was bad. I drove him over to the nursing home. We see the exasperated staff about to give her an injection. My grandfather starts to speak to her and she immediately calms down, just the sound of his voice, his presence. It left an indelible impression on me as a college kid.
I’m holding my grandmothers hand and she says to me, “Who is that man?” She doesn’t know (rationally) but she recognizes the spiritually comforting presence. In the Gospel of John (10:27) Jesus says, “My sheep recognize my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” Profound love is comfort and strength like that. It is the most profound love that we humans are given to know.
We let each other inside us and we are willing to become changed by them. What a wonderfully open-minded disposition too which is so necessary. Very, very few of us can actually see the potential that resides in us. We need other people to name our potential, to call it out, to confirm for us what it is that we bring to the table.
We need other people to inspire us with the confidence and the personal strength to step up and actually develop in a given direction. We need our people to bloom us.
Christians, of all people, ought to be open-minded. In prayer, we have to daily pray to be open to change, recognizing that we are just a work in progress, looking to those around us, in love, for some of the concrete road map of the change that needs to take place.
Imagine if we each could reflect before we speak and remind ourselves, “You know, I don’t have all the answers.” Imagine if we could take the best critique of our position and actually incorporate it into our thinking, enabling those around us to engage in their more imaginative selves.
Then our staff becomes a team. Our politicians become Statesmen. Our foreign service personnel become diplomatic. Our siblings and children and our close friends become family. Our couples radiate love.
That is who we can become on our best days. I hope that for you in this epoch of anxiety that swirls in the background, surrounded as we are by so many egos bouncing into one another like pinballs lighting up the arcade until they go ‘Tilt’.
May you interiorize God’s acceptance of you to the point that you are open to being changed by others. May you have trustworthy people around you that will reciprocate your openness. May you know the heartbreak that comes from a life invested in compassionate love with your people. And may you become humane and understanding, resonate and attuned, as the Spirit of God flows through you.
You can become more of a blessing than you know. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Gottman, John. What Makes Love Last (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), p. 92

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Sermons & Presentations

Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.