Continuous Personal Change – Chuck Rush (8/16/15)

Continuous Personal Change

2 Corinthians 5:17, 18

 

Boris Goldovsky[i], who died in 2001, used to do the commentary on Saturday afternoon for the radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. But he has recently entered the lexicon of academia, not for his insightful commentary, but for a story that he wrote up that is illustrative of human nature.

He was teaching a piano student one afternoon and he had his student playing a piece by Brahams. He is walking around the room when he hears the student make a mistake and he asks her to play it again. She does and makes the same mistake, so he walks over behind her and looks down at the sheet music and notices that she is playing the notes on the printed page but someone had made a mistake in the printed text.

He calls the publisher and found out that the same mistake was on all of the editions that the publisher had produced. So now he is curious. How is it that the composer, the editor, the proofreader missed it? He calls back and discovers that he is the first person to report it. So how is it that scores of other musicians, among them, the most accomplished professionals in the field of piano, have not noticed this error?

So now he had some of these very famous people play the piece. He told them that he was giving them a piece of music and that the music had a misprint in it someplace. He asked them to play it and to tell him where the misprint was. They could play the piece several times if they wished. No one ever found the error. “Only when Goldovsky told his subjects which bar, or measure, did most of them spot it”. (It is in Brahms’s Opus 76, no. 2, 42 measures from the end).

What they discovered eventually was pianists who sight read music, particularly the really gifted ones, don’t actually read the individual notes. They see the flow and they anticipate how it should go next. By the way, this is also part of the reason that you walk into the room and can’t remember what it was that you came there to begin with. You don’t actually remember nearly as much as you think you do because your mind doesn’t actually organize itself that way. You remember it again when you have the context. We focus on the wider flow, not particular data items.

Goldovsky stumbled on what we will eventually understand better. If you’ve ever wondered why it is that the smartest guys in the room, all have the same data in front of them, listening to a sophisticated Ponzi scheme pitched by a company like Enron… If you’ve ever wondered why they couldn’t see this Crash happening before it happened, this is a large part of the answer why. If you’ve ever wondered, like our Congressmen wondered, how it could be that guys educated at Yale and Wharton Business school missed the obvious signs and ran the banking system straight into the reef, the answer largely is that they don’t see it coming.

Reinhold Niebuhr once observed that the Christian understanding of human nature as universally though not inevitably sinful is the only Christian doctrine that is empirically verifiable. We are unable to edit our own work effectively. We are not very helpful critics of ourselves. We know about our short-comings but they don’t stand out to us the way that they do to say, our spouse after a couple years of marriage.

I used to naively make some throw away remark after church when I was young like, “Oh I think that sermon went pretty well this morning”. Kate would say, “And it would have been even better if I were a man but since I’m not there wasn’t so much I needed to hear.” Now I only ask for feed-back if I’m really ready to receive feedback.

We just don’t get it exactly. We are too close to the material. It takes the veritable child, someone from outside us, to notice that the Emperor is wearing no clothes. I believe that this is a large part of what we are seeing across the Middle East in the movement called the ‘Arab Spring’. It is the twitter generation all getting together and noticing the mistake in the music score that the Old Regime has been playing past for the previous four decades. Those leaders were aware that they had problems but they were completely clueless at just how great their problems actually were.

We need to acknowledge to God and to ourselves that we don’t see the extent of our own hypocrisy and so we pray in all humility, “Create in me a clean heart”. It is a season for reflection on one thing in our life that needs change, one thing that needs to be addressed.

What is the one thing that you need to do to improve yourself? What is the one thing you would like to see changed in your family? What one thing would you like to introduce to your marriage or your family that would move us towards excellence?

St. Paul tells us that ‘in Christ we are a new creation. Behold everything has become new.’ Our lives are a process of continuing change, hopefully in the direction of excellence. But we change; we need different things in different seasons of our lives; we have different challenges. We invoke the Spirit of God in our lives, and open a new chapter.

Right now, we are living through what one writer has described as “a democratization of choice”. He means that an unprecedented percentage of the human race has an unprecedented range of choices. It is a direct result of the complexity of our civilization, markets global in reach and communication technology that makes them immediate and inter-connected.

How will we make wise choices with it all just out there?

You can simply go with the flow… of course. Oscar Wilde once said that “the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.” He calls to mind St. Augustine’s struggles with discipline. When he was about my age, St. Augustine prayed, “O God, grant me chastity and conscience… but not yet.”

St. Augustine, who so aptly put the human problem, reflecting on his own inconsistency,. He said, “I have become a problem unto myself”.

But we know that self-control in an age of wide-open choice is increasingly important and will continue to be more so. 200 years ago, Edmund Burke observed that “We are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to our disposition to put moral chains on our appetites.” That dictum has proved truer and truer, and it is spreading rapidly across the nations.

If we zoom out for a minute, only in the last few centuries have we evolved from being driven pretty much by an ethic of survival. Today, we raise our children in a world of so much choice that we have to instill in them a new ethic of self-control.[ii]

Christians have long known how important it is to flex the muscles of moral self-control, if only to find out how weak they actually have become. These days, we have studies about its virtue in our children. Of the many, many variables that we have studied to predict how well people will do in college, the only reliable correlation revolves around self-control, far better predictor of your grades in college than say, your score on the SAT.[iii]

Delayed gratification and self-control correlate strongly with self-direction, fewer hours watching TV and other passive entertainment, self-respect, respect for social norms, reconciliation skills, and emotional well-being.

Likewise, poor self-control correlates strongly with crime of every variety, an increased risk of violence, victimization, truancy, cheating, accidents of various kinds, and substance abuse.

The anecdotal evidence at the moment suggests that instilling self-control is getting more complicated, partly because our families are together as a family group  fewer and fewer hours during the week, partly because the breadth of entertainment movies and videos that are designed around aggressive behavior and violence that subtly desensitizes our children to restraint.

So we see it all the time: we have to deal with children that interrupt or blurt out a question, children that are quick to blow up, children that have a hard time waiting their turn (and some of them are 40 years old in Penn Station), children that hit and shove to resolve disputes, children that need a lot of reminding about the boundaries and the rules, children that have a hard time bouncing back from a frustrating situation.

I have good/bad news for us too.  Robert Coles at Harvard has shown what the Greeks knew to be the case 2500 years ago, that the easiest way for our children to develop an internal moral compass is by watching us. Most of us here, in all likelihood do a wonderful job on the base, structural issues of self-control. We are employed, we’ve have provided our children with a safe, clean home and regular food. It is a very solid wider context of self-control.

In a piece that I was just reading on developing self-control in this generation, two things caught my eye, where it gets a little murkier: anger and impulse buying.

We are models of decorum until we aren’t, so it goes. One of my children, modeling the mercurial man that I was at thirty, chose as their first words: shortly after Mama, Dada, Wawa… Just as clear as a bell from Dad, the child said, “Damn traffic”. I was like a skilled like a negotiator in Middle East peace when it came to resolving play ground disputes. But put me in a packed car with 3-4 kids, a dog on the Garden State Parkway sitting still in the summer. I had issues of consistency with my temper. I’ve grown considerably but not before I’d already modeled poor impulse control for the next generation to undo.

It could have been different, as one traveler wrote about recently. “It was a Friday night at the St. Louis airport a few days before Christmas and I was with dozens of other passengers trying to get home. We were experiencing every traveler’s nightmare: flight attendants had called a last-minute strike. Every passenger was somehow affected, everyone was on edge, and tempers were flaring. I stood in a line that seemed endless, slowing working my way up to the counter.

A man had finally made it to the counter and was with an agent trying to get tickets how for himself and his young son standing next to him. The encounter began amicably enough, but as soon as he was told that there were no flights available that night, nor for the next few days, he’d had enough. I thought he might explode: his face turned beet red, and he began taking short shallow breaths. I could imagine what was in that mind and I thought he might act on those thoughts. He clenched his fists and looked like he was ready to deliver a blow. But then he glanced down at his small son. That seemed to stop him momentarily and he told the agent, “Excuse me. I need a minute to myself, before I do something I may regret.”

Several passengers glanced nervously at one another, and the ticket agent turned white- bracing for the worst. All eyes were tensely glued on the man and we saw him turn his back to the agent. He paused, took a few deep breaths, apparently to calm down’ then slowly he turned back to counter calmly. He said, “Okay, I’m back in control. Now let’s work this out so my son can get home in time for Santa.”

Everyone in the line behind him… broke out in applause. Self-control among air passengers these days is a rarity- more common is incivility, vulgarity and rage- so it was quite a moment. But the best was from the man’s son. The little guy had watched the whole episode and was beaming from ear to ear, and he was clapping his hands the loudest.”[iv]

It is said that the single biggest inducement to getting us to do the right thing is the knowledge that people are watching us. Alas, with our own children, we can make them disappear into the deep background. But they are watching us and our actions speak louder than our words.

We have to commit ourselves to making our home the incubator that grows in self-control. Michele Borba suggests that we develop a family motto for self-control, “Think then Act” or “Short temper, longer walk”. Moreover, that we model calming down and introduce those techniques to children like talking slowly, taking some deep breaths, making a couple laps around the house, hitting a pillow. And setting a group rule that when people start getting out of control, they stop talking until they get back in control.

Another creative family gave out a red plate every so often at the dinner table, which entitle the bearer to the ‘royal treatment’, even though there was no material reward. You got the red plate by describing something that you had done during the day that deserves recognition. Children can lift up what they are working hard on and parents can distinguish character traits that are virtuous that don’t get as much recognition as they should. The goal is to help the rising generation learn to motivate themselves. And we can pretty easily prime the pump too. Instead of just saying, “I’m really proud of how hard you worked today”, you can say, “you must be proud of how hard you worked today”. We have to creatively figure out ways that our kids can learn to name their accomplishments, so they can see themselves growing and getting stronger. Self-control is a muscle that we just need to flex so we can build good personal habits and a family flow that encourages thriving.

And, we Christians know that we are going to need self-control, because we know that we do not get to escape this life without experiencing suffering, and ultimately our own death. Without being morbid, during the season of Lent, we look towards the suffering and death of Jesus, and we remember the spiritual challenge that is part and parcel of the second half of life, which is always about loss and limitation, however fulfilling and precious it might also be.

We know that we will need this character strength to get through some difficult days that are out there for all of us.

It is always difficult. A couple years ago, I was down to visit my grandmother in her 99th year. She had an accomplished life but the very last week of her life, we had to put her in a nursing home. My grandmother was the Director of a Cancer clinic in the 50’s and 60’s that became a big hospital. That was as high as a business woman could go in the South back then. I remember her always being in charge when I was a toddler. She was always put together, her hair was always put together, crisply dressed and professional.

Now she was in a wheel chair. The last few months of her life, she let her hair go natural white. I walked into this nursing home to visit her. She didn’t want me to see her like that. I didn’t want to see her like that either.

I tried to make light of it. I said, “Gramma, what does it feel like to be closing in on 100?”

Without a hint of nostalgia, she said, “Charles, I’m afraid I’ve stayed too long at the dance.”

“Yes ma’am. I reckon when you see the sun coming up, you know the party is pretty close to being over, don’t you? Are you ever ready to go really?”

“It’s not quite the same now that almost all of my people are gone.”

“Yes ma’am.” I said. “I want you to know that I’m going to raise my children like you taught me to.”

“Darling, I know you are. Your children bless me.”

I told her a little something about each one. I could see she was in a lot more pain than she let on and that she was way more medicated than I realized but she wanted to hear and she was nothing if not well mannered to the very end. She said, “I need to close my eyes now. You go on see your brother and let this old lady get some rest.”

“One more kiss Grandma?”

“Come here and get some sugar.”

I kissed her on the head, just like she used to kiss me when I was in diapers. In one short moment, I knew I was letting go of the end that whole generation, that whole place in the deep South, that whole era. It has a scary, shaky, sad quality to it.

I don’t know how much you can really prepare for death but with each one of these you get closer to your own. So Christians remember that it is out there, that we don’t get to stay around forever, and eventually all of us have to take the turn towards Jerusalem.

We remember that a big dimension of life is dealing with loss, set back, frustration. We know that this tests the character and that self-control will keep us human and humane in our time of suffering, so we know we simply have to develop it, whether we want to or not. It is just part of the spiritually rounded life.

And we know, from watching the life of Jesus, that death can even become redemptive. We know that even our bleak and absent moments can be taken up in meaning through love. So, we stand together in hope, knowing that we need each other to get on through.

We need each other and we need each other to become sturdy and strong, so we  focus on self-control in ourselves, in our families, in our community. What is that you need to do to become stronger, better rounded, more spiritually whole? For behold, the old is passing away, everything is becoming new. In Christ, my brothers and sisters, we are a new creation. Amen.

 

[i] This story is practically told verbatim from a piece I read in the New York Times, Op ed pages. See Joseph Hallinan, “The Young and the Perceptive” (Sunday, March 6, 2011).
[ii] I got this idea from Daniel Akst, We have Met the Enemy Self-Control in an Age of Excess (New York: Penguin Press, 2011). The book got a good review in the Wall Street Journal and caught my eye. Akst does a nice job of making use of historical treatments on self-control from the likes of Aristotle and Homer, while immersing himself in the current literature from neurology and psychology that emphasize the importance of self-control in an age of choice.
[iii] Ibid. p.106 and 107. The studies were carried out at the University of Pennsylvania by Martin Seligman and Angela Duckworth.
[iv] From Building Moral Intelligence by Michele Borba. It is a good book (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2001), pp. 92, 93.

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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.

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