Spiritually Shaped Character
I Corinthians 13:1-9, 13; John 13: 34, 35
This morning Dave and Sam dedicated themselves to raising baby Jane. And we ask for the support of God and the support of the whole community indirectly because it is the character piece of raising the next generation that is so challenging. They will need all of this support and the support of tradition to get this right. But it is deeply fulfilling when you invest yourself together in love like that.
Just before he died, a reporter interviewed Steve Jobs at Apple Computers. This reporter listed out the considerable career achievements that Steve Jobs had- the IMac, the Ipod, the Iphone, on and on it went. Then he asked Jobs to compare his career achievements with the achievement of raising his two children. Jobs said, “My children are 10,000 times more important.” You will find your meaning right where you invest your love in this life. That is how you will spiritually shape our world.
I’ve come to see that the rather profound insight from St. Paul lies in this insight. Paul really hoped that we would start to see the same kind of love and fulfillment that parents know in raising children extend through out the church. He hoped that the church would become a genuine community of trust, healing, and inspiration to each other and that the Spirit of God could extend this in all sorts of ways.
Just now there are a number of books on developing character that confirm what St. Paul suggested that we should do in the church, how we should become a community that spiritually shapes character by forming the next generation in love.
Only these books are being written by Neuroscientists studying how we are hardwired to develop resilience in this life. Character is not optional. It is our default position to develop it. How you develop resilience of character turns out to be remarkably spiritual in orientation, no matter what faith tradition you happen to have been born into.
I will mention only three examples that reflect pretty much what our tradition has been trying to suggest over the past 3000 years.
The first one is that we need to develop a moral code that we can use to guide our daily decisions in life. These moral codes will surely change from generation to generation. But the quest for moral depth of life is integral to our personal development. You may not know this but until we could study the brain in real time, there were a fair number of medical professors that really couldn’t explain our moral quest for purpose and meaning. As far as they were concerned it was peripheral to Darwinian natural selection and optional for the human brain to work.
But it turns out that when we could study the brain in real time, we cannot not be moral as humans. It is true that some people have defective moral development. We can now see how the brains of sociopaths fire differently than normal brains. But we humans are hard-wired for moral purpose.
And I suspect that this is what our Ancestors intuited anecdotally. They just knew this to be true. Biblical Scholars have good reasons to believe that about 1000 b.c., the ancient Israelites actually committed themselves to God and to each other once a year in a ritual that they held between two mountains. Half of the tribe would gather on one side of a mountain side, the other half on the other side. And they would recite the 10 commandments, one side starting with “Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods before me.” Then the other side would respond “You shall not take the name of the Lord God in vain”. The other side would say, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”. On and on it would go.
They recognized that the spiritual quest was fundamentally oriented around developing a moral compass and a moral guide. And we see that in our readings from the New Testament today. Jesus is often credited spiritually with adding an 11th commandment that has helpfully shaped our moral thinking ever since. Whatever you decide, run it through the filter of love, and it will help.
Help it does. I can’t help but think of the way we let the transcendent perspective of love guide us when we were dealing with gays and lesbians in the church. We inherited a few passages of scripture that reflected the pervasive attitude from the bronze age through the 20th century that homosexuality was a perversion.
But then our scientists figured out that sexual orientation is not chosen, so much as it is regularly recurring at a rate of about 4% of the population. It is not deviant, just a deviation from the statistical norm. Then we started to look at our gay and lesbian neighbors through the spiritual lens of love and we decided to accept gay and lesbian families as needing at least as much support as other families. That was 20 years ago at Christ Church and today 37 states have come to recognize gay marriage in our country. So, 2000 years of repression are rapidly coming to a close and now gay couples are free to share all of the burdens and miseries of the rest of us.
So we can change and the moral challenges that we will face in the future will surely be different, so each generation has to develop their moral capacity in a different context that will produce some variation in values. But the moral challenge cannot be ignored. And it does not happen automatically. Like anything in our lives, you have to exercise it to make it stronger. You have to have discipline.
And we know that it works best when you can imprint it on the next generation. Our children are watching us. One of our parents asked their kids what Christ Church was all about and she said, without even thinking, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”. Wow. She got that from coming to worship.
And they are imprinting when we take them with us to serve our homeless families at Family Promise. They are imprinting when we take them with us on Bridges runs. Elementary, grounding, but imprinting is very important.
The second thing that our Neuroscientists have observed as critical to our character development is that we have a support system of community. Professor Steven Southwick at Yale says, “very few highly resilient individuals are strong and by themselves… You need support.”
This is becoming a bigger challenge with each generation. We are more connected than ever but we are having to intentionally develop the kind of spiritual community that the Professors say we need. Humans are social creatures more than we realize. We are organically embedded in groups.
The beauty of the Church, when it is functioning like it is supposed to function, is that we are actively praying for each other. We bless each other, we reach out in personal care when people are afflicted with cancer and other life-threatening diseases. We hold each other up.
I loved Herbert Benson’s study of prayer at Harvard medical school. He ran a series of scientific studies that compared people that were prayed for versus people that were not prayed for, right on down to praying for mold to grow in a petri dish versus mold that was not prayed for. His conclusion? We cannot explain the mechanics of prayer but in every case, the things that were prayed for healed faster, grew faster, and were just made better, deeper, more fulfilled.
A lot of what we do is simply bless one another. And we have a spiritual power to do that and make people better. What a privilege to watch it in our families, when you bless the rising generation and you watch them bloom before you. What a privilege to watch it with our spouses and friends, when you can lift them up from their anxiety and self-doubt and give them the confidence to really become themselves and find their inner-creative resources. What a privilege it is to watch in our world, like at St. Benedict’s Preparatory Academy in Newark, where the boys from the hood are put through a highly structured program of love and respect. Over time, the boys become healed.
They start the day with the whole school in the gym in the morning for announcments. They all file in, full of the anger and attitude of living in the hood. And the student leader holds up his hand and one by one, the whole room becomes quiet until there is complete silence in the room. They had a TV crew out recently to cover the school and the cameramen said it was like a miracle to watch this transformation.
And it certainly is. Love is profoundly empowering and healing like that. And it comes through a community of support. We don’t make it on our own. For the big stuff, like raising kids, battling life threatening disease, accessing our higher selves, we need the community support. We need each others prayers.
Finally, we need to reset the baseline. The most compelling research in neuro-science at the moment is on mindfulness. Think of meditation, zen meditation, being simply present to ourselves, our world. It helps us to concentrate and focus, more important than we knew. It turns out that people actually spend almost half of the day (47%) thinking about something other than what they are doing. And that stat came out before texting took off.
One of the primary ways that we can actually make our focus stronger is by meditating. It is intentional. You have to do it every day, for twenty minutes a day, but it is very important in developing the skill of self-regulation. When you are upset or angry, when you have to deal with a very stressful situation, how you return yourself to inner calm is critical. It is a skill that both Monks and Special Op’s forces have advanced abilities in regulating.
What is interesting now is that we can measure the brain in real time and what you see when people meditate, when you focus on nothing except being present in the moment to yourself and to the world, is not simply that you return your heart rates and your brain waves to a baseline. Not surprisingly, the scientists of our era have described our brain waves returning to a baseline as a kind of reset or reboot for the brain.
What we’ve also been able to measure is that the baseline itself transforms over time. Through prayer and meditation you can become calmer, less rattled by stressful storms around you, more resilient at bouncing back from frustration and loss.
You can have more of the sense that you are in control of your life and develop a concentration to follow through on your goals. This part of our character is like a muscle. If you exercise it, it will get stronger.
It is a spiritual power that makes a material difference in how we live our lives. At the end of WWII, no one thought to ask this question of the survivors of the concentration camps. Viktor Frankl estimated that 2/3’s of the people that went through that experience just gave up at some point. They became overwhelmed with despair and simply died.
And another large percentage died from diseases, starvation, and back luck. But some survived. Knowing what we know now about the role that meditation plays in our lives, I am reminded of how many of the reports that I read by survivors that described a process whereby they could detach themselves from what was happening immediately around them. They could take themselves to a space that took them away to a place powerful enough they could go within themselves. All of them that I ever read were spiritual spaces of love and hope- the open field where he first met his girlfriend and images of them when they were falling for each other; family in a place of refuge, a retreat.
In every case it was not just something that inspired them with hope and perseverance, it was someone or a group of people that they were so emotionally connected to that it provided a transcendent power, a supernatural power. This will keep me living, it will get me through… literally almost anything.
It is amazing to me that we can be that for each other. It is amazing to me that we actually have those powers of concentration, if we choose to develop them, that can lift us right through the world around us.
That is what the Church is, that spiritual community of inspiration that points us towards our transcendent spiritual purpose to become people of character that can transform the world and transform ourselves.
I heard Jean Varnier interviewed last week, the founder of L’Arche community. He is being talked about as a saint even while he is still living and that is because his monastic community has established these centers of communal living that have brought together people with severe disabilities with those that that do not have them to establish an alternative community where every one has a place.
So rather than being shut off, lonely, and suffering, these people with severe disabilities bloom. Krista Tippet asked him on NPR what he had learned from people with disabilities that had changed him. And he said it was the power of touch.
Many times the rational capacity is quite diminished in the people that he works and lives with but he said from them he experienced a touch that was neither sexual nor aggressive, but one which was humane and transcendent.
It is love at work, regardless of our capacities, and it keeps us humane, resilient, filled with purpose. That is what St. Paul hoped we would become for each other, a kind of spiritual family of families, healing one another in prayer, blessing one another in touch, feeding one another with the transcendent power of love. My brothers and sisters, I invite you to the table and may the Spirit of God fill you and bless you. May you become stronger in love. And may you inspire someone around you in this season of your life. Amen.