I want you to recall a memory where you felt integrated, related, just right with the world- perhaps from recently, perhaps from a long time ago. Life is good. You are blessed, glad to be alive. Hold onto that image for a moment and remember why it was meaningful.
That is good. What you pick out probably speaks to where you are at in this season of your life. I had an image as a child at an extended family gathering like the holidays, getting ready. My uncles are there, my cousins, the boys. I was the oldest of my generation of 11. I’m recounting a story of fishing, before dawn. My grandfather wants to hear my generation speak.
I’m remembering something that went wrong: boats that slid off trailers my uncles were putting in the water, snakes that nearly fell in the boat, flashlights dropped in the water by my cousins, and my grandfather’s response in his deep southern accent. If I could make him smile… If I could get my uncles to add some details… If I could get him to laugh, that was perfect.
Psychologists note that what is interesting about these memories is that they are not about us actually. We are remembering how we made someone else feel that was important to us. In the scientific parlance, I am competent, but what makes the memory meaningful is that I also experienced ‘relatedness’. My grandfather smiled; my uncles laughed.
Our grandfather was from the World War 2 generations, so we didn’t get a lot of long talks on values. But all of my cousins remember quite similar things. Even in the cold, even in the dark, even when we were scared or vulnerable, we knew our Grandfather could fix anything, that he would never let anything bad happen to us, and that if we waited long enough, were quiet long enough, we’d see the mystery of the sun rise together and fish that we could bring home together.
He gave us all one of the five components of emotional well-being, “openness to experience”. In the years just before he died at the ripe age of 100, we all make the pilgrimage back home to Memphis tell him about it from our new homes: in Hong Kong, in Kuala Lampur, in Germany, in Washington DC, and even from the far hinterland (that he could never understand why anyone would want to live there) Northern New Jersey. We all became what psychologist call “self-determined”- not only competent, related to others, but also autonomous. [We can do it for the next generation].
Spiritually, the author of John says that it is divine. “For God so loved the world that He gave… and that spiritual generosity brings us eternal life. It keeps on giving. In John, chapter 4, a Samaritan woman comes to the well where Jesus was sitting, to draw water.
The author of John has Jesus say symbolically, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again… but the water I give them come from a spring welling up from eternal life (John 4:14).” This is the self-transcendent spiritual power that we need, the spiritual source that feeds and sustains us in seasons of plenty and seasons of want.
God is the spiritually generous force that gives us life giving love.
In the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 14:13-21) that same message is given to us symbolically when Jesus is surrounded by 5000 people, the multitudes that came out to seek healing in their lives. The day is done and the disciples feel like that are obligated to feed all of these people. They come to Jesus in a panic.
Jesus has them collect such food at they can scrounge up- 5 loaves of bread and 3 fish. Jesus takes this meager collection and prays over it. So, to speak, he breathes God’s spiritually generous love over this very ordinary food.
And it is miraculously multiplied. It keeps on giving. It is eternal like our love can be, when we access our self-transcendent spirituality. We don’t run out of love when we give it away. Our giving, our loving, keeps giving, keeps spreading the love.
It is the source of our most profound sense of belonging and meaning, the power of ‘We’ when we reciprocally bless one another. Reinhold Niebuhr used to say that for Christians our own fulfillment is a by-product of fulfilling others. Jesus was like that. God is like that.
And in our most intimate relationships, that is true when we are clicking. I read about one exercise for marriage that would be true for all deep relationships that asked people to make a diary for two weeks every day, listing the daily sacrifices that you make for your beloved, the ways you give to someone you love.
Turns out when you do that exercise together, when you consciously call to mind your care and compassion, it isn’t a source of resentment, so much as an awareness of how grounded is your love.
When we mutually develop our marital generosity towards each other, when we multiply our small acts of kindness, our occasions for forgiveness; when we increase our moments of affection, our opportunities to develop respect; when we turn towards one another in the commitment of ‘we’, we tap into this deeper spiritual power of self-transcendence. We make someone else happy.
Not surprisingly, Dr. Freud, the quality of our romance also deepens. The importance of our friendship takes on deeper significance.
I want you to close your eyes one more time imaginatively. I want you to call to mind the worst day of your life. I want you to remember something from a long time ago that was really negative. I know for some of us there have been many of these days. I’m sorry about that. Just remember one.
Some are tragedies, some are serious mistakes we made, some are bad things that just happened to us out of nowhere. But this is your story; it is the story of your actual life, not the one you wished you had lived, but the one that you have lived.
It brings back pain, disappointment, frustration, sorrow. I’m sorry about that. I wish you didn’t have to go through that, but you did.
You can open your eyes. Spiritually generous living can heal us too. Spiritually generous love has the self-transcendent capacity to redeem what has been broken. It is the powerful experience we can know in our lived lives as well.
Many years ago, I heard a speaker tell a story about how his life lost meaning over a long time. Finally, one night he was driving home dead drunk in a snow storm. Turning into his long driveway, he couldn’t tell where the drive was and where the lawn began. He ended up driving up his lawn through the picture window and into his living room. Whereupon he got out of the car, laid down on his couch and went to sleep.
He awoke to a Police officer tapping him on the shoulder, placing him under arrest for hitting half a dozen vehicles on the side of the road leading to his house. His wife was behind the police officer with her bags packed, explaining to the officer that she no longer lived at this residence and wanted nothing to do with him.
That is a bad night. I’ve heard a lot of testimonials at AA but that one stuck with me because of what followed afterward. After that graphic depiction of the damage that he had caused his family and friends because of his drinking, he engaged his gratitude.
And gratitude is one of those things that we have to consciously engage when we are dealing with the painful memories of our life. For twenty minutes he recounted how he made his way out after ‘hitting bottom’. It was long, at times ambiguous, helped by friends and strangers alike, nothing you could reduce to a simple formula.
But at the end of it he said something I heard for the first time. It was something you could only say many years later, after you have been through a number of profound changes and you have become quite a different person. He said, “So I’m actually grateful that I am an alcoholic. I’m grateful for that night that I crashed my car and got arrested. I’m very sorry for the pain that I caused my family, my wife, my children. My wife divorced me. One of my kids still won’t have a relationship with me. There are some very real, very bad consequences from that time in my life that I still have to live with and that still burden me to this day.”
“But, I’m grateful in spite of all of those very negative and difficult consequences. I’m grateful because from that night ‘hitting bottom’, I started a different journey with my life. Over a long period of time, I kept changing and changing. I’ve learned so much about myself. I’ve grown so much in my character. Now when I look back, I realize that I would not have learned what I’ve come to know and I would not have done the difficult work to change my character, had this phase not happened earlier, had I not hit bottom as ugly and painful as it was.”
What a profound spiritual insight. It comes from invoking our gratitude as we look at our life and that is a key part of what happens as we evolve into being Spiritually generous people.
He concluded his remarks by making a list of positive things that had happened as a result of his sobriety. New friends that he had made, a meaningful relationship that developed that surprised him many years after his divorce, a sense of ‘vocation’ about his life that was deeper than simply having a job, and a character that could actually empower others as a model to help them mature and rise to their higher selves.
This year on Veteran’s Day, I happened to see a bunch of soldiers interviewed that had survived an ambush in Iraq. Many casualties, some deaths. They were recounting what had happened, remembering the heroic actions taken by their platoon commander and others that saved lives. These guys had stayed in close touch, lo these many years later.
At one point, the interviewer asked the Colonel who was the platoon leader that day if he ever went back in his mind and wished that things had gone differently, perhaps they hadn’t left the base precisely when they did, so that this whole tragedy never would have happened.
He smiled and said, “Right, life doesn’t work that way does it? And now I can’t know what might have been or who we all might have become. What I know is that we became a band of brothers through what we lived together. That is my truth.”
Spiritually speaking, we cannot go back and re-write the past. We can only heal what has been broken. The spiritual challenge is to take our tragedies, to take the bad scripts that were given to us from a previous generation in our dysfunctional families, to take the mistakes we made in our youth that have caused us difficulty… And from these to find a redemptive meaning.
Spiritually generosity is generous with ourselves. We are just works in progress. But you are becoming. You are growing, quite in spite of yourself, right through the challenges of your past. And unlike your dysfunctional family in your childhood, God is a patient parent, the transcendent force that is calling you to your spiritual home. God is blessing you with open arms, a place at the table, ready to celebrate how you are making meaning out of the morass.
God loves you and wants you to become healed, to become whole. And the great promise of the Gospel that Jesus came to teach us about is that we can become that divine, transcendent generous spiritual power for each other. We can become a spiritual family of families right in this place. We can become wounded healers.
May you find your way home. And may you become yourself. May transcendent love guide and heal you as you grow in real spiritual community. Amen.