Change, Pain and Love
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 9, 2014
Matthew 5: 13-20 2 Corinthians 2: 1-16
My friends, it is good to see you in worship this morning! When I looked at the weather forecast at the beginning of the week, and the major storm that was predicted for this morning, I sincerely thought that our service today would be very small, if it happened at all; consisting only of those who, like John T—, own purportedly slip-proof shoes. And if in fact we had the storm today that was originally predicted, I realized that we do not have a really good system for cancelling worship and asking everyone to stay home, stay warm and stay safe. So we’re going to work on that.
You should also know that we have adopted a snow policy for the church office: when local schools are closed, as they were on Monday and Wednesday this week, then our office will also be closed. Stella can manage the phones and email from home, volunteers won’t risk their own well-being to come to the church, and Vicente will be able to use the plows without having to work around, or worry about, us and our cars. It works well.
Now, I know not everyone got to stay at home during the storm. A few of our members provide emergency or medical services that we depend on to ride out the storm. And some of you had to go to work anyway. Others worked from home while juggling children. But if you didn’t have to head out to work or work from home, you got to enjoy a snow day this week – a forced interruption of the ordinary.
If that was you, I’m curious: What did you do with your snow day?
I know there is always plenty to do, and for many of us, it is just as easy to work at home as it is in our offices, so it may not have seemed all THAT different. Myself, I started out being very productive, creating the bulletin for today, answering email, and working on sermons, calling members of the church – in fact I may have done more at home on Monday than I would ordinarily have gotten done in the office. But by Wednesday the heavy blanket of snow that never stopped falling, and the thick silence outside devoid of cars, buses and walkers, was urging me to accept that day as a gift. And when I got an email from Iona College cancelling a day-long conference called “Keeping Sabbath” on account of weather, I laughed out loud. As I told Norma S— later, I have long thought that a snow day is the closest thing to actual Sabbath practice that many of us get to experience, and should be received as such. The Biblical Sabbath was not an individual practice, but that of the people together, honoring God with their rest and re-creation. On Snow Sabbaths, everyone is similarly disrupted, and time is a gift. You kibitz with the neighbors while shoveling. Or maybe you hold an impromptu joyous snowball fight in the street like a few hundred people did in Times Square back in 2009. But I didn’t even feel bad enjoying my Wednesday night at home with my family instead of meeting with the deacons or singing with the choir, because all of the deacons and the choir were likewise enjoying an evening at home.
What did you do with your Snow Sabbath this week? I hope you read a book, or played in the snow, or spoke with a friend, or did one of those things you’ve really been meaning to do but somehow keep pushing off to page two of your To Do List.
* * *
I spent much of Wednesday in my basement and attic making piles of things to give away. Which is, by the way, spiritual work and entirely appropriate to the Sabbath. Taking stock of our stuff – examining what we really need and what may be better used by someone else, is a form of self-examination. More so, perhaps, because our stuff is a material reflection of past desires, decisions, and investments, some of which we may be proud of, and some less so. And it can be as difficult as it can be healing to take a clear look at it, and let it go.
Several times during the day, I read a poem called …
“Toast to an Empty Garage” By Caryl Hurtig Casbon
In Germany, at least once a year
a bomb explodes under the autobahn,
where the vibration of wheels activates its timing device,
or near schools, injuring children playing soccer in fields.
A full-time bomb squad still searches for these deadly remnants,
bombs dropped and buried from a war, now 70 years past.
You would think it would be over by now.
It is said that every object has a vibration,
a frequency with an energetic field.
Like the lost bombs of World War II,
my garage stores old family heirloom: a vanity from aunt Alice’s bedroom
contains the memory of her miserable marriage to Uncle Dick,
collects dust, incubates their suffering, leaking upward
through the heat vents.
Clutter zones of ancestral histories pile up, underground:
cut glass liquor decanters from my parents alcohol-infused post-war marriage –
endless, four-cocktail evenings in front of the TV set.
Eight antique glasses from Aunt Betty, now with Spirit,
who generously gifted us, saying;
“Don’t ever put these in the dishwasher or lose them.
They are very valuable.”
I lift one of the glasses up in the darkness of the garage
in an offering, a sacred toast.
“To Betty; thank you for your generosity.”
Silently ask for her forgiveness as I wrap the glasses in newspaper
for Goodwill. “I love your love,
but these glasses have to go.
They are ugly and we don’t use them.
They are dragging us down. Amen.”
Feng Shui, the 3,000 year-old Taoist art and science
of the material world, which is the Spirit world.
What is without, is within.
Keep what is current for you,
which keeps you in the current,
and brings you light.
Release what is old, pulling you backwards,
is used up, or should be.
Cull your life, and see what freedom
you may find in an empty garage.
Giving up or throwing out things can be a painful process. This past week a friend of mine whose mother died last year took a picture of a handwritten page and posted on Facebook, “Cleaning out a life – I’m the original anti-clutter warrior, but I’ve met my Waterloo in my late mother’s papers. I just can’t throw them away.”
This sentiment was echoed in this past Wednesday’s NY Times opinion piece called “My Husband’s Things,” where Joan Marans Dim penned
My husband, Stuart, died last June after a decade-long struggle with cancer. He was 77 years old, a former journalist and public relations executive, a marathon runner, and a man beloved and respected by family and friends.
In going through his belongings, I often find things that I have forgotten about, small things that taken together are not small.
Small things that taken together are not small.
And when it comes to our own stuff, our old high school yearbook, the odds and ends we shoved from our desk to a box from our last job where we were unceremoniously downsized one afternoon, the plastic container of skinny clothes – reserved for when we lose those 15 pounds; it’s hard to give up our aspirations and our memories both yet unfulfilled.
The stuff we carry with us defines who we are. Even from the depths of storage or the wasteland of the garage it shapes us. There is freedom, as the poet says, in an empty garage, it is true. But freedom for what? Who are we once we let go of excess stuff? And how exactly do we decide what is the excess? What needs to be let go of?
What is true of our stuff is also true of our habits and our priorities. Old habits that might have developed originally to help us deal with difficult circumstances are hard to shed years later. A child living in an abusive household learns early not to trust others, to depend only on one’s self, to shut down the emotions in order to think of how to navigate the trauma unfolding before them. But 50 years later, those survival habits that served a real purpose decades earlier, cripple his marriage and hinder his ability to realize he is now in a safe place.
In order to be successful, a sales director learned to prioritize ROI – “return on investment,” maximize revenue, and cut out the competition. This led her to a utilitarian view of others; to wonder what she could get from them rather than what she could give, to never be satisfied with what’s before her, to act as if it’s always a dog-eat-dog world.
“So I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit,” writes Paul to the community of Christ followers at Corinth. How long did he agonize over that decision and then how long did it take him to write that sentence, I wonder? He continues, “For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? … For I wrote to you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.”
We love stories about cleaning out the garage, don’t we? We like the tales of letting go and moving on. Some of us might even fantasize about coming home and there having been a small house fire thus relieving us of the responsibility to sort through all that paper! We realize our stuff weighs us down and holds us up and when we hear of people like my friend Lloyd who decided one day after visiting Turkey that he was going to move to Istanbul and start a new life and so he literally put everything he owned up for sale on ebay, we are inspired!
And we enjoy as well the ordering of what’s left afterwards. There is something morally right about having those boxes that remain stacked just so and labeling them for their contents; it feels so good, doesn’t it? Not to mention it’s totally impressive to others. We proclaim and value an “ordered life” – a life where we’re in control, we comprehend, we catalogue. We can put our finger on anything.
Further we love tales of heroic decisions made by individuals, who, having turned their lives in a new direction, were successful beyond measure; redemption tales of gritty determination and self-discipline that pay off. We can’t turn away from “the Biggest Loser” on TV and retweet Upworthy tales and photos. We discuss the stories of churches that have reconfigured themselves to also be theatre spaces or green or hip.
But we frequently forget how painful the process is; that change doesn’t feel good. That it’s precisely the opposite – it feels, not only unfamiliar, but somehow wrong – really wrong. And that dilemma is what traps us too often.
On average it takes a woman who is being abused in her home seven times of trying to leave before she actually leaves. This is not because she’s unintelligent. This is not even because she’s in love with a person who is harming her. It is because the first seven times she leaves, even though she knows it’s the right thing to do, it feels terribly wrong, it feels out of line with her core values.
Change, even when we ourselves choose the change, rather than being compelled to choose it, can be a miserable process. The new job is, on all accounts, a great fit and it follows the priorities my friend set. But now that he’s in it and everyone around him is saying, “Oh how’s it going?” or “you must be so happy” he feels like he wants to scream – “no! I feel vulnerable, awful, angry, rudderless!”
You see our feelings don’t always align “properly” – in fact, they stubbornly refuse to align at all. They just are what they are. And when we are changing, it is so easy to judge our own feelings as wrong, to wonder why we can’t feel like we “ought,” and that out-of-sync-ness is the siren’s song pulling us headlong back into old patterns, not because we believe the old is better, but because the old is not as painful as endeavoring something new.
“I wrote to you…not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you,” writes Paul. Paul knows that the only way the Corinthian community can begin to embody new, life-giving ways of being together is if they are able to love and forgive one another. Notice Paul is not saying that he’s not coming because they are awful people and he can’t stand to be around them and he’s washing his hands of them. He says he’s not coming because his presence would cause them pain and him pain as well. But he’s such a smart guy, Paul, he doesn’t try to bury the pain or avoid it. Instead he uses his distance from the Corinthian community to make them go deeper. Yes it’s painful. New life in Christ that is different from your old life is painful. And it would be seductive to revert to old behaviors. But let us not be outwitted! Instead realize that the pain we are experiencing tells us several things.
It tells us that we are changing. Next it tells us that it is hard for everyone and everyone is going to be causing everyone else pain as they live into this together. Because not only is that sense of pain part of the change, there can be further pain when terrible mistakes are made by one person or another. We will all make these mistakes and feel horrible and ashamed. Paul writes, “But if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but to some extent – not to exaggerate it – to all of you. This punishment by the majority is enough for such a person; so now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.”
A snow Sabbath gave me time to think about what kinds of changes I want to make in my own life so that I might be more faithful to God, more loving towards others, more honest with myself. It gave me the distance to look at relationships and stuff, at aspirations and grief. And it provided me an opportunity to think of how I needed to dispossess myself not only of stuff, not only of habits, but also of the belief that giving up or giving away or changing anything at all, necessarily feels good.
Change is painful, but the pain is neither here nor there. It just is. It just is. If we can sit with it, if we can love through it, if we can offer love rather than shame to one another, we can become, as Paul said, “not peddlers of God’s word … but in Christ, … persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in God’s presence.”
 Published in the current issue of Weavings: A Journal of the Spiritual Life.