Sunday, May 11, 2014

A shared life

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE

May 11, 2014

20th c. mystic and Trappist monk Thomas Merton said, "To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence."  Sounds like church life, doesn’t it?  We do violence to ourselves, to our souls, to each other when we strive to not only live as Jesus would have us live but be Jesus for the world and each other.  Too often we suffer under the oppression and martyrdom of yes, neglect the freedom and peace of a judicious no, and expect the same from others.

In fact, we human beings can go so far as to neglect our own needs while becoming preoccupied with the needs of others.  It’s one aspect of what is called codependency.  Codependency is described as thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that go beyond or when we shrink from what is considered normal caretaking and self-sacrifice.  We all need to be needed, but when we link this to approval from others and our level of self-esteem, it is then we begin to do violence to ourselves.  We become caught in a web of our own making, where we become the ever-giving victim; dangerously irreproachable, unassailable.  It’s one way we can control an uncontrollable reality.

These are a few of the patterns and kinds of codependent behaviors that can be expressed by an individual or a community:

I have difficulty identifying what I am feeling.
I minimize, alter, or deny how I truly feel.  
I perceive myself as completely unselfish and dedicated to the well-being of others.

I mask my pain in various ways such as anger, humor, or isolation.
I express negativity or aggression in indirect and passive ways.

I am unable to ask others to meet my needs or desires.

I judge what I think, say, or do harshly, as never good enough.
I am embarrassed to receive recognition, praise, or gifts. I value others’ approval of my thinking, feelings, and behavior over my own.

I compromise my own values and integrity to avoid rejection or anger.
I put aside my own interests in order to do what others want.
I am hypervigilant regarding the feelings of others and take on those feelings.

I freely offer advice and direction to others without being asked.
I become resentful when others decline my help or reject my advice.

I adopt an attitude of indifference, helplessness, authority, or rage to manipulate outcomes.

I act in ways that invite others to reject, shame, or express anger toward me.

I use indirect and evasive communication to avoid conflict or confrontation.

I suppress my feelings or needs to avoid feeling vulnerable.[i]

Pastors and congregations are ripe for this kind of behavior.  Usually we behave in codependent ways when we are under stress, when our level of self-care is low:  we’re working long hours, we’re not eating or sleeping well, we don’t exercise enough, we aren’t spending enough time with friends or doing things we enjoy.  And let’s face it: our culture is stressed out 24/7.  We don’t allow ourselves to be led by still waters or lie down on our lawn instead of mowing it.  Restoration of our soul?  How does that happen?  And there are days we wouldn’t know what a path of righteousness looked like unless someone showed us a map.

Have you ever read the book The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein?  It’s often a favorite gift for Mother’s Day and for teachers.  I think it’s one of the most codependent books I’ve ever read!  It’s also lousy environmentalism.  A boy and a tree that identifies as female have a lifelong relationship.  The boy climbs the tree and swings from her branches, eats her apples, and rests in her shade.  But as he grows into adulthood and his needs change, the tree gives more and more of herself, until she is reduced to a stump, upon which the boy, now an old man, sits for comfort and peace.  And the story ends with “And the tree was happy.”

Some of you may love this story and see it as a beautiful illustration of self-giving love, and that’s fine.  Stories are hardly intended to have only a single interpretation.  I see it as codependent because I can be codependent, and I’ve been in relationships where I’ve given my substance despite the fact that the other person was incapable of giving back, because I’ve witnessed relationships in my own family that were like this.  Because I’ve seen people turned into emotional stumps that other folks rest on, and their happiness is more of an extension of the other’s happiness than their own.

That’s hardly what I would call a sustainable relationship.  And the relationships we have with each other, with ourselves, with God, with this church are supposed to be sustainable, that is, nurturing, caring, in a way that gives us joy rather than drains us of it.

The description of the early Church in the Book of Acts sounds idyllic:  

That day about three thousand took him (Peter) at his word, were baptized and were signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers. 

“Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.  They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.”  (The Message by Eugene Peterson)


They fed each other.  They were still waters and green pastures for each other.  And the toughest part:  they sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.  They didn’t just share each other’s burdens by talking about them or praying for them.  They did something about it.

This doesn’t seem very practical in our post-modern world:  selling what we own and pooling our resources.  Private property is considered sacred in and of itself.  We can’t even get near national healthcare.  We do hold some things in common at church: we bring meals to those who need some help and comfort; we have potluck meals together; we pack go-bags; we buy grocery cards (what if once in a while we bought extra ones to keep on hand for those who need some help with groceries?); we have a budget that we pledge or give to.

Newark Empowerment Center

This past Friday, Pope Francis, in a bold move, called for a legitimate redistribution of wealth to the poor, stating that we have an economy of exclusion, a throwaway culture, and a culture of death in this world, to which we are giving our passive acceptance.  The Pope has said that he wants a church that is poor and is for the poor.  A month ago the Pope tweeted, “How good it is for us when the Lord unsettles our lukewarm and superficial lives.”  Yes indeed, but I am waiting for the Pope to his money where his mouth is and redistribute the wealth of Vatican City.


Perhaps we spin our wheels in codependency because the radical changes that the gospel requires are scary as much as they are compelling.  The gospel of Jesus Christ shows us our weaknesses, how vulnerable we really are, but it also gives us a glimpse of interdependence, of how we can live deeply connected to each other, and to those who need justice and liberation, in ways that can make us alive again.

Even as I write this, say this, I feel like a hypocrite, because my words do not match my life.  I live quite comfortably.  My name is on the deed to not just one but two houses and the registration of three cars.  When I was a kid, I would’ve thought of someone like me as rich, and indeed I am.  I try to share what I have but I know I can always do more.  I hear the words of the poet Wendell Berry, “Take all that you have and be poor”, and I feel like shrinking inside.

The Church is called to be the antithesis of empire, to be the workshop for the kingdom of God, yet history does not bear this out.  “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” plays out as a struggle between human need and fear and desire.  We are reluctant to be anyone’s sheep.  

 How are we to live a shared life, one that gives us joy rather than drains us of it?

At this point I invited anyone who was having difficulty trusting God to come forward.  A man who had been on the search committee had the courage to answer such a poorly-offered invitation.

I asked him to write down, if he could tithe, what amount would that be, and that only I would see this.  I then asked him to write down what the weekly amount would be.  I then wrote out a check to him in that amount, as a gift, that when we trust God, God blesses us.  I felt that I couldn't ask the congregation to do something that I wasn't willing to do myself.

It was a terribly vulnerable morning - my humanness was spewing all over the place.  I felt so exposed.  I couldn't print my sermon, either at home or at the church, so I read it from my laptop, as well a poem by Wendell Berry for the benediction.  I wanted to play a video of Bobby McFerrin's Psalm 23 on YouTube but I lost my internet connection in the sanctuary.  So I sang the piece myself, about the only thing that went well, from my point of view.

I think I'll move to Australia... 

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