May 22, 2009

Self Forgiveness: A Sermon

In a recent “This American Life,” a NPR show covering stories from ordinary Americans, the entire hour was devoted to Scott Carrier, a former radio producer for the show. Scott began his career in radio shortly after losing his family to divorce, quitting his steady job as a painter, and hitchhiking across the nation to NPR’s headquarters with nothing but a tape recorder and tapes of interviews he had conducted along the way with the people who picked him up.

Scott’s stories are haunting and beautiful. One story that has really stuck with me is about one of his early jobs in radio working with a nationally known and widely loved public radio host who he simply calls “The Friendly Man.” Weekly, over 12 million listeners tune in to “The Friendly Man’s” 5 minute show. Such a large audience is drawn to the Friendly Man’s always positive and upbeat stories with one general theme: America keeps getting better and better.

Being an incredibly busy man, the “Friendly Man” stays in NY and his executive producer in LA wrangles stories from researchers. Daily researchers all throughout the nation score the internet and papers looking for positive stories for the show, then they write up a synopsis for approval by the executive producer and the Friendly Man.

Once a story is approved, than people like Scott Carrier, radio show producers are sent to produce interviews and compile stories for the Friendly Man to use. Of course, its important that one sticks to the story approved in the synopsis. In Scott’s earliest gig he found this out quickly when an irate executive producer yelled at him over the phone for making small changes to the story, that Scott saw as improvements.

And so, loaded with this knowledge and his gear, Scott traveled to Kansas City Missouri to conduct interviews. The theme of this story was about young poor, black people lifting themselves out of their current state and making things better. The focus of the story was on the black mayor and the midnight basketball program he began, to give the community hope and lower crime rates.

Scott conducted the interview with the major, then attended one of the basketball games where he found it packed with people watching 9 and 10 year playing as Scott said, “really good games”. After interviewing coaches, parents, and kids Scott began to think to himself, “things really are getting better and better in America.”

Feeling good, Scott got in his car to head to St. Louis to produce the next show, but he realized someone, probably a kid at the game had stolen some expensive batteries but more importantly they had taken the irreplaceable tape with the mayor’s interview.

The story he was sent to write was that America was getting better and better, but he wondered about the fact that he got robbed while reporting on a basketball program intended to prevent and lower crime. The way he saw it was these people had been poor for a long time, and things weren’t getting better.

He left a message with the executive producer and drove for St. Louis to produce a story again about poor, black people; but this time it was old poor, black people in a nursing home who had supposedly created their own economy and support system based on time-share dollars.

Upon arrival, he eventually spoke to two women who participated in the time-share program that evidently had made their nursing home a happier and better place. These women called neighbors to see if they were sick or not, cleaned clothes for neighbors, and even read to others for time-share dollars just like how several others in the home helped one another. Now, the purpose of these time-dollars is that they could trade among themselves for services and according to the synopsis, they than could go buy general necessities from a local community store.

After listening to the women, it sounded just like the synopsis, “Neighbors helping neighbors and getting paid to do it.”

Since the store of course was in the synopsis, Scott began to inquire about it to no avail. After several failed attempts to get the women to show him the store, he began to get worried. Finally, after begging them, the two women lead him down to a one story warehouse made of brick with a few windows. After walking down a long, narrow hallway in a building Scott describes “very suspicious” they arrived at the end of the long dark hall to find a metal cabinet with two large doors locked by a padlock.

Unlocking the lock revealed four shelves: the top littered with bottles of fabric softener; the next with baby wipes; the other had paper plates and plastic silver ware; and the bottom was filled with bathroom deodorizer. That was it. That was the store.

The story had disintegrated right there, so he called the executive to see if he could leave the store out of the story and just make it about neighbors helping neighbors. Of course, before he could get a word in, she began to yell at him about how he had ruined her weekend over the lost tape and, and how it was his fault, and that he needed to go back and interview the mayor again.

His only hope of keeping his job was to go back and interview the mayor, to do as he was told. According to Scott, he says “my job is to do what I was told, just as their job is to do what they were told, just as the friendly man’s job was to do what he was told, because the audience, the 12 million listeners had something they wanted to be told: that America is a good place with decent people, never mind the screaming coming from the basement.”

Tonight’s theme, as some of you know, is “self forgiveness.” When I first learned this was our theme tonight, I thought, what are we?…Joel Osteen’s ministry, building a better you.

Is that what we’re here for tonight, to learn what we are told all the time, that we can be better and better just like America is getting better and better?

I find it ironic that most of the commercials and ads that try to sell us products on the basis that we can be better or get more out of life are implicitly saying that without those products we aren’t good enough. So I want to reject the idea of self forgiveness for the purpose of building a better you, and rather address the story we really, implicitly live with and are told: that you aren’t good enough, that you must live with your guilt and shame.

It seems according the story given to us in the Scripture, self forgiveness is paradoxical to the nature of our cultural story where things simply seem to be getting better and better.

See, in our culture of over emphasized individualism, it seems the appropriate thing to do is actually to NOT forgive yourself. We are often taught that the only thing you have control over is yourself, so somehow the responsible thing is to not forgive yourself.

And so we make claims on ourselves. Impossible claims. We carry our guilt and shame, our burdens by ourselves because we feel we must until we reach some impossible goal or feel bad enough or deny our self through guilt or something to that effect.

Did you hear that? Yes, sometimes we even cloak the claims we make on ourselves in God talk…we say that this is our cross, we are just denying ourselves for the wrongs we have done or even that we deserve to be punished. So we punish ourselves.

But the reality is that to deny yourself forgiveness is to deny God. To deny yourself forgiveness, is to deny God.

Spiritual writer, Henry Nouwen says it this way: “forgiveness is allowing other people, not to be God.” This works in the reverse, self forgiveness is allowing yourself, not to be God.

So Paul, writing to one of his most problematic churches in Corinth says…”If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation!” or literally, “If anyone in Christ, New Creation!”

Paul knew and had experienced the reality that forgiveness had come into the world in Jesus Christ and God had begun the great reconciliation of all things to himself. So we deny God when we don’t forgive ourselves, because only God forgives. God, in Jesus Christ, declared you free from sin and guilt and has made you NEW! It was God who has done it and it is God who is doing it.

The story of God is the story that says you are forgiven, and to live otherwise is to deny reality. You ARE a new creation in Christ, stop listening to those other stories that are telling you that you can’t forgive yourself or you must feel guilty.

But of course this doesn’t deny the reality of the hurt or deep pain we feel, the reasons we so often can’t forgive ourselves. We say, “yeah, but if you really knew me…if you knew just what I’ve done…if only I had been a better person, spouse, father, daughter, son, coworker, if only, then….”

The writer of 1 John says in chapter 3, verse 20 that “whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.”

When we can’t forgive ourselves we often have a conflated self identity and a deflated relationship and view of God. We relate to God disproportionally and place ourselves and our guilt above him or think very little of him.

God knows everything, all that we are and all that we try to hide…yet God is greater than our heart. While we may try and condemn ourselves, with God there is no condemnation.
So the call is to be in Christ, where we find ourselves as new creation…to place ourselves under the Cross and find God greater than any of our failures or imperfections!

Nouwen says this beautifully when he writes:

“Is there a way out? I don’t think there is- at least not on my side. It often seems that the more I try to disentangle myself from the darkness, the darker it becomes. I need the light, but the light has to conquer my darkness and that I cannot bring about myself. I cannot forgive myself. I cannot make myself feel loved. By myself I cannot leave the land of my anger. I cannot bring myself home nor can I create communion on my own. I can desire it, hope for it, wait for it, yes pray for it. But my true freedom I cannot fabricate for myself. That must be given to me. I am lost. I must be found and brought home by the shepherd who goes out to me.”

If denying self-forgiveness is denying God, then accepting God is accepting self forgiveness. Consequently, bringing God more and more into your life, focusing not on yourself or your regrets or your failures but seeking and searching for God who loves you, brings about self forgiveness, and healing.

By focusing more on God we find that we are capable of treating ourselves better, we realize that no one not even ourselves, except Christ, can love and live perfectly so we can have compassion on ourselves, we can let go of these claims or false stories we make about ourselves and live into the true story of God’s forgiveness for all, even you.

In a conversation I had with Marshall Smith who preached a few weeks ago here in Beresheth, we were talking about this theme of self forgiveness and he said, “You know Joe, I don’t think it was until I began actually forgiving others that I was able to learn how to forgive myself.”

In that passage in 2 Cor. Paul doesn’t stop with the declaration that we are a new creation in Christ, but continues saying:

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

The paradox of self forgiveness is that it comes not by trying to better yourself and become a better you; rather self forgiveness comes by learning to live for others, by learning to serve and love, by being an ambassador of reconciliation, by following Christ.

Another way of saying this is that self forgiveness comes by way of transformation and transformation by way of mission.

May you listen for the story God is writing in your life. May you learn to give up yourself for the sake of love and find yourself more capable of loving yourself. and May you awaken to the reality, that you are forgiven, that you are loved and lovable and that you are a New Creation!

May 11, 2009

The US & Torture

The power of torture is not so much that it gathers info or intel for the CIA. Rather the true power is that it creates a viewpoint within the American nation. Torture is the power of imagining ourselves as so righteous that we must allow our leaders to do the dirty work of torture to uphold our rightness, democracy, and exceptionalism ( or "the last great hope of the world"-Obama). Torture also creates enemies. Of course these aren't your run of the mill bad guys either for torture allows us to imagine that the enemies are so vile they must deserve it, subhuman. This of course leaks down to the power of punishing innocents (which has been widely the practice and mostly the case in the "enhanced interogation methods" used in the War on Terror), so we believe that if they are being tortured or treated so inhumanly, they must be guilty.

Torture is disugsting in every form. The solution?
Absorb it through the Eucharist or in other words allow the sacrifice or torture of Christ to become the once for all declaration that we all sinful, that we are all loved, and in Christ we are all redeemed. Or as William Cavanaugh says,
If the Eucharist is a participation in the sacrifice of Christ, if we become the Body of Christ, then we too are called not just to minister to the victims of this world but to identify with them. The opposition of them and us, friend and enemy, even victim and helper, is overcome. Violence against the enemy is unthinkable, because we are the enemy. Raniero Cantalamessa says “the modern debate on violence and the sacred thus helps us to accept a new dimension of the Eucharist,” thanks to which “God’s absolute ‘no’ to violence, pronounced on the cross, is kept alive through the centuries. The Eucharist is the sacrament of non-violence!
Check out Cavanaugh's entire article at the Other Journal, the journal of Mars Hill Graduate School.