It’s going a lot better than I feel like it is. At least, on a personal level. Always has. Always will. I take that to be a reflection of the absence of emotional safety and security in my childhood and youth. It was not safe to be me during the early years. It was not as unsafe as it is could have been, but it was unsafe enough. It was also safe enough.
It was safe enough for me to be relatively sane and apparently normal. I can “meet the public,” pay my bills, keep my appointments, and fulfill my duties and obligations. It was unsafe enough for me to learn how to be unsafe. I don’t know a thing about being safe, unguarded, not watching. Even when I’m safe, I’m sure it’s a deception of some sort. I know in my bones that you can’t trust anything. Everything is a potential hazard. It’s really all out to get you. Life is an unsafe place to be.
That’s the orientation I developed as a child. It’s practically impossible to out-grow your upbringing. All I have managed to date is to be aware of it, and to know that I’m going to put myself at risk (by calling the Orthodox concept of God too shallow to splash, for example)—or will think that I am at risk, whether I am or not—because I know more about being unsafe than about being safe; because I’m more comfortable figuring out how to avoid danger, or respond to it, than living a life that is free of danger.
Of course, that’s crazy. And, it’s real. Childhood sets us up for the rest of our lives. Just try to live as though your childhood wasn’t your childhood. Just try to compensate appropriately for never having had a good enough childhood. We live out the lessons learned in childhood all our lives long.
There are children who are severely abused physically, emotionally, who never have a place of any kind where they are safe, where they belong, who grow up feeling like they don’t belong anywhere. Who can’t go into a 7/11 without thinking someone is going to tell them to leave because their kind has no business being there. They feel as though they are aliens from another planet, with green fur and red eyes, pretending to be human, but standing out somehow as fundamentally, irrevocably, wrong, and never fitting in. They survive by being invisible. If anyone sees them as they are, they will be asked to leave. Explaining to them that this isn’t the case will not make them feel differently. If you try to give them experiences to the contrary, they will think it is a trick. They know what the deal really is. It was borne out too often, too long, in their childhood and youth. They cannot live as though they don’t know what they know.
I don’t know what you know that isn’t, or is no longer, so, but I know the early lessons are hard to set aside. It helps to have supportive relationships with the right kind of people, who understand that we walk with a limp for very good reasons, and who don’t try to fix us, or make us like they are. But, who can remind us, with warmth and healthy laughter, that things are going a lot better than we feel like they are, and we are doing much better than we think.
When we baptize babies, as we did this morning, we promise, in behalf of all congregations everywhere, to do right by the child. We promise to provide the kind of environment that child needs all its life long to be healthy, and whole, and thoroughly capable of living life to the fullest. We promise to give that child the right kind of help all along the way. It is a promise that carries over from the children we baptize to all the adults who find their way into our presence. We promise to be the kind of help that help is all about. We promise to be good company.
In the presence of the right kind of company, we are quite capable of living in the tension of contrary truths. We can be terrified and know there is nothing to fear. One doesn’t cancel out the other. Both are true at the same time. We can feel as though we don’t belong, and know that we own the company and they can’t fire us, or ask us to leave. “This” is true, and “that” is true as well. Making room for contrary truths allows us to live with a foot in two worlds, the world of our past and the world of our present.
To say “That was then, this is now,” doesn’t quite get it. “This” doesn’t cancel out “that.” It would be more accurate to say, “This is now because that was then,” with the “this” of the “now” being the fact of the two worlds, and not just our personal safety in the present moment of our lives. The “then” impacts the “now.” This is the karmatic influence of past on present and future. We never get entirely “over” our past. Where we are is always a reflection of where we have been. We carry our past with us wherever we go. Recognizing that means accommodating ourselves to the two worlds, to the world of what is true, and to the world of what is also true. We are afraid, and we have nothing to fear.
And, it helps to be able to say as much to those who can understand. Nothing has quite the healing power of being able to say how it is with us, and how it also is. We may not have invented language to enable us to cope with the emotional impact of life, but it’s a good spin-off. Life is too much to bear unsaid. We lighten our load by saying how heavy it is. We feel better about our lives by saying quite specifically and completely what we feel so bad about. I have no idea how it works. It sounds as magical as, as, prayer.
We feel better when we pray. Prayer is where we say who we are, and how it is with us, and what we think we need. It is therapeutic to pray. It is not accidental, I think, that we began seeing psychotherapists at the time the culture began to drift away from the idea of a personal God who answers prayer. We have to say what we have to say to somebody who cares, or seems to. We cannot bear our lives alone.
The primary human need is for the company of the right kind of people. Good company. If you are going to aim for anything, aim to be good company. Be the kind of person the world is dying for. If you are going to give me anything, give me caring presence with no strings attached. Unconditional positive regard. The benefit of the doubt. Benevolent attentiveness. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-discipline. Create that kind of atmosphere, and welcome me there. I’ll be glad to take you up on your offer. So will the rest of the world.
Creating this kind of atmosphere is one of our primary tasks. It may be our only task. We come together to form ourselves into the kind of place, and the kind of people, that can save the world—that can save the world by listening to the world—by listening to one another, and all others, in a way that allows us to hear ourselves; that enables us to know what is true, and what is also true, and to live with a foot in both places.
We do not come together to rehash the doctrines; to hypnotize ourselves into believing what we believe must be believed in order to please God and get to heaven when we die; to read from the script and pass along what has been handed to us, without editorial comment or alteration. It is instructive, I think, that the Jews no longer sacrifice bulls; that they no longer have a temple; and that they have no idea of what happened to the Arc of the Covenant. All of those things were, at one time, central to their identity as the chosen people of God and to their life as a nation, and they all have disappeared from their repertoire as a community of faith. Things come, and things go. Ideas evolve, change, transform, fade, dissolve, disappear. We out-grow some things and grow into other things. And, some things stay the same forever.
The idea that God is love, and that we are called to be as God is by being loving, belongs to this last category. It is an “eternal idea.” It is with us for the duration. The essential things, the “eternal things,” are, and always will be, things like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, goodness, gentleness, and self-discipline.” Things like compassion and acceptance and understanding. Things like grace, mercy, and peace. But, the other things are like the Temple and the sacrificial slaughter of goats and bulls.
We have long understood that we do not have to mindlessly embrace the ideas of the verbal inspiration, and literal interpretation, of scripture. Presbyterians have quietly placed John Calvin’s seminal work Predestination in the burning barrel. And, we are moving away from referring to God as “he” and “him,” and are increasingly less likely to think of God as “the man upstairs.” We do not gather here unthinkingly to maintain the old ways of thinking about God; to hear again what we have always heard; and to walk slowly in a pious circle until Jesus comes. We gather here to form ourselves into the kind of people and the kind of place that save the world.
The work of the church is the salvation of the world. That salvation is effected, not by telling the world about Jesus so much as by living in the world as Jesus—by being Jesus in the world. We are as Jesus was, we are as God is, when we live so as to exhibit and express those wonderful old qualities and values of God in the land; when we live to be good company; when we live to make wherever we are the kind of place others need to live the best life they are capable of living. May we be who we are needed to be in each moment of life. Amen. Let it be so!