“We Encounter the Empty Tomb”
Easter Sunday Sermon
By Rev. Dr. Andrew Kukla
(You can find a video of the sermon here.)
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Its been a long week.
The Sanctuary we now sit in may look very much like it did last week but an entire story, that captures the story of all life, has played out here through the week and we have set, re-set, torn down, and set again the stage of that drama from Palm Sunday’s resistance crowds ready to crown a King to contest with Rome… to that same King getting on his hands and knees to wash our feet, break our bread, and weep over our fickle allegiance as he became forsaken, betrayed, denied, beaten, mocked, crucified, and dead, dead, dead….. laid away in a tomb and sealed off where no hope might come, walled away with the promises of abundant life sadly lacking.
And we had to sit and wait in that moment. We had to sit and wait in that despair. We had to sit and wonder “what next?” but with no one of whom to ask the question.
And as that reality was sinking in… just when a pair of sleepless nights yielded an excruciatingly early morning trip to the tomb that we might, at the very least, properly lay his body to rest… the whole world shakes and is turned on its head: because death – that one thing as sure and certain (and taxes of course – don’t forget to mail yours in by Tuesday) death that certainty to life was no longer a binding reality. A tomb unsealed… a given conclusion unreached… a hell traversed and emptied… a life sprung up a SECOND time. The rules are broken and God is on loose.
He is risen. He IS risen. HE IS RISEN!!
He is risen, indeed.
And now…. We take a nice picture with those deadly pungent but glamourous lilies all decked out in our Easter best… and we trudge home back to our daily grind. It is good, Palm Sunday was spot on after all, we just hit the reset button on the week and we are situation normal and all is well? That’s what this is about, right?
I’m a bit of a Star Wars fan. Ok… I’m not convention nut level of fan, but I’m a bit more than just a fan. After all how many people have a life-sized Yoda statue in their house? Trust me if you are going to do life-sized character statue Yoda is a way better call than Chewbacca. But if you remember the first movie… you know, the one that is now the fourth movie. Star Wars: A New Hope. Where it all because… until we went further back and re-began it.
Anyway, a scene comes to mind just now when they are in the Death Star trying to rescue Princess Leia. And they storm the detention block (fancy word for jail) and having shot or knocked out all the guards Han Solo sends Luke to get the princess while he deals with the alarm that is going off and speaking into the microphone he says:
“Ah, ah, everythings under control, situation normal.”
“Ah, we had a slight weapons malfunction but everything is fine here now, we’re fine, we’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?”
“We’re sending a squad up.”
“Negative. Negative. We have a reactor leak here now. Give us a few minutes to lock it down. Ah, large leak, very dangerous.”
“Who is this? What is your operating number.”
Han blows up the microphone: “Boring conversation anyway. LUKE! We’re gonna have company.”
Luke! We’re going to have company. You can say that again!
So here are these women… standing next to the guards, and an earthquake occurs, the stone rolls away, the body is gone, the guards go catatonic, and an angel pops in and sits on the tomb and says: yah, ah, don’t be afraid, everything is normal. We’re fine here now, thank you. And then a moment later, “now go tell Luke y’all are gonna have some company. (The y’all is on account of everyone knows that angels have southern accents… also no idea why Luke didn’t include this Star Wars encounter in his Gospel.)
As awesome as this news is you have to imagine in the hasty rush of all that happens after that earthquake NOTHING is normal. Nothing will seem normal ever again. And they have to feel a little bit like their scrambling now to make sense of it even as they immediately run off to make sense of it for other people… for ALL people.
But really… what just happened? What IS going on? And just how bad – or good – is this reactor leak after all.
I do love the week we just went through. I like it fully, darkly, and in its full height, depth, and width. I don’t love it because it feels good. I don’t love it because it’s easy. I love it because most of the time we are all supposed to act like everything is “just fine”. And in this week we get painfully, brutally, and vulnerably honest. Honest about disappointment. Honest about self-giving service. Honest about the consequences of playing with rules of love rather than war. Honest about death and fear among us. Honest heartache and despair. And God leads us into that honesty, demonstrates the extent God is willing to go for the sake of love and gives us the greatest gift of all… the life of the Son and Savior of the World… broken and poured out for us.
Jewish writer Etty Hillesum wrote a diary much like Anne Frank but she was in her late 20s and it chronicled her two years in Aushwitz before being killed in 1943. In her diaries, named An Interrupted Life, she writes about the power of integrating death into life.
“The eventuality (or possibility) of death, has been integrated into my life. I can now look at death in its face and accept its a part of my life, and in that way, I enlarge life. On the opposite to sacrifice today to fear of death, to sacrifice a bit of life because of this fear and with refusal to accept it, it’s the best way of just holding on to a tiny bit little bit of life which hardly merits the name of life. That seems paradoxical, to exclude death from life is to sacrifice a complete life, and yet to welcome it is to enlarge and enrich life.” (Etty Hillesum, The Interrupted Life: Diaries from Auschwitz 1941-1943)
A have a deep affinity for this reflection, as I heard these words this week it grabbed me: to enlarge life we need to stop excluding death from it. We need to listen to the angels tell us, again and again, to not be afraid. To embrace the risk and consequences of living boldly because it’s ok to be sacrificed, killed even, for the sake of life… but never to sacrifice life for the sake of death. Etty learns that in the concentration camp and hearing her words I see them in the story of God whose interrupted life became an interrupted death.
A God who is hurt, and who hurts for us. A God who gets frustrated, tired, lost, angry – a God who turns over tables and who goes to bat for criminals, heretics, and ostracized unclean nameless women. A God who offensively won’t compromise the grandness of the Kingdom vision founded on non-violence, love, self-giving service, and forgiveness… and yet whose humility will ensure that the only one who pays the price for that high standard is God’s self alone. A God who dared infancy, adolescence, scorn, disbelief and betrayal, and then the very depth of hell itself. A God who never allowed death to make sure God settled for so small a piece of life that it doesn’t merit the name. A God who was broken, and whose heart breaks for the world…. But who did not stay that way.
He is risen! He is risen, indeed.
In Jesus Christ we meet God willing to pay all the consequences of living a way of idealism that “doesn’t work”, of being intentionally naive, a way of turning the other cheek because a life founded in Kingdom-vision of humble, steadfast love born on the back of a million fallible servants unsure if they are doing it right can actually work, as foolish as it sounds. It does work – this week attests to – and it is worth dying for! In resurrection, THIS God puts the world on notice: that the Empires of our world who insist that scarcity is real, death is all-powerful, and military might and production dominance is the only way to secure life is a false god… a tiny bit of life hardly meriting the name of life. And it is not worth dying for.
There is an ancient tradition of the harrowing of hell. I’m acquainted with it because often people ask me, “why do Presbyterians add that Jesus descended into hell?” And I tell them actually we are the one that didn’t remove that tradition – it is ancient. The belief is that once dead Jesus descended into hell – the place of God-forsakenness. And that descending to that final pit God and God’s grace manifested in the very place defined by God-forsakenness… and thus now NO PLACE is without the love and mercy of God. When Jesus rises, then, he does not rise alone… but all of hell is cleansed and emptied and hell itself rises to abundant life.
The tomb isn’t empty because Jesus isn’t in it. The tomb is emptied because Jesus demonstrates that the powers of death and fear are defeated and hollowed out… and in its place we find life – abundant life – love and justice overflowing. And this is not news to take a selfie with… this is not news to sit on and figure out… this is news to get out and share. God is on the loose… life is rising in the place of death… get on board and spread the word.
So what are you going to do tomorrow? What Galilee is God calling you to? How are you sharing life, growing the Kingdom and meeting God at work in the world? Because nothing is normal. Nothing is the same. And everything is pregnant with the awe and wonder of Divine love.
Friends, he isn’t risen alone. We are risen – go, tell, live that story this day, and forevermore.
Thanks be to God.
I started a short morning devotional idea of putting to my own words a thread from a Psalm each morning in a short six word phrase. Obviously they capture only a part of the voice but it makes me listen for what thread feels “most important” to me this day. I could do the same Psalms over and over again with a new phrase because they are infinite threads in the tapestry… and so could you. I started at 1 (a very good place to start) and so far I am up to 10. You can follow them on FB with the hashtag #Psalmsin6words because I forget to to tweet… ever, or I will do a retrospective every 10 days or so here to keep them somewhat together. Here are the last 10 days:
Psalm 1: “Roots mirror their soil; plant wisely”
Psalm 2: “Nations seek greatness; steadfast love endures.”
Psalm 3: “God’s dead, they say… Alternative facts.”
Psalm 4: “When all is deception; seek silence.”
Psalm 5: “Sigh! Cry! Plead! Marinate in Love.”
Psalm 6: “Dry-heaving tears without end… God?”
Psalm 7: “Not just what, but how, matters.”
Psalm 8: “Everything is awesome; keep it so.”
Psalm 9: “Be a herald of steadfast love.”
Psalm 10: “God, you need to adult today!”
**Each week we are following up the sermon theme for our lenten series, Hitchhiking with Jesus, with a devotional that continues the thought of the sermon. They will make sense without the sermon but if you missed it and wish to watch you can always catch them on our YouTube page here along with anthems and next week’s sermon teaser.****
Years ago, I read a thought on forgiveness from John Patton (formerly a pastoral care professor at Columbia Theological Seminary) that used the metaphor of a being an air traffic controller. All the things we are carrying with us: the worries, the slights, grievances, shame, guilt… all if it, they are all like airplanes circling our brain. The more “junk” that is circling the more energy we are investing just keeping it all from colliding and crashing. It becomes a full-time job just to maintain it all… energy that would better be served elsewhere creating, fostering, and celebrating life.
In this scenario forgiving someone, forgiving yourself, and allowing grace into the equation, is the equivalent of landing an airplane so we don’t have to keep it going and can let it rest in peace. The regular practice of such forgiveness and grace allows us to stop living life backward in maintaining a set of things to which we are beholden and which suck the life from our present and future. Thus forgiveness, in this understanding, isn’t simply about what we owe (or should do) for the other. It’s something we owe ourselves: an unburdening of self. Remember, Jesus said, “I come to give you life, and life abundantly.”
As we are hitchhiking with Jesus we are invited to drop go our nets and follow. We are invited to sell off possessions, drop oppressive labels and expectations, and yes – even traditions and ‘ways of being’ that may once have been helpful but have become masters of our daily routines. We are called to drop them all. Land the planes… and move into the future with the freedom Christ offers us.
What are you carrying? What weighs you down? What anchors you to death? What planes are you keeping aloft at the cost of people around you… and your own sanity?
What do you need to leave behind?
The reflective thinker that I am is a product of my mother. A reader, a student, and a leader because she expected me to be those things… not that she told me so, but she lived those so core to her being that I could not help but follow in her footsteps. Thank you, Lynda Kukla.
I grew up with 3 sisters and no brothers. Which was a lot like having 4 moms. Because of their strong, talented, creative way of being in the world I never imagined they weren’t my equals (except when they were my betters). I grew up sharing a bathroom in such a way that I never expected to have warm water left for my shower, I was well acquainted with feminine products and can discuss their various functions as naturally as football and I have always put the toilet seat down. Our basement had a full sized balanced beam in it (when it wasn’t in our living room) and I played with dolls as much as with matchbox cars. I had very little sense of socialized gender roles. Thank you, Robin, Karen, and Sally
I had many great professors but the one who likely made the most difference in my life was my fourth-grade teacher who believed I had a depth of talent no-one else had seen and pushed me to find it. She encouraged me to skip two reading levels and forever altered the trajectory of my academic career. Thank you, Mrs. Mullholland.
I can still recall being in the 7th-grade concert choir which was about 30 people, 28 of whom were girls. I was too awkward a boy to do anything with that great ratio when it came to dating but it was fundamentally ok for me to love doing something that was apparently perceived as a “girl thing.” Thank you, Ms. Kennedy and fellow choral members.
The most random professionally altering encounter I ever had was when a classmate of my eldest sister (9 years older than me), now an English teacher at my high school where I had just started my freshman year, wrote me a note saying I should come to the informational meeting about Speech Team. I was an awkward introverted kid who had no business going to such a place but her individual effort on my behalf felt good so I did… and it has made all the difference in my life. Thank you, Miss Heck, (edit: correction from my sister actually – go figure, now Mrs. Martin).
The better two-thirds of me is my wife, for whom I am daily grateful. I would say more but it would take volumes. Thank you, Caroline.
My favorite supervisor ever (I have had many good ones – but the one most dear to my heart) was in chaplaincy and she is a feisty, resilient, wise, American Baptist, African-American, female clergywoman and Head of Chaplaincy in an inner-city southern hospital. I hear her voice in my head at least once a week. And if life had gone a different direction I would love to be working for her still this day. Thank you, Robin.
I have had several great pastor mentors but when I’m unsure how to be pastoral in a situation it is the Senior Associate Pastor from my first call whose voice and example I look to in order to be lead through the tangle I find myself in. I loved popping in her office to bounce ideas off of her or vent and receive care and guidance and make it through the day. Thank you, Carol.
I have worked on staff with 3 co-worker associate pastors and 2 associate pastors who have worked alongside me. They were all females. They all made me a better pastor. They all taught me lessons I didn’t want to learn. Thank you, Carol, Laurie, Katie, Joanna, and Katey.
I always wanted a daughter. I love my son and I’m grateful for him but I had a special desire to raise a daughter. I get to do it times three. And as I have been surrounded by awesome women my whole life it just makes sense that this would be so. They rock. Period. Thank you, Elizabeth, Meredith, and Danielle.
I could go on forever because it doesn’t stop there. Neighbors, friends, students, co-workers, church members… everywhere I look there are two or three women for every man, often more. That’s no joke. The world without women would not exist. And a world where women didn’t shape me would be sad indeed. I’m wearing red today because in a world that still struggles to value you – I love you and I’m grateful that you have shaped me at more than a fair cost to yourselves… because it’s what you do and its who you are. In the words of a friend, “I’m thankful you were born.”
Each week through Lent I will provide one or two devotional reflections to continue the thoughts of that week’s theme. This week as the first part of our Hitchhiking with Jesus series we reflected on the Call to Discipleship as dropping nets (Matthew 5) and Jesus’ redefinition of who was his mother and brothers / his rejection by his hometown (Matthew 12:46-50 and 13:54-59) and consider the question, “Who do we leave behind?”
(If you missed the sermon and wish to watch it you can do so here.)
“What a relief it must have been when the stone was rolled across the entrance to the tomb, sealing everything shut so they could go back to being fishermen, which they knew how to do, rather than fishers of men, which they didn’t.” — Richard Russo, Empire Falls
(quote compliments of Jill Reardon who texted it to me after Sunday’s sermon)
I remember being asked once about discomfort, was it necessary to move outside of our comfort zones in the journey of discipleship. My answer? Yes. Of course, there is more I’d say than just yes. Jesus rarely is reducible to simple answers. Jesus relieves us of anxiety born of shame and guilt. Jesus forgives sin and builds up (sometimes literally lifts up) those who have been cast aside. In this sense, Jesus brings comfort to those who lack it.
But Jesus also unsettles us. Jesus breaks us out of routines that normalize injustice, he questions systems of power that dehumanize some on behalf of others and generally invites us to “pick up our cross” as a perpetuate journey in not becoming passive and comfortable to a status quo that is “less than” the Kingdom of God.
As we think of last week’s texts about Jesus leaving his family and his struggles to be a prophet in his hometown that could not get over him being “the carpenter’s son” we are confronted with our own need to name what we need to leave behind in our journey of discipleship. If we are going to hitchhike with Jesus what fears, comforts, and habits keep us from being able to do that?
The answers may be hard, and the commitment to imagine life beyond those “ways” that have always worked for us is discomforting… but they also lead us to new life – because this is the way of the cross. This is the way of sealed tombs that become empty. This is the way of Jesus Christ.
We leave our self behind (both our own distorted self and the image of self the world has forced us to carry) to find our new self in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Who are you leaving behind?
Note to email subscribers: you are getting this a second time. My apologies. I deleted the initial post thinking I shouldn’t actually post it. Then I triple-guessed myself and remembered that I swore a long time ago to live more transparently (despite my discomfort with it) and decided to repost it.
First: I don’t like sharing articles like this (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2017/03/01/happens-pastor-people-leave-church). As a pastor, it feels passive-aggressive and a backward cry for help/attention.
Second: I’m sharing this because I almost wrote it earlier thinking, sometimes it’s okay to cry for help… or, more accurately, cry for understanding.
Third: What I would add is that I have started way too many conversations lately with:
“I’m running on empty…”
“I’m stressed out…”
I’d like to just flip a switch with regards to that but this is not how physical/mental/emotional health works. And it’s not how you stop the world from dumping more on your plate either.
Fourth: I’m not wanting this to be an excuse. And frankly, I don’t want attention as strange as that may sound given I’m publicly posting this. I do want to keep finding appropriate space, support, and help to weather the storm to the other side. (Fear not: I’m getting help… my hypocrisy knows some boundaries.) But more than that I want you to know that this isn’t about me. This is about everyone. Because this isn’t a pastor story – it’s a people living in community story. It’s a family story. It is EVERYONE’s story.
And with that said… my own thoughts to add to that article linked above (you will want to read it at some point, whatever point you choose, now/already/or after what follows but now is probably an appropriate time if you haven’t already):
I agree with everything this article says and more. I’d add that there is an even harder process to go through, people who leave for celebratory reasons weigh on a pastor, in fact sometimes even more. A new job, a new relationship, a life transition. All good reasons people leave and you are happy for them… but not happy for the loss of them as part of your community. Like postpartum depression or an empty-nest syndrome. A good thing can still cause grief.
It’s harder because the grief is selfish. But the grief is still real. The community of faith we foster is our family. It is, for many of us (not pastors alone), our first, second, and third place/home. And when things outside of our control stress it, tear it, or send part of it off on another journey (which is constantly happening) we carry an emotional toll for it.
When people in that place are stressed, torn, absent… we bear these stresses too. Because for all our deficiencies, and for all our struggle to show it as much as we might wish to, pastors do what we do because we genuinely hope for a better life for the people around us. We hope for a better life BECAUSE of the people around us. And while we struggle sometimes with our own messiah complexes we still know we cannot do that – it doesn’t depend on us and imagining it does is harmful to everyone. But you still try, our hearts are not rational. And you yearn for well-being and wholeness, and you lament it when you are reminded again and again that it there are many roadblocks beyond our control.
So yes. There are seasons of growth and seasons of splendor and seasons of stagnation and seasons of death. It has always been so and it will always be. And coping with that takes community and self-care. And coping with that isn’t necessarily any easier for knowing it’s no-one’s fault. I share this with a hope that we will all remember that we all carry such burdens… and it’s why we all need grace. forgiveness. mercy. healing. hope.
Now back to the part where sharing this as a pastor is complicated and probably shouldn’t be done. Some of you are reading this feeling like it’s your fault I’m stressed – please don’t. I’m grateful you have trusted me to be a part of your life. Some of you MAY from some misplaced sense of care decide not to burden me with anything else. (It’s what I would do, I have a lifelong fear of being a burden to people that I cannot shake.) And I expressly forbid that line of reasoning!!! (Like you listen to me anyway…. *wink*) Burden me, just as I’m burdening you with all this right now. Because we cannot carry burdens alone. That’s why we are so invested in other’s lives. But also, seek understanding, empathy, and grace. Not to me. To everyone. That is the reason I write things here. Even self-revealing things like reaching my own finiteness and limits. So, that I might learn from them how to see them in others. So, that you might see in my story, your story… and your neighbor’s story. And vice-versa.
Someday I will drop kids off at college. I will watch them marry and leave. I will watch tragedy strike them if I’m lucky enough to stay tragedy free myself. These burdens will happen. They are not a reason not to experience the joy. They are not a reason not to fully invest in sharing and living our life together. I welcome the grief because I love love… and the two go hand in hand. And I love all the seasons because death is part of life, and rebirth and I’m a child of resurrection. I just want you to know what season I’m in… and I want to know what season you’re in too… and that I wouldn’t have it any other way. Though I wouldn’t mind a break right now.
love you! – andrew
I was just asked about the history of my benediction. And yes I’m amazed how many people talk to me about it being “my” benediction. And there was even a great moment once when the youth here on Youth Sunday made a point to all say the words of my benediction together in unison while barely containing their laughter. They were very proud of themselves (and we were pretty proud of them too because they rock).
Anyway… here it is. When I started my first ordained call the benediction was always paired with the preacher of the day. (A tradition I carry with me, the charge and benediction should flow from the sermon and the totality of our Word in worship.) I preached rarely and I could never remember the words to the “normal” benediction… I was always in my head saying “does grace go with God, or with Jesus? I’m pretty sure fellowship is the Holy Spirit but you got me on what order it all comes in…”
Basically, it just didn’t work for me.
So I harkened (that word needs to be used more* check down below for a further word study comment for those interested) back to words a pastor in my internship used to use regularly about being the object of the greatest love. Words that always resonated with me. So I took those words and used them and over the years have added some nuance that evolved into the benediction I use every single week woven into the charge as we go out in worship to the world.
“Go forth and (fill in the nugget of the focus and function of the sermon here) knowing that we do not go alone. But we go together, and God goes with us and before us. And you are the object of the greatest love that ever was, is, and every shall be, so go in peace. Amen.”
And that benediction – which came about because I couldn’t remember the one I was trying to use – has always surprised me in how profoundly people experience it. It has saved me from many a bad sermon as people regularly remark how much those ending words mean to them as they leave worship.
So here is what that all means for me.
They aren’t my words. It isn’t my benediction.
The are our good news that we bear out in the world, for our sake, for each other’s sake, and for the sake of all creation.
Know that you are loved my friends, and bear that love to one another.
*a note about “harkened back”
I promised a neat side story of word etymology, my paraphrase of a comment from the Grammarist (http://grammarist.com/spelling/hark-harken-hearken/) so they get credit if it’s true and the fault if its wrong but really, with such a snappy name like that how could they be wrong (after all, if it’s on the internet it must be true….).
In usage “hark back”, “hearken”, and “harken back” all mean the same thing and can be used interchangeably though the first is the most common (that surprised me). The first is also the one with the good origin story. It was a hunting term. When the hunting dogs had lost the scent of the prey the hunting party would hark back (because the hounds are barking and moving back along the trail) until they picked up the old scent and could follow it forward again.
I love that. Going to use that in a sermon someday!
I was reading something I wrote about ten years ago and came across this line: “lucky is the person whose illusions are pierced gently.”
Not sure I meant it to be so, but it reminds me now of the weird introduction (“Attunement”) to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling in which there are four versions of the Abraham and Isaac story told that alter the story in ways (the eponymous author Johannes de Silentio here talking of a man who doesn’t understand Abraham, who cannot be understood) that would denude the story of its full faith-power. Each version is followed by a strange version of a mother weaning her child from the breast. The first such version, in which Abraham acts the villain to take the blame for God, the analogous breast feeding technique is:
“When the child is to be weaned, the mother blackens her breast. It would be hard to have the breast look inviting when the child must not have it. So the child believes that the breast has changed, but the mother—she is still the same, her gaze is tender and loving as ever. How fortunate the one who did not need more terrible means to wean the child!”
Now most everyone agrees it’s hard to impossible to know what to do with the attunements except perhaps that this is the point. It’s hard to attune to that which cannot be understood. But every once in a while I think there is more there… like I can see through the veil for a moment.
Today, thinking on that which I wrote 10 years ago and F&T, I wonder at hard won learnings. Illusions we didn’t want to let go. Or life transforming things we learned but after far too much pain. I can sense the whistfulness of Abraham… “wouldn’t it be nice if this wasn’t all necessary….” and yet Kierkegard makes clear the danger of imagining we can all skip the hard journey and start where other left off. Thanks Abraham for journeying to Mount Moriah for me, glad I can skip that part.
Only we cannot. Not usually.
Lucky if you can I guess.
We cling tight to the breast. It’s hard to give up the reality we have constructed for ourself or had constructed for us. The journey to pierce that veil, to put that world to death? It takes inner strength, a fair bit of foolishness, and good company.
I hope each of you has a couple good friends, traveling partners, who pierce your illusions gently for you. They will make all the difference.
I had a conversation the other day that got me going on a something of a soap box issue for me and it revolves around responsibility. But in that conversation it got more complicated than simply being about responsible versus irresponsible people. The problem really comes about with two interrelated and opposing sets of attributes. Responsibility and narcissism. Because while I was replaying the conversation in my head I realized that for me one of the great problems in our society is people who are simultaneously narcissists and irresponsible. I think this thought goes all the way back to a conversation years ago where a friend noted a psychologist’s opinion that teaching people that they are important in solving the problems of the world trains people to be narcissists because they get caught up in their own importance. I can see that… and yet I’m a HUGE fan of talking about responsibility, belonging, and ownership. Its easy to go into consultant mode where you can tell other people what problems they need to solve, or even how YOU think THEY should solve them. But its largely unhelpful. For me its all in the sense of belonging and ownership that recognizes we are all need to be the people responsible for solving, and not just pointing out, problems.
Thus the intersection of a people who on an x-y axis of responsibility and narcissism.
The x axis for me is a pendulum between ownership/responsibility and laissez-faire voyeurism. The terms may be problematic but the sense is that on one side people feel that life is a shared experiment and we all bear a responsibility to one another and being the solutions to each other’s problems. And the other side has a hands off approach where we stay out of each other’s way. We watch, we don’t meddle.
And the y-axis is about narcissism and altruism. Again the terms may be extreme but the pendulum is about one’s sense of their own importance from the one who is self-obsessed to the one who is so other-oriented as to negate a sense of self.
Why does this matter? Because I am not convinced its helpful to only talk about someone as being a narcissist. I think most good leaders have a level of narcissism in them. Let me, for example use the Apostle Paul. I give him a lot of grief. Paul seems to me to always be saying how humble he is… that he is in fact the most excellently humble guy you could find… the most humblest human of them all. He does humility better than anyone. And I usually laugh about that… because humility is one of those traits you can’t claim to have, and as soon as you do… you don’t. But Paul is on to something in a way VERY FEW leaders in the history of the world have talked about. We need examples. People need to see leaders living life in order to follow them and their example. And that’s tough when you are trying to lead people in a way centered in humility and service. Because the leader needs to think ENOUGH about themselves to see themselves as a laudable example and put themselves out there. AND they need to be oriented towards serving other people and not themselves. They need to be self-important servants? Maybe not that extreme… but maybe also not not-that either. I’m not sure how far I am willing to run with this but I think my working theory is that I’m actually okay with someone creeping up fairly high on the Y-axis toward narcissism…. And I’m actually okay with a pedagogy and social structure that results in people going somewhat high on that Y-axis… if it keeps them on the side where they are responsible owners of the problems in our shared world. I’d rather we all were a little too impressed with ourselves but had a strong sense of inter-relatedness and shared struggle, than a world were aren’t so impressed without ourselves and our authority… but don’t really care to change anything either.
Maybe there is a perfect solution to cultivate a society of belonging altruists… but in the mean time I’d settle for us all thinking a little too much for ourselves… and making the world a better place for each other.
So what do you think? How do we use our language clearly to note that narcissism alone isn’t the problem? Is there a way to impress upon each other responsibility and importance… without being narcissists? And how much of that is ok… if it leads us in the right direction?
And then for fun… where are you hanging out on the scale? Are you happy with where you’d place yourself?
Dear Friends and Family,
Last week I preached about the four women listed in The Gospel of Matthew’s lineage of Jesus. I called them badass women. Because they were, they had the deck stacked against them and didn’t let that hold them back. With equal parts faith, tenacity, and a what-do-I-have-to-lose-life-has-to-be-stronger-than-death-because-I-do-not-like-the-alternative desperation Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah wrestled out hope and continued a line we attest to as messianic. A pretend prostitute and real one. Grieving widows…. Refugees that are our mortal enemies… pawns in political games of abusive power. These are the women who birthed the legacy that would become Jesus.
Now I’m not supposed to be re-preaching my sermon… this was supposed to be a feel-good family Christmas letter. So, where am I going with this? Well I started to think that my hope for my children is that each of them has this kind of tenacious spirit. I hope I nurture a lot of badass women!
Warren is my Rahab. He will be quick to tell you he is the only boy. He has also had an interesting year of being consistently mistaken as a girl. His long hair, and his mother’s good looks I guess. He is a phenomenal older brother (Rahab too was a caretaker of her family) with a strong protective instinct to his sisters – he cuddled E the other day when she got scarred during a movie we were watching. (This instinct is strong in him as long as he gets to annoy them to no end…) He also gets really annoyed when he gets called a girl – and I think he gets extra joy on the soccer field when he dumps a player on the ground (somehow my loving and very sensitive son is quite the physical beast on the field). My hope is that he sees being called a girl as something that is just fine: because he is born in the stripe of badass women. His honors math teacher, in a conference about some of his academic struggles, describes Warren as all force and no vector (guess we know why he is a math teacher). I used to say something similar. The day he develops long obedience in the same direction he will change the world. My frustratingly wonderful son is gritty and talented guy waiting to find his purpose. And when that happens? Walls will sure go a tumbling down (can’t help it with the Biblical references, vocational hazard).
Elizabeth is my Ruth. She is steady, a homemaker, and has a creative flair that tells you she will always find an unexpected way to bring hope into the world. She isn’t so much badass in the way that word normally inspires visions of brute strength or hard-edged attitude. She is that one you never see working and helping and imagining and somehow has done all the work to make it happen. She is up making breakfast with me every morning. She has an insightful view of the world. And she loves to create. She is probably the one I worry about the most, because I don’t want that bright light in her be extinguished. But she is resourceful that one, and she doesn’t need me or anyone else to protect her. She’s badass – just with matching clothes, a spatula, and the latest musical play she has written. Sword-wielding folk are easy to deal with… it’s the poets you have to watch out for – and this poet ready.
Meredith is Tamar to the T. You do not worry about Meredith… you worry about the people in her way. (That includes Caroline and me). She will likely cause us more grey hair than the other three combined. I collect more mere-mere (that’s her nickname) stories than all the rest. My favorite was the day at Arches National Park when I lost track of her at one of the massive arches. I found her because I noticed a large group of people pointing way up on the rocks… they weren’t watching wild animals. They were all watching Mere climb a sheer cliff. She looked like a little dot. I wanted to run up there and get her but knew that I couldn’t. I already can’t go the places she can with graceful ease. I simply called out to her that it was time to come down and she scampered (literally) down to us. Mere is the one kid who hasn’t chosen to do any sports or outside activities and we let her – its her life not ours. But the day the need arises, there is no doubt in my mind that she is the strongest of us: and she will move heaven and earth to get them out of her way. Like I said… Tamar.
Danielle gets the wife of Uriah because that’s the structure I chose and I have to play the game now. It is fitting in a way because we don’t know much of Bathsheba’s story. Her story is more of what happens to her than anything else and Danielle is still young enough to be an open book whose story is barely started. But one other similarity strikes me. They both were people you wanted in your life. Danielle’s gift is her ability to light up a room. She is the most joyous and smiley kid I have ever met. Even her temper tantrums are joyful and cause a giggle. She walks in her world with an air of magic that adds sparkles to everything. And the hope for me as her parent is that her magical joy is something I do not fall prey to thinking can be harnessed and held close – but is a gift to be left free and shared.
Those are my badass “women” whose stories are yet to be written but who have, each in their own way, entered more fully into this year through sporting field, classroom, play, and family fights. Recently someone asked me if with all that is happening in our world and in our country if I am scared for my children. That’s an easy one for me – and no jesting – I don’t fear for them at all. I do fear for anyone who tries to hold them back or stand in their way. The world is at once always horrible and wonderful. Its not more so now than before. As it has been said (bonus points if you know who and where) “There is nothing new under the sun.” But I’m generally one who feels called to see the hopeful, the be open to the magical, and to aspire for the best. Its not that there isn’t horrible stuff out there: there is plenty to fear and plenty to lament and plenty frustrate… but I refuse to allow that to color my world dim. And if anyone teaches me that bitterness is not a name worth taking its those badass women of the Bible and the children of our world – for me, my children in particular.
So one more note, a tip of the hat and huge hug to the badass woman leader of the Kukla clan. Caroline celebrated year ten at Allstate this year – cleaning up a mess of mixed up money which she does so well. She kept us all in clean clothes and eating relatively balanced meals and she does all that with amazing ability. This was a gritty year. Our basement sewer break left the house under construction all summer, and a simultaneous lice outbreak left us emotionally exhausted. I’m not sure we are really “back to normal” if such a thing even exists (it doesn’t). Seriously at one point I wasn’t sure our marriage was going to survive lice. But it did. And it does. Mostly because we are folks that call it like it is, don’t pretend it must be pretty, but keep hope as our fall back, go to move. And in such a mode? Most things can be either overcome, or traveled through. I read this a couple weeks ago: “Its healthier to eat Twinkies together than broccoli alone.” The science may be a bit sketchy but the point is well taken: travel together friends.
So as I wrap up this weird Christmas letter / sermon / I don’t know what this is, I will combine these two thoughts as my words to share and aim for in 2017. For me and you both:
Be Badass with/for each other!
Stay thirsty (for righteousness) my friends. Grace and Peace to you all this season.