The sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 13, 2022
To start off, I have two confessions to make:
- I volunteered to preach because I had something I wanted to work through, something that affects all of us, and the focused effort of a sermon seemed like a good way to work through it. I’ve been working on this sermon for a month, and it’s the result of hours and hours of reading, research, and reflection, but I’m not satisfied with it. I offer it to you as my best effort to take on something really big with the time and resources I had available.
- I asked to preach on February 13th because of its personal significance to me and because of how that significance ties into the sermon topic. The scriptures for today work well, so I’m chalking that up to being a God thing.
Let’s start with the importance of today’s date.
Today marks the 25th anniversary of the day I met my fiancé. I was studying abroad in Oxford, and my Catholic roommate told me I could get free lunch if I went to choir practice at the Catholic chaplaincy. I was broke and I could sing so this seemed like a pretty good deal. The first day I went, February 13th, 1997, there he was. 6’3”, blonde haired, blue eyed, dimples, British, musical, beautiful. We were dating not long after, and a year and a half later he asked me to marry him. Today is also the 23rd anniversary of the date we were supposed to get married in London, but January 25th was the anniversary of the day he broke off our engagement, three weeks before the wedding, and 5 weeks before my UK work visa expired.
As an almost 23-year-old, this was devastating. There have been years since when I’ve forgotten the significance of this date and years when I’ve remembered it. This is a year I remembered it. Now, I know that not everyone gets to live in England and nearly get married to a gorgeous and musically talented British man, so this is probably not the best example of a personal tragedy. But it’s a comparatively safe personal example to share of a traumatic event that changed me. And it did.
We all have these events, these tragedies that make a lasting impression, things we remember decades later. It takes us years – sometimes many, many years— to recover from things that break our hearts. Many of us do, however, recover. Passing time and changing circumstances can help us move on. This brings me to the problem I hoped to work on through in writing this sermon: what do we do when the tragedy stretches on and on and on? How do you recover from something that won’t end? To quote Jack Nicholson from one of my favorite films “As Good As It Gets”, what if this is as good as it gets?
I will never forget where I was when I first heard about Omicron. I was spending Thanksgiving with my friend and her family in Chesapeake, VA. I got a Twitter alert which I opened, and there it was. Omicron. I followed that link to another news story, and another. I had been ready for variants… they were inevitable given the uneven global response to the virus and the outright denial by some of its seriousness… but I realized I’d believed Delta was basically it. And it wasn’t. I felt a wave of nausea and something like a cold chill. Over the next few days, I experienced a growing sense of hopelessness. I’d been able to basically cope with everything up to now. I’d adapted. I’d found resources. I’d worked on myself. But I couldn’t cope with this. I’d tasted comparative freedom for the previous 5 months after I received my vaccines and things started to open up, which felt like my reward for facing the terror of the vaccinations and complying with every single COVID protocol ever invented… and for turning the isolation into a time of reflection, which I had. Now I had to face the possibility that this may never go away.
What if this is as good as it gets?
The weeks went by, and I couldn’t shake the despair. I talked to a friend who told me about an article that appeared in The Atlantic in 2020 about “tragic optimism” as an alternative to “toxic positivity”. If you’re not aware, “toxic positivity” is the assertion that no matter what’s happening, you should maintain a positive mindset and should not allow yourself to feel negative emotions. “Tragic optimism”, on the other hand, is a term coined by Austrian neurologist Victor Frankl. In his 1984 essay “The Case for a Tragic Optimism”, Frankl defines tragic optimism as “that one is, and remains, optimistic in spite of the “tragic triad,” which consists of those aspects of human existence which may be circumscribed by: (1) pain; (2) guilt; and (3) death.”
The basic gist of the essay (and arguably of Frankl’s life’s work as I understand it) is that we get through life by finding meaning in what happens. When we lose connection to meaning, that’s when we ourselves get lost. To quote Frankl again, “a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation…. Once an individual’s search for a meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering.”
You may remember that Victor Frankl was a Holocaust survivor. He was in concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau, for THREE YEARS. When he talks about maintaining optimism in the face of life’s tragedies, it isn’t blithe self-help talk. It’s rugged and tough.
But it’s also a little bit intellectual. In his book My Bright Abyss, poet Christian Wiman states: “In the tenderest spots of human experience, nothing is more offensive than intellectualized understanding. ‘Pain comes from the darkness/and we call it wisdom,’ writes Randall Jarrell. ‘It is pain.’“ I’d spent more than a year and a half “making meaning” out of this situation of the pandemic. I was tired and couldn’t do it anymore. What about the pain? What happens when you hit a wall and can’t get past it?
What if this is as good as it gets?
I started clicking on links within the Atlantic article that referenced Frankl’s work, and then links within those links, and before I knew it, I had a pile of articles citing research about coping with and recovering from traumatic events. Many of these had been published during the pandemic, and some of these articles emphasized the cultivation of gratitude rather than the cultivation of a sense of purpose. This got more at the emotional reality of what I was experiencing. In his May 2013 article “How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times”, Robert Emmons (a professor of psychology at University of California Davis) writes the following:
Processing a life experience through a grateful lens does not mean denying negativity. It is not a form of superficial happiology. Instead, it means realizing the power you have to transform an obstacle into an opportunity. It means reframing a loss into a potential gain, recasting negativity into positive channels for gratitude.
This article, and several others, gave details of research I’d only seen alluded to before… that cultivating gratitude for what is good while acknowledging the bad led to more positive mental health outcomes and to greater resilience. Arguably, this is just another spin on Frankl’s tragic optimism, but I’ve been familiar with gratitude practice for many years, so this left me a little less cold than the more esoteric “search for meaning”.
Several other articles had a different, blunter message: you can’t get better if you don’t let yourself feel bad. There are several clinical research studies showing that allowing yourself to thoroughly feel negative emotions in response to difficult and tragic situations is necessary both to heal from that situation and for being able to cope with the next bad thing that happens. In his April 2020 essay for Scientific American “Post-Traumatic Growth: Finding Meaning and Creativity in Adversity”, Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman writes
…emotions such as sadness, grief, anger, and anxiety are common responses to trauma. Instead of trying everything we can to inhibit or “self-regulate” those emotions, experiential avoidance—avoiding feared thoughts, feelings, and sensations—paradoxically makes things worse, reinforcing our belief that the world is not safe and making it more difficult to pursue valued long-term goals. Through experiential avoidance, we shut down our exploratory capacities, thereby missing out on many opportunities for generating positive experiences and meaning.
This point hit home more than anything else I’d read so far. My discomfort with my discomfort was making things worse. I needed to be ok with not being ok. I needed to sit with the suck.
So, after all of that reading, I had three coping mechanisms now: Look for meaning (meh, I’d already been doing that), cultivate gratitude for what is good in life (yep was doing that, too, but ok I’ll keep at it), and let myself really feel negative emotions so that I had a chance to move beyond them (ok but yuck).
Good stuff, but something was still missing.
Which brings us to today’s Gospel, Luke 6:17-21
17 He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. 19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
It’s easy in this passage to focus on the promises Christ makes. That’s the point of the Beatitudes, right? It’s also possible to skip straight past the blessings and go on to the judgements that come in the latter part of this passage. As it goes on, particularly in Matthew’s rendering of it, the language of the Beatitudes becomes more and more of a spiritual merit list, a way of separating out those who are loyal followers of the way from those that are not. And in Luke’s version, the list of blessings is half as long as the one in Matthew and followed by a series of curses on those who are wealthy and powerful in this world. You could also be focused not so much on what Christ promises as who He condemns. Yikes.
It’s easy to miss the rather remarkable fact of what Jesus was there *to do*, or that He was there *at all*. Jesus’ primary purpose in that setting, as recorded in the opening paragraph, was to heal people of their diseases, physical, mental, and spiritual. He’s there, completely pressed in by this huge mob of folks with all of their problems and needs, and what does He do? He blesses them. He blesses the poor, the hungry, the weeping. He blesses their suffering, and He promises that their suffering will end… but He doesn’t say when. He blesses them as they are, knee deep in difficult situations that seemed they would never, ever end.
Right now, the important thing to me about this passage is that Christ, that God, *sees suffering*. In fact, He doesn’t just see it, He welcomes those who are suffering, and He blesses them. “This isn’t for nothing. I see you. It will end someday. I see you. You are not alone. I see you. I see you. I see you.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is really something about being a follower of a religion where God becomes a human and goes around healing people, you know? A God who cares enough about humanity to experience everything that humans must experience. A God who makes it their mission to alleviate the suffering of everyone they meet while they’re here. There is really something about God having that level of understanding, of God being able to see and wanting to care about us that way. There is a deep comfort in that for me. If I can’t find the meaning in what is happening now, God stays with me. If I can’t be grateful, God stays with me. If I sit with the suck, God sits there with me.
Part of the complexity of this moment is that my faith is having to change, and I’m not quite sure how to navigate that. To state the obvious, the faith of a person living among a lethal and constantly mutating virus is not the same as a person who isn’t. There are, of course, many people living around the world who have maintained faith during dire, dire circumstances, people who have lived their lives in a war zone or as refugees fleeing war, people who have dealt with malnutrition and Government corruption as daily realities, people who have endured things I can’t even bring myself to think about. I’m not facing what they’re facing, but I am facing something that may never go away.
Again quoting Christian Wiman from his book My Bright Abyss:
Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life—which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived—or have denied the reality of your life.
What if this is as good as it gets? How will this change me? Will I be able to maintain my faith in the God who sees, cares, and understands? Or will my bewilderment at the persistence of this circumstance turn my heart away from God in anger and fear? If my faith in God is also faith in the life God gave me, then continuing to have faith is part of living well. It doesn’t help me to become defined by exhaustion and hopelessness. The trick is to feel those things, but not become stuck there. I’m not sure I can pull it off. I ask God’s grace to help me through.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, I’m not satisfied with this message. I wanted it to be more hopeful, for one thing, and there are lots of things I just didn’t have time to touch on. I had thirteen pages of quotes and there was just a lot I had to cut out. Today’s passage from Jeremiah specifically talks about the folly of trusting in other people, so I chose not to engage with the topic of how valuable other people are in getting through difficult times… maybe I’ll save that for a week when the scriptures are more celebratory of friendship, like say Psalm 133:1 “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell in unity.” I will say that one of the bright spots in this endless experience has been the presence of friends. I have the great fortune today to be joined by friends old and new who have comforted my heart so many times during these days. Laura, Sarah, Laurie, Jenny and Heidi, thank you. If this is as good as it gets, I’m so glad I get to go through this with you.