September 13, 2015
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
“Get out of my sight, you Satan!” Ouch! Can you image how much that statement hurt, when Jesus aimed it at Peter – Peter, the one who loved him so! And what was Peter’s sin, what caused Jesus to label him as Satan?
In the reading, Jesus says that Peter’s sin was “judging by human standards rather than by God’s” or, in the words of a different translation, “setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (I don’t know about you, but I frequently judge by human standards & think about human things – so Jesus has my attention.)
Then Jesus says: “he who will lose his life will save it, and he who would save his life will lose it.” What does it mean to “lose one’s life”?
My first interpretation is that “losing one’s life” means to die. When we die, do we save our life? The promise of the resurrection is just that: that believers will have eternal life after death.
But I think there is more to “losing one’s life” than just physical death. Actually, when I went back to study the gospel text some more, I realized that I had miss-read it. It doesn’t just say “if you lose your life, you’ll save it”… it says “if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll save it.”
What else does “losing one’s life for my sake in order to save it” mean? For help, I turned to several other biblical translations. The one I liked the best is Eugene Peterson’s book entitled, The Message. Here’s what it says in this part of Mark’s Gospel:
“Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat; I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how… Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to saving yourself, your true self. What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you?”
Many of you know that I rely on the twelve steps of alcoholics anonymous and al-anon as the structure for my spiritual life. For me, the entryway to “losing my life” has been the third step, which states: “made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.”
When I first confronted the third step in 1980, it made no sense to me. I thought that if I turned my life over, then my life would become nothing – like the hole in the donut. It was very, very frightening to “give up control”. Fortunately, my life at the time was pretty painful, so I was motivated to try it. And I believed in God, so I didn’t have a problem with that part – or so I thought.
I remember working with a twelve-step sponsor, trying to move beyond my persistent state of depression toward the recovery I saw others enjoying. I’d say, “woe is me, what should I do”, and my sponsor would say, “you’ve got to let go, you’ve got to turn it over, you’ve got to let go, you’ve got to turn it over”. The “it” was my life. I was being asked to let go of my life, to give up the illusion that I was in control, and to make a decision to get Michele out of the driver’s seat and let God lead.
I remember the night when my inner change began – the night when I got it – when I first felt that I really could trust God to be in charge. For the first time, I really did made a decision to turn my life over to the care of God – in essence, a decision to “lose” my life as I knew it.
Now I have to tell the joke about the 3 frogs sitting on a log: if 3 frogs are sitting on a log and one frog decides to jump, then how many frogs are sitting on the log? The answer is “3” – that one frog made a decision, but it didn’t actually jump.
Step three has been like that for me: I made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God almost 35 years ago, but the actual turning it over has come slowly and gradually, usually through prayer and pain.
Step Eleven of the Twelve Steps has taught me how to pray. It says, “sought to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand God, praying only for knowledge of God’s will and the power to carry that out.” In Seekers vocabulary, this says I seek to know and follow God’s call.”
As I’ve struggled to know and do God’s will, one important concept for me to learn has been humility. First, I had to learn that humility was not the same as humiliation. Humility, for me, is not feeling worse than others, and not feeling better than others, it’s feeling equal to other people & inferior to a higher power I call God.
Another useful concept has been Ego. Ego is about me, my will, my wants, my needs, my insecurity, my desire to be important. That’s not God’s will – God’s will is not about me. Turning over my will to God requires humility; it requires letting go of my ego. When I do it, I lose my life for God’s sake—-and I save it by finding a new source of freedom and meaning.
I confess, there was a time when I thought Step Three meant, “turn my will and my life over to the care of God, and God will give me what I want.” Instead, I’ve learned that it’s “turn my will and my life over to the care of God, and I will want what God wills for me.”
Fast forward: In 1989, I met the man who became my first husband. He was 27 years older than me. In 1994, we were married. In 1996, he was diagnosed with dementia, later Alzheimer’s disease. Over time, I turned into a 24-hour-a-day caregiver. I quit my job, we stopped socializing, I stopped having a life outside of the home. In a sense, I really did lose my life.
For a long time I struggled, I resisted, I lived in despair and depression. At one point, my spiritual advisor gave me a word to meditate on. The word was SURRENDER. Boy, I hated that word! But I was desperate and did what I was told: I walked and meditated on that word every day. Eventually, I realized what Surrender met. Surrender meant not resisting or resenting the circumstances of my life. It meant to quit fighting, to accept my reality, and to willingly embrace it.
Once I surrendered in this way, things got better. I lost my life, and I found a new life – not one I would have chosen, but one based on love as a caregiver. After breaking a hip, my first husband spent the last two years of his life in a nursing home. I was there virtually every day. (I was OK when he no longer recognized me; the hardest part for me was when he stopped talking.)
When he died in 2005, I realized that I had undergone a transformation. I realized what an incredible blessing I had received as a result of surrendering to my caregiving life – I gained the ability to love, to give without expectation of return, and to know deep inside that what really matters in the end is not what you accomplish, it’s love. I lost my life for the sake of something much greater than me, and I got it back many times over.
After he died, I felt called to continue some kind of nursing home service. Living in Baltimore at the time, I volunteered with the Baltimore County Department of Aging as a Long-Term Care Ombudsman – that means I worked as an advocate for nursing home residents. It was hard, but tremendously fulfilling. Every day I worked, I felt I lost my life and got back something better.
Fast forward again: In 2011, I moved to Silver Spring with my second husband. I really missed my nursing home service. In 2013, I signed up again as a volunteer long-term care ombudsman, this time with the Montgomery County Department of Aging. But it didn’t work out. The role that had given me so such satisfaction in Baltimore was not at all the same. The things I had been praised for, I was now criticized for. Angry and bewildered, I quit.
That was a really hardloss for me. I knew where I didn’t belong, but I didn’t know where to go next. At about the same time, I started coming to Seekers Church. Seekers Church is a great place to be “lost”. This community offers a lot of tools for seeking one’s call, and I took advantage of many of them.
Last fall, coming out of my first Seeker’s Silent Retreat, I heard what sounded like my new Call – to pursue Clinical Pastoral Education, a path for me to serve as a volunteer chaplain that involved study, self-examination, and internship work. This seemed a logical extension of my caregiving journey and my work with nursing home residents.
With a Growing Edge Fund grant from the Seeker’s Mission Support Group, I completed my first unit of CPE training at Frederick County Hospice in June, and this month I began my second unit of training at the Hebrew Home nursing home in Rockville, again with Growing Edge Fund support.
What have I learned?
I entered my training with a lot of experience as a caregiver. But the role of a chaplain, I learned, is very different than the role of a caregiver. It’s a different mindset. I was surprised to find myself in uncharted territory.
Among other things, I am learning the value and power of silence. This morning’s Psalm offers a powerful image for communication without words. I’d like to quote it now: “The heavens…and the skies…day after day they tell their story, and night after night they reveal the depth of their understanding…without speech, without words, without even an audible voice…
In my CPE training, I saw how I can enable another to travel their own journey further if I remain silent, listening, leaving open the space for them to talk. It’s actually pretty logical: if I talk less, they can talk more. I’m beginning to use the tool of silence in new ways. My personal slogan is now: “when in doubt, remain silent.” (So, if any of you find me talking too much or listening too little, you’re allowed to remind me of my new slogan.)
In Frederick, I was assigned a list of hospice patients to visit on a weekly basis. As it turned out, most of my assigned people were non-verbal or non-responsive individuals with dementia. I’ve been a caregiver to people with dementia, but being a pastoral counselor is much harder. How do I invite someone to tell me their story when they didn’t talk, or they talk so faintly that I can’t hear them?
“What am I supposed to do as a chaplain here,” I kept asking myself. Finally, in class I learned that I’m not supposed to “do” anything – I am simply to be present. When I give myself permission to do nothing, I have a totally different experience. It really does open me up to be more fully present.
I recall my last visit in Frederick with a man with dementia whose voice was rarely audible. I invited him to talk and he remained silent. Then I said, “it’s OK not to talk,” and he said, in a very soft voice, “suits me.” We sat together in silence for about 30 minutes. With his hands, he explored my hand, my ring, my watch, my hair. When I departed, he gave me a hug. For me, that hug was my graduation diploma.
I’ve learned a lot about my Growing Edges in clinical pastoral education. (In some ways, I feel like all I’ve learned so far is ‘what I need to learn.’) I’d like to tell you about three of my growing edges.
First, it’s a challenge for me to not act, to not try to fix things. All my adult life I’ve focused on intervening, advocating, fixing, solving. But the realm of the spiritual doesn’t work that way. The growing edge for me is to grow comfortable with listening and accepting, to become comfortable simply being present with another’s pain and suffering.
Second, it is a challenge for me to learn the clinical method of listening for the message behind a person’s words: what are they feeling? What are they really communicating? This is really hard for me, because I focus so strongly on words. (Remember how the hardest time with my late husband was when he could no longer talk.) I can see how learning this skill will widen my own personal window into the spiritual.
The third challenge is continuing to be vulnerable with others at the level required by this kind of training. I was able to develop trust with my peers in the Frederick program, but it was still scary to learn things about myself at a deeper level and to reveal them to others.
(In my new training group, one of my peers is someone I knew 20 years ago – he served on my board of directors when I was an Executive Director of the Institute for Conservation Leadership. I think the fact that he knew me in one of my “earlier lives,” is going to make it harder for me to be fully open and fully vulnerable.)
I told the Mission Support Group that my CPE training in Frederick confirmed my call to serve as a chaplain to people who are sick, elderly, disabled, or dying. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. It confirmed my desire to pursue this path, but I think it’s still an open question whether or not I’ll succeed in developing the skills to do it well. It’s not easy to change the way I think, the way I listen, and the way I hear.
In summary, in my own life I’ve identified four ways I can “lose my life for the sake of the gospels, and thus save it”:
1) When my physical body dies
2) When I hit bottom and surrender my will and my life
3) When I lose the life I chose as a result of tragedy, and I replace it with a new life in uncharted waters
4) When, with honesty, openness, and willingness I seek to know God’s call for me now & I commit to doing it.
Which brings me to our Reflection reading for this Season of Recommitment, which was read at the beginning of today’s service: “If I make of my life an offering and a dedication to God, there follows…a radical change over my entire landscape & miraculously I am free at my center.” For me, this means I lose my life and get it back in a whole new way.
Further on, our Reflection reads: “it is well, again and again, to re-establish my dedication,
to make repeatedly an offering of my life.” I really like the Seekers Church tradition of making an Annual Recommitment. For me, dedicating my life has not been something I do only once; I need to do it over and over again. Here at Seeker’s, each year I revisit my decision to participate in this Christian community. I ask myself: is this still where I belong? Is this still how God wants me to be of service? If not, where am I being called to offer my life now? How am I being called to lose my life in order to save it?
I want to close this morning with the last verse of today’s psalm. It’s a familiar prayer, often said at the start of a sermon, to focus the preacher and the people on the sermon as a sacred time for sacred listening. I offer it now to focus attention on our new Season of Recommitment as a sacred time for sacred listening to how God is calling each of us in the coming year. “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” Amen.