Sunday, April 08, 2012

An Easter Reflection on Rebirth and Resurrection

Rev. Kit Ketcham, with Dave Sweetwood, April 8, 2012

When Dave and I sat down to think about this service a couple of weeks ago, I asked him to tell me what Easter meant to him. He had had a fairly typical Protestant upbringing and had pretty much set aside the traditional teachings of Jesus’ physical resurrection and ascension into heaven, as well as the stories of virgin birth and other miraculous acts.

But there was one Easter theme that really spoke to him, and you have now heard him tell his story of rebirth, of redemption, of renewal and new life.

It’s always a little risky to ask someone to tell such a personal story, but Dave reminded me, when I asked if he’d be willing to share it with you today, that his story of rebirth into recovery from alcoholism is a story we all need to hear, time and again, for we all struggle with our various captivities, be they eating patterns, drug and alcohol usage, spending, relationship problems, gambling, anger, workaholism, to name a few.

We all need to hear the life-giving words that all is not lost, that we can reclaim health and sanity, that we can find a new way of living, of being with others, of being with ourselves and with the great mystery that some call God.

Dave tells his story of rebirth to others freely. It’s part of his recovery, part of the way he maintains his sobriety, part of the way he offers hope to others who may be struggling themselves.

The word rebirth may call up in us a number of different feelings. We may associate it with the traditional Christian concept of being “born again”. We may, as Nicodemus the tax guy in the Bible said to Jesus at one point in those ancient stories, we may wonder how the heck a person can re-enter his/her mother’s womb and come out again. That’s a kind of creepy concept that is physically impossible, anyhow.

If we’re stuck on the literality of the term, it is hard to recognize its deeper meaning. But consider the many words I found in my thesaurus when I checked out “rebirth” for synonyms. There are the requisite religious terms: conversion, baptism, cleansing, purification, purgation---there’s one that sounds a little gross. They’re pretty loaded for many of us.

I remember in seminary innocently asking my theology professor one day what the term was for a person who gradually saw things in a different way and came to behave differently as a result.

I was thinking of my own process of becoming a Unitarian Universalist, not overnight but after long hard thought in which I compared the religious values of justice, mercy, and humility with the values of the conservative Christianity I’d observed, which seemed to be more along the lines of proselytize, deny science, and exclude anyone different.

Dr. Davaney looked at me strangely and said, “Conversion”, as though she were wondering if I should even be in seminary, if I didn’t understand the concept of conversion. I did understand the concept of conversion; it was the step right after proselytization and it was something I had been expected to do to or for others.

That wasn’t what had happened to me. It wasn’t what I had done to or for others. I had watched other people live their lives in ways I admired and I wanted to learn how to live that way too.

Long ago, in a universe 1300 miles away, Denver, before I ever met Professor Davaney, I had a lovely boyfriend named Gil who was a recovering alcoholic. He lived his life in ways I admired. I cared for him very much and listened to him talk about examining his life and making amends to those people he had hurt with his drinking behavior----his ex-wife, his sons, his co-workers, and most of all, himself.

All this time, while I was listening, all I could think of was my ex-husband’s faults, his drinking behavior, and how it had hurt me and our son. I wanted that man to make amends to me! And so one day, I asked Gil, “how can I get him to make amends to me?”

Gil looked at me a little bit the same way my theology professor would look at me, years later, and suddenly, it clicked. I “grokked” it, as we learned to say in the 60’s. I realized that I couldn’t make my ex do anything. I needed to examine my own life and consider making amends to those I’d hurt, not fixate on how they had hurt me.

And my mother’s words came back to me, to when she’d say to me after some complaint I’d registered about how a sibling had treated me badly. My mom just said, “honey, you can’t change other people’s behavior, you can only change your own.”

Gil’s look and my mother’s words combined to give me a moment of clarity and recognition of a new pathway for my life. Instead of resentment against a man who had hurt me, I would be better served by self-examination and consideration of how my behavior might change.

Here are a few other words I found in my thesaurus: renaissance, renascence, revival, new awakening, regeneration, renewal, rejuvenation, restoration. And resurrection, a returning to healthy life from a place of death.

Resurrection----one of the key words at Eastertide. Now, we can be pretty sure that truly dead people almost never become alive again, though we often hold out hope for a miracle.

And I suppose it’s possible that Jesus, after his crucifixion, seemed to be genuinely dead but that he recovered and was able to walk and talk again with his friends a few days later. Possible, but not very likely---crucifixion was a pretty final event in a person’s life.

What it makes me think of, however, is that there seem to be different kinds of things we consider to be death-like: there’s physical death, when the brain and organs quit working, but there’s also a sort of mental death, when the mind is gone but the body continues to function. There’s bodily death, when almost nothing but the mind works.

Even these informal categories are open to question, now that it is possible to resuscitate many a person whose brain and heart have suddenly stopped working and there are ways for severe quadriplegics to continue to function, like Stephen Hawking who depends on technology to keep his bodily systems working and whose mind is steadily churning out ideas.

The death that threatens us all, I think, is spiritual death. And how I would define that term is as a state of being in which we no longer feel connected to the universe, when we focus solely on the routines that get us through a day with little or no awareness of the larger meanings of our lives, when we are so beaten down by habits or circumstances or sorrow or anger that we cannot see a way out of our blind alleys and the quagmires that trap us.

Spiritual death threatens when we lose sight of our relationships and our connections to other people and to the universe. Some would say that spiritual death means disconnection from God; though I prefer to use other language, I believe that’s so, that there is often a hole in our lives that would be best filled by spiritual experience.

There have been a few times in my life when I’ve teetered on the brink of becoming so disconnected that I didn’t feel quite real. My life at those times seemed to be centered on doing what others wanted or needed me to do, hiding loneliness and resentment under a fa├žade of vivacity and cheer, controlling as much as I could to keep from having to deal with the surprises and crises that would otherwise land in my lap.

I reveled, at those times, in the ego-boosts of praise from admirers and tried to keep them coming in, sometimes by abandoning my own ethical standards and doing things I would not normally have done, in order to keep feeling like I was a real person, that I belonged.

I resisted getting too close to people. I pretended to be what people thought I was. It took a spiritual awakening to get me on the right track.

I think this period of disconnected time in my life began when I first started to realize how different I felt from other people. Some of it was being a preacher’s kid who couldn’t do the same kinds of social things that my friends could do. Some of it was being smart and wanting to do something with my life besides marry the first boy who asked and become a wife in a small town without much intellectual stimulation.

There were lots of ways I felt different from everyone around me and I began to cope with that sense of separation by faking it a lot. By pretending to be like everyone else, by pretending to believe what everyone around me believed. By letting go of some ethical standards and acquiescing to things I knew were wrong, just in order to make my husband happy. Or at least keeping him from complaining about my bad attitudes.

This was a tough way to live, but I got good at it. It carried over well into my work and social life, and I had no idea that not everyone around me was fooled. I was fooled, sort of, but people who took the time to know me well were not.

Now, I don’t want this to turn into true confessions, though I do confess I am telling you more now than I might have nine years ago!

The point is that I think a lot of us grow up in ways that encourage us to pretend, to be what others think we should be, to fulfill societal expectations that stuff us into boxes and molds that are uncomfortable and even dishonest.

I tell stories about myself because I believe that they are universal stories, that others share these human dilemmas, that hearing another person’s stories can give us insights into our own lives, ideas for approaching our personal dilemmas, and the courage to do something about them.

So what does Easter mean to me? Like Dave, I resonate to the idea of rebirth. I see the resurrection story of the Bible as a metaphor for human living. I see myself being reborn any number of times over my lifetime so far. Perhaps you do too.

For me the most recent rebirth came about a year ago, when my doctor told me my cholesterol, blood pressure, and other numbers were high and we needed to consider drug therapy to lower them. I had guessed she might suggest that and I knew I needed to do something.

So all the way up to Oak Harbor for my appointment one day, I considered various ways of telling her I refused drug therapy for these conditions and why I felt I couldn’t lose weight, which I knew would be her next suggestion.

But once in her office, going over the numbers and knowing I needed to do something, I said to her, “well, I guess I could go back to Weight Watchers”, thinking even as I said it that it probably wouldn’t work, but that at least I could fob her off by giving that answer, which would sound good. Which she wanted to hear. Yep, I was doing it again!

She was, of course, pleased to hear me say that but I felt dishonest as I went out the door, because I kinda knew it was just a way to get her off my back.

All the way home, I thought about what I’d said and what I actually would probably do. And I thought about other times I’d tried Weight Watchers: after Mike was born, when I needed to lose baby fat and make my husband happy; after my divorce, when I wanted to look good and get a boyfriend; during the hard times at a former congregation when I was feeling bad about myself and was looking for a new congregation.

None of these unsuccessful efforts was actually about me---they were all an effort to be what I thought others wanted me to be. This time, it was about me and my health and my happiness and my ability to live into my old age as a strong healthy woman. I wasn’t going to be able to be my real self if I was sick or if I lacked stamina for life’s challenges.

I thought about times when I’d succeeded in doing something really hard and I remembered those years I spent in a 12 step program. One of the old slogans came back to me, somewhere around Coupeville: “It works if you work it.” It works if you work it. It works if you do it the way it’s supposed to be done. It works if you do it for yourself, not for someone else.

When I got home, I went to the WW website to locate a meeting, I put it on my calendar, and the next Thursday at noon, I showed up at Deer Lagoon Grange. I’ve been going ever since, and you have all watched me succeed in peeling off almost 40 pounds during the past year.

But this story is not about weight loss and better physical health. It’s about the recognition I’ve had over this past year that physical poundage was not the only weight on my heart.

There was also the weight of unresolved conflict with people from my past, people I still felt angry with, people I thought had done me wrong, who thought I had done them wrong.

They included longtime friends and colleagues I’d written off, still peeved that they got mad at me over hurt feelings, still feeling hurt myself and resentful about it. I was uncomfortable when I had to be around them, I let the resentment crop up repeatedly, and I avoided seeing them if possible.

One day last fall, I got to thinking about a lost friendship with a woman in my former congregation in Colorado. We had been very close, but when I went into the ministry and moved to the PNW, our friendship weakened and when I asked her once to tell me more about a problem in that congregation, she flared up at me, told me that she felt I’d dumped her when I moved, and she didn’t want to be friends any more. Ouch.

All my emails of indignant protest went unanswered. I sent more messages. Nothing. So I just fumed quietly about it----until it was approaching this past Christmas and I again wondered about sending her a holiday message. It struck me suddenly that maybe I was in the wrong, to some extent. If I couldn’t change her behavior, perhaps I could change my own.

I wrote her a letter, a real letter, not an email, of apology, took the blame for having asked her inappropriately to gossip about the situation, and sent it off, around Thanksgiving. I had no idea how she would respond, whether she’d even open the letter.

Two weeks later, I got a card from her, accepting my apology, offering her renewed friendship, and hoping I was well. A huge weight was lifted from my heart. Even if she hadn’t responded at all, I had at least done the right thing by admitting I’d hurt her and asking her forgiveness, even these long years after the fact. She’d had a right to feel hurt; I had hurt her.

A few months later, another opportunity arose, this one with a colleague I’d felt resentful about for years. We had mutually hurt each other and the weight of my resentment was bothering me. I wrote my colleague a letter of regret about my having administered that hurt. I didn’t ask my colleague to make amends to me; I just wanted to get rid of that weight on my heart. My colleague forgave me.

There are a few more pounds weighing down my heart—five more physical pounds and a couple more spiritual pounds, weight I need to jettison in order to be more whole. But I’ve learned some important spiritual lessons during this past year---that pounds of lard affect my physical health and that pounds of resentment affect my spiritual health. I need to be careful that they don’t creep back, once I’ve lost them.

They say maintenance of healthy physical weight depends on vigilance and I think that holds true for healthy spiritual weight as well. I hope that all of us who struggle with issues of resentment, addiction, and other spiritual ills will find the rebirth, the resurrection, out of spiritual death and grow into a new life of joy and greater health.

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that we can only change our own behavior, not others, and that it is our asking forgiveness that we can find new life. May we offer forgiveness to others freely and may we find the peace of mind that comes when we let go of resentment. May we all find a sense of spiritual renewal and renaissance in the days ahead. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.


John A Arkansawyer said...

That's a wonderful sermon, but I'm curious: Why do you refuse drug therapy for high blood pressure and cholesterol?

Lilylou said...

I don't like the idea of taking statins, which have dubious effectiveness for many people. I took them for about a year a couple of years ago and found that the side effects were uncomfortable for me. If my blood pressure was high for reasons other than overweight, I'd probably take a diuretic. But I just don't like taking medications if I don't have to!

Lilylou said...

PS. Thanks for the kind words, John.

Marhalim said...

i m whit u mom,,,,wonderfull
i like it