Mutual Respect and Spiritual Intimacy
By Charles Rush
December 4, 2005
Matthew 1: 18-24
out Joseph almost nothing is known. We don't know his profession, whether he was happy in life, what he accomplished, whether he died contented or not. We have just one line about him… a one line description. Now… if you got only a one line obit… if people could only say one thing about you for posterity to remember you by, what would you want them to say?... What would you want them to say?
You could do a
lot worse than the one line that is attributed to him, particularly since he
was a young man at the time it was said. The scripture says, "being a just
man and unwilling to put her to shame"… I hope that will be said about my
sons and my grandsons. I hope that will be said about my daughters and granddaughters.
For years now,
I've ridden my bike and walked my dog passed Franklin School. They've had a banner out front that
says "Character counts". That little line has meant different things
at different times of life.
from Seminary, I was standing with a couple classmates, one of them turned out
to be one of the most gifted orators of our generation, the other a great
scholar. We were fast friends just taking in the moment when we were approached
by one member of the faculty, a beloved Emeritus professor, an elderly Southern
gentlemen and long-time pastor. He hugged us, his best students, pulled us all
close, as in right up nose to nose. He was going to give us some wisdom, a kind
of final blessing. We were waiting. He looked us all dead in the eye and he
said, "Boys, keep your pants zipped up and you'll be fine." We stood
there in slack-jawed amazement until he was far enough away and we broke into
uncontrollable mirth. We were expecting some wise word that Merlin used that
released King Arthur's sword from the stone, something profound and esoteric
after years of study. Instead, we got a lesson on our loins.
years after that if we were saying goodbye on the phone or parting to leave
after a beer together at a conference, invariably one of us would say,
"Charlie, just keep your pants zipped up and you'll be fine." We
didn’t get it.
But ten years
out, after comparing enough stories about parishioners who have thrown solid
families away, it looked a little different. Twenty years out, after more than
a few of our friends were dismissed from their churches and academic positions,
the quality of that wisdom deepened. A few years ago, we were together for the
first time in many years, sharing a chuckle that this was perhaps one of the
two or three best things we could have been told, turns out.
one of those things that grow in importance as we get older. We lay character
down one coat at a time over a long period of time. Aristotle once said
"People become house builders through building houses, harp players
through playing the harp. We grow to be just by doing things that are
just." The Greeks very much believed that character is formed by the daily
habits we develop day in and day out, and that is why Plato used to say that we
can only be as moral than the community in which we
But just as
true is the fact that some of the fundamental contours of our character are
formed in the reaction to crisis. Joseph, in our story, is a very young man,
faced with a very difficult situation. He is put to the test. Helen Keller once
said, "Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through
experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared,
ambition inspired, and success achieved." Challenges give us the
opportunity to flex our moral muscle and define ourselves. And each time we
rise to a challenge successfully, we develop a little more self-respect and
earn a little more respect from others. And each time we fail, we have to live
with our weakness and the disappointment that we have caused people closest to
Who amongst us
has not had a moment of moral failure and general spiritual bewilderment at
some point in our lives where we did not find ourselves looking long and hard
into the morning mirror saying, "I have become a stranger to myself". Or in the memorable phrase from St. Augustine at mid-life, reflecting on his own
internal contradictions saying, "I have become a problem unto
Dealing with your weakness is bad
enough all by yourself but it is much more existentially embarrassing with
those you love. There is nothing that has quite the haunting reverberation on
our conscience is having a spouse, a trusted friend, a beloved relative look us
straight in the eye and say with depth of feeling, "I'm so disappointed in
you." Particularly since this line is usually only uttered when something
of profound importance has just taken place, it is doubly devastating. We can
find a complicated way to live with ourselves but- "I'm so disappointed in
you" – it is one of those lines that keeps coming
back in the shower, walking to work, at the gym. You just want to hit the
rewind button again and again and again.
You are standing there literally
watching your reputation shred, at least for the person disappointed in you,
before your very eyes. You are watching your bank of trust credits disappear
like sand down a hole. Whatever virtues you have laid down, one coat at a time,
are just being eaten through. And you know that you can't get this back again.
And you have this moment when you suddenly really feel it in the pit of your
gut that, at the end of the day, the only thing substantial you really have is
your character. You have to live with yourself and your reputation, living with
others. When that gives way, double blast on the big horn, "Houston, we have a problem."
It is a regularly recurring dimension
when marriages break up and when extended families aren't working. Most of the
time, it is not spoken about directly but it is palpable. It is not just about
adultery, although it is about adultery too. It is a little less tangible than
that. More broadly, it is about what infidelity symbolizes in the relationship.
You get to this point that you just can't trust this person anymore. You've given
them all your precious emotional stuff and they've been careless with it,
indifferent with it, maybe reckless with it.
Close partners, brothers and sisters,
spouses- the closer that relationship is, the deeper that relationship is, the
bigger the wound when it is broken. People are wired to just shut down. They
withdraw emotionally, physically. They huddle, hide, protect, roll up in a
ball, hunker down. And they will trust the guy at the
grocery store, someone they have never met, but… not you. Not anymore. No way. Never again. Been there, done that. Next.
There is nothing like the depth of
determination from someone that has been hurt, like two sisters that lived only
a few blocks from one another when I was growing up that hadn't spoken for 30
years. We kids were incredulous and finally asked one of them why.
"Because"…. She said… "I can't."
No, it is difficult. It is very
difficult to put that back together. I mention this because in this great
season of Christmas, we lift up the coming of the One that they will call the
"Mighty Counselor, the Prince of Peace". We lift up the One who will
bring forth a season where "the Lion shall lie down with the Wolf…", who points towards a time when "Nation shall
not lift up sword against nation." What a profound, difficult vision that
A friend of mine was talking to a
woman that had decided to leave her husband. He had been having an affair, cut
it off. And his wife couldn't get passed it. She is unpacking her bitterness
and my friend says, "Before you definitely leave, I want to say one thing
as someone who has been divorced for over ten years now…You may need to leave,
that may well be the right decision… but your flawed husband… and he is flawed…
Honey from here on out every other one you meet is going to be flawed too. So
you can try to make it work with an old, flawed man that you used to love or
you can try to make a go of it with a new flawed man you haven't yet met…. But
those are the only two options."
I appreciate the interjection of a
note of reason at moments like these, but reason alone is not enough is it? No,
there is an emotional wound, a spiritual rending that
is only accentuated when reason is applied because this is more transcendent
than mere reason alone.
I was listening to the Dali Lama
recently giving his simple, profound message on the spiritual path to
wholeness. Three things: Respect for Self, Respect for Others, and
Responsibility for our Actions. Direct, absolutely right.
Putting it back together once it has
broken down? Like the inverse of the VISA commercial "Almost
Impossible." Why do I mention this? To remind us that this season is not
principally about getting stuff, it is about reconciling people that are
estranged from others and from themselves. We are looking forward to the birth
of a baby in a manger, a moment of reconciling peace, in the midst of the war
The gifts that we give each other
when things are working well are important and they are relatively easy. And
the great Promise of this season points us towards the bigger gift, repairing
relationships that are broken, healing dysfunction in the direction of healthy,
functional interpersonal normalcy.
I remind you that those of us that
try to follow after that Star that settled over Bethlehem are called to become
"Ambassadors of Reconciliation" in the wonderful words of St. Paul.
We need to remember that we want to be people skilled in brokering the peace,
in doing things in our families that make for healthy boundaries and healthy
interactions; we need to be the people that put an end to unhealthy
dependencies and develop an honest sense of responsibilities with everyone in
our extended families, in our circles of friends.
We need to be the people that are
willing to make 'surprising, transforming initiatives' in the words of Glen Stassen, things that disarm those entwined in a hostile
situation. We are not going to solve everything; we won't heal every situation,
but our presence ought to make a difference. St. Paul once said that we should 'give thanks
for every small victory." We give thanks for every small step towards
I think of three sisters from an
extended Southern family that were close growing up and gradually grew apart by
mid-life, two were Republicans one was a Democrat and politics were not a wise
subject at family gatherings; two were religious, one was thought not largely
because she was Episcopalian, a tradition the other two like to mock for not
being able to tell the difference between a Bishop and a Queen; religion was not a
wise subject at family gatherings; two had advanced higher education and married educated men,
one did not. They lived in different places and became different people.
And tragedy took its toll on them as
well. There was the death of a spouse. And two of them lost children. One lost
a grandchild. Sometimes these shared pains can bring people together in shared
suffering. Sometimes each person can simply pull in on themselves, buckle up
and go it alone with their thoughts and disappointments.
One of them drank more and more
heavily. Other members wouldn't hear from her for quite a while and then
suddenly something would move her, something she had read or seen on T.V. and
she would pick up the phone, fortified by several snoots, and reach out and
touch. Everyone in the extended family agreed that it was more like reach out
and mush. Everyone had a story about being mushed on
from whence came the family maxim, "Never drink and dial." But she
was in pain and alone and the only time that she could really access that
anymore was that short span between high and drunk. But it didn't heal, it
couldn't heal; it was just annoying.
Late in mid-life, they inherited the
last of their wider families heirlooms from the
previous generation. The family was long in this country, so they had
paintings, silver, furniture, jewelry, enough stuff to fill a small museum. But
this process of dividing up the heirlooms gave them a chance to return to their
collective past together and that too proved interestingly dividing.
One sister had very fond memories of
childhood and was greatly interested in geneology.
She seemed to remember all kinds of items the other two had forgotten. And her
house became a kind of living shrine to this former elegant era. Every room
featured a painting of a long, lost relative; every room had furniture with a
story. All these antiques were on display.
The second sister was more selective.
She kept most of her things in the formal rooms, the dining room and the den.
Likewise, she had a more selective memory of the past, and harbored no
sentimental patina when she talked of it.
The third sister had all of her
things in trunks in the basement. As you might imagine, she didn't have such
warm memories and was ready to leave back then, back then.
And this treatment of stuff really
irritated the other two sisters. These precious antiques in
the basement, collecting mold. It really irritated them; it was morally
offensive, this mistreatment, this indifference. And
in it contributed to their spiritual distance from each other because it became
something they could conveniently and legitimately carp about. And carp they
did. This was resented by the third sister, who just refused to come to any
family gatherings, refused to call you back.
This went on for quite some years
until… the wedding. One of the cousins was getting married. She was the same
size as her deceased great grandmother. One of the sisters decided that she
should wear her great-grandmother's wedding dress. But, it was in one of those
trunks in the basement collecting mold.
Calls were made requesting the dress…
At first she was evasive about it; Follow up calls were
made and messages left on the answering machine. Nieces were enlisted with
other calls. The existence of the dress was acknowledged but no commitment.
Time is clicking by and a decision had to be made.
What no one in the family really knew
was the extent to which the third sister was declining in health. She knew she
was in bad shape. Maybe this was an important component. And maybe it was her
fondness for her niece. And maybe it was the realization that there was no
point in carrying this bitterness forward another generation. For whatever
reason, she stood at the top of her stairs, opened the door to the basement,
flicked on the light, stood for a long time at the top by herself, and started to descend…
What would it take for you to descend down to your basement?
A couple days later, the bell rang at
the door of one of the other sisters. It was the UPS guy with a large box, the
gown inside, and a note that read cryptically, "The dress is yours… do as
you wish with it. Signed, your Sister."
Seeing the dress again, overcome with
emotion, she called the cousin to come over and try on the dress… It fit
beautifully. They got a tailor to fix a few things but the wedding was on,
everyone was thrilled.
Time and again, over the next day she
read that note again. What did it mean? Did it mean, "I've changed my
mind, I really want you to have this!" Or, did it mean, "Here is the
dress…up yours." She wasn't sure. Finally, she picked up the phone and
called her sister and
left a long message of sincere thanks and she said, 'I hope you can come to the
wedding. I want to see you.' She hung up.
Who knows whether it was because she
didn't want to die estranged or whether she just wanted to see her niece on her
happy day or whether she was tired of carrying around this bag of resentment,
but she called back. The two sisters talked. And there began a series of
conversations. It is very careful. They don't talk a lot about the past. They
don't talk about religion or the Bush Administration. No, real reconciliation is not
warm gushy butter all of a sudden. It is delicate, it takes considerate work,
and it can unravel easily.
But… This is the real gift of the Babe in this Christmas season.
And you know what? You have a role to play in it. It may only be small, baby
steps towards healthy normalcy. Even those may be compromised with bitterness
and moments of tantrum. But St. Paul was right; give thanks for every
small victory. You are an ambassador of reconciliation. And yes, you, even you,
can make things better. Amen.
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