Monday, April 19, 2010

The 3rd Sunday of Easter: Giving Birth to a Dancing Star

One of the true ‘joys’ of the college I attended was its belief in the value of Saturday morning classes. They kept students on campus for the weekend and (theoretically) kept Friday night partying to a minimum. Then as now, for a college student, 8:00 in the morning comes awfully early. But there is nothing as early as 8:00 on a Saturday morning, especially if it involves going to class and especially if that class is philosophy. Oh, the monologues the professors had to deliver on Saturday morning when we students were too tired to engage in lively give and take. There were a few exceptions, like the Saturday we discussed the famous quote by the infamous Friedrich Nietzche who said you must have some chaos in your soul to give birth to a dancing star.

Around the time Nietzche penned those words psychologists like Freud and Jung were beginning to understand just how crowed and chaotic the typical soul can be. Freud described how the ego is constantly trying to balance the demands of soul’s moral component, which he termed the super-ego, with the drive of its pleasure-seeking component, which he termed the id. Jung named the chaos of the soul ‘the Shadow.’ It consists of all those parts of our makeup which make us uncomfortable. All of this, according to Nietzche, can be used in very creative and inspiring ways. Or not.

In the today’s first reading we heard about the conversion of the Apostle Paul. Born into a family of privilege and position, educated as a scholar, and raised in a multi-cultural environment, he was the kind of person who was always ready to engage the professor, even at 8:00 on a Saturday morning. Paul had every opportunity to do something fantastic with his life and, from where he stood at the beginning of the reading, he might, in fact, have said he was doing it. He used his background and experience to gain a lofty position in the religious hierarchy of the time. He was a chief persecutor of adherents to the emerging Christian faith. Paul led campaigns to arrest, try, punish, and even execute followers of Jesus. Whatever chaos was in his soul, it was not giving birth to a dancing star. Far from it.

And we know from Paul’s later writings that his soul was, in fact, a place of chaos. He wrote to the Christians in Rome about how he knows the good, but he simply cannot do it. When Paul searches for a word in Greek to describe his battle with sin, he chooses akrasia, which is like when an archer aims at a target, but misses because he did not pull back on the bow string with enough effort. Sin, for Paul, involved weakness; a failure of will power, a lack of determination.

That is one way to look at it from a theological perspective, but looking through the lens of psychology gives us another kind of insight. Jung held that, in the end, our task is not goodness, but wholeness. The more aware we are of what is taking place in our inner world the less likely this material will need to be played out unconsciously in the outer world. What we deny about our inward life often is what comes back to bite us again and again in ways that we might understand, but don’t.

So let’s think about Paul for a moment in light of Nietzche. Prior to today’s reading, Paul’s inner world is a place of chaos and conflict. Looking at the persecution he oversees, we would not say that his outer world is giving birth to a dancing star; just the opposite in fact. The opposite of dancing is not what I did at the Junior High mixers – sit against the wall and watch others as they dance – it is (I think) marching.

Dancing is free, expressive, open to flux and flow and the movement of others. It is creative and generative and unconfined. Dancing is related to Freud’s concept of the id – pleasure seeking. Marching, when it if freely engaged by a band or a disciplined military unit, emanates from the same place. It is a voluntary effort by a willing group to marshal movement into a collective effort for a personal and collective goal.

But when marching is forced, it is restrictive, ordered, uniform, anti-individualistic, and confining. It is exacting; demanding everyone do the same thing, think the same thoughts, and have the same beliefs. Have you ever worked under a boss or had a teacher who demanded that everyone march to the same tune? That kind of marching is related to the super-ego’s bent toward morality. And in Paul, this bent was out of control. His Paul’s inner world was an unacknowledged chaotic battleground between the id and the super-ego (and the key word here is unacknowledged). His ego, which is the outward, visible balance of the two polarities, surrenders to his super-ego and as a result he becomes a religious bounty hunter who demands uniformity; uniformity to the extend that those who do not conform are excuted for their ‘offense’. Those who dance with the Risen Lord bear the brunt of his unresolved inner turmoil.

Paul is not unique in this, he is human. His challenge is one that we all face. Sometimes we master it, other times it masters us. Martha Grant describes this struggle in a poem she calls The Committee:

The rude one is only one of many
who populate my inner committee,
an unruly group of stubborn complexes
who try to run my life.
My vigilant effort to tame these insubordinates
is ongoing, endless.
I’ve wheeled and flattered
and when that didn’t work
actually reasoned
with the most recalcitrant members
but it only makes them more determined.
Besides, they have my number.
They’ve sat often with my therapist,
wringing their collective hands in commiseration,
clucking sympathetically,
when all along they were gathering ammunition.
Now they are doling out assignments –
I can hear the papers shuffling –
and what’s more,
calling in new recruits from the street.

Those who bear the brunt of our inner battle may be those closest to us – our spouse, family, and friends – or they may be our coworkers or they may be our neighbors or they may be our fellow church members or they may even be our selves. Or, if extreme cases, it may be all of the above.

Here are three things that I find in Paul’s story that made all of the difference for him; that converted him from march at all costs to giving birth to a dancing star.

The first thing was absolutely beyond his control: the Risen Lord appeared in his life. Jesus has a way of doing that. Jesus has a way of searching out the lost sheep and brining them back into the flock. The silent sheep are surely a little harder to reach than those who bleat out for help, but sooner or later the Good Shepherd comes to each one of us just as He came to Paul.

The second thing involves being open to Jesus the Shepherd; what we call grace. The theologian Paul Tillich said that grace is accepting the fact that in the end you are accepted, despite being unacceptable. That means that you, your ego outer self, your super-ego moral self, and your id pleasure seeking self – all of you – is loved and accepted by God… you… just as you are.

The third thing that Paul did was to stop pretending. He talked and preached and wrote openly about himself. “The good that I want to do I never seem to do. The ill that I don’t want to do is always what I seem to do in the end.” Jung would call that an awareness of the Shadow. Freud would call it a reassertion of the ego’s healthy balance between the super-ego and id. Whatever you want to call it this much is sure: Paul’s life changed dramatically. He no longer sought to enforce marching because his life began to give birth to a dancing star.

And what about you? What about me? Do you force others to march or does you life give birth to a dancing star? Chaos is an ingredient in both. The only difference is that to dance, you need to give your self to the Shepherd without holding back; you need to hold tight to the hope of grace (that you are accepted even though you are unacceptable); and you need to make peace with all that you are by bringing it into the light. I am not saying that you should go out and “sin it up” – far from it. But if you cannot understand and be aware of the dark forces in your life, you will never be able to comprehend that damage they do to you and to others.

Now, I know you want a “kitchen story” – and if ever there was an example of chaos being manifested in the outer world, my kitchen project is it! Going into Holy Week and Easter Sunday I acknowledged to myself (and to others) that I was consumed with thoughts about the details of my renovation. I was not able to think much about the spiritual component I needed to bring to our services, especially the sermons. Faced with this dilemma, I decided to raid a few of my older “masterpieces” and resolved never again to schedule something this big for the week after Easter. My fixation on my kitchen became my Shadow, but I resolved it by giving myself permission to be out of it and by promising myself to be in a better spiritual place next year. As a result I came to each and every one of our Holy Week services not doing inner battle and (hopefully) not taking out my inner conflict on those in my outer world. I truly enjoyed each service for what it was, but knowing I need to offer something fresh in the years to come. This perspective helped me danced with all of you.

Each of us here this morning is a complex person. We are sought by Jesus, loved more than we could ever ask or imagine, and – bathed in this love, capable of doing wonderful things in this world. If it could happen for Paul, it can certainly happen for each one of us.