79 minutes | May 14, 2021

Nothing We Can Do

On Monday, I lost my place in the middle of a sentence. Just right there in the middle of a conversation and…zip! No idea where I was going. It wasn’t the first time. On Tuesday, I was driving to the church, and was halfway there before I realized that I had forgotten my church keys, so I turned around and drove back to get them. On the way to the church the second time, I realized that I had forgotten a mask, so I turned around again. On Wednesday, I was reading a book for a study group and had to re-read the same page three times. I find that it has taken me much longer to read things, and when I do, I retain much less information. On Thursday, I thought it was Friday. I got ready to do some of my Friday things, before someone had to tell me that it was time for the Thursday things instead…since it was Thursday. On Friday (the actual Friday), I realized that for the third week in a row, my to-do list was woefully unaccomplished. My list of phone calls to make, projects to finish, and emails to return seemed as full as when I wrote it down in the first place. At the end of the week, I asked how it was that even now, as we are starting to move back into something that feels like normal, I still can’t get my act together. I am still as captured by inefficiency as I was when the pandemic began, or in the middle of it. Shouldn’t I have figured this stuff out by now? What’s wrong with me?   It turns out that it’s actually what’s wrong with all of us. Krista Tippett, in her popular radio show and podcast On Being, has talked about this question recently. She interviewed Christine Runyan, a clinical psychologist about the ways that our brains and our bodies are reacting to global pandemic. In short, our nervous systems are breaking. The human nervous system is designed to kick into reaction mode, often called “Fight/Flight” mode, when presented with a dangerous stimulus. Runyan suggests that this is good and healthy and exactly what keeps us alive as a species. But, the Fight/Flight level of nervous system arousal is not something we are supposed to do for 14 months in a row! But we have. Even if it doesn’t seem like we have been in panic level reactivity that long, our brains think that we have. Runyan suggests that even when we do things to numb ourselves to that emotional chaos—turn to alcohol or drugs or Netflix—our brains are still in high arousal. We are still in active “flight” response. The neurotransmitters and hormones in our brains and bodies are still firing on all cylinders, even as we binge our favorite TV show with a glass of wine. Runyan suggests that our response to this is often to ask the question that I asked myself last week: “What’s wrong with me?” Like I am the only one dealing with this, and am somehow the only one in the world who cannot get my act together? But Runyan says that this response of the brain is normal and predictable to a “species-level trauma” like what we are experiencing. When this happens to our brains, predictable behavior includes memory problems, short fuses, fractured productivity, and sudden drops into despair. Like my week last week. And most of our weeks…every single week.  And this “what’s wrong with me” feeling is exacerbated by the fact that we are getting vaccinated and are supposed to be normalizing our behavior.  Life is supposed to be getting back to normal, and when we don’t feel normal, it feels like it’s our fault. We beat ourselves up, and blame ourselves, and tell ourselves we’ll do better next week! Or sometimes, to make ourselves feel better, we find someone to blame. Our brain’s natural response of “what’s wrong with me?” turns into “what’s wrong with all of those people?” We find ourselves even more galvanized and isolated and afraid and angry.   “All right preacher, so how in the world does that have anything to do with the book of Galatians?” More than you might realize. Last week, we read in the book of Acts how the church leaders in Jerusalem—Paul, Barnabas, Peter, James—were all of one accord regarding the welcoming of Gentile Jews into the Church. Well, Galatians tells a different story. Either Luke paints a bit rosier picture than Paul does in his letter to the church in Galatia, or that “one accord” lasted about 15 minutes. Because it seems that after that unity and accord, the “insiders” from last week—remember the “certain individuals” from Acts 15?—did not go away. These Christians who insisted that everyone live by their own rigid rules of circumcision and dietary law and worship? Last week, we read that they had been messing around with Paul’s congregation in Antioch, which led to last week’s council in Jerusalem, to figure out what to do with these “insider problem-creators.” Apparently their solution didn’t work, at least not in Paul’s eyes, because these folks continued to make the rounds to all of Paul’s churches, and tell the Gentile Christians there that they were doing it all wrong. Of course, Paul is livid that these people are doing this. But perhaps he is even angrier at the leaders of the Church, including Peter and James, who Paul feels like are going back on their decision. In fact, in one instance, Peter visits one of these churches, and refuses to eat with the Gentile Christians who are not observing strict dietary laws. Paul blows up. This is cutting off at the knees both his ministry and his message. Now, he has to write this letter to the Galatians to tell them why he is personally authoritative in these matters, and give them a theological case for inclusion…again. Which is what we read here in chapter two. Paul is making the argument for a big tent inclusion of Gentiles. Ironically, this passage is often used to practice exclusion—specifically exclusion of Jewish people. This passage has been used for some really violent anti-Semitism.  Christians have read these words and said, “Look how wrong Jews are…Paul’s practice of his Jewish faith was rigid and exclusive, so all Jews must be the same…all Jews must be bad!” But let me argue that it seems like Paul’s point here is not an inter-religious one, but a psychological one. Paul seems to be saying that any of us, Jews or Christians, are often guilty of prioritizing our own efforts before the work of a gracious God. Jewish prophets lamented the fact that Jews were doing it with their worship practices (Amos quotes God: “I hate…I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them.... And Micah asks, "Would the Lord be please with thousands of rams and 10,000 rivers of oil?”) Paul, now in Galatians, is lamenting the fact that Jewish Christians were doing it with their insistence on human actions, such as circumcision and dietary restrictions. I propose that if Paul were to walk into our churches today, he would lament that we do the same thing, with our assumptions that praying the right prayer in the right way, or showing up enough Sundays to church, is what brings us into loving relationship with God. Paul would be just as livid with us when we make our actions salvific.   But in Galatians, Paul says that when we focus on our actions, instead of God’s in Christ, we make Jesus’ life and death and resurrection irrelevant. Because we are saying—implicitly if not explicitly—that our actions are really what make God love us. Our behavior or our decision is what brings us into loving relationship with Jesus. Paul’s point, loud and clear to Peter and James and the church at Galatia, is this: “it’s not up to us. God’s grace is all we need.” Now, I’ll be honest: this is a tough one for me. I have shared before that I am what I call a “recovering perfectionist.”  Because, deep down, I need to know that my actions solve all the problems of the world. Anyone else with me? But Paul —according to some a recovering perfectionist in his own right—is saying that our actions, our words, even our prayers, don’t fix the world. That’s God’s job. And Paul is saying here that when we allow proponents of works righteousness—of any creed or brand or tribe—to talk us back into this perfectionism—regardless of what law we use—then we have said that the death and resurrection of Jesus is null and void. The point that Paul is making is not that all Christians get it right and that all Jews get it wrong. It is a psychological point that any people who say that they are committed to a God of grace should act like it. Not keep score, or bow to the “watchdogs” that Paul talks about. Live life like we were created to be recipients of grace. In short, Paul takes eleven verses to say one simple thing, summarized by author Philip Yancey: “Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more... And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” Let me say that again: “Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more... And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” Let me say it one more time, because there is nothing more important that I can say today: “Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more... And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.”   So, friends, in the midst of a global pandemic, hear me loud and clear. In a world that constantly makes us ask the question “what’s wrong with me?”… In a world that turns our nervous systems into scrambled eggs and regularly makes us doubt our worthiness… In a world that demands that we live up to a standard of perfection that is constantly changing, exacerbating our doubt and shame… In a world that is galvanized and splintered and suspicious of the “other,” whoever the other is… …Paul’s words echo through the generations: (we are) “set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good.” “nothing we can do…” That’s really all there is to be said. After Krista Tippet and Christine Runyan spent a half an hour talking about how the pandemic is making us all feel like we are doing it all wrong, Runyan turned to the topic of grace. Runyan is not a theologian, nor is she a preacher. But it is fascinating that the clinical perspectives that she shares sound a lot like Paul’s message to the Galatians. She doesn’t bring up Jesus, or explicitly theological language, but she says that our brains and our bodies are programmed to be recipients and conveyors of grace. This is how we were created. Which is what Paul wrote, 1900 years before Sigmund Freud was born or modern psychology was a thing. We are created to be God’s children. We are created to receive grace. We are created to give ourselves and one another grace.   So, let me end today a little differently, with one of Dr. Runyan’s suggestions for re-centering during these scattered days. She doesn’t describe it as such, but it felt to me like an invitation to prayer. Whether you are at home in your comfy chair, or here in the sanctuary in-person, I invite you to take a moment to pray. Dr. Runyan says that some of this stuff sounds pretty new-agey or “foo foo,” but there is hard science behind it. And, I would add, good theology. So, now I invite you to bring your soul and your body and your mind into a place to receive God’s grace. First, sit in the chair so that you can put your feet flat on the floor. You might close your eyes to shut out distractions, but you don’t have to. Make sure especially that your heels touch the floor. Runyan says that the posture of the pandemic has been to be on our toes, ready to jump. This is the posture of fight or flight. But now, allow your whole feet, including your heels, to press to the floor. To sit in that stability. In Runyan’s words, feel yourself in the seat, “being held.” Imagine your body and soul held by God. Now, place your hand on your heart. While many of us miss the hugs and physical touch, we can stay connected to our selves and our Creator by feeling the warmth and the beating of our hearts. Hold it there for a few moments, as you notice your breath. Feel the lifeblood of your Creator coursing through your body. Finally, exhale. Runyan and other brain scientists suggest that in panic, we inhale, but sometimes forget to exhale. A long, slow, exhale is a way of emptying the body and soul of the panic and the anger and the frustration that many of us feel. Breathe in as needed, but focus on that slow exhale. Quietly now, return to the room. Do this exercise again, as needed. As a prayer to the One who created you. As a reminder that you are held. That you are loved. That you are created to receive grace.
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