University Congregational Church
Nov. 13, 2016
“The Heart of Christianity – Transforming the Heart”
There was a family with a 3 year old girl who was the firstborn and only child until the couple was expecting again. The little girl was very excited about having a new brother or sister. Within a few hours of the parents bringing a new baby boy home from the hospital, the girl made a request: she wanted to be alone with her new brother in his room with the door shut. Her insistence about being alone with the baby made her parents a bit uneasy, but they remembered that they had installed an intercom system in anticipation of the baby’s arrival. So, they realized they could honor her request but if they heard anything questionable happening, they could be in the baby’s room in an instant.
They let the little girl go into her brother’s room, shut the door, and listened to the intercom. They heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the baby’s room, imagined her standing over the baby’s crib, and then they heard her saying to her 3 day old brother, “Tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten.”
This story has been told in a variety of ways, but it suggests that we come from God, and that when we are very young, we still remember this. We know it. But the process of growing up – of learning about this world – is a process of increasingly forgetting the one from whom we came and in whom we live.
Marcus Borg retells this story in his book The Heart of Christianity to illustrate the process of self-consciousness. He likens it to the central meaning of the Garden of Eden story. Adam and Eve, living in a paradise, become conscious of good and evil. The result is that they experience shame, burden, and separation from paradise. Estranged and in exile.
Most of us can probably identify with this process. We go through it early in our lives. We cannot develop into mature human beings without self-consciousness. And the sense of separation and self-concern is intensified by the process of growing up. We internalize the central messages of our upbringing, learn language and a worldview. This process includes internalizing parental messages, cultural messages, of for some, religious messages.
The result is that we descend deeply into a world of self-consciousness and self-concern. Our identity and way of being are more and more shaped by outside influences. Meanwhile, the world of the child – with its mystery and magic – is left farther and farther behind.
Billy Collins, poet laureate of the US, wrote this poem about the ache of loss at age ten:
The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.
You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.
I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.
Back then it never fell so solemnly
against the side of my tree house,
and my bicycle never leaned against the garage
as it does today,
all the dark blue speed drained out of it.
This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,
as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.
It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,
time to turn the first big number.
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I could shine.
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,
I skin my knees. I bleed.
By the time we are in adolescence, our sense of who we are is increasingly the product of our culture. In our American culture, these messages center around the three A’s of appearance, achievement, and affluence.
Throughout this process, we fall farther into the world of separation and alienation, comparison and judgment – of self and of others. We can become:
• Pre-occupied with self
• Worry filled
• Somebody great, or only okay, or not much.
This is a serious fall from where we began. It’s a contradiction to the basic tenet of faith – that we are created in the image of God.
And that, says Borg, is why we need to be born again. Being born again has a lot of rhetoric layered upon it – but it is a term progressive Christians need to reclaim. Being born again is the road of return from our own exile. It is the way to recover our true self. It is the move from selfishness to community. To be born again involves reclaiming our sacred place in the cosmos and our connection to the world beyond self.
For some, this is a sudden and dramatic moment. But for most of us, it takes time. It is a gradual and incremental process. Dying to the hurtful words and moments of our pasts and then being born again into a new way of being, is a process that continues through a lifetime. By being more centered in God, our lives are transformed.
This process is at the heart not only of Christianity, but of other enduring religions of the world. The image of following “the way” is common in Judaism. One of the meanings of Islam is “surrender” – to surrender one’s life to God. At the heart of the Buddhist path is “letting go” – dying to an old way of being and being born into a new.
This process of being born again, and again, and again, is the heart of spirituality. Our traditional word for today demonstrates what happens to us in this process:
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. Gal. 5:22-26
Being born again isn’t about saying the right words so that you can get to heaven when you die. It is about connecting with God in this time and place so that you can experience heaven on earth. Imagine a life marked by freedom, joy, peace, and love.
For some people, this week, the election was cause for celebration. There are likely those among us. For others, this week, the election was a rejection of their most valued ideals for our country. There are likely those among us. A friend of mine had a bold and beautiful thought on Wednesday. He said that his calling as a person of faith was never clearer to him than that day. He said that he felt called to offer a “safe place” for those who feel themselves outsiders in our country. He wants to offer a church where all people are welcomed. He wants to provide a listening ear to those who are disenfranchised. He wants to be a comforter to the hopeless. This is a man, I thought to myself, who has been born again. He has experienced a transformed heart.
Regardless of your take on the election, I hope this is also the calling of your transformed heart. I would like to close with a reading from Clarissa Pinkola Estes. She wrote this some years ago, and it applies to all of us who struggle to understand our way in the world.
“My friends, do not lose heart. We were made for these times. I have heard from so many recently who are deeply and properly bewildered. They are concerned about the state of affairs in our world now. Ours is a time of almost daily astonishment and often righteous rage over the latest degradations of what matters most to civilized, visionary people.
You are right in your assessments. The lustre and hubris some have aspired to while endorsing acts so heinous against children, elders, everyday people, the poor, the unguarded, the helpless, is breathtaking. Yet, I urge you, ask you, gentle you, to please not spend your spirit dry by bewailing these difficult times. Especially do not lose hope. Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times. Yes. For years, we have been learning, practicing, been in training for and just waiting to meet on this exact plain of engagement.
I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. In any dark time, there is a tendency to veer toward fainting over how much is wrong or unmended in the world. Do not focus on that. There is a tendency, too, to fall into being weakened by dwelling on what is outside your reach, by what cannot yet be. Do not focus there. That is spending the wind without raising the sails.
We are needed, that is all we can know. And though we meet resistance, we more so will meet great souls who will hail us, love us and guide us, and we will know them when they appear. Didn’t you say you were a believer? Didn’t you say you pledged to listen to a voice greater? Didn’t you ask for grace? Don’t you remember that to be in grace means to submit to the voice greater?
Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.
What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing. We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small, determined group who will not give up during the first, second, or hundredth gale.
One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times. The light of the soul throws sparks, can send up flares, builds signal fires, causes proper matters to catch fire. To display the lantern of soul in shadowy times like these – to be fierce and to show mercy toward others; both are acts of immense bravery and greatest necessity.
Struggling souls catch light from other souls who are fully lit and willing to show it. If you would help to calm the tumult, this is one of the strongest things you can do.
There will always be times when you feel discouraged. I too have felt despair many times in my life, but I do not keep a chair for it. I will not entertain it. It is not allowed to eat from my plate.
The reason is this: In my uttermost bones I know something, as do you. It is that there can be no despair when you remember why you came to Earth, who you serve, and who sent you here. The good words we say and the good deeds we do are not ours. They are the words and deeds of the One who brought us here. In that spirit, I hope you will write this on your wall: When a great ship is in harbor and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But that is not what great ships are built for.”
May you be born again today and each day.
Note: This sermon is based on the book The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg and much of its content comes from this book.