What Are We Doing Here?

August 26, 2018
Margaret McCray

Psalm 85:10-13; Galatians 5:13-14, 22-23

What are we doing here? Some of you may recognize this as the title of Marilynne Robinson’s newest book.  (I wouldn’t miss anything she has to say!) It’s an intriguing title and an intriguing question. Try emphasizing a different word or changing the pronoun and you get a slightly different meaning.  Each meaning can take you in another direction, and yet they all convey a basic quest: an attempt to get at the bottom of things.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is asking this question “What are you doing here?”  Paul previously had been to Galatia to bring his message of love and salvation in Jesus Christ.  He left there believing he had started a sturdy congregation of believers.  Then he learns that religious leaders from Jerusalem have been telling these new Christians, some of them Jews, many of them Gentiles, that Christians must follow the Mosaic Law, including circumcision, in order to truly please God.  Paul’s letter conveys his dismay and concern.  “What are you doing here?” he asks. Did you not understand the good news I preached and taught you, the good news that salvation is by faith not by works?  Faith is your trust in God shown to us in Jesus Christ, a faith you carry in your heart and extend to your brothers and sisters. Faith is the root of your love for one another, a faith that reveals itself in acts of love and gratitude, compassion and justice, not in the old rituals of the Mosaic Law.

Paul dedicated his life to spreading the good news of salvation given to us in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus.  Paul planted seeds all over the Mediterranean world, cultivating communities that found new life and hope in his message of Jesus, the Christ.

Paul’s concerns are still with us.  What are we doing here?  Why are we not living lives of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?  As Paul says, there is no law against any of these things.  Yet, how many of these things are in our lives on a daily basis?  In the same letter Paul says, “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right… let us work for the good of all.”  That’s getting at the bottom of things.

Twenty-four years ago this month I started my work here at Westminster.  I got curious about the actual date and looked up some old records.  I saw my first client on August 19, 1994, and to my surprise, it was a married couple.  I told myself for several years that working with couples was something I didn’t feel comfortable with…. I had had very few of them in my previous practice. Perhaps, without my knowing it, that first session was the beginning of what has become one of my favorite categories of counseling: working with couples and families.  Therapy with individuals has great rewards, but the challenge of working with more than one person, and the challenge of relationships, in general, is especially invigorating.  It takes courage for two people to admit to themselves and to each another they need help.  Defenses have to come down, humility has to be engaged. Each person must look at their own responsibility for the difficulties in the relationship.  At first, each one is quick to point out how the other person is at fault; less often do they stop and name their own faults. The process of finding their way through hurt, anger, and guilt is not easy, but as therapy continues, their load gets lighter and they begin to respect their different but valid points of view, and to see their own individual need for change.  Their feelings are kinder and their trust and respect for one another begins to be repaired.  There is new joy and hope.   Being a part of and a witness to that is what gets me to work each day and makes it hard to consider retiring.

As I contemplate retirement in a few years I feel blessed to have been in a ministry of “pastoral counseling”, the definition of which is, admittedly, a bit fuzzy.  But over the years I have found that fuzziness to be an asset. The credentials that facilitate my ability to get paid for what I do are in the field of mental health, but the foundation, the motivation, for what I do, is ministry.  I don’t intend or try to convert people to Christianity.  I don’t use overtly theological language unless the client wants to engage that conversation.  But I often begin with some version of the question “What are you doing here…?   What brought you here…? What made you call to make an appointment?”  It is a foundational question, a loaded question, really, of meaning and connection, a question of personal values, communal relationships and intimate feelings.

A few years ago I was contacted by some researchers who were interested in how therapists work with couples.   In preparation for the interview, I started to think about “What am I doing here?”  As I thought about this I realized I did indeed have a method.  Of course, I had learned about couple counseling in my educational process, but as any therapist will tell you, you come to find your own way of using what you know. And I believe that what I have come to know it pertinent to what Paul is saying in his letter to the Galatians.

I believe there are 4 elements or values in a healthy family relationship, with a spouse, with parents, with an adolescent child, a loved one, or in any meaningful personal relationship for that matter.

The first value is trust or faith.  Trust is something we take for granted in a marriage, in familial and committed relationships, and in friendships.   When that trust is betrayed, however that happens, it seriously threatens the connection. The good news is that trust can be regained through hard work on the part of both parties. Happily, I have seen this happen to many people.  Once it happens our trust is never as naïve as before and we do not take it for granted. We work to maintain it and be responsible for it.  When we lose our trust or faith in God and feel abandoned, God is always there.  God has not abandoned us, but we have lost our way. When we find our way back to a relationship with God, to realizing God’s presence in our life, often we find our faith is more solid and more available than ever before. Faith and trust assure us there is hope when we have no hope, there is love when we feel no love. Faith is the conviction that there is the possibility of a new landscape, a place where we can begin again to build and plant and live.

Building on the foundation of trust, the 2nd value of relationship is flexibility.  We can’t get through life without flexibility and we certainly can’t maintain relationships without it.  Flexibility is an attitude, a willingness to change directions, discern new insights, shift our focus, to look at our self, to imagine, create and move forward. We are not the same person we were when a relationship started; some things remain constant but life has a way of shaping and reshaping us.  Some changes come from within us. Some are imposed on us.  The very process of maturation, growing older and wiser, can bring welcome or sometimes daunting changes. Change can both enhance a relationship and threaten it.  Perspectives change, circumstances change, health changes… when a person you love is no longer who you had become accustomed to,  or believed and expected they would be,  it takes the flexibility of acceptance, understanding, and honesty to move through the changes.  Jesus was often seen by his disciples, and certainly by the religious authorities, as being too flexible, too ready to let go of old norms and laws.  But Jesus was aligning himself with the realities of the situation or the needs of the person he was encountering.  He engaged with others with understanding and compassion. At the same time, he always knew who he was and what he was about, and he was constant in what God expected of him.  Some of my favorite instances of both his flexibility and his constancy, of which there are many, are his conversations with Zaccheus the tax collector and the Samaritan woman at the well.  Flexibility is not easy to achieve, but it is imperative in enduring, honest and loving relationships.

The 3rd value in this quartet is emotional intimacy or compassion.  This quality calls for the willingness to be vulnerable oneself and to be comfortable and compassionate with the vulnerability of the other.  Respect and kindness are essential to emotional intimacy.  We truly connect when we can trust the other to be kind and understanding of our deepest fears, our shame and our guilt.  Emotional intimacy varies, of course, with the kind of relationship we have with another.  In a family relationship, it is spontaneous and genuine expressions of love in a gesture, a kiss, a hug, moments of tenderness or kind deeds of appreciation. Emotional intimacy is also the sharing of our less attractive thoughts and fears.  These are hardest to admit but can ultimately result in honest exchanges of love and support.  Sadly, many couples come to counseling with little or no emotional intimacy left in their relationship.  It has waned and even disappeared over the years they have been together.  They may have a sexual connection but it has become devoid of the tender meaning it once had.

This is where the commandment to love others as we love ourselves is of importance.  For most of us, we find loving ourselves is far more difficult than loving anyone else.  Loving oneself is the courage to be emotionally intimate with the person who inhabits your body; the person you sleep and eat and think and act with every minute of every day; the person you take out in the world: yourself.  This is the person we must risk revealing to our loved one.  When you dare to know and love your most vulnerable self the possibility of truly and deeply loving others has opened up.  The more comfortable you are with your own strengths and weaknesses and feel love and compassion for yourself, the more you connect in genuine and compassionate expressions of love with others.

Have you guessed the 4th element?  Matt Skinner named it in his powerful sermon a few weeks ago He called it connection. I have tended to call it communication, but I like the term connection. Connection is how we talk with others, or more importantly, how we listen to others, especially those with whom we might disagree.   Good communication is good listening and good listening has the character of curiosity.  What are you trying to tell me?  What are you feeling?  How do you see things?  Jesus was a curious person.  He focused on the other.  He connected by noticing. He listened.  He engaged in conversation with his disciples, with those who asked for healing, with Mary and Martha, with the Canaanite woman, even with the 2 thieves who were crucified with him, to name only a few.

As human creatures, we connect through conversation.  Yet, communication is one of the most difficult things we attempt to do in a close relationship.  Trust, flexibility and emotional intimacy are all supported and accomplished through communication.  If we do not listen to the other, or feel heard by the other, we cannot connect.  Unfortunately, most of us believe that if you truly hear what I am saying you will know that I am right and you will agree with me.  So as long as you persist in telling me what YOU believe you are obviously not hearing ME.  Unfortunately, the other person is feeling and doing the same thing, believing that when you finally hear ME you will agree with ME. No wonder we get frustrated and angry in our attempts to connect to one another. Active listening, or wanting to understand the other person’s point of view, has been around for decades but we do not use it until we find ourselves so completely at odds with someone we care about that we realize we can’t go on without truly listening, truly understanding and caring about the other person’s point of view.

This seems to be the unfortunate conduct of our political conversations…now more than ever.  We do not listen to one another. We talk only from our own perspective on politics, skin color, immigration, religious belief, money, health care, gun control, even the news sources we rely on.  Many of us believe we are more polarized than we have ever been.  Since the election in 2016, literally the day after the election, I had people who sought counseling because they could not accept or understand how someone they loved and thought they knew could vote the way they did.

Connection and communication about difficult subjects is the road to finding common ground and shared solutions.  Agreement is not necessarily the answer.  Sometimes agreeing to NOT talk about some subjects is a good solution.  Other times agreeing to disagree and respecting the other’s right to their point of view is helpful.  We each have our reasons,  reasons that are far more than rhetoric, for seeing things the way we do.  Being willing to hear those reasons and accepting the validity of someone’s perspective even if you don’t agree with it is key to finding some peace in a relationship.  Often, when each person truly feels heard and accepted in their point of view, the way is opened for some common ground to be discovered.

What are we doing here? No matter where we put the emphasis, at the bottom of things, the test of any relationship with spouse, lover, parent, child, teenager, friend, co-worker, or even a stranger, is a commitment and willingness to respect differences and live in a mutual climate of   love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Who you are in your nearest and dearest relationships guides who you are with people who think differently, who have another point of view, with people you might help in some tangible or relational way, and those whom you will never meet,  but whose well-being you work and pray for.  It all starts with the basic connections and conduct of your personal life.

I don’t know another way to change the world for the better.

In the words of the psalm:

“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet,

righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,

and righteousness will look down from the sky.

Amen.

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