The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Dr. Pam Birrell
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67; Psalm 45:11-18
Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
The Human Condition
As many of you know, I am a clinical psychologist and have been practicing for almost 30 years. In that time, I have worked at the state hospital, at an inner city community mental health clinic, at a university counseling center and in private practice. I have had the honor of working with hundreds of people who were looking for some solace and help in their lives. And in all that time, I have never worked with anyone who wasn’t entirely normal.
Yes, I have worked with people who heard voices and people on the edge of suicide and people who had crippling anxiety, but all were normal. How can that be, I can hear you thinking. That stuff doesn’t sound “normal” to me!
And yet they were all normal in the sense that Paul in today’s epistle is normal—fighting battles within themselves and divided with inner conflict and pain. Paul longs to do what is good, but finds himself doing exactly the opposite. We all recognize that. If I were able to read your minds in the coffee hour after the service, I’ll bet you a million dollars that I would hear conflicts like this: “I really shouldn’t have that beautiful coffee cake!”, “Oh, just this once!” Like Paul, we all have inner conflicts. They may be coffee cake or suicide, but they are all part of the human condition.
The root of Paul’s conflict, and ours, can be found in the story of the fall in Genesis. The Garden of Eden is not a historical story, but a psycho-spiritual one that is true in each of our lives. We enter this world in a state of union and wholeness, coming from a place of unconditional love. The “fall” that each of us experiences is into a world of division, conflict, and separation, even in the most loving families. Our original oneness with God and all things is lost as we get educated about the things of this world. We learn how things are different from one another; begin to see the world through the “educated” eyes of division and separation. Instead of that original unity, we become separate beings and the world is broken up into things that are larger and smaller, better and worse, and even good and evil. We also learn that the world is not safe. As we are punished for misbehavior or abused for no reason at all, when we are made fun of or bullied in school, when we are rejected by others, we learn the fear, anger, hurt and division that is at the root of sin.
All of us long for that sense that we can remember dimly, that experience only known to infants and not to the wise and intelligent—that experience of unity and wholeness, where all is one in a cloud of unconditional love. Richard Rohr tells the story of a couple bringing home a new infant to a preschool sibling. The older brother wants to be left alone with the infant, and the parents not exactly understanding do what he requests and stand near the door to see what happens. The older brother leans over the newborn and says, “Tell me what it’s like—I’m beginning to forget!”
So it is normal to long for that connection, with ourselves, others and the world. But since we are afraid to be hurt again we hide behind masks of social nicety and acceptable behavior. We want to be known, through and through, but since the world of separation and conflict that we are born into is not trustworthy, we become conflicted and sometimes tortured like Paul. We yearn to do good and be accepted for who we are, but we hide and become grasping and selfish to protect ourselves.
Those who have suffered abuse, betrayal or heartbreak as children can become even more conflicted and their search for connection and love can begin to look like what we call “crazy”. One woman that I worked with at the state hospital, whom I will call Susan became divided inside so much that she experienced parts of herself as voices inside her head.
Susan had a history of being sexually and physically violated by her father. Her mother was extremely depressed and unable to adequately nurture and protect her child. Susan trusted no one. She had been hurt over and over, even by mental health professionals, and was extremely wary of me. It was difficult to get her to talk to me in our early sessions. Slowly, she told me a little of her story, primarily how she had been put in prison for assaulting people on city buses because her voices told her to. Her voices ruled her life, telling her how worthless she was and about the dangers surrounding her.
It was at one of these early sessions that Susan turned her head slightly and seemed to tune me out.
”Are you hearing voices?” I asked.
She looked at me as if in a trance, not sure who I was, but managed to answer, “Yes”.
“What are they telling you?” I asked, not sure of what to say in this situation.
After a short pause, Susan answered, “They are telling me to hurt you.”
I was startled. Somehow, I looked at her gently and fearfully and asked, “Are you going to listen to them?”
Susan stared at me in a way that told me that she had never been asked that question. She was silent and thoughtful for a while. Then she said to me, “I guess not.” It was the first time ever that she had the idea that she didn’t need to do everything her voices told her to do. It was also an opening to begin to believe that she didn’t have to always believe them when they told her how worthless she was.
That moment opened things up for us. Susan was able to have a little more freedom in what she could think and say. She began to have some feelings of grief and loss for all that had happened in her life, and to begin to understand the depths of the betrayals that had happened to her. She was still reluctant to trust me and the voices reminded her from time to time to push me away, physically and emotionally. She began to see that her voices were really parts of herself, trying to protect her by keeping her isolated so she wouldn’t be hurt again.
Somehow we hung in there, Susan working through her fear of connection and me working through my fears of the unusual and unknown to try to meet the soul behind all the pain. We had only a short time to work together since I was leaving the hospital, so we had to set limited goals. Susan decided that what she really wanted from our relationship was a hug at our last session. She had not touched or been touched by anyone in a way that was nurturing rather than destructive and she was frightened by the very idea. I agreed that one final hug would be a worthy goal.
We worked at it for months, through the fear and voices and self-destructive thoughts. We talked about what it might be like for her, what it might bring up, how it could affect her. She was willing to take the risk and so was I.
When the time of our last meeting came, we were both nervous. We had worked through the ending process and how it was difficult for both of us, as we had become attached to each other. We talked for a while until we couldn’t put that last moment off any longer. As she walked toward the door she took a deep breath and reached for me. We hugged briefly, both with tears in our eyes and she walked out of my life forever.
25 years later, I still remember Susan with sadness and fondness. She showed me, in exaggerated fashion, the burdens we all bear. Susan heard critical voices that were trying to protect her; we have critical and judgmental thoughts that keep us separated and supposedly safe from those around us. We all, like Paul and Susan, carry burdens of judgment, isolation and fear. We all attempt to protect ourselves with these burdens, even as we feel their weight.
But there is a cure for such normality. For us it is Jesus when he calls, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." We long for that rest, that gentleness and love. We long to put our burdens down, even while we are afraid. Jesus offers us that rest and peace in every moment. He offers it to us now. We can have it if we are willing to give up our self protections, and step into the wild wonder of eternity here and now.