Sermon: Resistance

This is the third sermon in our Lenten series on “Spirit and Power.”

John 15:1-17

Back in the mid-1990s, I was on retreat at a small retreat house near Carmel run by Catholic nuns. It was one of the the first retreats I had ever done, and it wasn’t a “programmed” retreat. It was me, at a house with three Catholic sisters, trying to figure out what it meant to be on retreat. I was in my early 30s, and I was in a kind of crisis. I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. I still hadn’t landed in a satisfying vocation, and I felt adrift in the universe. 

Out of desperation more than anything, I had started praying to a God I didn’t really believe in at the time, and… things started shifting. I was able to leave a full-time job I hated and take a part-time job that left me with a lot more time to pursue creative and spiritual pursuits. I was invited to join a women’s dreams group. I was at a good-bye lunch for our former pastor Rebecca Slough when she mentioned that her spiritual director now had an opening, and I said, “What’s spiritual direction?” and within a month I was seeing Rebecca’s spiritual director, Anne Winsor, who changed my life. I began going on retreats. And I began meditating, which was what I was doing at the retreat house in Carmel when this phrase landed in my head:

I surrender to your love. I surrender to your grace. I surrender to your will. 

At the same time as these words appeared in my consciousness, I had this bodily urge to kneel, to get up out of the chair in which I was sitting and drop to the ground.

Very quickly, my ego asserted itself : “What the what?” I said to myself, followed very quickly by: “No!!!! I do not surrender. I will not surrender.” I kept my body on that chair. No kneeling for me.

In short: I was having a powerful experience of Spirit at that moment, and I was powerfully resisting it. 

So often, when Spirit moves in our lives, it will encounter resistance from us. We’ll unexpectedly break into tears, swept by deep emotion, and then say to ourselves, “Silly, why are you crying? That was just a stupid pop song.” We’ll be moved by a scene from a movie and, instead of staying with that movement, we’ll jump into our heads and try to analyze why it was so beautiful, what the filmmaker was trying to communicate and — poof! — the power of the experience is gone. We’ll feel this internal pull to reach out to someone in the congregation, but then we let the busyness of our lives take over, and we never do. These are all ways of resisting Spirit: minimizing the experience, intellectualizing the experience, distracting ourselves from it with busyness.

In fact, when our Lent Worship Planning group discussed “What are our resistances or blocks to Spirit?”, busy-ness emerged as the dominant theme. We want to remain open to Spirit, but all the little details of our lives flood into that open space and crowd out the desire — there are groceries that need to be bought, emails returned, errands run, etc. And we let that busy-ness, those endless to-dos, become “lord of all.” But, as Pat said, “We can be busy, but we can still show up with presence. We can name the busy-ness and still stay connected to Spirit.” This is what we talked about last Sunday, the spiritual discipline of “practicing the presence of God” in the midst of our complex, crazy lives — as we are standing in check-out lines, tending to our children or patients or co-workers, cooking dinner, reading about the corona virus. We are doing all these things, but in the background we are tapping into deeper wellsprings.

I actually think this busyness is a bit of a front. I think we sometimes hide behind it. I know I do. I think the busyness is masking a deeper level of resistance — and that is our egos, our egos that do not want to give up control. Spiritual teachers call our ego the false self or little self. Almost all of the world’s wisdom traditions teach that we need to lose this little self to gain the bigger life. We need to die to that self to find eternal life — that is, life lived in and within the Divine Presence.  Now, our egos are absolutely necessary. We spend the first part of our lives hopefully developing what’s called ego strength — figuring out who we are, what out strengths are, what our weaknesses are, figuring out what and who we like, how to get what we want, how to find and speak our truth. That’s all good! We need to do this. And for some of you listening to this, this may still be your main task in life. But this ego, as we age, often comes to think of itself as “lord of all,” and that’s where our problems come in. Our egos like to think they are driving the bus; they do not like to be passengers. Our egos like to be competent, in charge, in control. The one acting; not the one receiving. This is especially true for those of us with more privilege. As Thomas Kelly said in last week’s sermon, we do not like to live in the passive voice and let life be willed through us.

I grew up in a Mennonite church in which gelasssneheit was stressed. Gelassenheit is a German word meaning “yieldedness or surrender to the will of God.” Every Sunday, our congregation would sing, “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me — melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.” Every Sunday, a holy hush fell over the congregation after that song. God’s Spirt felt so real to me at those times. Every few Sundays, the minister would ask us to kneel in prayer, and we would all get up, turn around, and drop to our knees. I remember my knees on the hard wood floor, my elbows on the hard wood pew, my head bowed, glancing sideways at my parents, these powerful adults in my life in a posture of gelassenheit. Yieldedness. Even then, I think I saw this as something beautiful and humble and powerful. What a powerful spiritual formation. 

But, oh, did my ego resist when it came my time to kneel as an adult! When you spend decades building ego strength, it’s hard to let go of it once you have it. Letting go feels like that pruning that John mentions in our passage for today. But our egos need to be pruned so that we can bear more fruit, as the passage says. It’s particularly hard, I think, when that ego strength is hard won. I grew up in a patriarchal Mennonite culture that didn’t always think women should be strong., should have opinions, should know their truth and speak it. It had taken me a long time to get to that place of strength. And now, I was going to surrender? My ego, at the time, didn’t realize that it was surrendering to something that was actually going to enlarge me, that was going to allow a power and strength greater than my own to move through me, that it was going to fill me with a joy not dependent on outward circumstances. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11)

But there was another reason that I resisted that surrender. A deeper layer underneath ordinary ego resistance. There was some spiritual trauma lurking there that made it not safe to surrender to God. And I know I am not the only one in this community who has had this kind of spiritual trauma. We talked about this the first Sunday. Some of us grew up in more conservative or evangelical churches, where we may have had powerful experiences of Spirit or where we developed a relationship with Jesus that deeply fed our souls. These spiritual experiences are very intimate; we feel seen and valued and loved at the core of who we are. These kinds of experiences are vulnerable; we let down our guard, our defenses and allow ourselves to be seen “just as I am.” We allow something bigger than us to enter into us. And these spiritual experiences are very embodied; we experience this sense of fullness or spaciousness or joy or overwhelming love in our bodies. 

What happens, then, when you come to see the God you experienced in your very body, the God you let in, the God before whom you were so vulnerable as the God that now rejects you because you’re gay or lesbian or trans or nonbinary? Or as the God that decrees that since you are a woman, you are not worthy to preach or teach or lead? Or as the God that though “He” loves everyone so much just has to condemn you or those you love to hell if you don’t believe or do the right thing? Or as the God that sent “His” only-begotten Son to be tortured to death for you because you were so sinful that this was the only way to remove your sins in God’s eyes?

How is it safe to be vulnerable to such a punishing, rejecting God? And how do we make sense of the intimacy we had experienced from a God that now seems abusive? This kind of spiritual trauma has much in common with sexual trauma, an insight I got from a conversation with Heidi Gray after our first Sunday.  Trauma is held in the body, and spiritual and sexual wounding is especially held in the body. 

You know, many of us are very reticent to involve our bodies in worship here at First Mennonite. When we sang the hymn “Christ be in my heart” the first Sunday of this series, very few of us did the hand motions with it. And we on Worship Committee know that if we want to get you to move in some way during worship — like, you know, do hand motions to a song — we usually have to have the kids lead it and then more of you will do it. And some of you have said to me, “I’d love to be more expressive with my body in worship — clapping, swaying, raising my hands —  but I’m not sure how people here are going to react to that.” This reticence to engage our bodies in worship might be due to the more stoic cultures from which some of us come. But I don’t think that’s all of it.  As Meg Duff said to me, “Hands up is a vulnerable position.” And I think some of us are not sure it’s safe to be that vulnerable. And we might want to ask ourselves: Why is that? Why is it not safe?  Is it because you don’t want to yield to a God who seems less than worthy of your trust? Is it because you don’t quite trust this community to hold that kind of expression without judgement? Is it because you don’t want to do something associated with “those people,” those evangelicals who hold beliefs that have been so hurtful to you and those you love — and, if so, why are you letting them have that expression? Why do they get it and  not you?

I encourage you to engage these questions. I encourage you to engage all the ways you may resist Spirit in your life. I encourage you to heal your God-image, if that’s what you need to do. I encourage this not just because this is Lent, and this is the season we do this sort of spiritual introspection. I encourage this because we are in a season of the life of our planet when we desperately need Spirit-guided people. I mean, this pandemic is just a practice run. Our ecological, economic and political systems are breaking down. And we are going to have more world-disrupting events like corona virus in the future. It’s going to worse before it possibly gets better.  We need the resiliency of Spirit to face what’s coming. We need the creativity and power of Spirit to imagine and build new worlds within the shell of the old. We need the love of Spirit to cherish each other and this beautiful yet broken world. We need the joy of Spirit to enable us to feel the ecstasy of being alive even in the midst of a pandemic. We need people molded, melted, filled and used by Spirit. She is longing to move through us.  Amen.