A sermon preached on March 8, 2009 based upon Mark 8:31 – 38, entitled “At Least It’s Honest.”
Last week I described a recent experience of “synchronicity” — an odd coincidence in life in which God is trying to speak to us. In this instance, the odd coincidence involved a book I had recently read. I rarely read novels, but on a whim I bought a novel, a very long novel, using a gift certificate that someone gave me for Christmas. Reading late at night before falling asleep, it took me over two months to finish the book.
Midway through the book I was invited to visit the women’s prison in New Jersey, which I did, being especially moved by the experiences shared by the inmates I met. The odd coincidence regarding the book was that as it turned out, a women’s prison had a large part to play in this very long book. The book was Wally Lamb’s “The Hour I First Believed“, with the highlight for me being the description of an extraordinary Catholic mass held within the prison walls near the end of the book. I read this passage just days after visiting the prison.
Going out of worship last Sunday, Jennifer DeMaio told me that she was a big Wally Lamb fan, and she was in fact midway through reading the same book. She had managed to cover her ears before I gave away the plot (something I’ve been known to do in sermons.)
Jennifer also called my attention to the fact that Wally Lamb had edited an anthology of the writings of women inmates entitled, “I Couldn’t Keep it to Myself”. The title was taken from a Gospel song, and the writings were generated in a writing workshop Wally led for women inmates at a prison in Connecticut near where he lives.
I quickly got my hands on a copy of the book and have begun reading. Twelve different women tell portions of their personal stories, and their accounts are deeply moving. These women have served — and in some instances are still serving — sentences for crimes ranging from murder to credit card scam. They are women the world finds it easy to look down upon, but when you take the time to read their stories, it seems to me you can’t help but feel compassion for them, and indeed admiration for them as they tell the story of their struggle. There is the recognition that these women are our sisters, with that sense of “there but for the grace of God go I.”
The words of Jesus this morning end with reference to a word variously translated as “life” or “soul.”
“What good does it do a person to inherit the whole world but forfeit their own soul. What can a person give in return for his or her soul?”
In the sense that the word is used by Jesus, our life or soul expresses that most essential aspect of ourselves, with the implication that it is quite possible in the course of our lives to lose it; to become but hollow shells of ourselves.
Clearly, for the women whose writings are included in this anthology, the process of writing their stories has been nothing less than “redemptive”, a way of laying claim to their souls, their lives. Doing it as a part of a group of people similarly engaged in the process was a particular blessing.
In his introduction, Wally describes how years ago he was invited to speak at this women’s prison, which he did. His impression was that the thirty women who showed up came mainly to see the guy who had been on “Oprah.” At the end of his talk, one of the inmates asked him when he was coming back. At home Wally has a 3 by 5 card attached to the wall by his phone with the words he needs to say to gracefully turn down invitations, but since he didn’t have the card with him, he said, “I’ll be back in two weeks. Bring something/anything you’ve written as your admission ticket.“
At his first formal group fifteen women showed up. Wally describes a woman named Diane, who
“at age fifty -five was the senior member of the group. For ninety minutes she hunched forward, fists clenched on her desktop. Her suspicious eyes followed my every move. Diane had written under the pseudonym Natasha and had exacted a promise before class that her work would never, every be read aloud. I predicted she’d be gone by session three.
“But it was during session three that Diane couldn’t keep her writing to herself. Her shaky hand went up and she asked if she could share what she’d written. In a barely audible voice, she read a disjointed, two-page summary of her horrific life story: incest, savage abuse, spousal homicide, lawyerly indifference, and, in prison, parallel battles against breast cancer and deep, dark depression. When she stopped, there was silence, a communal intake of breath. Then, applause–a single pair of hands at first, joined by another pair, and then by everyone. Diane had sledge hammered the dam of distrust, and the women’s began to flow.”
Before long, Diane abandoned the pseudonym, and began finding her own voice. In the years that followed she wrote over 30,000 words in telling the story of her life. Writing became the sustaining passion of her life. When people in the group would praise Diane for her writing, she would lower her eyes and say, “I don’t know if it is any good or not, but at least its honest.” In his introduction Wally Lamb talks about how important it is for the women to “find their own voice.” The temptation for new writers in is to try and imitate somebody else’s voice. The key, however is to find their own distinctive voice, to give up trying to sound like what they think a writer should sound like; to write honestly, speaking directly from their own souls. Once they find that voice, their writing takes on an authenticity that is irresistible.
Life is full of paradoxes. This is one. It is only in finding our own unique voice — our own unique soul — that we find the deep underlying connection that God has created between all souls, all honest voices.
The world we live in conspires to repress our unique voice. In Middle School, we learn not to be different, the pressure continues in various ways throughout our lives. We learn to make small talk, wall paper conversation rather than speak from our depths.Jesus wouldn’t do that. What he said was honest — always honest. And he intended his church to be the same, which explains why the only time Jesus called a flesh and blood person “Satan” was when Simon Peter, the representative of the church that would follow after him, tried to peddle dishonesty. “Get behind me, Satan.” Which leads us to another paradox that Jesus calls our attention to:
“Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Life and death go hand in hand. Real, vital life is only lived in the knowledge that one day we will die, that this life we are living in all its seeming monotony and routine is in fact deeply precious. In order to truly live you’ve got to be ready to die. There is no assurance of a tomorrow in this world. Deny the fact that you are heading towards your death, and you will live a life that is superficial and meaningless.
Once again, the world we live in provides plenty of assistance in avoiding this kind of honesty. The dying are taken away and hidden in hospitals and nursing homes, so that the rest of us won’t have to seem them die. Advertisements and t.v. shows bombard us with images of youthful vitality. Wrinkle creams and lipo suction are hawked.
Today’s Gospel lesson recounts the first of three times Jesus tells his disciples that he must suffer and die, and every time you get the impression it makes them uncomfortable and they want to change the subject. The whole last half of the Gospel of Mark is preoccupied with the fact that Jesus is headed to his death.
Wally Lamb recounts how over time Diane suffered a re-occurrence of her cancer, and eventually the cancer took her life. It was clear to Wally, however, that Diane died with a peace that she would not have know had she not taken advantage of the opportunity that writing provide her with to claim her life.
This, it seems, is what Diane conveyed, and what all of us over time need to come to:
This is my life, with all its hardship and sorrow, its failures, its cross to bear, but with love and beauty and blessings and triumph as well, and I am the only one who gets to live this life, and I claim it before God as a life that mattered even as there was much that I encountered in this world that would lead me to believe it had no meaning.
When you read the old, old story of Jesus and his love, his life and his death, it seems to me that even as people were continually trying to put him up on a pedestal, he consistently chose to identify with not just some, but all people.
He comes to the waters of the River Jordan where John is baptizing the masses of common sinners, and Matthew has John balk when Jesus comes forward to be baptized with everybody else. Stay up on a pedestal, he says. But Jesus enters the waters with all of us.
Jesus tells his disciples he must suffer and die, just like every other human being who every lived on the face of this planet, and Peter says, “No, not you Jesus, you’re special.” We try to make distinctions, but Jesus reminds us, we really are in this thing called life together with every other human being who has ever lived upon this earth.
Peoples’ stories vary greatly in the details, but there are certain basic experiences that link us all together. The quest for love, for love for one.
The fact that we must die, for another. Here’s something I think about from time to time. I have yet to do the hardest thing I will ever do in my life.
In little ways here and there throughout my life I have gone through dress rehearsals of the hardest thing, but I haven’t yet done the hardest thing in the final, full way that will one day be required of me.
And of course I’m talking about dying. How does a person die? Having not yet done it myself fully, completely, as one day will be required of me, there’s a certain sense in which I can not really fathom it. How does a person let go of absolutely everything that is familiar; and go to stand before God without any kind of pretense, disguise or crutch?
On a certain level, I don’t have a clue.
And yet, at this point in my life I know hundreds of people who have died, and dozens of people who were part of my church family who in some sense I accompanied as they traveled that final valley in this life. Who were these people? They ranged incredibly. They were fat, skinny, rich, poor, old, young, respected, or not.
The one thing they all have in common is that whether they did it well or not, whatever that means, everyone of them has already done the hardest thing — that which I have not yet done. And as such, I feel a certain admiration for them, as well as a connection to them, and with Jesus as well, who also walked through the dark valley, and is now with us as we enter it as well.
I’ve said this before; let me say it again. One of the greatest privileges of being a pastor is the opportunity it gives me to hear peoples’ stories, and by stories, I mean the unvarnished truth, the honest stories, not the cocktail party stories.
People have a lot of misconceptions about pastors, but one thing that seems to hold up pretty well that I believe is pretty much on the mark in regards to this peculiar vocation we pastors have embraced is that we are supposed to be people you can tell the truth to; make your “confession” to, if you will.
And so I get to hear a lot of the stories that go unspoken in other settings, and here is what I have discovered, and from my limited experience, conclude to be true in all cases:
If a person — any person — can find the courage to tell the truth regarding their lives, the deepest burdens and fears and struggles as well as the greatest loves and joys, than you can’t help but feel compassion for them; you can’t help but love them.
Why do we avoid listening to the honest stories of one another in this world? Perhaps in part because deep inside we know that in doing so, we would have to let go of the judgments, the neat little divisions we create between people in order to feel superior. We’d have to recognize that we really are all in this together.
Jesus is the one who has the courage to listen to every story with an open heart.