A sermon preached on April 13th, 2008 based upon Psalm 23, Acts 2:42-47, and John 10:1 – 10, entitled, “Compulsive vs. Centered”.
I’ve loved the 23rd psalm pretty much all my life. It was only recently, however, that I the second verse jumped out at me: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” What, I wondered, is with the maketh part? Why would the Good Shepherd need to “make” me do something good, specifically, to rest, to lie down in lush green pastures — a lovely image if ever there was one.
The answer, I believe, is that left to our own devices, we human beings — we sheep — will end up harming ourselves. We have a modern word for this: “Compulsive.” Left to ourselves, we will be driven into the ground by compulsive behaviors. There is also an old word for this same thing: “Idolatrous.” Left to ourselves, we will make false gods to follow, and serve them to our destruction.
On a practical level, this means our lives will end up profoundly out of balance. We will overdo certain things, and neglect other important things.
The destructive side of some of these compulsions becomes obvious soon enough. If our compulsion is drinking, we end up with a DWI or worse. If our compulsion is eating, we end up with the poor health that is associated with obesity. If our compulsion is shopping, then our credit card balances will end up hanging over us like a noose. As destructive as these sorts of compulsions can be, they have the benefit of forcing us to acknowledge our underlying compulsive behavior.
Other compulsions can be for more subtle. We can be compulsive about our appearance, or about acquiring stuff. We can be compulsive about needing the assurance that we are loved by others, and making those others into a kind of god.
We can be compulsive about “right,” or being “good”, and in doing so miss being whole.
We can share in those distinctly American compulsions regarding making money, working to excess, achieving success, power, praise and promotions.
(An aside: one of the difficulties of our political process is that politicians almost have to have a compulsive personality in regard to winning votes and achieving power in order to ascend to the heights of political power. And do we really need presidents and such who are so unbalanced, so compulsive?)
The by-products of all this compulsiveness and idolatry are many. Greed: the desire for more, more, more. Anger: the natural response when our compulsive urge to acquire more, more, more is thwarted. (This explains all the road rage.)
It is also the cause of the short fall of integrity. Beneath our compulsions, a part of ourselves — a healthy part — realizes that our compulsions are out of hand, and this in turn leads us to pretend to be motivated by something other than what truly is driving us. We become two-faced, pretending one thing when we are actually feeling quite another thing.
The ultimate by-product of all this compulsion and idolatry is the loss of the soul. We lose track of who we really are, underneath all these compulsions that have come to define our lives.
We end up depleted in life energy, desperately in need of the restoration of our souls that the Good Shepherd intends for us.
God has to make us lie down in green pastures for the same reason God needed to command that we honor the Sabbath, because left to ourselves, we are likely to end up driven by our compulsions 24/7.
Human nature being what it is, our religious piety can become compulsive as well. And so Jesus found himself in conflict with the religious compulsives who were driven to do the law precisely right, and for them that meant the good that Jesus sometimes did on the Sabbath, healing people and the like, was in their eyes wrong.
As I was walking into church this morning, I met Mark Gibson, whom the world designates as mentally handicapped. I call him a living, breathing, saint. Mark was telling me how last night he had the world’s longest prayer session with God. It went on till well past 12 when finally God said to Mark, “Okay, Mark, I get what you’re saying. Now go to bed.”
It is so crucial to get the good news of the God that is revealed in Jesus. In this morning’s reading from John 10, Jesus says, “I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.” The images of God that we often carry around with us, feeding into our compulsive behaviors, are simply wrong. God is not the task master who would drive us like a slave, who wants to pile heavy burdens of guilt upon us every time we mess up, every time we stop to rest.
God is loving father and mother who created us out of great love to be God’s children, not God’s slaves. The analogy of a parent child relationship is helpful here. I think I speak for most parents when I say that I hope my children will grow up to do good things in this world, but my first hope for them would be that they know themselves to be loved, and out of that love do good things in this world.
So it is with God. God wants us to do good, yes, but the good we do arises first out of the confidence that we are loved already, just as we are.
It is important to note the absence of compulsion that was in Jesus as he went about his ministry. Although he had a clear sense of purpose, he was open to be interrupted. He’d be on his way to a certain place, and somebody would stop him, and he wouldn’t blow the person off because he was compulsively intent on getting where he was going. He would stop and give them his attention, and then move on to the next thing. Although very busy and greatly in demand, he would from time to time go apart by himself to lie down in the green pastures.
There is a crucial point not to miss in Jesus’ words we heard this morning in John’s Gospel. The sheep — that’s you and me — we really do know the voice of the shepherd. This is reassuring, because we often doubt we do, because the voice of the Good shepherd gets drowned out by the voices of our compulsions.
But the strong and reassuring word here is that we really do know the voice of God. Some times it requires us to intentionally silence those other voices and to patiently enter a stillness were we can listen for that deepest voice. But we do, in fact, know the voice of the Good Shepherd.
Other people can play a crucial role in helping us listen for that voice. Not all community is helpful in this regard. Some communities simply reinforce the voices of our compulsions. Think of the difference between the fellowship found around bar stools, and the fellowship found in AA. One encourages a person to give in to the compulsions; the other encourages the person to resist giving in, and to listen for that deeper voice.
The passage we heard this morning from the end of Acts 2 describes the earliest church, a community where people were empowering one another to listen for God’s voice, and wonderful things were happening, and the compulsive hoarding was giving way to a grateful, generous desire to share what each person had.
In the institutional church, there is a lot of compulsive activity around the fact that for several decades churches have been losing members and having a hard time meeting budgets. So we have these frequent training events to compulsively get us to search for ways to reverse the decline.
I went to one of these events this past week; I got Al Booth to go with me. The speaker said some helpful things. He made a distinction between a Purpose-Centered Church and a Preference-Driven Church. The latter is where the center is not that desire to listen for God’s voice, God’s purposes for the church, but simply what people prefer, which inevitably leads to some serious political in-fighting. I must say, as he described the sort of divisiveness that happens in such churches, I didn’t recognize our church. We aren’t perfect, by any means, but I’ve never known us to be so closed off to Jesus that we turned the church into a battleground for our personal preferences.
The speaker said that if Rick Warren had asked his opinion, he would have suggested that he change the title of his phenomenally popular books from “The Purpose-Driven Church/Life” to the “The Purpose-Centered Church/Life” because being “driven” is the mark of a sick, compulsive life, and the life we are encouraged to live in church shouldn’t be a compulsive life. It should be a centered life.
All of us are struggling in various ways to hear God’s voice — to discern God’s will for lives. We have decisions to make, paths to choose, problems to address. Ideally, church should be a crucial place where we find help in this quest.
Often people ask to talk to me in my role as pastor, seeking some help in regard to a decision they must make or a problem they must confront. I am happy to do so, but a part of me often reacts with some anxiety, expressed in the thought, “They are coming to me for an answer, and I have no idea what they should be doing.” Generally speaking, though, people aren’t looking for me to simply “give them the answer.” They are looking for me to sit with them, conscious of the presence of God, and to listen, and to ask the right questions that will help take them to a deeper place, to discern what is compulsion and what is the authentic voice of the Good Shepherd. For me to be quick to try and tell them what they are to do without first doing a great deal of patient listening for the voice of God within their heart would be to play the part of the thief or bandit that Jesus described in his little parable this morning.
Parker Palmer in his book, “A Hidden Wholeness: the Journey Toward an Undivided Life”, describes the soul as being like a shy, wild animal. If we go thrashing through the forest in pursuit of the soul, we will simply scare it away. The capacity to listen quietly to one another, to forgo our own agendas, allows the soul to emerge from hiding. Palmer describes what he calls “circles of trust” where friends gather to listen to one another patiently, with unconditional love and a hopeful expectancy that deep down, each one of us truly does know the voice of the Good Shepherd.