Sunday, January 29, 2012

Vulnerable to being a loved child of God

Gwynn Crichton
I am not preaching today. Instead, I would like to give you a homily given by our own Gwynn Crichton last Wednesday at Evening Prayer. Let me warn you this is personal but very powerful. I am grateful to Gwynn for so many things at St. Paul's but I am especially grateful for her willingness to be vulnerable.

I hope in her example, others can be vulnerable and then open to the healing that can come with inviting others into our journey. You may want to read Psalm 139 before reading this. With her permission to post this, here is Gwynn's homily:
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Living into God's Love
By Gwynn Crichton
In a literal sense, Psalm 139 paints a portrait of an omniscient, all-knowing, all-powerful God who knows our every thought, motivation and intention. This notion of God is like a story my mother used to read to me as a child called “The Runaway Bunny” in which the baby rabbit tries to elude this mother who says she will find him wherever he goes:

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, “I am running away.”

“If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”

“If you run after me,” said the little bunny, “I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.”

“If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

“If you become a fisherman,” said the little bunny, “I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.”

“If you become a rock on the mountain high above me,” said his mother, “I will become a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are.”

And so on and so forth.... The mama bunny is very much like the depiction of God in the psalm: the all-powerful great protector and parent in the sky that knows all of our thoughts, schemes, hopes, secret desires, and petty grievances. This God has us all figured out and there is no deceiving or outsmarting him—he always knows and can see right through us. Yes, this is no doubt true, but the relationship between God and the psalmist is much deeper and complex than this initial interpretation.

Upon further reflection, this psalm affirms that God is not simply omniscient but that God is omnipresent in our lives, that God is within us and that God cares deeply for us. The God portrayed in this psalm is a personal God who wants to be known to us intimately in all times and in all places. This God is compassionate, attentive and tender and accepting us exactly as we are and wherever we our journeys and resting places, during the day and night, in heaven and on earth, in our inmost parts to the uttermost parts of the sea. Truly believing that God loves and accepts me as I am has been one the greatest spiritual challenges of my life while the realization of God’s love in my life has yielded the most profound transformation I could have possibly imagined.

I come from a southern, blue-blood family hailing from Nashville, Tennessee and was born and bred in the Episcopal church. Our family has been afflicted by a garden variety of dysfunction: alcoholism and addiction, mental illness, severe depression, adultery, divorce, suicide, punctuated with tragic events and peppered with our fair share southern gothic quirks and eccentricities. I suppose we really got off quite lucky.

Growing up, I learned many unhealthy behaviors to cope and survive with craziness of my family life. These included overachieving, emotionally care taking my parents, people pleasing, playing the family hero and keeping things under control at all costs. Experiencing God’s unconditional love was not part of my survival manual. Fear ruled the roost. I always thought I had to work hard and perform well to earn my keep on this earth to be worthy and to be loved. I have struggled all my life with an over-developed sense of responsibility fueled by the guilt and shame of never being good enough.

I have often tried to win over people’s love and approval to the detriment of my own self- respect and worth, thinking if only this person loved me, then I would be okay. Even worse, I have tried to force, control, manipulate and change people--often those closest to me--to ensure my needs are met and I am “safe”. While these behaviors were appropriate responses to the traumas I experienced growing up, they became and in some cases still are major impediments in my adult life. They have enabled me to construct a false self or ego based on what I perceive others want or expect from me and have led me down the road of making my happiness often dependent on others’ expectations and behavior or worse yet, hurting people I love with my unrealistic expectations and judgment, critical attitudes.

Such fear-based behavior and deep insecurities have separated me from the love of God and have caused me inevitable suffering, despair and depression. As Thomas Merton says: “My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love--outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.”

I am so grateful that I was led to Al-Anon--a 12-step program for friends and families of alcoholics--at age 17 where I was introduced to a spiritual approach to dealing with my problems and coping with my relationships, family and life in which I made and continue to make the conscious decision to turn my will and life over to God’s care and love, asking repeatedly for God’s help to accept the things I can’t change, to have the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. Over these past 22 years in Al-Anon I have learned the hard way through many painful experiences that God truly loves me unconditionally.

Yet years I believed this intellectually, I didn’t see God’s love as essential to my existence—it was more of luxury item, optional, a last resort. So I continued to find myself in situations where I perpetuated these deep seated beliefs about myself as unworthy and unlovable and unable to relinquish my self- will. I finally hit a very low point in my life around the time I turned 30, struggling in a very sick and destructive relationship that ended badly--several times.

The worst part of it was how I betrayed and abandoned myself to such an unsafe person—that truly thought I deserved to be treated so badly. Yet by hitting this rock hard bottom and extreme despair, I had an incredible epiphany that God did not want me to feel this way anymore. God truly wanted me to be happy, free of the demons from my past, and that God truly loved me without condition—and that accepting God’s love was essential to my continued existence. Being left to my own devises and self-will was going to be a dead end, literally, if I kept going as I had been.

This was the great turning point of my life that made me willing to change, get really honest about my motivations and behavior, to allow God to heal many of the wounds of my childhood that caused me to repeat self-destructive patterns. Through God’s grace, I was free to finally consciously choose a safe and loving partner and build a meaningful and fulfilling life here in Charlottesville and at St. Paul’s.

In my experience true change has only taken place through radical surrender to God’s will—which I interpret as infinite love. Jesus says: “Abide in me as I in you....As the Father has loved me so have I loved you; abide in my love.” It is such a simple request and in it lies our salvation.

But I forget this so easily—I suffer from spiritual amnesia. Like the runaway bunny, I’m always looking for ways to seize control, exact my will, do things my way and fufill the desires of my ego for external approval which inevitably leads to trouble and pain and separates me from the love of God. I must be reminded on a daily basis through meditation, readings, worship, praying or attending an Al-Anon meeting to once again relinquish my will to God’s love and care--even when I don’t feel like I need to or things are going well.

And when that doesn’t work, inevitably, a crisis, a loss, a disappointment or stressful circumstance arises—what I refer to as a another bleeping spiritual growth opportunity—and makes me once again realize how dependent I am on God’s grace and how available and inviting God is to me any time or place no matter what state I am in, in my journeys and resting places, during the day and night, in heaven and on earth, in my inmost parts to the uttermost parts of the sea. 
But here is the punch line, folks. Realizing and coming to believe that I am a loved child of God is not just about trying to heal the wounds and trauma of my childhood and improve my self-esteem and be happy.

Receiving and experiencing God’s extravagant love for me is the necessary prerequisite for me to love my neighbor as myself and be able to give back to and serve the world from a wellspring of love, gratitude and faith rather than a place of resentment, martyrdom, or fear.

If I truly want to seek and serve Christ in all persons, be an instrument of God’s peace and minister to those in need, God requires that I also take the time to get my inner spiritual, emotional and psychological house in order so that I can be effective, so that I can love others as he loves me. I am not useful to God if I remain afflicted, angst-ridden, wracked by self- loathing, fear and doubt, if I remain separate and broken--this makes me deaf to God’s call to witness to Christ’s love in the world.

The whole purpose of the 12 steps it to reach step 12 which says: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. This is why we recover.

Barbara Crafton puts this very well in one of her books. She says:

“This is the curious forgetting of self that has to happen if we are to walk boldly into the destiny God has prepared for each of us. We must know ourselves, tell the truth about ourselves, love ourselves, we must do all of these things--and then we must set ourselves gently aside and commit everything to God’s love and power. If we skip the first part, if we think we can serve God without self-knowledge and self-regard, we will be turned away. Such people cannot serve. We are children of God, in the image of God. First we must come to see this in ourselves. But we cannot stop there. The purpose of faith is not to become a self-satisfied little puddle of self-love. It is, rather, to become a river, a fast-moving, powerful stream of love that flows outward toward the whole world.”

This is certainly a highly iterative and non-linear process. I will always be trying to balance nurturing my interior spiritual landscape with fulfilling God’s calling to me to serve others in the outside world—one is not possible without the other and vice versa—this is the healthy tension of being a Christian and an authentic spiritual person.

Sometimes I will be fully conscious of the fact that I swim in the river of God’s love and and other times I will feel that I am instead face down in a mud puddle. But that mud puddle is an illusion. I am always in the river of God’s love, I can’t escape and run away from it. Regardless of my circumstances, my state of mind, my inconstancy, my limitations, my willingness or unwillingness to let go and surrender, God is here, God is there, God is within, God is in those around me, God is everywhere, at all times and at all places, always available to all of us. This is so miraculous that it defies my ability to express the depths of my gratitude. Let us bless the Lord and give thanks to him.

The Lord be with you, let us pray:

That wisdom was born with me in the womb thanks be to you, O God. That your ways have been written into the human body and soul
there to be read and reverenced thanks be to you. Let me be attentive to the truths of these living texts. Let me learn
of the law etched into the whole of creation that gave birth to the mystery of life and feeds and renews it day by day. Let me discern the law of love in my own heart and in knowing it
obey it. Let me be set free by love, O God. Let me be set free to love.
--from Celtic Benediction by J. Philip Newell

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