“True Colors”

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Rev. Dr. Doe West

October 8, 2017

Isaiah 43:25-26; Ephesians 4:31-32

 

This is not the sermon I prepared last week to deliver today.

That is because neither I, nor any of you, are the same people we were a week ago today,

Not one person in America is.  Not one person in the world is.

We all came out wounded to some smaller or greater degree by this latest – and largest – massacre in Las Vegas.  People lost their lives.  People lost their loves.  People may have lost hope, may have lost faith.

After each atrocity, people cycle through all the stages of grief… often getting stuck in anger… deep soul scoring anger…

And with the understanding of a counselor as well as a Pastor, I see a next dangerous occurrence.  The transition of anger without a safe or proper pathway for safe expression turning inward.  Anger turned inward creates depression.  A depression associated with helplessness and hopelessness.

In my secular training in psychology I discussed the experiments with rats put into a cage with electrodes on all four walls and ceiling and floor…  When shocked from one side, they startle but find balance.  When shocked from all sides, they fall over and turn catatonic.

In nearly forty years of working with human minds, emotions and spirits, I’ve seen how we can deceive others and ourselves about how much shock we can take before we go catatonic … or ballistic.

I witness how often we can define ourselves by how we’ve been wounded.  Wear it like a skin – be seen in that shape.  At such times as this, the counselor in me will offer tools for expression and decompression … for ways to get out of the cage – but that is a harder trip than most think.

Once we are in a cage, we begin to structure our lives aligned to living with that pain as long and effectively as possible… even after the way out is pointed to or even after the outside infliction of pain stops.  We have muscle memory and we have scar tissue memory.  We remember – and we don’t forgive.  Not the one creating the pain… or ourselves for shaping our lives to it.

And at times like this, we as Christians, get asked the worst questions … from others… and ourselves.  Must we forgive?  This?  HIM?!

Ephesians 4:31-32:  “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.  Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

We read those words and may even taste some bile in our throats that rises with those words hitting deep in our pain.

I have been called a red letter Christian … preaching from and turning to the words of the Christ over the words in the Old Testament.  But I do read all the words … and I do preach from the OT … but it always surprises me when the OT helps me with the NT.

Isaiah 43:25-26:  “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.  Review the past for me, let us argue the matter together; state the case for your innocence.”

Yes, Father God, let us argue the matter.  And how I would love to hear the case for his innocence… and mine, as I deal with my anger toward his behavior

I realize that I cannot hate or be angry with him for I know only what is printed about him and his life and his preparation for that night.  Which is nothing I can know, much less prove.  What I feel is the anger / rage at is his behavior.

In all my decades of learning and work – as Pastor, as Counselor, as Professor – I find one path for escape from the constant-on state of pain during such times by engaging my mind with my emotions… use contemplation and consideration as a rope walk up from that pit of rage.  I learned a phrase when working on a grant at the Harvard School of Public Health when we were doing investigation and debate of findings on some unknown pathogen … pathogens of body or mind or behavior … What do we think?  What do we know?  What can we prove?

So often we get stuck at what we think but do not know, or know but cannot prove.

 

Here is what I think.  The cage we can get stuck in is the fear that so much unknown can create.  Have you ever read the Litany Against Fear from the Dune novels?  I was so taken by it when I read it that I did it in calligraphy and put it on my wall and gave it out to friends as gifts … later I have given it to clients, to students, to friends… today I offer it to you:
“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

 

Powerful and important words to use as a tool for centering at times of deepest fear.  It speaks to our intelligence and reason. And like so many tools, it can help.

 

This is what I know.  We cannot always know what we want or even need to know.  This is where I go back to the promises in the bible I really don’t like…

Isaiah 55:8:  “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD.

Job 5:7:  “For man is born for trouble, As sparks fly upward.”

Isaaiah 47:11:  “But evil will come on you Which you will not know how to charm away; And disaster will fall on you For which you cannot atone; And destruction about which you do not know Will come on you suddenly.”

By the time my memory shocks me from all sides with these words, I am ready to be that catatonic rat!

But… after a moment of centering prayer and a recitation of the Litany Against Fear … I refocus on what I can prove.

 

This I can prove.  Trees actually begin to show their true colors in autumn, and here’s why.

The four primary pigments that produce color within a leaf are: chlorophyll (green); xanthophylls (yellow); carotenoids (orange); and anthocyanins (reds and purples).  During the warmer growing seasons, leaves produce chlorophyll to help plants create energy from light.  The green pigment becomes dominant and masks the other pigments.

As days get shorter and nights become longer, trees prepare for winter and the next growing season by blocking off flow to and from a leaf’s stem.  This process stops green chlorophyll from being replenished and causes the leaf’s green color to fade.

The fading green allows a leaf’s true colors to emerge, producing the dazzling array of orange, yellow, red and purple pigments we refer to as fall foliage before the stem finally detaches and the leaves fall – true colors are revealed.
We may never know the true colors of the shooter – why he did it – what forces internal or external – we only see the dominant color of his behavior that one dark night.  I lovingly offer that we need to shift focus from our questions about his behavior to our own behavior in response.

I am not allowed to know his true colors.  But I assuredly will learn mine.  And one clear view I have about the whole issue of forgiveness comes from another atrocity, another massacre, also in the month of October.

On October 2, 2006, a shooting occurred at the West Nickel Mines School, an Amish one-room schoolhouse in the Old Order Amish community in Pennsylvania.  A gunman took the children in that school hostage and soon shot eight out of ten little girls (aged 6–13) he kept with him after releasing some others.  He killed five and left three surviving the attack.  He then took his own life as police moved in.

The emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation in the response of the Amish community brought me to my emotional knees.  And each time I find myself in this same spot, driven by anguish or anger or awe – I remember what was done.

On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls was heard warning some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, “We must not think evil of this man.”  Another Amish father noted, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he’s standing before a just God.”

Jack Meyer, a member of the Brethren community living near the Amish in Lancaster County, explained:  “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.”

A Roberts family spokesman said an Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them.  Amish community members visited and comforted Roberts’ widow, parents, and parents-in-law.  One Amish man held the shooter’s sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for as long as an hour, to comfort him.  The Amish set up a charitable fund for the family of the killer.  And about 30 members of the Amish community attended his funeral.  Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims.

Marie Roberts wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbors thanking them for their forgiveness, grace, and mercy.  She wrote, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need.  Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe.  Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”

Some commentators criticized the quick and complete forgiveness with which the Amish responded, arguing that forgiveness is inappropriate when no remorse has been expressed, and that such an attitude runs the risk of denying the existence of evil.  Others were supportive.  Donald Kraybill and two other scholars of Amish life noted that “letting go of grudges” is a deeply rooted value in Amish culture, which remembers forgiving by others done grievous wrong such as Jesus himself.  They explained that the Amish willingness to forgo vengeance does not undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong, but rather constitutes a first step toward a future that is more hopeful.

I know they were as ignorant of the understanding of the reasons for the killer’s behavior as I was then and am again today.  But they went way beyond prayers for forgiveness.  They entered into the behavior of forgiveness.  And I have spoken with you before about how we can change our behavior long before our emotions but they will catch up if we push forward with that new / better behavior.
Even as they dealt with all the normal human emotions we all would in such instances, they stepped forward in the behavior of forgiveness for all those impacted by the violence.  Yes, remember – they still had to bury the dead, live with the injuries, destroy the old school building and build a new one.  And send the children back to it.

This I know.   Our behavior shows our true colors.  Our feelings arise from our humanity – and there are no moral obligations to our feelings – but there are to our behavior.

I know also that I want a life that not only allows a future that is more hopeful, but one I actively behave in a manner to help create.
By my behavior.
Toward others.
Toward myself.
I will show my true colors in ALL seasons of this complex life.
I will forgive and I will not fear.
I will go forward living my red-letter life
with fearlessness of compassion
and fearlessness of forgiveness.

In a life left open to hope.

 

 


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