Sermon,  Sermons

Inherent Strength

sermon video. Click for parts 2 & 3

One of the first personality inventories I took sorts people into groups represented by one of four animals (lion, beaver, golden retriever, otter) developed by Smalley and Trent in the 1980s. I never liked taking these inventories mostly because the questions could be answered differently depending on the day, or two answers were equally true. The animal incarnation proved this when my response summary graphed a line nearly straight across. Also, I resist being placed in a box. My dyslexic-processing brain confronts categories of any kind, and to place billions of beautifully unique persons in 1 of 4 categories is anathema to me.

(some portions taken from a earlier post)

Still, our culture insists. There’s the assessment based on the Greek humors – Sanguine, Choleric, Melancholy, Phlegmatic – developed by Graeco-Arabic medicine, c. 400BCE. And the most widely used by businesses and university-entrance constabularies, the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory first published in 1944, based on Jungian categories of personality traits. And the MMPI, the TIPI, the Keirsey, and the DISC. The one that holds some promise for meaningful insight in my professional opinion, though, is the Enneagram. Its origins are in dispute, yet can be set with some confidence with Oscar Ichazo in the 1950s, and is the most nuanced, inviting the numinous that plays a very real role in how we express who we are.

By far the most enjoyable types of personality sorters are funneled through Buzzfeed and other social media channels. My daughters will often send me one along with their results at once laughing at the absurdity of its validity and giving a nod to a modicum of the same. Apparently, I’m Harry Potter’s Hermione Granger, my Disney princess alter ego is Rapunzel?, my mythical creature side is a Phoenix, my Norse god counterpart is Odin. I took that last one three times, adjusting my fence-top answers, and it always returned Odin— but I’m Thor! I. am. Thor. Ok, I suppose “wise” and “leader” are characteristics I hope describe me. And I do have a little issue with being in control. But that hammer . . .

The real concern I have with personality sorters is two-fold. One, it often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy or cop-out default (well, I am choleric, after all, I’m just stating the truth), and two, human beings are organic, living, changeable creatures impacted by one another, circumstances, brain chemistry, the weather . . . Oy, the humidity! Sure, I have some overarching tendencies that are characteristic of my behavior. We are habitual beings, too (and there are good, psycho-socio- and neurological reasons for this). Crucially, each carries a specific genetic piece of God’s character, unique. And because we are human and made in the image of this same God, we will recognize God in each other—and, in a similar way, I will recognize myself in you.

The point is, perhaps I have the expertise to see that you process your thoughts out loud and might be categorized as “extroverted.” By understanding this I can then discern that when you are talking about a solution, it is not your final draft. Your thoughts and feeling might change on the matter, particularly as you talk it through with another person similarly disposed. But to call you “a thinker” or “lion” or “phlegmatic” or Loki, well, I will miss all of the other beautiful bits about you that are not in the “S” category, or whatever. I can blow you off because I am not comfortable with introverts, or read your stand up comedy for “socializer” and misunderstand your need for alone time.

Sometimes these inventories are fun for validating the aspects that are true about me, and can help begin to understand someone else a bit better. But there is a gaggle of studies that show how “personality” traits change over time. Indeed, brain chemistry and hormone distribution changes at many stages of development. Mindfulness practice is shown to augment these changes in productive ways, as well. The most salient of these is that it helps me see you for who you are without my junk getting in the way. When I am present with you, mindful of your being, your personhood, I can see you more—and love you better—because to be known is to be loved and to be loved is to be known!

Speaking of mindfulness . . .

I just came across the Japanese word tsundoku, which can be translated, “books piling up faster than you can read them.” It is absolutely an accurate label for my situation! I could take it as a reminder that there will always be so much more knowledge out there than I could ever keep up with. It can also serve as a gentle prompt that I should probably be uncluttering my life and practicing more of that mindfulness that I preach about.

Or it could just be saying something about striving after an ever-elusive goal, or pointless endeavor.

Elisha says to his mentor Elijah, “I will not leave you.” And he went where God was calling Elijah to go. Much like the disciples did (and GTGT talked about) when Jesus said they must leave everything to get anything from Jesus (wisdom, training, etc.). Is there someone in your life that you would follow anywhere? What motivates you to follow? To stay?

But what does it mean that Elijah threw his mantle on Elisha? This mantle that, when rolled up and stuck in the Jordan, had the power to part it. Elijah had to give up power in order than Elisha might live into that power.

When asked Elisha requests a double share of Elijah’s spirit. What does that mean? Is it power? If so, what kind? If you read through the accounts of Elijah’s and Elisha’s life, you will find that God works significantly more miracles through Elisha, perhaps even double.  

But the caveat is that Elisha must witness Elijah’s exit from the world. The text says, “As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12Elisha kept watching and crying out, ‘Father, father! The chariots of Israel and his horsemen!” Then he tore up all his clothes. Well, except the mantle. Which he used to part the Jordan and walk back home.

As far as we know, Elijah doesn’t actually die. Yet, for Elisha, it must have been like a death. He is left alone (and he left everything to follow Elijah) with only a cloak that can make water move out of the way so one can pass through on dry land.

But when we are looking at a death, or a parting, or the ending of a relationship, do we not want to look away? Ignore it, move on? Isn’t that one of the first things we comment on when someone still grieves – when are you going to move on?

Though, more often, we don’t want to deal with it so we say, “yeah, I’ve moved on already.”

Yet amid this very strange and extraordinarily dramatic event, Elisha keeps watching, doesn’t flinch but embraces the fear and likely terror of it, believing that his mentor would not instruct him to keep watch if it weren’t crucial he see. And so he received double Elijah’s spirit.

Is the implication, perhaps, that what I leave behind for someone can have more impact than anything I’ve done? Or maybe just that I must step back from my privileged position so that someone else has the opportunity to lead – in a bit of a different way, double the effectiveness because she will lead in her uniquely gifted way?

Elijah brings Elisha alongside him as he does the work of God. He teaches by example, he preaches through relationship, he leads by leaving the decision to Elijah to continue to walk in the way of a Prophet.

There is no question a great deal of incomprehensible power flows through Elijah. But he does not use it to manipulate or coerce or intimidate Elisha into doing anything. “if you see me, it will be granted; if not, then not.” So what? Who kyahs? Do you ever watch Saturday Night Live? When Fred Armisen impersonates Joy Behar from the NBC show The View?

I’ve mentioned before, Linda and her horse whispering – she taught us about using the porcupine technique of applying no more than 4 oz of pressure? at the beginning of training, teaching the horse to follow direction. And then she waits. Asks the horse if he is ready. And when the horse begins to show he understands, she will use 3 oz, then 2, etc. until all she needs to do is point at the spot she’s asking the horse to move.

And the horse trusts her implicitly. Unafraid. Remarkably skilled. And countless children – and adults – have learned under her guidance, helping each rider to learn and trust and become leaders. Without intimidation, force, control. Only respect. Love. But it takes time. A lot of time. It is a relationship. It is literally in the field.

Fruits of the Spirit and Freedom

Galatians 5 begins (from the Message Translation): 

Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.

Galatians 5:1, MSG

Whom do I follow? Whom do you follow? Why? Do they coerce you to be something you are not? or do they see God’s image in you, encourage you to see God’s work in you, and to live it out?

Or what do you follow, strive after? More money – when there is never ‘enough’ to stop working toward it? an easy retirement – when there is never a fully secure situation that will ensure everything will go as planned? Because anything other than walking in the steps of Jesus, being a part of the project to make all things right (righteousness and justice) in this world, is truly living free.

Paul goes on to say to the Galatian church:

It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?”

Galatians 5:13-15, MSG

The disciples said “wherever you will go I will follow.” Elisha told Elijah, “I will not leave you.” How is the Spirit of God, the One Whose fruit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, and self-control – how is the Spirit of God who dwells in you – indwelling, shekinah, leading you, guiding you, encouraging you to go?

How can I be present to you, to lead with you to share in the power of the Consuming Fire and go where it might be frightening? Or even just uncomfortable?

How can you be present to someone else to do the same? That is discipleship – being in relationship, leading by example, by seeing the other, sharing the power (and responsibility) to be examples of Love (how we are known as Christ-followers, right?), and be a part of the project to make all things right in this world? Behold I am making all things new. God creates, God is Wisdom, God is mindful of us, and God is all-powerful. And we are made in God’s image. Through Elijah we find another way to lead. Jesus shows us a new way to lead – lowly and meek, yet all-powerful – so that strength is inherent in us.

Real strength, true power, is in the freedom to step aside, to let go of some measure of control (don’t annihilate one another). Or maybe give up some of your free time to give it to another who might benefit from your guidance, your wisdom (love as you want to be loved). Because there is an enormous repository of wisdom in this place!

It begins by developing a disposition of presence – to God and to one another. So, I wonder if we might together make a goal today: be intentional about being with someone and notice 5 distinct things about her that I love, traits that he does that I would like to develop. Or see traits that can be developed by my direction, your guidance. Will you join me? Tell someone about it. Talk about it at lunch today.

As an aside, I came across this poem last night. While being present to many of you, I’ve noticed many are dealing with loss and grief – a couple of significant anniversaries of such loss are around this time. Clark just mentioned last night that an alarming number of his friends are so despondent they no longer wish to be in this world. This poem is one way to develop that sense of presence with one another – and to demonstrate that we are never alone in that grief and loss. Wait. Wait together. Wait, and Be.

Pulitzer-winning poet Galway Kinnell (February 1, 1927–October 28, 2014) addressed this elemental question of existence with extraordinary compassion and spiritual grace in a poem he wrote for a student of his who was contemplating suicide after the abrupt end of a romance.

Maria Popova, Brain Pickings.


Galway Kinnell
Wait, for now.
Distrust everything, if you have to.
But trust the hours. Haven’t they
carried you everywhere, up to now?
Personal events will become interesting again.
Hair will become interesting.
Pain will become interesting.
Buds that open out of season will become lovely again.
Second-hand gloves will become lovely again,
their memories are what give them
the need for other hands. And the desolation
of lovers is the same: that enormous emptiness
carved out of such tiny beings as we are
asks to be filled; the need
for the new love is faithfulness to the old.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a while and listen.
Music of hair,
Music of pain,
music of looms weaving all our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

For Maria Popova from Rosanne Cash, the New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber brought this to her attention. See also, Diane Ackerman on what working at a suicide prevention hotline taught her about the human spirit.