The Dark Night of Denial


Since autumn, I’ve been pretty good at staying on top of my Daily Office discipline, but I’ve fallen woefully off the wagon when it comes to Lectio Divina and Centering Prayer. Here is my attempt to get back on top with a little public journaling.

So, I did my Lectio today on the Gospel from the Daily Office Lectionary:

JOHN 18:15-18, 25-27

Peter and John followed Jesus, as they had for years, but this part of the journey was the most difficult by far. Jesus was asking them to follow him into a place of darkness and cold, a place of suffering and death, a place where their faith would be challenged and (literally) torn to shreds.

This is what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” All traces of divine blessing and consolation disappear. It is a season of emptiness and suffering. So it was for the disciples on the night of Jesus’ arrest, and so it is for Christians today. The Jesus we loved (and thought we knew) is suddenly taken away from us. Like Peter, we find ourselves haunted by terrifying questions.

The temptation in this season is to flee the darkness and warm ourselves around the old familiar fires of certainty. This is the tactic employed by secular skeptics and religious fundamentalists alike. When the mystery becomes too difficult to face, they default to easy answers that can be fully understood. The problem is that any such answer amounts to a denial of our Lord.

Better to remain silent in the face of uncertainty and allow the mystery to remain as it is. Jesus tried to warn us that the journey would lead to this place, but we were not willing (or ready) to listen at that time. Now that we find ourselves here, will we deny the disturbing mystery or live with it long enough for Christ to bring us through the dark night to the morning of faith’s resurrection?


First Steps Toward Freedom

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

This is a slogan we often use in the recovery community. And I find that it is accurate. For those who are recovering from an addiction, or those who care for those in recovery, denial is often the first and greatest obstacle standing between the addict and sanity.

Before the journey toward freedom can begin, the addict first has to admit that there is a problem.

This is why the first of Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Steps is: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Those who are able to honestly take this one step find themselves on the road to recovery and a new life. In the words of the Chinese sage Confucius, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” On the journey to recovery from addiction, that first step is the overcoming of denial and the admission that there is a problem.

As many of you know, I worked as a substance abuse counselor before I was ordained. During that time, I encountered a lot of denial in my clients.

Typically, this denial would take one of two forms:

  1. Outright denial. This is the voice that says, “There is no problem.” This is the addict’s first line of defense against reality. They minimize and hide their dysfunction for as long as possible. They are lying (mostly to themselves). Their families and partners are usually complicit in the lying: trying to survive and present to the world the image of normalcy (this is what we refer to professionally as codependent behavior). This is the strategy that most addicts and their families will maintain for as long as possible.
  2. Deflection. This is a more sophisticated strategy that addicts use when the situation has become so dire that it is no longer possible to deny that a problem exists. Deflection is the voice that says, “The real problem is not with me [or my drinking/drug use/gambling/eating/working/sex-life] but with [this other thing].” Deflection is what happens when someone says, “I only drink because my [partner/family/boss] stresses me out!” They blame society, the past, bad luck, or anything else they can think of to take the focus off themselves and their addiction. Most of the time, addicts have become so good at deflection, they’ve even tricked themselves into honestly believing what they’re saying. That’s what makes denial such a big obstacle for addicts on the road to recovery.

Now, I don’t think this logic of denial and deflection applies only to those people who struggle with the compulsive use of substances or behaviors that we typically think of as addictions. I believe that we are all addicts at some level. It’s just that some addictions are more socially acceptable than others. We find it easy to look down on those who are addicted to things like alcohol, drugs, sex, or gambling. But we admire those who have an addictive relationship with family or work; we call them dedicated, when in reality, their behavior is destructive to themselves and others. I’ve come to believe that political fanaticism and religious fundamentalism are also forms of addiction (see September 11, 2001 and the Holocaust as examples). These addictions are just powerful and dangerous as any drug.

We, as an addicted society, have learned how to maintain our denial over our dysfunction by deflecting the blame onto others. We say, “I’m not the problem; the problem is with those liberal/conservative, black/white, feminist/misogynist, rich/poor, gay/homophobic, Muslim/atheist people.” We look everywhere for the source of our problems. Every place but one… within.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus shines the light of truth on a very similar process taking place in his own society.

It begins with the scribes and Pharisees, the religiously observant and morally upstanding pillars of the community (I like to call them the Upright Citizens Brigade …improv comedy fans take note). These members of the “moral majority” are grilling Jesus about his disciples’ failure to observe proper handwashing protocol before eating dinner.

Now, I can’t totally fault them for this because, as a parent, I regularly (daily) have to remind my kids about the importance of washing hands before dinner. Furthermore, the Jewish ritual of handwashing was not simply a matter of religious observance, but also a matter of public sanitation. Historians have noted that Jewish communities in Europe, for example, were disproportionately unaffected by plagues because their religion required regular bathing and other sanitary practices, whereas the Christian religion did not. So, the handwashing thing really did serve an actual purpose.

But Jesus isn’t faulting them over their concern for public health. He’s less interested in what they doing and more interested in why they’re doing it. The real matter, for Jesus, is not having clean hands before dinner, but having a clean heart before God. That’s what Jesus is concerned about.

What Jesus sees in the scribes and Pharisees is an attempt to deflect attention away from the condition of their inner lives by focusing on the externals of religious observance. Moreover, they were doing this in a way that was specifically designed to undermine Jesus’ authority as a teacher, thereby preserving their own power-base. They weren’t really concerned with religious observance or public sanitation, just making themselves look good at someone else’s expense.

That’s why I tend to be skeptical when I see preachers in the media with an ax to grind, bashing other people over the head with their Bibles. When I see that, I think, “Somebody’s deflecting.” There’s something they don’t want us to see (or don’t want to see in themselves), so they put all the negative attention on someone else in the name of truth and righteousness. It’s classic addict behavior.

But Jesus isn’t buying their act. He sees into people’s hearts, which is why he calls these religious leaders hypocrites and says, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”.

He shines the light of truth on their denial and deflection when he says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come”.

The problem, according to Jesus, is not what goes on around us, but what is going on within us. Jesus teaches his followers in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.”

Again, it’s not about what goes on around you; it’s about what’s going on within you. The real issue is not the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but the log in your own. Recognizing this and admitting it is the first step on the path to sanity, recovery, enlightenment, and salvation.

Many years ago, there was an essay contest for a newspaper in Britain. The prompt was: What’s wrong with the world? And it was the famous Christian author G.K. Chesterton who wrote the winning response. It read:

Dear Sirs,
I am.
G.K. Chesterton

Are we willing to admit that about ourselves? Are we willing to look deep into ourselves, past the mental fog of denial and deflection, to that place where we recognize that the real problem with the world is not what goes on around us, but what’s going on within us?

That’s a tall order. It’s not an easy thing to do. In fact, I would venture to say that it would be impossible for us to even begin this task, were it not for the grace of God leading and loving us to honesty.

The first of the Twelve Steps in Alcoholics Anonymous is “We admitted that we are powerless… that our lives had become unmanageable.” But that is only the first step. It leads immediately to the next two steps: “[We] came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and “Made a conscious decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” These three steps form the bedrock of our recovery from any addiction, whatever form it may take.

Here in the Church, we follow a similar path in our liturgy each Sunday at the Examination of Conscience and the Confession of Sins. In that moment, we pause and take a break from our denial and deflection. We cease from pointing the finger and look instead within ourselves:

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, in what we have done, and in what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

We say this prayer each week, not to wallow in guilt, but to rest in grace: God’s amazing grace, which is given to us free of charge. God is not interested in making us feel guilty, but in helping us face reality. This is why the very next thing we do is listen to the words of the Assurance of Pardon:

“Almighty God has mercy on us, forgives us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthens us in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keeps us in eternal life.”

These words are spoken to us, this grace is given to us, not just so we can get our tickets stamped for heaven, not just to get us a second chance with God, but to strengthen and empower us on the road to recovery (which we in the Church have historically referred to as sanctification).

This journey begins, continues, and ends in God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as we go from strength to strength, from glory to glory, being transformed, one day at a time, ever more into the likeness of Jesus Christ, “the Alpha and the Omega”, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”

Love Covers a Multitude of Sins

This is the sermon I preached this morning at First Presbyterian Church, Boonville, NY.  The text is John 21:1-19.

Parents, in my experience, have a way of knowing us better than we know ourselves.  I know this because I am a parent and, even though she’s only sixteen months old, I can already pick up on distinct aspects of my daughter’s personality emerging.  I also know this because I have parents and, much to my chagrin, they have often been able to finish my sentences, predict my next move, and see a part of my personality that I thought I had hidden well.

I felt particularly cornered one day when my mother aptly pointed out that I suffer from an “over-active conscience”.  Little things, small errors in judgment that most people would be able to let go, bothered me to the point of needing to confess to someone.  On one such occasion, my father interrupted my tirade of self-loathing to give me one bit of advice.  “Son,” he said, “go easy on yourself.”  To this day, that’s some of the best advice I’ve ever received.

I am hardly the first person in history to wrestle with such a compulsion.  Psychologists have identified a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder called “Scrupulosity”, which manifests itself as an unhealthy fixation on one’s own sinfulness.  Historical scholars suspect that both Martin Luther, the pioneer of the Protestant Reformation, and John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist churches, might have suffered from this ailment.

These “scrupulous” tendencies in myself, combined with a church environment that condoned such an inclination, brought me to the point where I disqualified myself from serving as a minister in the church.  Even as I graduated college and started seminary, people would ask me, “Are you planning to pursue a career in ordained ministry?”  I would respond, “People like me aren’t allowed to become pastors.”

Because of this experience, I think I have a pretty good idea of how the apostle Peter felt at the beginning of today’s Gospel reading.  This story comes to us from the end of John’s gospel, after Jesus has been raised from the dead.  We read that Peter was certainly present for the events which took place around Easter Sunday, but the last time he played a major role in the plot of this story was on the night when Jesus was arrested.  Earlier that evening, Peter had expressed his unwavering loyalty to Jesus in no uncertain terms.  By the next morning, Peter had publicly denied that even knew Jesus.  He did this, not once, but three times.

This was no minor misstep for Peter.  In doing this, we know that he turned his back on his faith; he rejected everything he had come to believe about God through Jesus.  But more than that, Peter had also turned his back on his closest friend at a critical moment.  According to ancient near-eastern custom, Peter’s infidelity had violated Jesus’ honor.  Jesus would be expected to demand vindication for such an offense.  Perhaps Peter thought of those words which Jesus had spoken earlier, “Those who are ashamed of me and my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of his Father and of the holy angels.”

So Peter was probably not all that surprised when at Jesus’ first appearance after the resurrection, his friend did not address him directly.  I can imagine Peter, in his crushing guilt, believing that his denial had purchased his exclusion from the ranks of apostles.  He had been reduced from the role of leader to that of spectator.  When Jesus commissioned his apostles, saying, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  I can see Peter, sitting in a far corner of the room, relieved to see Jesus, excited for his friends, but also sad for himself.  I can even imagine Peter saying the same thing I did, “People like me aren’t allowed to become pastors.”

After the events of Easter, Peter has to decide how to get on with the rest of his life.  It made perfect sense for him to return to fishing, the only life he knew before Jesus.  I find it interesting that six other disciples accompanied Peter in his return to the maritime business.  I like to imagine that they went along as Peter’s social support system.  Maybe they were hoping to shake Peter out of his paralyzing guilt so that he would come and join them as they sought to preach the Good News about Jesus to the ends of the earth.

Peter, hoping he could forget the past (or at least put it behind him), was finding his old job to be a hollow pursuit on multiple levels.  We read that his nets kept coming up empty.  I think this is a comment about something more than the fishing conditions at the Sea of Tiberias.  I think we, as the readers of this story, are getting a glimpse inside Peter’s soul at that moment.  The fisherman’s life to which he was returning seemed empty and meaningless after his experience of traveling with Jesus.  I also imagine that it must have been hard for Peter to work those same shores, remembering the day he met Jesus on that very spot, when Jesus used his boat as an impromptu pulpit.

In this sad moment, the risen Christ makes a sudden reappearance.  Jesus encounters Peter in the midst of his daily routine and brings two gifts.  First, he brings Abundance.  Like the symbol of emptiness, this miraculous catch is a sign to Peter that he is about to find that which he was really seeking (and here’s a hint: it isn’t fish).

As they are gathering the nets, one of the disciples, the one “whom Jesus loved” (identified as John by most biblical scholars), turns to Peter in realization that this catch was no ordinary coincidence.  “It is the Lord!” he says.  In this moment, John is acting like a true pastor by pointing out God’s presence and activity in Peter’s life.  This, by the way, is how I spend most of my time on the street as a Community Chaplain.  I’m not a street preacher, I’m a street pastor.  It’s my job to walk with people through the triumphs and struggles of daily life and help them see how God is at work there.

Peter responds to this observation immediately.  But we read that he does something quite unusual: he puts his coat on just before hopping into the water.  I don’t know about you, but I find it’s much easier to swim without being fully clothed.  But, like the nets, I take this to be a statement about Peter’s internal state-of-being.  He doesn’t want to feel so exposed in front of the one he has let down.  Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, Peter wants to cover himself because he feels ashamed.  Too often these days (even in the church), God’s children fall victim to this mentality.  They assume there is something about themselves that is unacceptable, so they duck and cover.  Hiding in the closet, they wear the mask constructed for them by society’s expectations.  But, as we will see in a moment with Peter, Jesus has this uncanny ability to pierce the veil of our shame with his love.

Which leads me to Jesus’ second gift:

Jesus appears bearing the gift of Acceptance.  When Peter and the disciples finally make it to shore, they find breakfast waiting for them.  This is evocative of Jesus’ meal-sharing ministry, which got him in even more trouble than his teaching and healing.  You’ve heard me describe before what a powerful statement it was to share a meal with someone in the ancient near-east.  Eating with someone signified one’s total acceptance of the other person into the family unit.  By feeding the multitudes and dining with outcasts, Jesus makes a statement about the scope of his radically inclusive love.  In this passage, that love is extended to the disciples, even Peter.  By eating first, Jesus is effectively saying that he has rejected Peter’s rejection of him.

Once breakfast is over, Peter is finally ready to come face-to-face with Jesus and talk about the painful events of that night.  Jesus uses his words like a surgeon’s scalpel: cutting ever deeper, exposing the source of the pain in order to heal it.  It is not an easy soul-surgery for Peter to endure.  Jesus asks Peter three times whether Peter loves him.  One time for each denial.  Each time, Peter affirms that he does love him and Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.”

Instead of enacting vengeance upon Peter, Jesus asks him to take care of that which is most precious to him: this new community of believers.  In verse 16, Jesus uses the term “Shepherd”, which is “Poimaine” in Greek, and will later be translated into a Latin term that is very familiar to us: “Pastor”.  Jesus doesn’t punish Peter, he ordains him!

Jesus says to Peter, in effect, “Do you really love me, Peter?  If so, then I want you to take that love and give it to these people who need it the most right now.”  Peter now stands before Jesus as a healed and restored person.  The shameful hurt of denial has been replaced by the warm embrace of love.

History tells us that Peter did, in fact, take up this call.  Peter stands out as one of the great pastors in the early days of the Christian Church.  We have stories and letters in the New Testament that bear witness to this fact.  I think Peter walked away from that meeting with a newfound faith in the power of love to set things right.  In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Peter had this encounter in mind when he wrote to a group of churches years later, saying to them, “Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.”

I went to seminary declaring, “People like me aren’t allowed to become pastors.”  I said it as a joke, but my sarcasm was a thin veil covering my deep sense of shame and unworthiness.  But it happened that as I heard Jesus’ words to Peter, “Feed my sheep”, I began to notice a new desire rising up within me.  I realized that I wanted to feed Christ’s people with his Word and Sacraments.  Following this desire has led me out into the streets, where many of Christ’s lost sheep stand desperately in need of love.  I am being transformed by that love, even as I try to give it out.  My ministry in the neighborhoods of inner-city Utica has only increased my faith in the radically inclusive love of God.  I believe Jesus is teaching me to read my Bible with a new set of eyes as I read it with drug addicts, prostitutes, and homeless people.  I no longer see it as a book of rules and doctrines, but as a library of stories, poems, and letters, documenting a millennia-long romance between God and God’s people.  Like Peter, I find myself being transformed by the warm embrace of a love (God’s love) that covers a multitude of sins (my sins).

I don’t know where you are this morning, in relation to this powerful, transforming love of Christ.  Maybe you feel like there is something inside of you that you have to hide from the world?  Maybe you feel like you’ve committed some unforgivable sin and Jesus has finally turned his back on you?  Maybe you feel the crushing burden of doubt or guilt?  If that’s you this morning, I want to encourage you with this Gospel passage.  Jesus is coming into your life now with his gifts of abundance and acceptance.  He is not coming to punish you, but to heal you and, finally, to commission you into his service.

Maybe you’re here today and you’ve already experienced that healing love of Christ firsthand?  If that’s you, then I want to encourage you to take it with you into the world.  There are many of our sisters and brothers who are still bound by chains of guilt, fear, and despair.  Jesus is calling you this morning to follow him into those dark corners of the world, bringing with you the light and the warmth of his love.  One need not be a pastor in order to feed Christ’s hungry sheep.  Each of us, regardless of age or occupation, has a call to ministry.  Likewise, one need not go to Palestine or the inner-city.  There are hurting people who stand in desperate need of love in your own family, neighborhood, and community.  Your co-workers, clients, and supervisors need it.  If you are still in school, look for that fellow student in the cafeteria or playground who always eats or plays alone.  If you are retired, look among your friends and neighbors.  None of us has outlived God’s call on our lives.  For as long as there is still air in your lungs, God still has plans for your life.

Jesus has a lot of love to give and the hurting people of this world desperately need it.  Let’s learn to accept that love for ourselves and then pass it on.  Come on people, let’s feed some sheep.

Let us pray.

Eternal and Holy One, your love, poured out in the life, death, and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, has covered the multitude of our sins: Grant us vision to see your love more clearly in our own lives, that we might pass it on to those hungry sheep who you have entrusted to our care; through the same Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.