Jeremiah 1: 4-10, Luke 4: 21-30
Too many of us barrel through life – or drift on a cloud – of perceived inadequacy. Formed by too much television or football or overbearing parents or senseless imaginations, or a really bad friend, we begin to believe early on that we’re not about to measure up (to what, only you would know).
With someone else’s perception of our brokenness creating turmoil within us, our sense of the value we bring to the world can be overwhelmed. We can find that “defeat” becomes self-fulfilling in a Peter Principle kind of way, as we rise to the lowest level of expectation. If we’re fortunate, a true friend or a loved one or maybe a pastor or maybe even a diagnosis reminds us of God’s grace and providence that will never let us go. – a message that reminds us of God’s assurance to Jeremiah that God knew each of us before God formed us, and that God set each one of us apart for honored, sacred service before the foundations of the earth were drawn.
You and I are not alone. Each one of us is a vital part of God’s story, even with our idiosyncrasies and inadequacies, our differences and our near perfections and our broken places. Through God’s love, you and I interconnect with every one we encounter and even some we will never see to become God’s boundless story of hope for the world.
Having had several conversations recently with men and women who are feeling broken in different ways, I felt compelled to search through my yet-to-be organized office book shelves for Karen Armstrong’s spiritual autobiography, The Spiral Staircase. More than likely all of us have heard of one or more of Karen’s scholarly contributions to religious literature. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that A History of God was one of the books the adult forum here at Western read a few years ago — or maybe The Battle for God, which is equally compelling.
Others of us know Karen Armstrong from her interviews with Krista Tippett or Bill Moyers. (As an expert on Islam she became a highly sought-after guest following 9/11.) Having attended her lectures at Chautauqua several years ago, I can attest that she is gracious as well as brilliant. I suspect many of you have the same opinion. And so it surprised me to learn that Karen Armstrong, wise stronghold of the faith that she is, had lived through a personal crisis of brokenness that led her to wonder what positive contributions she had for her quiet little circle, let along for all of humanity.
It was in the early 70s, several years after Karen Armstrong entered a convent, when she knew that she was not meant to be a nun. Labeled as troubled and obscure, she had been sent to psychiatrists and random therapists for what was believed to be psychological strain or maybe even a psychosis. Many experts and religious leaders continually reinforced her growing fear that she was, in her words recalling theirs, “broken” or “irretrievably flawed.”
So when Karen Armstrong, by now a doctoral candidate at Oxford, failed her dissertation examination and was dismissed from the University without her PhD, she believed that she had simply been unmasked as the failure that she was. But then something happened to her, something more dramatic than anything she had known. In the middle of a London train station she began to have an episode of dizziness and taste and lurching about and terror.
A couple of hours later, she found herself in a hospital where she was told that she’d had an epileptic seizure. She wrote, “I did truly did not know whether to laugh or cry. I was an ex-nun, a failed academic, mentally unstable, and now I could add epileptic to this dismal list.”1 But when a medical doctor unpacked her life experience from the diagnosis of epileptic and she was met with what she called “an occasion of pure happiness…“For the first time in years, (she said that) felt like she could trust (her) perceptions.” All of those odd experiences that led her to believe that she was mad? With this shocking diagnosis, she wrote “(t)he world had been given back to me, and perhaps for the first time ever, I felt that I could take charge of my life… All I wanted to do,” she said,“was to revel in this wonderful reversal. As I walked down Mortimer Street, I knew that I had a viable future.”2
Karen Armstrong, now a world-renowned scholar, author, and lecturer, spiritual director and panelist, has undoubtedly influenced thousands of people around the world from many walks of faith on this journey of a lifetime. Would that each one of us have a profound awakening to the viability of our future. Would that each one of us have such a pivotal awakening to the truth that we are good and sacred, set apart for God’s service. Would that each one of us from all walks of life have a moment of disclosure when we begin to see how the pieces of our lives finally do make sense in such a way that we are, indeed like Jeremiah, consecrated for this place where God has intended for us to be since before we were formed in the womb and that we are, in fact, a part of God’s intended unfolding for all of creation!
Too many of us enable diagnoses or personality traits or physical characteristics or others’ perceptions of our worth to clang noisily over God’s claim on our lives. Introvert/ extrovert, workaholic/ lazy, compassionate/distant, epileptic/ autistic: too many of us define who we are by our current condition or the circumstances of our lives. We begin to self-identify with a perception of brokenness laying heavily on our hearts, until we begin to believe that that is who we are. It’s like when “I apologize for what I did” unconsciously digresses into the brief excuse, “I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry” repeated over and over again unchecked becomes internalized as “I am a sorry person.” In Karen Armstrong’s case, “I have something broken in my life” became, “I am a broken and irretrievably flawed.” When we conclude that we are our brokenness, it leads us to spiral downward toward feeling not good enough for anything at all. In our brokenness, we can find ourselves rendered unable – defeated – from taking steps to confront, or address, or embrace (if necessary) the difference that we have internalized as our self-definition. We end up feeling like we hardly matter in some circles or situations if not always in our lives.
But God tells us throughout scripture, throughout the living word that is the church, and through the continual unfolding of the magnificence of the cosmos that each one of us matters. To our God, who has counted every hair on our heads, who has come to us with a still small voice and with the power of a firm and unwavering hand reaches out to draw us up from our descent into darkness, you and I matter as vital participants in the fate of all of humanity. Each one of us matters because God creates us good, as an integral part of God’s creation, interconnected to one another through the ages, complete with all of our near perfections and truly broken parts, each with a unique way of seeing the world, through all of our illnesses and our anger and the love that we share; you and I matter.
You and I matter because we all matter, independently and interdependently. Every illness becomes a reason for a cure. Every heartbreak becomes an opportunity for love. Every act of violence becomes an opportunity for reconciliation and advocacy. Every hunger pang – every full stomach – becomes an opportunity for sharing. Every failed exam, every failed interview, every attempt at swimming across an expansive pool of nothingness that can feel a lot like life becomes an opportunity for guidance. Don’t let an opportunity go by!
By God’s providence – by God’s gracious involvement in every aspect of our lives – people of one situation are brought into the lives of people from another to give the world hope in something bigger and more powerful than they ever could have imagined. God’s providence defines for each of us before we were formed in the womb how our lives would profoundly affect one another and the world. God’s providence, then, brings people together in a way that helps to change the stories of people’s lives forever.
John Calvin, whose thinking shaped so much of what Presbyterians believe, said that all parts of the universe are quickened by what he called God’s “secret inspiration.” I don’t think about John Calvin as a sound-bite kind of man, but I like that. Secret Inspiration is what we call it when God, in God’s wisdom, has decreed what God was going to do. And by God’s might, God motivates for us, with us, within us what God has planned, so that not only what is created is determined by our Lord but what is intended and planned of creation are governed by God and continued until their appointed end.
When we welcome how our individual contributions are a factor in what God has in mind for all of humanity, we relieve ourselves of the pressure to be defined by our broken parts and allow ourselves to become fully involved with the great acts unfolding for all of humanity. At that moment, we realize that if God doesn’t intend a certain outcome or way of seeing or way of thinking or being or doing for us, then God must have something even more powerful for us in mind. When we internalize that each one of us is a vital part of God’s creation, a beloved child of God just as we are, a lasting change can unfold in our lives and inevitably in the world.
Not all of us experience such a happy ending. But rather than caving in to our frustration, we take great strides to work through it. Rather than believing that our latest failure or misstep or success or joy has an impact only on our lives in that moment or has irretrievably changed the course of our future for the worse, we can wonder with fresh eyes how God is using us for the sake of the world. The interaction between a sense of brokenness in the world and our gracious acts motivated by God create a ripple effect that expands the world’s understanding of God’s boundless love. The multiplier effect of these interactions ever widens the horizon of hope and expands the goodness of eternity for all.
This is vitally true, informing us in no uncertain terms that your life matters. God anointed it so. And your full participation in this life of challenges and diagnoses, and judgment and missteps matters as much as your full participation in this life of births and rebirths – joys of every sort because your full participation is what insures the tomorrows for your children and your nephew’s children, your church and your best friend’s church, your world and a refugee’s world bound together for all of eternity. In the name of Jesus Christ, these bonds matter because eternity matters, which is ultimately why we’re here.
Maybe the reason that the Nazarenes were so upset with Jesus in the temple the day he read from the scroll was because they didn’t like that Jesus announced that other people matter. I wonder if the Nazarenes had fallen victim to the common belief that there is not enough love to go around. In their misunderstanding of the vastness of God’s love, ever-expanding through God’s grace and ours toward the horizon it fills, endlessly Jesus’ embrace of the other somehow meant that they didn’t matter, too.
We all matter. We are part of God’s boundless story. Like God told Jeremiah when he was only a boy, God’s grace determined before we were formed in the womb what our stories would be. God has called each of us by name, sacred and set apart to continually create something good. God’s grace determined how you and I with all of our broken places and capabilities intersect to become God’s gracious plan for all humanity, expanding the boundaries of eternity for all time to come. Together, the stories of God’s creation form the eternal story — become God’s boundless story – become God’s boundless story of hope for the world.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
1 Armstrong, Karen, The Spiral Staircase. New York: Random House, 2004. p 178.
2 p. 182