Living Creatively With Diminishments
By Rev. Dr. Kent Ira Groff
Genesis 28:10:17; 2 Corinthians 12:7b-10; Matthew 19:30
Let us pray. O Love Supreme: Open our hearts so that the ancient word of scripture may become flesh in our lives this day, in this time, in the place, in this crazy wonderful world; through Christ the Word made flesh. Amen.
I want to talk to you today about paradoxes. First, from Genesis: In Jacob’s dream of “the ladder,” angels are ascending and descending—going up and down. In Second Corinthians, Paul writes of a “messenger of Satan”—a bodily or human tormenter. Then Paul hears Christ say: “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made complete in your weakness.” Paul concludes: “For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”
What is this crazy upside-down talk? I see the Bible as far more “eastern” than it is “western”: the Hindu Bhagavad-Gita with its bright path and dark path—and the Chinese Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu with its YIN and YANG—like the tides of the ocean—parallels Jacob’s ladder upward and downward: An upward angel—a new job; a downward angel you get fired from your job: Hmmm—Jesus says: “The first shall be last shall be first?”
In light of yesterday’s violent white supremacist killing in Charlottesville, Virginia, we need to hear the message of “crisis” for our time. The two Chinese characters, which together form our word crisis, separately represent the words danger and opportunity. How can we you and I claim the opportunity yet also acknowledge the danger in this crisis? A human emergency can be the occasion for spiritual emergence.
When life upends you with a surprise catastrophe, how can you carry the grounding gravity and grace, the downward and the upward movements?
Two evolutionary scientists can help us. First Teilhard de Chardin in The Divine Milieu, asks a life-giving question: At every moment we see diminishment, both in us and around us… premature deaths, stupid accidents, weaknesses affecting the highest reaches of our being. How can these diminishments… become for us a [source of] good [and growth]?
Accomplishments… Diminishments… Success…. Failure…
Relational… physical… cognitive… emotional… vocational….
Ruth Duck, in the hymn we sing after this sermon, “Living with Loss We Cannot Change,” lives creatively with Migraine Headaches. These upward and downward rhythms are within our bodies: Breathing… IN…. OUT… Expanding…. Emptying….
Every failure is another notch on the ladder of learning, Thomas Edison would say. Ah, Jacob’s ladder! When I drew Jacob’s ladder on newsprint pad with an upward arrow on left and downward arrow on right—a doctor in Wilmington, Delaware, said to me: “It’s the double helix pattern in our human DNA!” Why not?
The second scientist is Stephen Hawking, who was diagnosed with ALS at age 21. “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change,” says Stephen Hawking (from movie The Theory of Everything, about his adapting to ALS). The diagnosis of motor neuron disease came when Hawking was 21, in 1963. At the time, doctors gave him a life expectancy of two years. Adapt… Adapt… Adapt…! He says, “Life would be tragic if it weren’t funny.”
Now with my Parkinson’s diagnosis it’s hard for me to write; so I put my notes from Chautauqua lectures on my iPhone. Funny, YES! When I use the dictation feature, my name still comes out “Can’t”!—which brings back a bad memory of my 5th and 6th grade teacher, who with her raspy voice would say: “Can’t you children be quiet!?”—and for a nanosecond I’d think she was attacking me—Can’t sounds like Kent…!
One of you said to me last week, “I used to read a lot. But then when I got to college, I began to forget a lot of what I had read.” He said, “That’s when it occurred to me there’s a difference in knowledge—remembering facts in your head—and wisdom that’s more like knowing something in your heart.”
So back to Teilhard’s question: How can these diminishments… become for us a [source of] good [and growth]? Recent New York Times Magazine gives a great clue: “The best way to prepare for traumatic crisis or disability is to practice finding gifts in the daily mini-disappointments, diminishments and failures.” (NYT Magazine 9/4/2014 & 11/16/2014).
*A first key is openness to surprise.
*A second key is to reflect each day on a gift, a struggle—and an invitation: Wow! Whoa. What now?
*A third key is to befriend failure and love questions.
*A third key is to allow silence for the paradoxes to integrate.
I can identify with another aspect of Jacob and Esau: Jacob the inside boy mama’s boy Esau the outside boy taken care of the farm and fathers favorite son this was my brother and me I was sick as a child I had croup I would get sick for weeks at a time on this 49 days out of school one year. My mother was very permission giving—not well herself, looking older—when she was 52 she looked 62! I was her window-washing kid, taking care of the inside jobs while my elder brother David would be out working with father in the fields like Esau.
But I now see gifts out of my childhood illness. The minister’s wife, Carolyn Keefe brought me books when I was sick: CS Lewis, Christ and the Fine Arts, Eugenia Price. I learned to appreciate the arts, music, poetry, literature, even math! But athletics—no way! I’d get picked last for the team. Yet the principal of the school called on me to be the pianist for the entire school! And so we can find gifts in weaknesses.
We can also find an angel on the upswing: when things are going well, you get a promotion, a new relationship, a new partner. The Bible’s Ecclesiastes we hear: “There’s a time for everything—a time to gain and a time to lose, a time to dance and time to mourn”—the upward and downward rungs on the ladder—each in its own way gives us a gift. These paradoxes are the key to life integrating them: left brain with its logic and reason, right brain with its creativity and intuition.
So what is the key for integrating these opposites in our lives? The cross and resurrection?—the only other reference in the Bible where Jesus says, “You shall see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man!” What’s the key for some bits of transformation? What’s the key to living into the paradoxes: finding gifts in broken stuff, power in weakness?
Befriend your weakness and doubts. For 40 years I’ve recognized my own bipolar mood swings. W. E. B. Du Bois, in his classic book The Souls of Black Folk, says how the minor cadences of sadness and sorrow are counterpointed with cadences of joy and triumph. Join me in singing:
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows my sorrow,
Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, Oh yes Lord.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus,
Once driving back to Paxtang in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, from having lunch with my 6’11” tall Bob Richardson—I said, “I’m sorry, Bob, I wasn’t a very good conversationalist today, one of my down times….” He turned and said, “I like you better this way!”
What a gift! I’m a better listener….not so full of my own insights…. More likely to ask questions… that trigger another’s stories…
In my backpack that I call my “Guatemala bag,” I carry a little popsicle stick. On it I’ve written, “We learn from our teachers, yes. But our teachers are often hidden in the people we are called to love and serve.”
*John La Porte (Central Church member who died early this year): In his teen years John discovered he had inherited a disease called Charcot Marie Tooth, a peripheral neuropathy disease. It causes atrophy in the hands and legs and feet—loss of the use of your muscles in your hands and feet to the use that many of us are accustomed to. Expressing concern about his vocation, his father asked, “Can you find a job you can do sitting down?” John set his heart on being a dental lab technician. After working for many owners of labs, he used his math and people skills to start his own business. When he retired, he’d always liked to cook and put on feasts (his wife Marcie and many of us (Permission to use).
*A minister colleague and cousin—became anoxic in surgery (like stroke): He couldn’t speak. An occupational therapist asked about his childhood? He had played trumpet… It’s restored his speech and become a gift for J.C. Penney retirement community in Florida! How can you return to a childhood or childlike practice that may yield creative dividends from your diminishment?
*Ruth Panofsky Morgan Jones—a Penn State classmate who married an Englishman—experienced severe hearing loss at preschool age: She founded “HearSay Charitable Trust” (with Queen Elizabeth’s endorsement) to counsel hearing-impaired persons and families.
Poetry can be a way to integrate the paradoxes of life: pain and gain, light and night. In a time of intense back pain in 2006 (related to 1974 surgery), while teaching at Chautauqua, New York, I had to enlist Freddy as my “Sherpa” to carry my backpack to and from class. On Wednesday that week, I wrote “Painting Pain,” as a tribute to artist Frida Kahlo, wife of artist Diego Rivera. In the movie Frida, you wince as a teenager she’s pinned between two car bumpers. She lived with long-term intense physical pain as well as emotional pain of her husband’s philandering. She painted her pain.
Is there beneath
this pain some gain
that I might miss
if I complain?
Is there within
my complaint some
I can use to paint
to reinvent my pain
into a space for all
humanity to trace
an arc of beauty in
the dust and rain?
—Kent Ira Groff©
What is some weakness you may embrace to find a gift in it?
 In the ongoing racial crisis in the U.S., Du Bois’s little book The Souls of Black Folk is the “Bible” for us white-pink folk. If you haven’t seen it, get it and read it.
Allusion to movie Frida (Kahlo), Diego Rivera’s wife, also an artist, who lived with intense physical pain from being crushed by two cars and relational pain of her husband’s philandering.