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"A Tortured Soul" (04/24/22)

Sermon, April 24, 2022

Rev. Anton Jacobs - KCUCC

"A Tortured Soul"

by Anton K. Jacobs, copyright 2022

Acts 5:27-32

Some of you who have gotten to know me, may already realize that I’m a tortured soul. I didn’t know it until fairly recently. Over the years, of course, I’d read about tortured souls among authors, artists, celebrities, and others but never thought of myself as one. Then a while back, when reading a psychology book that talked about the tortured soul, I wondered for the first time, am I a tortured soul? So I asked the three people who know me best. Without hesitation, all three said, “Yes.”

Here’s a question for you: Who of you has a favorite sports team who, when they lose a critical game, can wreck your mood for a while? That happens to me with the Kansas City Chiefs and the St. Louis Cardinals. Sorry, Royals fans. It’s annoying, but such a game can ruin my mood only for a day. Some things seem to ruin my mood for a lot longer. For example, who gets elected or appointed for powerful political positions—presidents, senators, Supreme Court justices, and such. Those things can add to my sense of torment.

It’s weird, but I’ve come to realize, with some surprise if not shock, that I am deeply emotionally connected to the ongoing history of my country and in many ways to the whole world. I’ve been in a bad mood since January 6th of last year. Once upon a time, I came very close to emigrating to Austria. I had lived in Vienna for three years, had learned German fairly well, and knew my way around, so to speak. While there, I edited an English-language weekly newspaper and wrote the news for an English-language monthly. What I noticed was that, while I still had opinions about the drift of things politically and culturally in Austria, I could study and write about such things without the deep emotional reactions I feel in this country. My tortured soul has known too much despair in recent years resulting from the political and cultural trends in this country and elsewhere.

Now, every day I’m faced with reading the horrendous suffering in Ukraine. While I’m inspired by the courage of the Ukrainians and have given a few dollars to humanitarian help there, this day-to-day grinding war is doing nothing to calm my soul. This has been added to other international events already threatening me with despair.

I come by my tortured soul fairly honestly. My mother was one as well, although I don’t think she ever thought of herself that way. Mother was gracious and loving. At her funeral one of my brothers said that her “generosity was legendary.” She came from a broken family in poor, rural circumstances. She did not complete high school but was smart and read a lot and followed current events. Somehow through a lifetime of poorly paid jobs and multiple marriages, she raised three boys, and so far, we’ve all stayed out of jail.

She was what we’d call today an empath, someone who abnormally identifies with the feelings, attitudes, and plights of others. It was common for some relative, cousin, or friend of ours with serious family problems to live with us temporarily. One night, one of my best friends was woke by his drunken, abusive father, and my friend bolted and ran all the way to our house in his underwear and stayed with us for a while. I still remember, about 25 years ago, a passenger-filled airliner had to land in a most dangerous manner. The front wheels, when lowered for landing, had not straightened. The plane was going to have to land with those wheels facing sideways. Of course, ground crews prepared for the worst as that plane circled overhead to use up most of the flammable fuel before the perilous landing. Mother was riveted to the television, watching that event play out. I’m sure she thought over and over about “those poor people” until the landing was successful. “Those poor people” was the phrase I heard many times as mother read the newspapers and watched television coverage of suffering human beings wherever they were in the world.

I would guess nearly every soul carries some degree of torment. There’s probably a continuum of torturedness from the most peaceful Buddhist or Christian monk or nun to the worst imaginable case of PTSD of someone who’s known too much trauma.

To some extent, internal torment comes with human life. Sigmund Freud developed the insight that human beings cannot grow up in civilization without mastering considerable internal conflict. As infants, he said, we’re dominated by the pleasure principle; we just want our desires satisfied, and we’ll scream and holler when they aren’t. As we grow up, though, we internalize a reality principle that teaches us that we must discipline ourselves and avoid seeking satisfaction all the time. To be a member of society is to never be fully satisfied. Freud writes that “the two urges, the one towards personal happiness and the other towards union with other human beings must struggle with each other in every individual.” Most of us develop the ability to achieve a modicum of satisfaction while still being responsible members of society. Freud calls this “expedient accommodation.” Nevertheless, it is an ongoing internal conflict without permanent resolution. The psychologist Erik Erikson argued that in order live full and productive lives we must master eight stages of internal tensions. Some torture is inherent in life itself.

And then there is Judeo-Christianity. In the book of Acts, the first history of Christianity, the author, presumably Luke, says that the apostles were proclaiming Jesus’s resurrection and that he is the messiah. They get thrown in jail for doing this in the temple in Jerusalem. But miraculously they get out and keep doing what they’ve been ordered not to do, proclaiming Jesus’s resurrection and messiahship. When confronted by the authorities, Peter and others say, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” They’re claiming an ultimate allegiance to a divine reality they see as standing above everything else in life.

This text echoes the most fundamental internal tension of our faith. On the one hand, we’re taught that creation is good, so our earthly, material lives and all they involve are a part of creation and to be indulged in and enjoyed--families, peoples, culture. “So I commend enjoyment,” says the author of Ecclesiastes, one of the most tortured souls of the scriptures, “for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.”

On the other hand, we are taught not to attach ourselves to anything in this life in an idolatrous manner. “Have no other Gods before me,” says the Lord in the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus. The language is unequivocal: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” Those are two inherently conflicting sentiments. I’m to embrace and love my spouse but not make that person the center of life! I’m to embrace this life as a good creation for the satisfaction of human beings, but there is something more, transcending life to which I must remain attached. How does that work?

This is a major tension in the teachings of Western faith traditions––Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Western religions teach us to embrace life as we know it—creation is good, they affirm––but in such a way as to not be too attached to anything in it. Life inherently comes already filled with contradictions, paradoxes, conflicts, and stresses to torment us, and yet we’re also called to live the lives we have been given fully, faithfully, and responsibly without being attached. How do you do that?

To some extent, if we’re to be honest with ourselves, the answer is that it’s not possible, certainly not all the time. There are some souls, I’m sure, who achieve significant degrees of peace—the “peace…which surpasses all understanding,” as stated in the book of Philippians. I think of such people as the Buddhist teachers Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama, both of whom have written lots of books about how to achieve peace of soul. I’m sure there are some who have devoted their lives so centrally to meditation, prayer, and contemplation that they can still their souls, at least for a time. I think of the monks and nuns of the world’s religions. But the fact is that the self-help shelves of every large bookstore are still filled with books advising us how to be happy, content, satisfied—to find peace of soul.

In a Christian sermon naturally, I could talk about the importance of deepening one’s prayer life and exercising greater trust in God. I could talk about getting therapy which is usually a good idea. But we all know those things already, so it would be trite. What I thought of after having a conversation with someone about this sermon is twelve-step programs. I’m a little familiar with twelve-step programs because my wife, till she retired, was the executive director of the regional office of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. Twelve-step programs include such things as Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Workaholics, and others. I’m not in any of these twelve-step programs, although I probably ought to be in several of them. Maybe I’ll start tortured-souls anonymous. Twelve-step programs promote the idea of trusting your higher power. In Christianity we call that God. Three other sentiments twelve-step programs promote are awareness, acceptance, and action. Awareness involves facing reality with our eyes open, seeing things and ourselves as they are. Acceptance involves accepting oneself and others with our flaws, strengths, and weaknesses. Action involves rededicating our lives to love and service.

What they all emphasize most centrally, though, is mutual support, acceptance, and encouragement from one another. This is what we in the church call “fellowship.” However, I suspect most church fellowships don’t achieve the level of intimacy, acceptance, and mutual support that twelve-step groups do. Yes, prayer is good. Trusting God is essential. Or, if you don’t believe in God, then trusting Life. Maybe even going to church is good. But there is no substitute for the intense acceptance and mutual support of fellow travelers who care enough to risk the journey of life with us.

Hasidic Judaism originated in western Ukraine. And I want to end with a Hasidic parable from one of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s books. It tells the “story…of a man who went for a walk in the forest and got lost. He wandered around for hours trying to find his way back to town, trying one path after another, but none of them led out. Then abruptly he came across another hiker walking through the forest. He cried out, ‘Thank God for another human being. Can you show me the way back to town?’ The other man replied, ‘No, I’m lost too. But we can help each other in this way. We can tell each other which paths we have already tried and been disappointed in. That will help us find the one that leads out.’”

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