What’s wrong with me? Have you ever found yourself hurling those words out into the darkness of a sleepless night? What do you do when the hamster in your head spins the wheel counting up all the ways you’ve failed yourself and others. Paul says, “For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do.” I like to imagine these words first coming to Paul as he tossed and turned in his bed deep in the dark of a hot and humid Mediterranean night.
There are many angles from which to look at these famous words from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. What interests me this time around is Paul’s very personal sense of failure because that’s what routinely wakes me up at night.
Paul had many things to regret about his life, many failures, some of them pretty catastrophic. As Saul in the Book of Acts, he savagely persecuted the early church, most horrifyingly by approving the stoning to death of Stephen in Acts 7 and 8. Was it this that woke him up in his bed in the middle of the night and left him tossing and turning?
Theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “What is it about beds at night? During the daytime a bed seems harmless enough. You can take a nap on a Saturday afternoon without waking up wondering how much longer you have to live. You can work a crossword puzzle in one while getting over a bad cold… But, wake up in the middle of the night, unable to go back to sleep, and you can be in for a real workout.”
There are many things that will keep us awake at night. But, surely one of the most terrifying of them is counting our failures. What’s especially interesting about failure is that even those we praise as the most successful among us often cite failure as their most frequent companion - failure, not success. I recall a survey some time ago of Fortune 500 CEOs who pretty much to a person said their most frequent experience wasn’t success; it was failure. So, if by some of the most visible and influential standards of our culture many of our most successful people point to failure as their most common experience, what does that say about most of the rest of us?
True, some failures are funny. Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing is a boisterous and joyful romantic comedy fueled not by success, but by failure: failure after failure of its characters to communicate the truth about themselves with those around them. It’s this flaw that prompts Benedick in the final act to declare, “Man is a giddy thing.” That word ”giddy” has multiple meanings, but in this context Benedick means to say that everyone is a bundle of contradictions.The comedy of Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Constello in our parents and grandparents day constantly relied on the comedians’ contradictions and failings (especially failure to communicate: look up, for example, Abbott and Costello’s hilarious baseball routine, “Who’s on First?” and you’ll see what I mean.
Other failures are not very funny. It’s at this point that the concept of original sin, a thesis that has fallen into wide disfavor in recent times, has attracted some highly regarded thinkers as a way of characterizing the flaws in our human nature, flaws, they say, descended with us at birth. The English writer G. K. Chesterton said original sin was acutely visible at that moment on a lovely summer afternoon when bored children begin torturing the cat. A recent book about Picasso recounts how those closest to him considered him a monster to live with. T.S. Eliot, a giant among twentieth century poets, was an anti-Semite. Mahatma Gandhi was an exceptional leader of nonviolent resistance, but his personal failings included violent treatment of members of his own family.
Saint Augustine’s sense of original sin is not primarily sexual in nature, as some corners of modern psychology would have it (there has always been more heat than light in that way of looking at the problem). Original sin becomes sharply apparent to Augustine when, as a teenager, he raids a neighbor’s pear orchard with his pals for no other reason than the thrill of it, knowing through every minute of that caper that it was wrong to be doing it, and knowing there were riper, far more delicious pears to be had in their own orchards.
Saint Paul and Saint Augustine after him represent a quantum leap in the ethical consciousness of the West. No longer is it enough simply to know what’s good in order to do what’s good, as Socrates and Plato taught. With Paul and Augustine, you must also will yourself to do good. And, it’s the will to do good that is our principal failing.
We are giddy things, said the Bard. So did the ancient Greeks in their own way. Their version of what we call original sin, the Greek version of giddiness, goes like this: we are all by nature a bundle of contradictions thanks to traits we’ve inherited from two gods with opposing natures. From Dionysus comes our wildness, our impulsiveness, our irrationality, but also our capacity for unrestrained joy, while from Apollo comes our zeal for order, for reason, for equanimity (calmness, composure, evenness of temper), and equability (serenity and tranquility). The Greeks didn’t see a sharp line between our Dionysian and our Apollonian portions. That’s why their temple at Delphi was sacred to both gods. In the wild, winter months at Delphi, high up on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, they worshiped Dionysus. In the calmer spring and summer months at Delphi, they worshiped Apollo.
Martin Luther put our problem this way: “Human nature is like a drunk peasant; lift him into the saddle on one side, over he topples on the other side.”
All the more reason, then, to ask: how do we balance the opposing forces within us, the contradictions? And what do we do about it when balance fails us? It’s at this point we need to look at how Jesus deals with the problem. How does Jesus approach the problem of human failure? Unfortunately, it happens most clearly in verses 20-24, a passage that comes in the middle of our gospel for today, but which sadly was omitted from our lectionary, perhaps because it was thought it would be too hard for us to hear on a warm July morning.
In today’s reading from the Gospels, Matthew 11, Jesus is bogged down in some rabbinical dog days. In verses 20 to 24, he becomes very angry. He’s in his home region of Galilee where it’s fair to expect his message of repentance would have been more welcome than elsewhere in Roman Palestine. But, the people there have failed to take to heart what Jesus and his old teacher John the Baptist have been so urgently preaching. John himself, chapter 11 tells us, is now languishing in a prison of the Roman puppet ruler. Three chapters ahead in Matthew, he will have his head cut off. And, no, it’s not just the Galilean Pharisees, the religious types, Jesus’ fellow rabbis, who are being a thorn in his side. It’s the ordinary people, too, Jesus’ own people, his neighbors, his fellow Galileans. He singles out whole towns of them, including his own home town of Capernaum. Many of his own people are ignoring the call to repent and begin living lives of loving kindness toward others.
At this point comes verse 28, which is in our reading today, the words we so often take away as soothing and comforting: “Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” I just used the King James phrasing here right out of the Holy Communion service in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the service I grew up with as did many of you other gray hairs out there. When I was confirmed at the age of thirteen my parish gifted me with a copy of that prayer book.
The problem is that the 1928 prayer book language may have masked a key point. The words I just quoted follow the so-called “comfortable words” in that service: “Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him.” This theme is carried over into the concluding lines of the gospel reading today. In verse 30 comes, “My yoke is easy, my burden is light,” words Handel put on that light, soothing, airy soprano line that introduces the final movement of Part One of The Messiah.
But, what kind of comfort are we talking about? Not the kind of comfort a thirteen year old kid growing up in rural Delaware understood, and not Handel’s soothing soprano line. Comfortable words? If in our customary everyday La-Z-Boy recliner understanding of comfort this is our takeaway from the gospel, then we’d be very mistaken about what Jesus meant. “My yoke is easy, my burden is light,” is not an anodyne, not an anesthetic to shield us from the pain and uncertainty of life. Just the opposite: it’s a wakeup call. What Jesus is really saying here is, “My yoke and burden aren’t a walk in the park, but they are a whole lot lighter and a whole lot easier than the ultimately self-defeating yoke you hard hearted Galileans have chosen to wrap around your necks and live your lives by, ignoring the truth about yourselves and choosing to persist in your giddiness, ignoring your duty to love your neighbors as yourselves.
So, the lesson up to now for us is this: Don’t ignore your failings. Strive to see them and face them. Name them, confess them, and ask God for forgiveness, and reconcile yourselves to the fact that for as long as we draw breath, we will never cease to be giddy; we will never escape our need for confession, repentance, and forgiveness. My way, Jesus says, is in the end just the kind of strong comfort, the right kind of solid, if not soothing, love that will bring our giddy natures and the giddy world around us into right relationship, and open the way for the true rule of God, the rule of love for another, the kind of love that is real comfort, real peace, the peace of God that passes all understanding.
Writing a series of reflections on the “comfortable words” for the Prayer Book Society of Canada, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Curran says, “we need to be careful about this word ‘comfortable’; it has nothing to do with our favourite easy-chair or the luxury of a properly heated home, nor does it have anything to do with casual attire; the ‘comfortable words’ are one means by which we feel the presence of Christ’s Holy Spirit in our lives, the presence of the ‘Comforter.’ In its root sense, to comfort means ‘to strengthen’, not to encourage ease, or to enhance leisure.” God is therefore most assuredly not a La-Z-Boy recliner.
In this light, the presence of that terrifying question, “What’s wrong with me?,” that we cast out into the darkness of a sleepless night might best be seen not as a mark of condemnation, but rather as a vehicle of confession and repentance, and in the end a sign of our ultimate wholeness with God, our assurance, that, as Paul discovered and Saint Augustine four centuries after him, we rest, not in the so called comfortable La-Z-Boys of our living rooms, chairs that will shred, tear, and one day collapse, become useless, and wind up either on a sidewalk in the rain or in a dump somewhere, but in the eternal love of God.
Alright, since we’re looking at night terrors in the light of confession, I want to take a moment for a personal confession. I confess to you that I really, really like La-Z-Boy recliners. I don’t have one only because my wife says we don’t have enough room for one, and she’s right about that. Take that as my confession, but note that I said nothing about repentance. When it comes to La-Z-Boys, confession yes; repentance never.
Returning to our discussion, our ultimate comfort, then, is not in La-Z-Boys or similar forms of impermanence, but in the everlasting embrace of our life in God, a life committed to love, the sign of which is our willingness, in the spirit of Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, and countless others to acknowledge and confess our failures, which is what we do when we call out what’s wrong with me. In the end, all is right and good in our relationship with God. Night terrors, then, are nothing to be afraid of. On the contrary, I have come to think they’re paradoxically a sign of robust spiritual health, the kind of robust spiritual health that Saint Paul displays this morning.
In this light, that cry of what’s wrong with me should be seen as a sign of grace. This was Paul’s great discovery in Romans. It’s what saves him from the pit of despair that persecuting the church early in his life would have otherwise left him wallowing in. We shouldn’t be troubled when our cries of failure rise up out of those sleepless moments in the dark; but, we should be very troubled if they don’t, and especially if we ignore them. Don’t be afraid of staring your failures in the face. If you love Christ, your failures simply do not count.
If this isn’t enough for you, remember this: if you have been baptized, and I’m assuming most of us have, remember that your baptism sealed you as one of God’s own forever. Forever!
What else can we do to stop or at least slow down the nighttime hamsters from spinning those wheels in our heads so furiously? Many have taken solace in a prayer that is familiar to many of you: Reinhold Neibuhr’s Serenity Prayer. Please join me as we pray for serenity now.
Let us pray
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as a pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will; so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.
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