August 14, 2022

Hard soul work

Passage: Isaiah 5:1–7, Hebrews 11:29–12:2, Luke 12:49–56

It is not easy being a parent. You know, most of us didn’t go to school and take courses in parenting. Most of us don’t have degrees in child psychology. Some of us hearken back to the days of Spock, not Spock on Star Trek, but Dr. Benjamin Spock, who wrote a book entitled Baby and Child Care which sold something like 50 million copies. 

His message to parents were that their instincts were more right than wrong, and he was hugely influential. 

But he received lots of criticism and sometime he was downright wrong, as with his recommendation to put infants to sleep on their stomachs to avoid Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. 


These days, the books, videos, media, etc. on childcare and childrearing and ubiquitous. I sometimes wonder if there are maybe too many experts, and too much advice, with so many different ideas and theories. It is hard to know which book to read, which expert to heed. Some advocate rigidity and putting children on a tight schedule. Some advocate letting the baby set the schedule. Some advocate strong discipline. Some advocate a laissez-faire approach. 


Most of us just did what our parents did to us. But the truth is…Parenting is not easy. It isn’t easy dealing with temper tantrums, lying, hitting, terrible twos, trying threes, and teenagers. 

It isn’t easy dealing with children and teens around drugs, alcohol, sex, violence, and competition. 

It isn’t easy dealing with children as they cope with loss, rejection, attacks, bullying, teasing, and not getting what they want. 


I can go on and on. 


And finally, I have point. Dealing with kids means this: 


Sometimes when you are dealing with children it is not about bringing peace but a sword. 

Sometimes when you are dealing with children, you might hear these words; “I hate you.” 

Sometimes dealing with children instead of bringing unity brings division. 


Not because you as the parent want division, or disunity or the child not to experience peace, but in order to love them you cannot let them have everything they want. 

In order to love them you have to discipline them, and teach them not to hurt, not to lie, not to cheat, not to do certain things. 

In order to love them you have to model boundaries for self and relationships. 

In order to love them you have to say “No” and teach them when it is appropriate to say “No.” 


And when you swing the parent’s sword of delineations and boundaries with the word “No” it inevitably brings division not peace. At least in that moment. 


Last week I talked about the human soul. I talked about a model of the human soul. It is like a house, with various rooms. I said that Jesus was very much about soul work, about your soul dying to selfishness and ego and being born again to love. 

I talked about looking at your soul and praying about your soul and changing your soul with God’s help. 


And now we come to some very interesting words of Jesus found in Luke’s gospel: 

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” 


In Matthew’s gospel it is slightly different:  Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” 


The call to worship today was from Luke: “The stone that the builders rejected has become our cornerstone.” 

But the next sentence later Jesus would add something that we usually leave out: Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls”

There are several hard and difficult sayings of Jesus.  

And sometimes on the face of it these hard difficult sayings of Jesus seem to be in opposition to what Jesus says or does elsewhere. 


For instance, we talk about the Jesus as the Prince of Peace. We know that when he was born the angelic message was about peace. We know that Jesus came to reconcile us to God and one another to make peace and break down dividing walls that separate us from God and one another. 

Jesus said: Peace I leave with you. My Peace I give to you. 


Why then is Jesus talking about bringing a division, or bringing a sword? Why does Jesus talk about him being a rock that will crush us? 


Because soul work is hard. And when you work on your soul and develop a self, not everybody likes it. 


Let’s get back to that whole parenting children thing. The goal of a parent is not to produce a child who is just like them. At least it is not supposed to be. 

The goal of a parent is to produce a child who turns into an adult and is a fully actualized self. An adult who thinks for herself. An adult who makes his own decisions. An adult who is independent, but still connected to family, culture, and their roots. 

Parenting is not about cloning children into replicas of the parents who think the same, act the same, look the same. 

Sometimes children grow up to be very much like their parents, but that is not the goal. 

But it is a struggle. Children and teens constantly push at parental boundaries, struggling to be independent; and the parent struggles with how much freedom and responsibility to give children and when teens have to be reined in, so to speak. 


So, there are many parent/child conflicts, which simply mean that the parent and child do not agree. 

The parent sets boundaries and enforces them, so that one day the child, now adult will learn how to set their own emotional boundaries and develop self. 


In Family Systems therapy the term that is used is Self-Differentiation. 

Self-differentiation was first defined by psychiatrist Murray Bowen as, “A setting apart of oneself as distinct from others.” More broadly, it is the ability for a person to recognize their own thoughts and feelings, and to respect that they are sometimes different from others. It is a person’s ability to be confident and comfortable with oneself, even if they differ from their loved ones.  

A person with strong self-differentiation is able to set appropriate personal boundaries without feeling guilt or shame. A person who has poor self-differentiation goes running to accommodate others, often at the expense of their own happiness, comfort or time. Or a person with poor self-differentiation will try to coerce or bully people into his or her way of thinking or doing. 


When Jesus talked about division, Jesus was talking about our souls being independent selves. 

One of the greatest emotional journeys any human being makes is a soul journey…. …learning to be a self, independent of one’s parental influences while maintaining a mature connection to those parents. 

In other words, you have to discover that while you owe a lot to your parents, you are different and distinct and a separate self. 


And when Jesus talks about a sword and division… he is also referencing the fact that when you stand up as a self, the less self-differentiated will try to make you conform. They will resist you or oppose you, sometimes even hurt you, to bring you back into their way of thinking or doing or being, or under their control. 

Most of us know what it is like to struggle with a parent or parents who maybe wanted the best for us, but sometimes tried to pressure us, or control us, or manipulate us. 


But it isn’t just parents. It can be peers, friends, family, neighbours, church members, club members, co-workers who don’t agree with you being different, and you being yourself, and try to pressure you back to their view or acceptability and fitting in. 

And most of us are pretty susceptible to the anxiety of being different. Sometimes it is hard to be one’s self. 

Sometimes it is easier to go along to get along. 



I myself know what is like for people to find my theology unacceptable and try to pressure me to adopt their theology. 


Self-differentiation is to know that you are different, and it is okay to be different, and to stay calm when you meet others who think differently, even when they exert pressure for you to change. 


Paul talks about working out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 

Paul is talking about the hard and difficult work of soul work which you do by prayer and talking to God and scripture and finding your true self… 

And not because some family member or minister tells you this is how you should feel, think and believe. 


Always take a sermon with a grain of salt and test it, and think on it. The minister’s job is not to tell you what to think, what to feel and what to believe, but to tell his or her story of faith, his or her struggle of faith, his or her discovery of faith, or his or her theology, or his or her encounter with the divine…. 

… so as to encourage you to dialogue with God, think, pray and have your own faith story, your own faith struggle, your own faith discovery, your own theology and your own encounter with the God. 

Listen to some words from Hebrews: 


Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. 36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— 38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised… 


Soul work is hard. Being a self is hard.  


But the scripture says it can be even harder if our souls decide to follow the path of Jesus and love all people, seek justice, seek truth, be inclusive, forgive one another, be non-violent, treasure creation, treat each human soul as precious, and seek to change the systems of the world to create more equity, equality, justice, mercy and love. 


We all know that while the kingdom can come in our hearts as it is in heaven, God’s dominion of love has not yet come on earth as it is in heaven. 


And sometimes if you want to bring love to the poor of this world, there will be division. 

What would it mean to change the systems of this world to make a huge dent in world poverty. 

What would it mean to be non-violent in this world and to rid the world of weapons designed only to hurt humans. 

What would it mean to love everyone, including, terrorists, rapists, Russian and Chinese oligarchs, pornographers, politicians, people of different races, religions, sexualities, ideologies and philosophies. 


It means you will experience opposition and division. When you try to right the world of inequities, there will be those who oppose you, because they are on the plus side of the inequity. 

Since most of the western world is on the plus side of inequity, it is a pretty big mountain to climb, and there is a lot of opposition. 

When you try to love and care for those who have done great evil, you will find opposition. 

Remember we follow the one who spoke out against inequity and loved everyone, and he was put on a cross. 


It is not easy to love. And loving doesn’t mean feeling warm and fuzzy, but sometimes it means swinging a sword of truth, a hammer of justice, or ringing a bell or freedom. 

Sometimes it means forgiving those and working with those whom society thinks are beyond help. 


And again, the point is that that when you are a self, following the path of Jesus, there will be those who will oppose that direction, sometimes vigorously, and we even know sometimes violently. 


So, while seeking to love the world and make change in the world may bring opposition and division… 


Seeking to follow Jesus brings division in one’s own soul and in one’s community. 

Are we willing to fall on the stone called Jesus? Are we willing to be broken into pieces by Jesus? 

I quote from Debie Thomas’ article: Disturbing the Peace from the weekly webzine: Journey with Jesus. (posted 11/08/2019) 

Are we willing, for example, to allow the Gospel to shatter the monolith that is white privilege and white supremacy in (North) America?  Are we open to God’s hammering when it comes to our thoughtless consumerism?  Can we allow God to break the indifference to death and addiction to guns that daily turn our streets, schools, playgrounds, and shopping malls into bloody war zones?  Are we open to God breaking our hearts with compassion so that we can welcome into our midst the stranger, the refugee, the immigrant, the exile?  

Make no mistake, some things must break, must shatter, must die, before the Word of God can take root and grow. Whether it’s a besetting sin in my personal life, or a corporate failure in my communal or national life, the question that matters is this: do I trust God to break what needs to be broken?  Do I really want God’s Word to engage my life at its hardest, stoniest core?  Or do I only want a soft substitute? End quote. 


Explosive words… 

Jesus swinging a sword of truth and hammering out justice in our lives, in our churches, in our communities. Whew? 


Let me talk about one other form or division Jesus brings. Jesus divides between the oppressed and oppresspors; and Jesus stands on the side of the oppressed. 

From our responsive Psalm today 

How long will you judge unjustly,
      and show favor to the wicked?
Save the weak and the orphan;
      defend the humble and needy;
Rescue the weak and the poor;
      deliver them from the power of the wicked. 


How long God? And, the answer is that Jesus has come and stands on the side of the oppressed, and because of that he himself was oppressed.  

And a further answer to how long? is this: Jesus lives in us so that we will be on the side of the oppressed. 


In 2014 Kenyan scholar, Loreen Maseno-Ouma did a remarkable study called How Abanyole African Widows Understand Christ. 

Maseno-Ouma described present day widows living in East Africa as living marginal lives. 

Women in the Abanyole tribe are under the custody of a man... A father when they are girls and a husband when they marry. 

To be a widow is to be without a custodian, and therefore as low a human as one can be. They are mistreated and abused. They find it hard to have relationships because if they try to make friends with people, it is assumed they are trying to steal someone’s husband. 

They have lonely lives. They are poor. And there are men who will exploit their poverty for sexual favors. 


And in the study Maseno-Ouma describes how Jesus becomes a saving reality for these women. 

Jesus becomes their new custodian, a kind, loving, caring, fair and helpful custodian. Someone who will claim them as family and never abandon them. 

Someone who is their advocate. 

Two metaphors the women used: Jesus was like their breath, living in them, sustaining them, being the very air they breathed. 

And Jesus was like a skin for them. The death of their husbands left them vulnerable and exposed, open to slander and gossip and false accusation. Jesus is like an omnipresent protection acting as a buffer for them between the outside world and their souls. 


Maybe this little study sheds light on Jesus causing division setting up family against family. 

In this case setting up Widows against the married women who heckle them and the men who abuse them. 


Does that shed light on Jesus coming with fire. 

Does it mean that Jesus comes with the sword of truth to expose the injustice? 

Does it mean that Jesus wants to shatter this injustice on the cornerstone which is God’s love for the oppressed? 


Does it mean that Jesus comes to divide these women from a culture that oppresses them, and set them up as actualized selves who see their self-worth? 


Soul work is hard. Soul work divides us into actualized selves. 

Soul work makes us think of the cost of following Jesus and how loving people and fighting for their rights can bring division and opposition. 

Soul work is about smashing the stony part of our lives and our cultures, on the rock that is Jesus, so that love can grow in fertile soul. 

Soul work is participating in our culture and community bringing equality and justice and being on the side of the oppressed. 


Soul work is about growing up and being our true selves and finding that it is okay to be different and unique.