Peace Beyond Pain, Hope Beyond Horror
Rev. Dr. Durrell Watkins, Sunshine Cathedral
Aug. 14th, 2011
Genesis 43.1-11, 13, 15; Matthew 15.22-28
Beyond our progressive, positive, and practical spiritual community I have friends who don’t understand our relentlessly optimistic approach to life. I think they hear and read our positive affirmations and then remember that old Saturday Night Live character, Stuart Smalley, who was a little nerdy, a little awkward, and a little smug with his lispy affirmations for self-esteem.
Of course, Al Franken was making a caricature of a self-help spiritual seeker and he based the character on people he knew who were involved in Twelve Step programs.
But the truth is, many people in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and Overeaters Anonymous and Adult Children of Alcoholics , Codependents Anonymous, Al-Anon and other Twelve Step programs have greatly benefited from the optimism, the support, the accountability, and the positive self-talk that they discovered in the program.
Other helping disciplines have adopted these same practices, Neuro-Linguistic Programming and positive psychology for example.
As a child I heard over and over the story of the Little Engine Who Could. When faced with a daunting task, the little engine encouraged himself with self-talk…I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…and he learned that he could and he did.
The movie “The Help” (based on the book by the same name) has domestic workers in segregated Mississippi tell their stories of what it is like to live under such oppressive conditions. The main character is a housekeeper and nanny who repeatedly tells the little girl she cares for positive things. She tells her throughout the film, “You is kind. You is smart. And you is important.” And she has the child repeat those words after her each time.
The practice of using self-talk to develop positive attitudes has long been embraced and promoted among athletes and sales people. After all, St. Paul said, “faith comes by hearing” and the one sure way to make certain we hear positive messages is to say them to ourselves.
We see this practice in the bible.
“God is my shepherd, my provider; I want for nothing. God makes me to lie down in beautiful green pastures and God leads me beside the calm waters of tranquility. God restores my peace of mind and leads me in the paths of right thinking and right action…Even if mortal danger approaches, I will fear no evil for God is with me. God’s tools are present to comfort me. God has abundance for me that my so-called enemies cannot take away. I am anointed and satisfied. Surely, goodness and mercy will be with me throughout my life and I will dwell in God’s presence forever.” The 23rd Psalm may be the most famous positive affirmation in the world!
This kind of positive self-talk isn’t limited to the Psalter. The anonymous writer whom we have named John affirmed, “Greater is the power within me than the power people believe is in the world.” 1 John 4.4
The Apostle Paul was a believer in affirmations.
“I can do all things through the Christ which strengthens me” (Philippians 4.13). He also said, “We are more than conquerors” (Romans 8.37). Paul went on to affirm, “I am convinced that NOTHING can separate us from the love of God.”
In the first half of the 20th century there was a Divine Science minister named Emmet Fox who was a popular speaker in New York City, drawing enormous crowds every week. He also wrote books and his teachings were popular in the early days of the AA movement. Emmet Fox also influenced a Methodist minister who transferred his credentials to the Reformed Church in America so that he could answer a call to pastor the Marble Collegiate Church in New York…that famous Protestant minister who was influenced by Emmet Fox was of course Norman Vincent Peale who introduced The Power of Positive Thinking into the mainstream of Christianity and into the vocabulary of people all along the spiritual spectrum.
Dr. Peale said, “Plant seeds of expectation in your mind; cultivate thoughts that anticipate achievement. Believe in yourself as being capable of overcoming all obstacles and weaknesses.”
That’s good advice, but how do we do it? We encourage ourselves, we affirm what is true of us even when circumstances don’t seem to verify that truth. We affirm what is spiritually true of us as children of God. “I am kind. I am smart. I am important.” We affirm that good things are possible for us and that we even deserve them. We even affirm that God wants us to be blessed! New Thought teacher Emma Curtis Hopkins had two powerful prayer statements that I use in my own prayer life. She said, “There is good for me and I ought to have it!” And she would also say, “There is no mixture of evil with my good.” Plant positive seeds in your mind; cultivate those positive thoughts. That’s Peale’s advice, and it’s modeled for us in scripture.
Dr. Peale also said, “You become a worrier by practicing worry. You become free of worry by practicing the opposite…” Positive affirmations, optimistic self-talk is the practice of moving beyond fear and worry, it is the bold attempt to develop the habit of going to peace instead of to pieces, of summoning hope rather than fear, of imagining what good is possible rather than what disaster is probable.
No, our affirmations aren’t a silly game, nor are they a diversion from the harsh realities of the world. They are the way we instill hope in our hearts and that we remain focused on the possibilities of life. And that method of positive prayer often yields remarkable results.
That same kind of progressive, positive, and practical spirituality is present in both of our scripture lessons today.
In the book of Genesis, Joseph was his father’s favorite child. Joseph was not only daddy’s little baby, but he was given a special gift…a coat of many colors. And his brothers were annoyed by this. Now, traditionally we have been taught that what frosted their cupcakes about that coat is that only Joseph got one and they felt left out. But bible scholar Mona West tells us that such vibrant, multi-colored cloaks were often worn by young women. If this is true, then Joseph’s brothers aren’t mad that he got a gift and they didn’t; they’re mad that he’s cross-dressing in public! And their father encourages it, he even gave him the darn dress, er, coat of many colors. There’s quite a bit of drag in the bible, but that’s another sermon.
In an unimaginably reprehensible act, Joseph’s brothers abduct him, sell him into slavery, and tell their parents that Joseph was killed. Joseph grows up a slave in a foreign nation, and later he winds up in prison on a false charge. But somehow through all of this, Joseph finds reasons to celebrate life. He shares the gifts he has with others. He’s very good at analyzing dreams, and so he does so freely for whoever asks. His optimistic and generous attitude serves him well and he eventually not only is freed from prison but is elevated to a high government position. He has gone from slave to prisoner to national leader! Even when things look bleak, he is able to see God at work in his life and he trusts that good can come from apparent chaos. When his family comes to his adopted country looking for aid, Joseph is in a position to help them and again, he gladly gives what he can even to people who hurt him. He will tell his brothers down the line, “What you meant for evil, God used for good.” That is the positive faith that we are trying to develop with positive affirmations.
We see positive spirituality at work in the Gospel story as well. Jesus at first doesn’t want to be bothered by this Canaanite woman who is asking him for help. And, a literalist reading of scripture would not condemn him. Deuteronomy 20.17 says, “You must completely destroy the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, & Jubusites…” If we are meant to take the bible literally, Jesus should have stabbed this woman on the spot! But instead, he simply ignores and insults her; but she won’t take that. Thank God we take the bible seriously rather than literally, and Matthew would say, “well done!”
The Canaanite woman affirms her sacred value, her human dignity. No matter what any scripture says, no matter what any religious person says, in spite of cultural prejudices, she insists that she and her daughter deserve to have the healing opportunities in their lives. She says, “Could you be bothered to show us the kindness or compassion that you would show to a little dog?” And because she affirmed her own sacred value, not only did she get the miracle she was seeking, but she helped Jesus grow and heal too.
Homiletics professor Barbara Lunblad says of this passage, “Jesus was converted that day to a larger vision of the Commonwealth of God.” Isn’t that what we all want?
By affirming God’s presence, by affirming God’s love, by affirming our sacred value, by affirming that possibilities exist beyond what we’ve experienced so far, we can develop the attitude that lets us see miracles riding on the waves of disappointment, healing following heartache, and blessings rising from the ashes of despair. One bad moment may lead to a new possibility and the painful moment then becomes part of a larger narrative that tells of our ultimate healing, success, and joy. But to get there, we have to practice relentless optimism, and we do that with our positive affirmations.
I can’t promise that every problem will be easily solved and I can’t promise that every heartache will be instantly healed, but I can promise that the possibility of peace beyond pain and hope beyond horror is very real, especially as we train ourselves to be more and more optimistic. And we build optimism just the way we established all of our attitudes, by consistent practice. What we think habitually we’ll experience eventually. And we can choose to think optimistically by developing the habit of affirming divine possibilities. And this is the good news! Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2011
I am kind.
I am smart.
I am important.
I am a magnet for miracles.
There is good for me and I ought to have it!
And there is no evil mixed with my good.
Thank you God!
And so it is.
“Affirm your divine selfhood; look the world in the face and fear nothing.” Emmet Fox
To watch the streaming video of this sermon, go to http://sermons.sunshinecathedral.org