The Peace That Passeth Understanding: The Joys and Consequences of Living With Integrity

March 6, 2011
Rev. Victoria Weinstein

SERMON

There was a big dust-up in the evangelical mega-church movement earlier this week. Did you hear about it?

Pastor Rob Bell, who ministers to a congregation of 10,000 in Grand Rapids, Michigan is a rock star in the ministry. He’s hip, he’s 40 years old, he attracts thousands of younger Christians with video and book publications, he’s a cool dude, and he just wrote a book called why Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. In the book, Bell describes as “misguided and toxic” the dogma that “a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better.” (New York Times, “Pastor Stirs Wrath With His Views on Old Questions, Erik Eckholm, March 4, 2011). I’m thinking, “Well, that’s not that radical, is it? The Universalists have been saying that for 500 years, officially, and the theology of universal salvation goes back to the 4th century.” It’s the same reaction I had when Phil Gulley and James Mulholland wrote If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person, in 2003. “Nice book, but none of this is new to me, and why are we still fighting about this horrible Hell thing?”

But Rob Bell is taking a lot of flak for his heretical views from within his own conservative theological circles and I feel for him. He’s likely to suffer a lot of stress over this, and he’ll either have to back-pedal or evade the question of what he really believes for a long, long time while the gate-keepers of the conservative church keep their eyes on him -- or he’ll go for it and break with the conservatives like Bishop Carlton Pearson did in 2004 (and is now co-pastoring a large Unitarian Universalist congregation in Tulsa, Oklahoma). I preached about Carlton Pearson back then - he was actually convicted of heresy for preaching universal salvation, too. A friend of mine who is an author of religious books tells me that Rob Bell has had a book contract cancelled. And there are ripple effects: my friend, who also writes from a Universalist perspective, has had one of his own cancelled. A sort of mini-martyrdom, and when that’s food off your children’s table, it’s scary.

A man who wound up crucified on a cross said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” So many people misunderstand that saying, and Jesus’ whole point. He didn’t mean, “Throw yourself in the line of fire so you can be glorified in death.” What he meant was, “If you’re going to live a life of deep integrity, you are going to suffer for it, and maybe unto death. You have to be very strong and courageous to bear witness to who you really are and who you are called to be.” Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in more modern, psychological terms when he wrote, “For non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure.”

Last week you submitted some fantastic questions for the Question Box sermon and I’ve been thinking about them all week. It seems to me that so much of our questing comes down to one word: integrity. Integrity is the condition of being whole. Of not being split into different pieces of ourselves, where one part has to lie to another part in order to keep going. Integrity is a condition of the spirit where the self is so integrated with what one absolutely must be, that nothing can harm it. There is a peace that comes with integrity that no one can touch. Again, the words of Jesus, who disappointed his friends by not being the military leader they wanted him to be, and bearing witness instead to what he believed and experienced as the ultimate truth: which was a love that would overcome all violence, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Not as the world gives, do I give you”. (John 14:27)

The religious search is a search for integrity. It is a search for that peace which the world can neither give nor take away.

You have heard the word “shalom,” the Hebrew word for peace. But it means more than that. It also connotes harmony and wholeness, something that is the opposite of chaos. What I hear, and heard from you in your questions is that you wish to have an inner life that is characterized by that shalom, that wholeness. Integrity is another word for that. One of the most difficult challenges we face in our lives is the struggle to have integrity while also being accountable to relationships and community. When Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote “Self-Reliance,” in fact, he was stinging from a community reaction to a sermon he had preached in 1838 to a group of graduating ministers at Harvard Divinity School, which urged them to leave corpse-cold tradition behind and bring their authentic selves to their preaching and to their work. He offended a lot of people and sparked a pamphlet war, and he wrote “Self-Reliance” as a response -- from the loneliness of having spoken his truth and gotten slapped around for that. He was hurt. That’s why so much of the essay sounds defensive and adolescent.

To be whole within ourselves can create a lot of waves -- it can send out ripple effects. To strive for integrity can tip the balance in family systems, for instance, where intimate relationships are often built on shared dysfunctions, or the mutual, unspoken agreement to keep lying about certain realities, or on one person’s sacrifice of their deep self to meet the needs of another member or members of the family. We think of integrity as such a good and worthy goal, but it can be devastating when an individual decides to stop lying, stop ignoring, stop sacrificing and be a self-differentiated person. That liberation comes with a cost. Before the shalom of that peace that Jesus talked about, that deep, deep peace of wholeness of spirit, there is often chaos.

I was talking to Cindy Gallo-Casey the other day, and she has given permission for me to share her story with you. Cindy worked for the MBTA for a long time and was a highly-valued and respected employee. However, a few years ago, she began to speak out about management issues in her department and refused to play politics when she was warned that there could be consequences to her whistle-blowing. It was a miserable time for her, as any of you who have been tested in the fire of commitment can elate to. What do you do? Do you play ball, swallow your integrity, live with an acid churning in your stomach, and carry on just waiting to retirement day?

Cindy didn’t. She kept speaking truth and she was forced out. It was a really terrible time. We met for dinner somewhere around that time and Cindy spoke of a dream she had to open a little store for Italian imported goods, something for cooks and collectors. It was really exciting to see how, even in the midst of all the sorrow and anger and stress, Cindy just lit up as she talked about using this crummy development with the MBTA as an opportunity to do something new, something she could really love. She is now the proprietress of The Roman Table in Scituate Harbor, and she does love it. It fits her heart and soul, and gives her professional life a sense of integrity, wholeness, and integration with who she really is and wants to be. It was a risk speaking up, it was a risk opening a retail business during the recession, and was a risk for her and Rick to decide to use their resources to launch the store, and it is still a risk not to be earning an income from the store yet.

Another member of the congregation and I discussed a job review she got this winter that was conducted like an ambush and was deeply hurtful and insulting. She had been a devoted, super-loyal employee of the company for years, often going above-and-beyond her job description in service to her clients. But her life had changed after a season, and she had been devoting a lot of time to care-giving a parent. After the negative job review -- done so insensitively and with such little regard for her long contribution to the company -- she was wounded and furious. The chaos of stormy emotions came before the calm certainty that eventually arrived: eventually, she came to see that she had no regrets about putting her parent first, and that she chose to be a person who would forego perfectionism at work in order to serve the deeper love of parent-child relationship. We often learn who we are when our self-understanding is painfully tested. Chaos comes before shalom.

We have opportunities to develop our integrity all our lives. Speaking out against the bully, seeking extra help from the teacher, choosing ballet instead of football even if the guys might laugh at us, saying “no” when the peer group pressures us to do something destructive. As we get older, unless we have established ourselves as true free spirits or even eccentrics, living with integrity comes with more complications. We have to shake ourselves harder. We have to confront our comfort and ask if it is a well-earned and healthy comfort, or a lazy, complacent comfort. If I’m doing “pretty well,” why rock the boat? Why push against that sick thing in the family, on the job, in the society, that I know is a violation of everything I know to be good and right? Why risk my comfort? Why imbalance the system that relies on my participation? Why risk the paycheck upon which my family depends?

I cannot answer that for you, nor can Ralph Waldo Emerson, nor can Rob Bell, or my author friend, or Cindy Casey, or even Jesus. The desire for a life of integrity is a soul-desire, and is therefore a profoundly private matter. When encouraged with crass cheerleading or exhortation along the lines of “HEY LIVE YOUR DREAM! BE WHO YA NEED TO BE!” the soul will shrink away, offended and misunderstood. Integrity is not about living our dreams or being who we need to be, exactly. It is something deeper, more mysterious, and eminently complex. The construction of a life of integrity is long and careful work, an intricate and delicate kind of weaving. None of us can identify what it looks like for anyone else, for it is difficult enough to know what it is for ourselves. What we can do is to witness to each other’s struggles toward it, to acknowledge and celebrate the achievements that bring us closer to it, to take mutual counsel when we or a friend are confusing mere ego gratification with the quest for integrity, and to hold one another in the healing light as we make the exhilarating, arduous journey from the chaos to shalom that both is, and creates, the peace that passeth understanding.

I wish that peace for you. Amen.