June 10, The urge to control

The urge to control

Mark 3:20-35

 

I was staying with my brother and his family recently while attending a preaching conference. I don’t see them often, so it was kind of a double bonus: to go to a preaching conference to hear great preaching and to get to visit with my brother and sister-in-law and their children.

The conference was in a part of Washington, DC that is about six blocks north of the White House and my brother lives in a different part of the city, so each morning, my niece, who is fairly new to driving, drove me to the metro stop on her way to school. It was a lovely thing she did: getting me where I needed to go with the lovely, sunny spirit she has.

She is a cautious driver, and in DC, that is kind of an unusual thing. Perhaps as she gains more experience, she will become more assertive. But for now, she is closer to “driving Miss Daisy” than Speed Racer (if you get those references).

So, we left the house extra early each morning, and she dropped me a half a block from the intersection where I needed to go, just so that it would be easier to pull back out into traffic. A couple of times, she bumped a curb on a sharp turn, but all in all, she did well. I had no complaints, and certainly no criticism to offer. I was just grateful.

But being with her on those brief driving trips opened my memory to my experiences with my own children as they have learned to drive, and I couldn’t help but compare this experience with my niece to some I’ve had with my sons, as I recognized that different personalities take on new tasks –such as learning to drive -- with different levels of assertiveness and confidence. So, some new drivers drive very cautiously; some more confidently.

It also occurred to me that when you are with a new driver (particularly when it’s your own child) and you are sitting in that passenger seat, you almost always have the urge to correct and to coach, especially if that driver is more confident than makes you comfortable.

I remember when one of my boys, as he was driving for the very first time, was running his left driver’s-side wheels right on the center yellow line of the road at 50 miles per hour. “You need to get over more to the right!” I kept saying. He argued, “I don’t want to get too far over!” and so it went as I prayed for no oncoming traffic.

Another time, one of my sons (still fairly inexperienced at the time) made a request as we were leaving Washington DC after one of our rare visits to see my brother. He asked if he could drive on the beltway as we left the city to head for home – you know, the kind of driving environment where you are switching across six lanes of traffic at 70 miles per hour, in heavy traffic, with the whole family in the car.

We agreed to let him drive, because how else do you learn these things, but it was a bit of a white-knuckle experience for all of us. And I will confess, that as he drove, I kept up a steady commentary about speed and the timing of lane changes and following distance and so on and so forth. I couldn’t control those things, but I sure had the urge to do so!

Whether it was helpful or not for me to try to “advise” him along the way is debatable, but I realized later: Only for my own child would I have offered such a running commentary. It seemed necessary at the time, but I understand that it was as much about anxiety and control as it was about safety and guidance. Family relationships can bring out that urge, I think.

So, riding in the passenger seat while your teenager learns to drive may be among the experiences that most clearly demonstrate the urge to control something you can no longer control, but quite honestly, it is a feeling that accompanies us throughout our lives, especially in regard to family members.

Anyone who has had a family member who strikes out on their own, or who insists that they know what they are doing (even when it is clear to you that they don’t) or who pushes the envelope in one way or another, knows what I mean.

Your neighbor can do whatever he or she wants and you may not like it, but it doesn’t feel like it’s any reflection on you. But if your parent does something awkward or inappropriate, for example, it sure does feel like the spotlight is on you as well! And it would nice, you imagine, to be able to grab the wheel and get things back on track.

Jesus and his family are no exception. The urge to keep the family member’s behavior within the bounds of social convention, or to keep it in the pattern of polite company, is present with them as well. The urge that Jesus’ family has to ‘control his driving,’ so to speak, is strong.

Writing in the “Living by the Word” column in the Christian Century magazine recently, Jeanne Choy Tate notes that in the scripture for this morning, “Jesus’ family has heard that he is behaving as if he were possessed, and they have come to intervene.”

She continues, “(Many people)…can relate to a family’s feeling that their grown child is suddenly so possessed of outlandish ideas or behavior that he or she seems to have gone crazy. The ideas of the next generation so often seem to challenge the carefully constructed world the last one has created for itself. Yet how tightly we cling to that order! In an honor/shame culture, a child’s behavior – even when grown – is of great consequence. The social standing of Jesus’ family is jeopardized by his behavior. The whole family is shamed.” (Christians Century, 5/23/18, p.22)

It’s interesting, I think, to consider the possibility that when we are trying to control the behaviors of others – especially of others to whom we are related or closely connected – that while we claim all sorts of reasons for that urge to control (everything from making sure everyone stays safe, to keeping the peace, to exercising good judgement) the real issue is often our own sense of self-image: Does this behavior (of my son or daughter or parent or whoever) make me proud  or does it embarrass me?

That’s the honor/shame dynamic. We imagine that the behavior of others (especially those close to us) reflects on us, and even worse, could and should be controlled by us, so we get out the carrot and the stick. The carrot is “you make me proud;” the stick is “you’ve embarrassed me.” – all to maintain our own self-image. We grab the wheel.

Make me proud. Don’t embarrass me. Make me proud. Don’t embarrass me. That’s a vastly different message than the message we could be sending to those closest to us; a message like this:

I know that God’s Spirit is at work in you, so do what you are called to do. Be true to your conscience, your faith, your integrity, your purpose. Don’t worry about offending me. And don’t worry about making me proud. I can handle whatever happens. You just do what you need to do. You are a child of God and you have a path to follow, a calling to fulfill. And I won’t get in your way.

That would be amazing, wouldn’t it? If we were able to let those we love be who they need to be -- to trust that while we might have different experiences and different ideas and maybe even a different purpose than those with whom we are most closely connected, that we can look with wonder at the ways in which the Spirit might work in the life of another.

And then, rather than being either proud or embarrassed (which selfishly and inaccurately puts the emphasis on us) we might instead be people who make an open space, who care no matter what, who weather whatever awkwardness or misunderstanding might come along, and who understand that being close and being different can co-exist.

If I need you to make me proud or I need you to save me from embarrassment, then we have a problem. And the problem is the suppression of all that might make us uncomfortable.

Jeanne Tate Choy says that the reason that there’s this flare-up in the scripture story with the community and then with Jesus’ family is because “Jesus is going for deep change.” In other words, he’s upending things –socially, institutionally – and it creates discomfort and people don’t like to be uneasy, so they try to suppress what is rising to the surface.

Look, we are pain-avoiding people. We’d rather push the pain down and deny the abuse and hide the violation than let it come out and then have to look at it and deal with it. We’d rather live with the demons than exorcise them. And so, when Jesus starts exorcising demons – casting them out – the status quo feels the threat and fights back.

Son…brother…stop stirring things up! What will people think? We have to live with these people. Don’t upset them. That would be crazy! Just be quiet. I know things aren’t as they should be, but you stirring things up will just make it worse.

And can you blame his family? They share the same last name after all. They share the same hometown, the same network of friends and neighbors, the same reputation. No wonder they want to grab the wheel and steer Jesus on to the shoulder of the road!

But, beware when someone uses shame to try to stop the conversation. If embarrassment is on the table, and someone is trying to clear it away, to get rid of it as soon as possible, then there is probably something going on that deserves not only our attention, but our open consideration. Suppression should make us suspicious; embarrassment should make us ask questions, the push for us to get rid of the uncomfortable and replace it with something to “make us proud” should make us cautious.

In the “Living by the Word” column in the Christian Century that I’ve been mentioning, Tate points to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements as examples of things in our society that Jesus would likely address today out of his commitment to deep change, his commitment to exorcising the demons.

She says that these movements have “shaken various social institutions with their revelations of sexual abuse and gender inequality, (but) these movements are seeking to exorcise not just sexual abuse, but a whole system of gender privilege rife throughout the structure of our society. They seek deep systemic change, just as Jesus did in his day.” She mentions that the church has not stepped up in these times, uncomfortable as it is talking about any matters of sexuality, including matters of sexual misconduct.

But…Jesus is an agent of deep change, of systemic change, of uncovering what has too long been covered over, of casting out those demons, and of resisting our pattern of inappropriate shaming in order to avoid our own discomfort and protect our own pride and hide our collective sins.

Now it is certainly possible to read a scripture like the one for this morning and say that it feels like Jesus is taking it too far – essentially turning his back on mother and brothers. But a clear-headed and open-hearted response to that feeling would be this: What if it’s not Jesus, but they (and we) who take it too far: demanding that he make us proud and that he not embarrass us, when in fact real love of brother, love of sister, love of son, love of daughter, love of mother, love of father does not demand a kind of behavior that protects pride and promotes shame (Make me proud, don’t embarrass me) but rather grants permission to the other to cast out the demons who need to be cast out.

What if we could be a better brother or sister or parent or offspring to Jesus (and by extension, to each other) by saying:

 

You do what God is calling you to do.

You seek your path of integrity.

You speak your pain aloud.

You name what is wrong and call for justice.

You uncover what has been covered up.

You show me what honesty looks like by not turning away from problems,

but by casting out demons, by seeking deep change.

 

And I?

I will try to listen to your story.

I will try to honor your integrity.

I will not provide cover for systemic injustice.

I will not grab the wheel out of your hands.

I will not expect you to make me comfortable when you are still uncomfortable.

I will not accuse you of being in league with Satan.

I will recognize the validity of your convictions.

I will join you in seeking deep change.

 

What if that was our perspective instead of the pattern of using pride and shame to control those close to us?

Over the years I’ve often talked about what it means to keep company with Jesus. And here we are again. But maybe its more than that. Maybe this is also about what it means to be kin to Jesus.

His blood-kin might have come to the door to carry him away. But we can promise not to do that. We can be his spirit-kin, by standing right beside him as he casts out of the demons of this world, as he casts out hate and brings in healing.

And then he can steer the car; and we can ride along.

 

Amen.

 

Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

June 10, 2018