A sermon by David Kerr
Have you ever been locked up in solitary confinement? Like many visitors to Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco, I volunteered to enter the cramped musty cell in the bowels of the prison. The attendant slammed the massive iron door shut leaving me without a trace of light. It was chilling. I thought of the unfortunate inmates who endured far more that my 60 seconds of voluntary isolation in that hell hole. Many believe solitary confinement is one of the worst physical and psychological punishments that anyone can experience – the deprivation of human contact; the agony of an endless night.
I meet people who feel as though they are trapped in their own cell of solitary confinement. In varying degrees of loneliness, they anxiously move in and out of the shadows, desperately struggling to find genuine and meaningful relationships.
I’m talking about relationships and the painful struggle for many who feel they can never experience the joy of a relationship that is real, vital and satisfying.
Dr John Powell in his classic, “Why Am I Afraid To Tell You Who I Am?” identifies 5 levels of communication on which persons relate to each other. He says it’s as though every human is locked inside a prison. There are two forces at work. One is an inner insistence to go out to connect with others. The other is a fear that holds us back. The human has been in his or her cell for many years. Ironically the door is not locked. He can go out of his prison, but he has learned to fear the dangers that he might encounter. His prison with its darkness has become his protection. This condition is reminiscent of what Viktor Frankl writes in his book, “Man’s Search For Meaning”, about his fellow prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau. Some of these prisoners who yearned so desperately for their freedom, had been held captive for so long that, when they were eventually released, walked out into the sunlight, blinked nervously and then silently walked back into the familiar darkness of the prisons, to which they had been accustomed for such a long time.
The 5 levels of communication are varying levels of willingness for an individual to relate to another. To move outside their voluntary prison and have a relationship.
Level 5 is called cliché conversation. This is the weakest response and the lowest level of communication. In fact it’s communication at a very superficial level. It’s the “How are you? – “Fine thanks” kind of conversations. People can feel safe in the pretence of this non-communication.
Level 4 also means we do not step very far outside our prison. It’s called “Reporting Facts About Others”. We report about other people, what they’ve said or done. We don’t disclose how it affects us. We offer no personal self-revelatory comments. We seek shelter behind gossip. We give nothing of ourselves and invite nothing in return.
It is at Level 3 where some communication starts to take place. It means I have moved some distance from my cell and communicate some of my thoughts, ideas, judgements and decisions. I am prepared to share what I think. However, here I am watching you carefully. If I sense you are not accepting my ideas and decisions, if I see you raise your eyebrows, narrow your eyes, look at your watch, I will probably retreat back to safer ground. I may run for the cover of silence, change the subject, or worse……….. I may start to say things I suspect you may want me to say. I’ll try to be what pleases you.
Level 2 is yet a further step away from our self imposed prison. It’s revealing what we feel about what we think. If you want to know who I am, I must tell you not only my ideas and judgements, but also my “gut stuff”. It’s our feelings and emotions that define our uniqueness. No one feels as passionate or indifferent about politics or religion or any issue as anybody else. Telling you how I feel, about what I think, makes me more vulnerable, more risky to hearing your non-approval or lack of acceptance that might tempt me to retreat to the security of my voluntary prison.
Level 1 is Peak Communication. It is a relationship that is equal; there are experiences of mutual empathy, open and honest communication. I know that whatever I say, you will not judge me. You will respect me and support me. It’s like two musical instruments playing the same note in harmony. Hopefully this will happen between marriage partners or very good friends. However, in our human condition this is not possible all the time. But there should and will be, times of real communication.
Today I’m talking about relationships and the pain for many who struggle to find someone, somewhere in life with whom they can find acceptance, complete openness and honesty. Someone with whom they feel respected and valued. Someone they can trust and feel a deep sense of mutual empathy. Sadly many people, including marriage partners, never taste this experience that God designed for us. The Bible has an explanation for this dilemma and also provides a way of healing.
The Bible has an explanation for our pain in relationships. Genesis provides a picture of God who created man in his image and likeness, with whom He could have a relationship. But God saw that man needed an earthly companion and from him, woman was formed. The picture of God, Adam and Eve, in harmony with each other and with every part of creation is magnificent. Paradise! That was God’s purpose.
However, Genesis provides a further picture. An overwhelming darkness that fractured relationships caused by man’s rebellion against God. Consequently, Adam tried to hide from God, but when God found him, Adam blamed Eve for his sin, so their relationship was bruised. The consequences then flowed like the ripples of a stone thrown into a calm pool. Woman’s pain in childbirth was multiplied, the ground was cursed and now weeds added pain to man’s work. Man’s relationship with his wife and every part of the environment was fractured. God expelled them from the Garden of Eden and from His presence. It was as though a black cloud covered the brilliance of the sun and man had to suffer and survive in his self imposed darkness.
The Bible does not only give an explanation of man’s relational pain, but also provides a way of healing. The way of healing is open to all and it moves in two directions. The cross, to which the body of Jesus was nailed gives the clue. The simple cross made up of two pieces of wood, is a stark symbol of what is required of us. The upright beam, the vertical, points to the heavens, to the Divine, our Heavenly Father. The cross beam, the horizontal, points to those who share our humanity. Those that live beside us, our family, friends, neighbours and even our enemies.
Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment. Do you remember His answer? Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbour as you would love yourself. That commandment has the imprint of the cross on it. It reaches up to God; it also reaches out to fellowman. This twofold command is illustrated in the parable Jesus told about the Good Samaritan, who in loving God, also sacrificially cared for his enemy that he found beaten up on the road. The Apostle John says that we “cannot say we love God and hate our brother.” It’s impossible.
When we come to God and ask for forgiveness, acknowledging that Jesus died and took the penalty for our sin, we are forgiven by God and He requires us to forgive those who have wronged us. The Bible teaches that God loves and values everyone, no matter their colour race or creed and wants a relationship with everyone and desires that we have good relationships with each other. I’ll continue in a moment with the turning point in the life of Elias Charcour, a Palestinian Christian, committed to loving God and loving his Jewish brothers
I’m talking about relationships. The Anglican theologian Broughton Knox was fond of saying: “The message of the Bible is that relationship is the currency of the universe.” In his book The Everlasting God, he has a chapter on the trinity in which he says that although the trinity is a difficult doctrine to grasp, it does tell us that the inner nature of God consists of relationships. God, a relational Being, created us so He could have a relationship with us, and also that we might have relationships with each other. However, the fracturing of man’s relationship with God which also soured relationships with his fellowman can be healed. Firstly it happens through renewing our relationship with God. God then commands us to allow his healing love and power to change us so that we can then embrace our fellowman in harmony and peace. Here I need to tell you about Elias Charcour.
A young boy, Elias Chacour lived in Palestine in 1948 when the Jews returned under British protection. Elias and his family suddenly became exiles in their own land and suffered the horrors of systematic violence. Elias survived. Later as a young man he was the first Palestinian to earn a degree from the Hebrew University. He studied to be a Christian minister. His first parish was a little village called Ibillin. His great burden was the division between Arab and Jew. He lived with the words of his father ringing in his ears. “The Jews and Palestinians are brothers, blood brothers. We share the same father – Abraham – and the same God. We must never forget that.” However, early in his time at Ibillin, the horror of his boyhood memories were triggered. One restless night, uncomfortably squeezed onto the back seat of his Volkswagen, he said,
I lay thee, aware for the first time, that I was capable of vicious, killing hatred. Aware that all men everywhere – despite the thin, polite veneer of society – are capable of hideous violence against other men. Not just the Nazis, or the Zionists or the Palestinian commandos – but me. I had covered my hurts with Christian responses, but inside the anger had gnawed. With this sudden, startling view of myself, a familiar inner voice spoke firmly, without compromise: If you hate your brother you are guilty of murder. Now I understood. I was aware of other words being spoken. A Man was dying a hideous death at the hands of His captors – a Man of Peace, who suffered unjustly – hung on a cross. “Father forgive them,” I repeated, “And forgive me, too.” In that moment, forgiveness closed the long-open gap of anger and bitterness inside me.
The miracle that took place inside Elias Charcour was later repeated in the church community that had been decimated by anger and bitterness for years. Church members confessed their bitterness and forgiveness followed. They too heard and understood the truth, “You cannot love God and hate your brother.”
God continues to use Elias Charcour in his work of reconciliation in the Middle East.
Do you have the kind of satisfying and life-giving relationship that God intended? Many people are searching for the key. However, we all have the key, or should I say, the door of our cell is not locked. The answer does not lie outside us, it is within us. It’s about our willingness to face our vulnerability; facing our hurt and anger. Are you afraid to love and be loved, or is the hurt and the pain of the past too great for you to leave the safety of your isolation?
Take courage and open yourself to God’s healing love and He will give you the courage, the discernment and the strength to trust, embrace and celebrate life with those who surround you.