Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Stranger

The Stranger
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 23, 2014
at Gibson Memorial Chapel, Blue Ridge School, St. George, Virginia
Proverbs 19: 1-9
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives         
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

 Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity
    than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool.
Desire without knowledge is not good,
    and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way.
When a man's folly brings his way to ruin,
    his heart rages against the Lord.
Wealth brings many new friends,
    but a poor man is deserted by his friend.
A false witness will not go unpunished,
    and he who breathes out lies will not escape.
Many seek the favor of a generous man,
and everyone is a friend to a man who gives gifts.
All a poor man's brothers hate him;
    how much more do his friends go far from him!
He pursues them with words, but does not have them.
Whoever gets sense loves his own soul;
    he who keeps understanding will discover good.
A false witness will not go unpunished,
    and he who breathes out lies will perish.

So I've heard a bunch of these talks throughout my time here, and I've given a few of them myself, and I've never heard in all the wisdom, all the motivation, all the life stories, thoughts on what may be the most important piece of what it means to be a human being and that is relationships, real relationships, real dirty, messy, vulnerable, true, all of our crap out on the table relationship, and I'm more and more convinced that this is that most important piece, the central idea, the meaning of life is finding how we can live together, and not just live side by side, ships passing in the night, but in and amongst each other, intertwined, affected, loving and loved, at the same time completely vulnerable and safe within someone else's arms, in someone else's life, heart, mind, body, and soul. It is what we long for at our deepest core, and it seems that everyday we do things that make that dream, make that hope, make that wish, make that purpose just that much harder to make real. Today I want to talk about one aspect of why that is, in hopes that we, myself included, can learn something about intimacy, for that is what we call this need we have, and how it relates to honesty, true, raw, vulnerable, bear your soul honesty. For at the heart of intimacy is the need of honesty. It just doesn't exist without it. Lies build walls and push people away, they create the distance of two people living within altered reality.
Having read the Bible passage from Proverbs, words of wisdom from antiquity that may or may not mean something to you, I now want to talk about the message spoken there, taking a look at something a little bit more contemporary, I'm going to play for you parts of five songs, each of them represents an aspect of the battle we face for intimacy, and how dishonesty, lies, doubt, and fear are all related, and all seek to make intimacy impossible. The first sets the stage. It may be familiar to you, maybe not, here it goes. . .
The Stranger
Billy Joel
Well we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone
Some are satin some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather
They're the faces of the stranger
But we love to try them on

Well we all fall in love
But we disregard the danger
Though we share so many secrets
There are some we never tell
Why were you so surprised
That you never saw the stranger
Did you ever let your lover see
The stranger in yourself'

Billy Joel's, "The Stranger" introduces our problem. We each have parts of us, that we feel aren't adequate, or are ugly, or are shameful, scars, our past, mistakes. . . we want to hide them because we feel that if we share them with those close to us, if we let someone else into our secret true selves, they won't be able to handle it, which will lead to rejection. So we build up walls, we build up walls for our protection. These walls protect us from others, they keep us safe, they keep us from ever being vulnerable, but they keep us isolated. Something there is that doesn't like this separation, something there is that doesn't love these walls, but yet we build them strong. We think we need them. We think they are saving us from pain, but what they are doing is keeping us from life.
Some of you may not have been there yet, maybe you have yet to experience it. Maybe your walls are thick enough that you haven't let yourself get here, or maybe you just haven't had the opportunity yet being young, but there will come a time, when a relationship you are in, and it doesn't have to be a love relationship. It can be any, but these songs I've chosen point that way, hey popular music is all about it right, But in some relationship that you have, where you will reach the point where if the relationship is to advance you will need to go further, share more, start to show your true self, start to learn about their, the other's, true self, and if you don't the relationship will be forever defined by distance, you will be forever strangers. . . As the Billy Joel song suggests, the Stranger that exists is there, and for the relationship to grow you'll have to let the stranger out. This next song is about that. . . It's called, "If I am a Stranger" and the chorus suggests, "If I am a Stranger now, I will always be". . .take a listen.

If I Am a Stranger
Ryan Adams

For all the hours here that move too slow
There's all this letting go, that don't pass
If all this love is real, how will we know'
If we're only scared of losing it, how will it last'

If I am a stranger now to you
I will always be, I will always be
Stronger now then me, stronger then you
Our love will always be
And if we let it go, I will try to be there for you
If I can, what if I can't'

Today is yesterday when you don't know
How to rebuild the walls that someone has knocked down
To tell the truth it's hard enough about a lover
Who you want to hide your darkness from
So they won't let you down

If I am a stranger now to you
I will always be, I will always be
Stronger now then me, stronger then you
Our love will always be
And if we let it go, I will try to be there for you
If I can, what if I can't'

There it is that cross roads. If we are scared of losing it how will it last. . .If I am a stranger now to you, still, after all this, still, If I am a stranger now still to you I will always be. The speaker in the song knows that if the relationship is to grow, it is now or never, and if the relationship is to grow they will have to let each other know the stranger inside themselves, or they will just remain strangers. If they remain strangers the relationship is over, though maybe ending right away in any official sense, the worst ones often linger for years, but the slow death spiral will begin. And if they bear their souls, show each other the stranger, there is risk involved. Ryan Adams doesn't promise in the lyrics that everything will work out, he just states the fact that something is going to change either way and hopes it will work out, "if I can, but what if I can't" So let's take the step, believing that if they don't bear their souls, they keep it hidden. They stay together, together, but still strangers, as they will always be. The next song is based on that phenomenon, and what happens next between two strangers who stay together. It is "Brilliant Disguise" by Bruce Springsteen.
Brilliant Disguise
Bruce Springsteen

I hold you in my arms
as the band plays
What are those words whispered baby
just as you turn away
I saw you last night
out on the edge of town
I wanna read your mind
To know just what I've got in this new thing I've found
So tell me what I see
when I look in your eyes
Is that you, baby
or just a brilliant disguise

I heard somebody call your name
from underneath our willow
I saw something tucked in shame
underneath your pillow
Well I've tried so hard baby
but I just can't see
What a woman like you
is doing with me
So tell me who I see
when I look in your eyes
Is that you, baby
or just a brilliant disguise

Now look at me baby
struggling to do everything right
And then it all falls apart
when out go the lights
I'm just a lonely pilgrim
I walk this world in wealth
I want to know if it's you I don't trust
'cause I damn sure don't trust myself

Now you play the loving woman
I'll play the faithful man
But just don't look too close
into the palm of my hand
We stood at the alter
the gypsy swore our future was right
But come the wee wee hours
Well maybe baby the gypsy lied
So when you look at me
you better look hard and look twice
Is that me , baby
or just a brilliant disguise

Tonight our bed is cold
I'm lost in the darkness of our love
God have mercy on the man
Who doubts what he's sure of

Do you see what happens when we stay strangers, though together? The relationship ends, even when it continues. The trust just completely falls apart. And the beauty of this song is that it reveals the ironic truth about it all. It isn't that you keep the person out that is really the problem, but because you don't let them in, that because  you have something to hide, you become sure that they do too. You become sure that you can't trust them. It's all about insecurity right in the first place. You don't think they will want to be with you if you tell them all, so you hold back, and then that insecurity, that doubt, those lies creep into your mind and make you think that they aren't honest either. And the brilliant disguises destroy what was real, the stranger that was hidden comes to the surface anyway. . . the ironic truth rings out from what Ryan Adams sang. . .If I am a Stranger now to you, I will always be.
So what to do? We say we then should tear down our walls and become intimate. Put ourselves out there, get into the fire, put ourselves out there and at risk right, so now I go to Garth Brooks for this. . .
Standing Outside the Fire
Garth Brooks

We call them cool
Those hearts that have no scars to show
The ones that never do let go
And risk the tables being turned

We call them fools
Who have to dance within the flame
Who chance the sorrow and the shame
That always comes with getting burned

But you got to be tough
When consumed by desire
Cause it's not enough just to stand outside the fire

Now I could end it here, with that simple message that love and intimacy take risk, life requires us to get into the fire, and you're right I think it does, but it isn't as simple as that because relationship is a two way street, and part of the problem so far, is that we have been concerned only about ourselves, and our feelings, our issues, our own secret truths, whether we will be rejected and haven't yet thought about the other, when that is really what is all about. Love isn't about you it is about the other. The danger with what we are talking about is that it also requires the other person to reveal, and the question arises, can they trust you? Are you offering love or are you looking for a conquest?  This next song I think is the best of the bunch, it's called the Tower Song, and there is real power in the Tower image. Townes Van Zandt wrote it this way. . .
Tower Song
Townes Van Zandt

So close and yet so far away
And all the things I'd hope to say
Will have to go unsaid today
Perhaps until tomorrow
Your fears have built a wall between
Our lives and all that loving means
Will have to go unfelt it seems
Leaving only sorrow

You built your tower strong and tall
Can't you see it's got to fall someday

You close your eyes and speak to me
Of faith and love and destiny
As distant as eternity
From truth and understanding
The wind blows cold outside your door
It whispers words I've tried before
But you don't hear me anymore
You're pride's just too demanding

You built your tower strong and tall
Can't you see it's got to fall someday

The end is coming soon it's plain
A warm bed just ain't worth the pain
And I will go and you'll remain
With bitterness we've tasted
A mother's breast a new born child
A poet's tears a drunken smile
I can't help thinking all the while
Their meaning won't be wasted

You built your tower strong and tall
Can't you see it's got to fall someday

The ugly truth sometimes about men is that we want to crush towers in our way, we want to conquer, we want to own and have, and control, so we want to tear the walls down of others. . . Do you hear that in the song? He is singing to her about her towers coming down, but the unspoken question that lingers is, has he torn down his? Is he vulnerable himself, or is he out for himself? Does he just want to tear down hers, because he talks about a poet's tears and a drunken smile, and leaving. . . are they symptoms of his own fears, his own walls, his own insecurity, causing him to finally give up and leave, in that fullness of selfish behavior, self pity and defeat, that comes from looking out for yourself, looking to gain rather than give, again making love, real love, life changing love, the thing that deep down we all really need, all the more impossible because of our self doubts, fears, and insecurities.

I want to leave all those images in your head. I hope you remember the songs. I hope you remember the importance of relationships, I hope you remember that intimacy is connected to honesty, it has to be, but it also has to involve vulnerability, and above all else it has to involve giving up yourself for the other, putting yourself in their hands and knowing that they have you, that is trust and partnership. Love only exists when you give all of yourself, and only in that giving of yourself is life gained, it's more than risk, it is willing sacrifice, it is true love. So I pray that you can find the strength within yourself to get close with others,  I and hope the same for myself, to know yourself, to be yourself, to tear down your walls together with others, being fair with the other person, being  honest, and in the end step into the fire together, holding each other up, providing security and comfort not for yourself but for the other, tear down and build up, there will be pain involved in your life, but life will have existed, in the real rather than the virtual, where there is no reset, no start over, just you, all of you, and everyone else. . . simply being together, being together not just side by side, but interconnected. The rest is just prelude. . . Amen.