The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Sometimes the lectionary used by most mainline churches serves up just the right text on a given Sunday, and this piece of the pastoral epistle of James is one of those passages. It begins by acknowledging that God is the source of all good things. And given that, our response is likely to involve gratitude and the desire to do what is pleasing to our Creator.
I don’t know if you remember a staff reflection I wrote about two years ago, but I wrote about the “secret sauce” that I had discovered while going through radiation and hormone treatment for cancer. I was surrounded by an amazing team at the Harmony Cancer Center, and I could not help but be grateful for their outpouring of loving concern for my wellbeing. And the gratitude I experience changed me: it empowered me to have a better attitude about facing something scary and new. I certainly didn’t have a perfect attitude of gratitude, and I had some miserable days, but gratitude made life better. Have you had that experience with gratitude? Do you ever imagine what you are grateful that God has given you?
The second thing we hear about in the letter is that to take three steps in attitude: 1) be quick to listen; 2) be slow to speak; and 3) be slow to anger. This is sage advice, especially during anxious times like those where we currently find ourselves.
This summer, I’ve been doing an online class from Tufts University that has two facets: the first is weight loss, which has been a challenge for me for a long time, and I’ve lost 30 pounds this summer. The second facet involves Positive Intelligence, learning to take difficult situations and respond to them in the most creative, positive way possible, even learning to see the gift in adverse situations. Part of what I’ve learned from this part of the course comes from the brilliant psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who while imprisoned in Auschwitz noticed that there was nothing he could do about what others did to him or his fellow inmates. Here is the golden kernel: he noticed that what makes a difference in psychological outcomes is the way the prisoner responded to what was happening. There is a stimulus from a guard, there is a millisecond when the prisoner’s brain absorbs that message, and there is a response from the inmate. What Frankl discovered is that if one can delay the response time even by a few seconds, it gave the person a chance to rely on their higher levels of thought in creating a response. Imagine a guard yelling something foul and cruel at a female inmate. Our immediate response might be to lash out in anger physically or verbally or to become totally dejected and simply accept it. But what if one can pause and use one’s intellect to create a more strategic response? Imagine the insulted woman saying to herself, “He is just trying to goad me, and I know that this lowlife is not worth my upset and anger. I’ll take a few breaths and know that I am in control of my reaction and move on.”
So, there is a stimulus, a message, and a response. Practicing the pause allows you to react not from the reptilian brain stem (which urges fight, flight, or freeze) and instead respond from the prefrontal cortex, providing you with insights about how you react.
At La Foret last week, I had a conversation with our conference minister, Sue Artt, and I learned that conflict in our congregations is rampant at the moment, and I’ve heard the same thing from clergy colleagues on Facebook. All of us have experienced some trauma with Covid, political divisiveness, wildfires near and far, climate change, and the state of racism in our nation. It can look like the world is falling apart. What do you think that compound trauma does to our ability to practice the pause and not react from our reptilian brain? I’ve said it before… our fuses are shorter, our thoughts aren’t as clear, our sense of compassion may be wearing thin, and we’re looking for someone to blame. And it won’t last forever, so long as we take steps to recognize and heal some of our own trauma.
Do you remember those three pieces of sage advice I read a few moments ago? 1) be quick to listen; 2) be slow to speak; and 3) be slow to anger. The epistle writer knew about practicing the pause, the way human emotions work, and steps toward Positive Intelligence! Can you remember those three steps? 1) Listen. 2) Speak later. 3) Slow your anger response. “If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless.” (v. 26)
Scottish comedian Craig Ferguson (no relation) has a bit in his standup routine that provides sage advice in practicing the pause. He said that he and his former wife were in therapy for quite a while and that he developed a three-part question that he posed for himself before responding: 1) Does this need to be said? 2) Does this need to be said by me? 3) Does this need to be said by me right now? If you ask yourself those three questions in the affirmative, you can say it! And you’ll have given yourself enough time for your prefrontal cortex to wrest control from your reptilian brain. And let’s face it, nobody wants to react like a lizard!
Both of those elements — gratitude and practicing the pause — won’t just help your relationships, they will enliven your faith. Slowing down a bit, trying to see things in broader perspective, taking time to notice what God is doing in the world and in your life will deepen your experience of the sacred.
The third piece of the puzzle listed in the epistle to living into your faith, bringing theory into practice. “You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves.” (v. 22) One of the pieces of wisdom I learned in the nutrition part of my summer class is that 20 percent of the process is knowing what to eat, and 80 percent is developing habits in doing them. So, it’s important in this program to know that I need to eat more protein, more fiber, fewer simple carbs and very few sweets. Developing new eating habits means that I’ve started to love, even to crave, half of a Kirkland protein bar as my afternoon snack! I no longer have to think about it…I just do it. Habits work when you’re trying to DO something. I’ve tried to be a DOER of the diet, not just a HEARER of the diet.
It is similar with faith. We can have lots of theological knowledge, but if it isn’t put into practice, what is the use of it? So what if we think that Jesus was a healer and teacher of alternative wisdom within first century Judaism? If we don’t put his teachings into practice, they are just a curiosity. What are you going to DO about it? Are you going to emulate Jesus’ compassion to the extent it becomes habitual? Is being here at Plymouth or on our livestream every Sunday a habit, or do you have to cogitate and make a decision each week whether or not to attend? Are you someone who is habitually engaged as a volunteer, or do you need to debate with yourself about whether to participate? Are you somebody who is in the habit of acting for social justice, or do you sit on the sidelines and let someone else do it? It takes a lot of extra work to weigh every decision about how you are going to participate…unless you’ve simply made it a good habit.
Good spiritual engagement habits enliven our faith in ways that help the rubber meet the road. It takes a two-dimensional faith journey map and brings it into three dimensions, adding depth to your pilgrimage through life. Our faith in the UCC is a lot less about creeds and a lot more about deeds.
It occurs to me that the epistle writer charts a course for Beloved Community for us. It is our job is FIRST to live in gratitude to God, SECOND, to listen and delay our urge to blurt things out or to be reactive, and THIRD to engage our faith with love and compassion. Together, Plymouth, this is how we form a healthy church and Beloved Community. Amen.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.