Psalm 65:1-4, Ecclesiastes 3:1, 7b CEB
God of Zion, to you even silence is praise.
Promises made to you are kept--
you listen to prayer--
and all living things come to you.
When wrongdoings become too much for me,
you forgive our sins.
How happy is the one you choose to bring close,
the one who lives in your courtyards!
We are filled full by the goodness of your house,
by the holiness of your temple.
There’s a season for everything
and a time for every matter under the heavens:
a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking
Have you ever heard it said, “If you cannot be alone, you shouldn’t be in a relationship”? The same can be said of the relationship that is Christian community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put that kind of relationship this way, “Whoever cannot be alone should beware of community [and] Whoever cannot stand being in community should beware of being alone.” Good relationships should be between whole persons because the truth is that no relationship or even community will fix people. If you are narcissistic, controlling, or passive-aggressive in your personal life and relationships, you will bring all of these things with you into the community. Our day alone is our time as Christians to become more fully whole persons of faith so that the community can function as a source of strength and fellowship for those times and places where we find ourselves alone in our discipleship. Our life together calls us to work on ourselves even as we are called to live and work in our community of faith.
When going through pastoral education in seminary, relationships within congregations came up more than a few times, and more than a few times, I was reminded how much the advice for those relationships reminded me of advice for couples. You see, after I proposed to Caitlin, we ended up with a two-year-long engagement, so we took this time to read some books together to prepare for married life. I remember something that often came up in those readings and discussions: I cannot and should not expect Caitlin to fix me. She cannot make me whole, that’s too much for anyone, especially my wife. Unfortunately, culture tells me that I should find completeness in another person, with movie lines like “You complete me,” and sentiments like “You are my whole world.” We have this sense that we should overlap to be whole, but this only compromises our integrity. The healthiest self is the differentiated self.
Family therapist and rabbi, Edwin Friedman, defined the differentiated self as “the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from surrounding togetherness pressures, to say ‘I’ when others are demanding ‘you’ and ‘we.’” A self always exists in family systems, those of our immediate families as well as our religious families. Friedman even goes so far as to say “Everything that has been said thus far about emotional process in personal families is equally applicable to emotional process in churches.” If we cannot tell the difference between ourselves and our families – personal, religious, romantic, and otherwise – we cannot be a whole self. Instead, emotional systems and relationships end up defining and burdening us. We end up with children forced to become the emotional support for their parents. We have spouses who become the stand-in for distant parents. We end up being a pit that is always demanding to be filled. If I do not know how I exist apart from Caitlin and what Caitlin can give me, I am not a husband, I am a parasite. We have another way of talking about this kind of relationship, a co-dependent one, and it is not healthy.
What does the healthy Christian self look like? We should already have some sense of this hopefully, as “Alone you had to take up your cross, struggle, and pray.” In other words, we have hopefully all done the work of answering the question: “Why are you a Christian?” This is not a question that can simply be answered with, “I was born into a Christian family,” or “I was raised as a Christian.” We have many people around this country who claim to be Christians but never attend church, never give to charities, and never participate in ministry and mission, in other words, do not give any evidence that the Spirit of the Living God is working and bearing fruits in their lives. At the end of it all, “alone you will die and give account to God,” so you “cannot avoid yourself, for it is precisely God who has singled you out.” God has called you to be your whole self, to be the self God has shaped you to be. You might say our Christian journey of discipleship, of being sanctified by God’s grace, is to become more fully ourselves.
When we look at our own lives, so much of our pain and brokenness comes from not being who we fully are. Parker Palmer, a writer and educator, wrote in his book A Hidden Wholeness, “I yearn to be whole, but dividedness often seems the easier choice,” as a “‘still small voice’ speaks the truth about me, my work, or the world,” but, “I hear it and yet act as if I did not.” Palmer quotes 1 Kings 19:12 and from the story of Elijah. Elijah, a prophet of God, flees from King Ahab and his queen Jezebel who threaten to kill him. The prophet flees from his whole self, his truth, even begging God, “‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors’” (1 Kings 19:4 NRSV). God commands Elijah to go up onto Mt. Horeb and wait for him to pass by. On the mountain, Elijah enters a cave to wait for God. Wind buffets the mountain, and its foundations are rocked by an earthquake, and it is scorched by fire. After all that, Elijah hears “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12b NRSV). If we are not listening for the voice that makes us whole, we are instead defined by all the other loud relationships in our lives. They blow us over, shake us to our foundations, and scorch us near to death.
As Palmer puts it, “I pay a steep price when I live a divided life” and the “people around me pay a price as well.” When I am not listening to the still small voice when I am not seeking my whole undivided self, I am divided, I feel “fraudulent, anxious about being found out, and depressed by the fact that I am denying my own selfhood.” What is more, others suffer as “they walk on ground made unstable by my dividedness.” This happens all the time in relationships. We are silent about our truths in front of family because to say them would cause fights and troubles, so it feels easier at the moment to be silent. With our partners and spouses, the fear looks a bit different. We fear that if this other person knew fully who we are, they would not love us nor could they possibly like us, so we resolve to hide away the bits of ourselves that we deem unacceptable. When we live this way, it is easy enough to demand this same thing from others. We can demand their silence and their conformity to the roles we think they should take. We have no integrity of self, so we can do little to support or encourage another’s integrity, and indeed we are far more likely to rob another of it.
Unhealthy religious communities do this all the time. Who we want the pastor to be is more often a reflection of our own misplaced demands than the pastor’s actual gifts and graces. We assume that because this committee person is good at hospitality, they don’t mind planning and arranging funeral suppers forever. We can say, “I don’t have a head for numbers,” so we then put everything onto the few people who do. We can be angry at leadership, not because of anything they’ve actually done but because we have unresolved control issues from our own relationship with our parents. In other words, when we are not working at being an undivided, whole self, a differentiated self, we instead harm ourselves and others in our communities of faith.
This is why the psalmist writes in Psalm 65, “God of Zion, to you even silence is praise.” This is why Ecclesiastes proclaims that there is “a time for keeping silent and a time for speaking.” We need to take those moments and those days alone to become more fully ourselves in order to actually function well as a community. Do you take time for silence? What I mean by silence is do you take time to listen to yourself, to check in with that still small voice of God to say, “How is it with my soul?” In other words, do you take time to simply listen? So often in prayer, we get busy talking and forget to listen. In the day alone, that is our time to set aside space to listen to ourselves, to meditate with God on what we actually need to be our whole selves.
This practice can take many forms. We can seek therapy, and counseling to better explore with a trained professional about where our whole self is crying out in pain because we have compromised it again in our words and actions, our bowing to the demands and expectations of others. We can seek to have time to pray and meditate in silence and with scripture to try to listen to where God is speaking into our lives with grace and compassion, soothing our doubts and anxieties. We can take the moments apart to refresh ourselves, find a place to breathe, and finally listen for that small still voice in our own souls.
In our day alone, community functions best when it amplifies the work we are doing to be whole selves. In other words, when you look at this faith community and the relationships within it, are they working in such a way as “to make individuals free, strong, and mature, or has it made them insecure and dependent? Has it taken them by the hand for a while so that they would learn again to walk by themselves, or has it made them anxious and unsure?” You see, the day alone includes those times and places when we leave our immediate community to serve in the world. A healthy and whole Christian self is better able to actively love, listen and obey God, and do good things for their neighbors. The work of the day together and the day alone combine to bear good fruit for the world. Amen.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 55-56.
 Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: The Guilford Press, 1985), 27.
 Ibid., 195.
 Bonhoeffer 2015, 56.
 Parker J. Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 4.
 Ibid., 5.
 Bonhoeffer 2015, 65-66.
Pastor Paul Grossman