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  • Zachary Helton

“The Ground I Know for Certain is Beneath Me," by Zachary Helton

Isaiah 58:6-12

This is the sort of worship that pleases me: Remove the chains of injustice! Undo the ropes of the yoke! Let those who are oppressed go free, and break every yoke you encounter! Share your bread with those who are hungry, and shelter homeless poor people! Clothe those who are naked, and don’t hide from the needs of your own flesh and blood! Do this, and your light will shine like the dawn— and your healing will break forth like lightning! Your integrity will go before you, and the glory of YHWH will be your rearguard. Cry, and YHWH will answer; call, and God will say, ‘I am here’— provided you remove from your midst all oppression, finger pointing, and malicious talk! If you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your shadows will become like noon. YHWH will always guide you, giving relief in desert places. God will give strength to your bones and you will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never run dry. You will rebuild the ancient ruins, and build upon age-old foundations. You will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, and Restorer of Broken Nations.



Dear Church, As I write this on Thursday afternoon, I am still struggling, like many of you, to parse out my thoughts and feel my feelings. I’m still trying to put yesterday’s events into a coherent narrative, still trying to work through my grief and fear of the future, still trying to plant my feet on the ground of hope. There is not much I feel I can say today with any level of polish. Rather, in moments like this, all I can do is stand on the ground I know for certain is beneath me. Sometimes I mean that literally. I literally have to feel the ground beneath my feet and the breath in my lungs, or else I’ll be swamped with the stories readily provided by my imagination. Right now, however, when I say, “the ground I know for certain is beneath me,” that’s not quite what I mean. What I mean is: there are so many complicated and frightening factors at play, that there are only a few things I can say, from research, from faith, and most importantly, from my own experience, with any level of clarity and confidence. So, this morning, these are the only gifts I have to offer you, and I pray they are enough. The first thing I know is this: Within us, there is an internal landscape of predictable patterns, but it’s a landscape few have taken the time to explore or illuminate for themselves. In middle school, most of us learned that humans respond to conflict with a “fight or flight” reflex, and while that’s true, it’s only a small part of a much truer story. Here is the rest, When faced with conflict, the most basic and oldest part of the human brain is wired to respond in one of four ways, sometimes called the four “F’s.” We fight, flee, freeze, or faint. We all know what this feels like, and we only have to reach back as far as Wednesday to see them at play: Faced with a conflict, some reacted with the urge to fight – to bow up and demand a show of force, to counter-dominate those we perceived trying to dominate us. Some reacted by fleeing. We turned off the news, ate copious amounts of food or drank copious amounts of alcohol, or whatever our numbing agent of choice, so that we wouldn’t have to deal with the painful and unpleasant story unfolding on our screens. Some reacted by freezing. We couldn’t think of what to do about it, but we couldn’t look away. We were rooted to our phones, speechless, with static hissing in our brains where there was once the capacity for rational thought. Some reacted by fainting. For some of us, the input overload was, quite simply, too much, and we might not even remember what we did. Our bodies took over and we just shut off. Fight, flight, freeze, faint. These patterns are well traced, and there is no shame in any of them. It’s how you’ve learned to keep yourself safe, if not personally, then on an evolutionary level, and it’s entirely understandable why you had the reaction you did, whatever it was. This is not a sermon to say you did wrong, it’s a sermon trying to help us understand. There are two things about this we need to understand: First, that many of us are slaves to these responses. We go on automatic, and they take over… but the second thing is: none of them do a thing towards peacemaking or conflict transformation. They are, by design, reactions that will protect us and the systems we’ve created, even when the protection is more harmful as the conflict. So, the second thing I know for sure is this: In order to work for peace and understanding, for tomorrow to be different from today, we have got to learn to transcend those four reactions, to transcend fight, flight, freeze, and faint, and that is not a matter of willpower, but a matter of research-based, intentional practice. The research shows us that there is only one way to transcend these reactions, and it is through the practice of mindfulness meditation. I am not exaggerating when I say mindfulness it is a superpower and a silver bullet. I am convinced that when our scripture say that Jesus repeatedly went off to a solitary place to pray, this was his practice, because it is the only thing that can lead us to live the kind of gracious, peaceful, and reconciliatory life he managed to live. The reason mindfulness is so powerful is that we practice, whether we are focusing on our breath in a breathing meditation or our body in yoga movements, we train our brains to see, rather than react to, our thoughts and feelings as they rise and fall, as they approach and pass by. We train our brains against their automatic responses to attach or react against thoughts and feelings, and just watch them with curious compassion. It’s the difference between standing in the rain and standing under an awning watching the rain – the difference between looking out from the inside of a cloud and standing on the ground watching the clouds pass through a spacious sky. Through the practice of mindfulness, we train ourselves to see the four F responses, the four automatic reactions as they happen, and choose not to let them take over. We can see them without attachment or aversion, and once we’re out of it, we can start the vital work of asking questions. We can start to try to understand what’s going on in ourselves and in others? We can start to be curious about what we’re really afraid of and why, what they’re really afraid of and why? We can start investigating what watered the seeds of the suffering in front of us, how we can stop watering them, and what we can do to water different seeds. We can start to really understand and that makes all the difference, because here’s the third thing I know for sure: In order for someone to change their mind about anything, whether it’s racism or a rigged election, they must know, first and foremost that they are understood. They must know they are loved, and cared for. This is the only way positive transformation can take place, and it is a state that remains unreachable until we can learn to manage our four F responses. It starts with us learning the art of understanding, of non-judgment and non-violence with ourselves and others. Peace out there starts as peace in here. After that, when someone has reached a state where they know they are understood, when they’ve heard their fears and needs reflected back to them without judgment… that’s when that person can hear the stories of the ones in front of them. That’s when they can hear the needs of their siblings, can understand the suffering and the pain of others, and our mirror neurons kick in and empathy is possible and the conflict begins to transform. Now, the third thing, and I’ll be honest, this isn’t something I know for sure, but I strongly suspect: None of that can happen on the internet. Social media, whatever it’s potentials were or are, has become a reductionistic echo chamber, and its lack of mediation or sense of ethical responsibility is directly responsible for what we saw on Wednesday. Twitter and Facebook may have a role to play yet in healing this wound, but our learning to be mindful of our F responses, our viewing others with empathy and communicating with honesty… I don’t think that can happen in posts, tweets, or comments, as easy as they are to turn to. And that’s what I’ve got. That’s what I have to offer you this morning. There are no ready-made bible stories that come to mind, no piece of spiritual philosophy or easy rhetoric of hope I want to throw at you, and you should be suspicious of anyone who does. These are the things I believe most deeply to be true, and what happens if we take their practice seriously… I honestly don’t know, but it won’t be the same as it was. Parker Palmer is an author that has dealt with debilitating depression, and of his struggle, he wrote that the biggest lesson he’s learned about suffering is that it doesn’t let up until you try something that works. After years of trying the same patterns over and over again, he wrote, life pushed him lower and lower, “all the way down” until he found the bedrock life wanted him to find. I think we may have a ways to go yet, lower and lower, but I also believe we will find that awareness and understanding are our bedrock. They are the only way to love and healing. You might feel overwhelmed right now, and that’s understandable, but that overwhelm is an alarm bell showing us what’s not working, and it will get worse until we listen. So, may we learn to mindful of our urges to fight, flee, freeze, or faint, rather than blindly letting them drive. Learn to lead with curiosity and understanding rather than judgment. Practice becoming the kind of people for whom peace is a natural by-product. And then, when it comes time to do something, whatever that is for you, whatever you can contribute to this world that brings you to life, then you’ll be ready. Then we’ll be called repairers of the breach – a people who can heal the wounds of this world. Amen.


Invitation to Respond

On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on one or more of these questions:

· What stands out to you from the sermon? Where did you hear yourself?

· What are the implications of the sermon for you? What are you feeling invited to do?

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