Mark 2:22; Ezekiel 36:26
The Rev. Tom Herbek
September 20, 2015
A man named Gordon went to see a psychiatrist, because he found himself slipping into depression. The psychiatrist played a recording for the man, a recording of excerpts from the remarks of three other patients who had given the psychiatrist permission to use their stories. Gordon listened to the three stories from the psychiatrist’s patients:
The first man who spoke had obviously suffered some sort of business failure and was berating himself for not working harder or more wisely. The second was a woman who had never married because of pressures from her family, and she was thoroughly embittered over all the marital opportunities she had let slip by. The third voice belonged to a mother whose teenage child was in trouble with the police and she blamed herself. When the psychiatrist turned off the machine, he said, “Six times in these recordings a phrase was used that is full of subtle poison. Did you spot it? Probably not, because you used it three times yourself a few minutes ago.” With that, the psychiatrist picked up the box that held the tape and said, “The poisonous words are right there on the label, the two saddest words in any language.” Gordon looked down and printed neatly in red ink were the two words, “If only….” The therapist said: “You would be surprised by how many thousands of times I have sat in this chair and listened to woeful sentences that began with those two words. The problem is that these words do not change anything. They keep a person facing the wrong way – backwards instead of forward.”
- John Claypool, A Hopeful Heart
An old wineskin and a hardened heart keep us facing backwards. Of course, we all have experiences that contributed to turmoil and pain in our lives. Some of these experiences include things that we have done that add to our turmoil and pain. Some include things that others have done which add to our turmoil and pain.
The writer of Ezekiel says, however, that God will give us a new heart, a new spirit. And Jesus was very clear that we need newness in how we see ourselves in order to accept the newness of God’s love for us. He called it putting new wine into fresh wineskins. I recently read a new book by existential psychiatrist, Dr. Irvin Yalom. One of the chapters was entitled, “You Must Give Up the Hope for a Better Past.” In this chapter, he tells the story of Sally, a woman who was ready to retire and who wanted to regain something she lost when she was much younger.
I’ve worked forever as a physics technician and that’s what I want to change. The truth is that my heart’s never been in that work. My real calling is writing. I want to be a writer.
And the most important thing is that I must have talent.”
“Must have talent? Tell me about that.”
“I mean I must have some talent. I won a literary guild fiction prize for new writers when I was eighteen. Four thousand dollars. And that was forty-two years ago.”
“A huge award! Quite an honor!”
“Quite a curse, it turned out.”
“I got this notion I could never live up to that honor. I began to feel like a fraud and was afraid to show my work.”
“Aside from the novella that won me the prize, I’ve published nothing. Never tried to publish. Not once. But I’ve still got every piece I ever wrote. Couldn’t send anything out and couldn’t throw anything out. I put everything in a big box and sealed it with strong tape. Everything I’ve written since my teens.”
And then one day, to my great shock, she entered my office carrying a two-foot -by-two-foot box, a box so heavy that the floor quivered when she set it down between us. We sat in silence looking at it until she extracted a large pair of shears from her purse, kneeled on the floor next to the box, looked at me, and said, “Today’s the day, I guess.”
“There are a lot of dark chapters in my life, darker episodes than I’ve conveyed to you, and there are a lot of dark stories in that box, stories that I may have mentioned, but only obliquely, in our therapy. I’m afraid of their power, and I don’t want to get sucked back into those days. I’m very frightened of that. Oh yes, as you know, my family looked good from the outside, but inside . . . inside there was so much pain.”
“Is there a particular story or poem that you dread meeting again?”
Rising from the floor and setting down her scissors, Sally settled back into her chair. “Yes, one story that I wrote when I was in college haunted me all last night. ‘Riding on the Bus’ I think it was called, and it was about me at thirteen, a period when I was so unhappy I seriously considered suicide. In the story – a true story – I boarded a bus and rode to the end of the line and then kept riding it back and forth for hours contemplating how to end my life.”
Sally could not find the bus story in the box, so, at the end of the hour, she put everything back into the box and took it home. She continued to show Dr. Yalom her stories and poems as she found them in the box, in their later sessions, but not the dreaded bus story.
And then one day it arrived. She entered my office holding a folder. “Here’s the story. Would you please read this?”
I opened the folder. The five-page story was entitled “Riding on the Bus.” It was a simply told story of a young girl hugely upset by a fight with her parents and by taunting from cruel classmates. She decides to cut the rest of the school day and, for the first time, seriously considers suicide.
It is freezing winter day, far too cold for the hour’s walk home, and yet she has no money to take the bus. Her father’s office is nearby, but the previous day he refused to come to her assistance during a heated confrontation with her mother, and she was still too enraged with him to ask for a ride home or for bus money. And so the young girl steps onto the bus and pulls her pockets inside out to indicate she has no money. The bus driver starts to refuse her entry but, seeing how she shivers from the cold, simply nods for her to board. She sits in the back of the bus and weeps softly the entire trip. At the end of the route all the passengers disembark, and the driver turns the engine off. He is about to get off the bus for his ten-minute coffee break when he notices the sobbing young girl and asks why she hasn’t gotten off. She tells him she lives at the other end of the route, and he not only lets her stay on the bus but also buys her a Coke and invites her to sit near him by the heater in the front. For the rest of the day the girl and the driver ride back and forth together on the bus.
I looked up from the story. “This is the dark story you dreaded so much?”
“No, I never found that story.”
“And this story?”
“I wrote it yesterday.”
I was speechless. We sat in silence for a few minutes until I ventured, “You know what I’ve been thinking? Remember what I said to you a few weeks ago, when you had come to realize that your parents weren’t cruelly withholding love but that they simply didn’t have it to give?”
“I remember clear as a bell. That was when you said that I had to give up the hope for a better past. That phrase caught my attention and has been circling my mind ever since. I didn’t like it, but it was helpful. It got me over a tough spot.”
“Giving up the hope for a better past is a potent idea. I’ve uttered it to help many others, and it’s also helped me personally. But today, here,” I handed her back the story, “you’ve given it a creative and unexpected twist. You didn’t give up the hope for a better past; instead you’ve written a new past for yourself. Pretty impressive route you’ve taken.”
Sally put the story back into her briefcase, looked up, smiled, and offered one of the loveliest compliments I’ve ever received: “It’s not so hard if you’ve got a kind bus driver.”
Giving up the hope for a better past often requires that we find a safe place and a kind bus driver. Most of us carry various stories with us, and traumatic memories haunt us, at times, with old stuck feelings. And then the day will come for each of us when the risk to remain tight in a bud becomes more painful than the risk of blooming.
The job of our church family is to find ways to continue to remind each other of who we are when we forget; we are children of God, and our job as children of God is simply to become who we already are.
As a church family, we are called to find new and creative ways to build a safe and loving circle of kindness, acceptance and compassion. And yet, we must also point out the “if-onlys”- those things that keep the people we care about from giving up the hope for a better past. Gabriel Garcia Manquez once wrote about one of his characters in his book: “He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”
Ezekiel called it being given a “new heart.” But part of it always remains our own unique and individual task, the task of doing our part to give birth to ourselves over and over throughout life. And, in this way, we then give birth to those new wineskins that can hold the new wine: the love, acceptance, and compassion of God, the Good News that gives us life.