When you receive this, we will be looking forward to a very unusual 2020 Thanksgiving. Looking toward that day, I’ve started humming the hymn, “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing.” The next lines are, “He chastens and hastens his will to make known.”
The words of hymn 433 were written in 1625 when the word “chasten” meant to punish, as in 2 Samuel 7:14, “if he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men.” Today, although chasten still has the definition of punishment or refining, I think the one definition of the word I prefer is “to humble” … as in, “Eric was chastened by the number of his sermons that were both boring and big flops.”
I have been chastened many times during my time here at Trinity. I have made so many mistakes; especially in my early days here. I have said and done things that hurt people and most of you have had the courage to confront me. I feel this chastening has made me a better man and a far better priest. I hope you have noticed some growth in me over the last 15 months and I hope that you will not jump to the conclusion that what is said is meant to do harm. Too often we don’t give the other the benefit of the doubt or an opportunity to explain or ask forgiveness.
I don’t believe that chastening must come from someone whose opinion we value, but when it does, it can sting. Sometimes, people I never knew prior to the chastening have humbled me. God has also chastened me: thinking God works one way only to find out God works in another. Again, I have learned and hopefully grown. Because I had such a great marriage to Cindy, she was able to chasten me over and over again. That was one of her greatest gifts. She could tell me how much of a jerk I was and make me happy to receive that information. Then I’d walk away and think, she just told me that I had been an idiot! Then I’d laugh because she did it so well and, like every wife, she was always right.
A Harvard School Business School historian, Nancy Koehn, said in an interview, “Being chastened by your own conduct, by mistakes you’ve made, by setbacks you’ve encountered are some of the best classrooms in the making of great leaders.” Referring to great leaders, she said, “Chastening is how those leaders grew, got better, and got more decent—and that has a great impact on the world. Leaders that can’t reckon with themselves about their own mistakes are inevitably doomed to be less than they might.”
It is the same for Christians. We are all sometimes shamed and ashamed of our actions. For Christians, we don’t have to stay in that emotionally uncomfortable place. Through the confession of our poor actions or inappropriate words and with understanding, compassion, and forgiveness, we strive to become better.
Think of how King David took Bathsheba and had her husband killed. God and the prophet Nathan chastened him, and he then went on to become Israel’s greatest king. Peter denied our Lord three times before his crucifixion and after Christ’s resurrection, Jesus asked him if he loved him (three times) and Peter responded, “Yes Lord, you know I love you.” After that, Peter went on to be the head of The Church.
I believe our society could use a little more chastening, from our world, national, and state leaders, to this priest. Our mouths, our Facebook posts, and our tweets oftentimes cause us more trouble than good. Civility has disappeared with the typewriter and the landline. During the age of McCarthyism, attorney Joseph Welch finally punctured McCarthy’s puffed up sense of self when Welch said, “Have you no sense of decency?!”
When I read the newspaper, watch the news, or even overhear a conversation, I feel like shouting the same words or,” Have you no shame?”. And yet as a Christian and a priest, I feel I must first get to know the person, climb inside their skin, and get to see where they are coming from. First, I must choose to think they do not know that they have committed an offense. Sometimes culture, ignorance of someone’s history, or lack of education can explain the offense. Then it is time to explain to them why it is impolite. If it happens again, then perhaps it is time to chasten. Unfortunately, I feel we have entered into a shameless society. In some circles, especially politics, shamelessness is celebrated. Why apologize? Apologies, in that circle, are regarded as a sign of weakness.
I believe the Bible and the biographies of great women and men are replete with examples of how one’s sense of shame or one’s being chastened has led to growth as an individual or even an entire society. A whole society, you might ask. Yes, remember that Jonah was sent to Nineveh to have them repent. When Jonah finally arrived in Nineveh, he called the entire population to repentance. Everyone, from the king to the lowest animals, was covered in ashes and the humans wore sackcloth in order to show God that they were ashamed, chastened, and ready to repent.
In a few weeks we will remember hymn 433. Between now and then, I invite you to take time to examine your life and then thank God for your own chastening and your subsequent growth. Without chastening [and a (healthy) sense of shame, i.e. when we’ve broken an interpersonal bridge] we become complacent, smug, and indifferent to the world, and an enemy of Christ. Chastening is just one of the tools in God’s tool belt that helps us to conform more and more to the likeness of Christ.
Remember, that first we should talk and explain the offense or have someone explain it to us if we are the offender. Take the high road, believing that the first time you hear such things that they may not have been said with the intention to offend or cause you harm.
Once you take a deep breath, when you’ve examined all possibilities, be ready to chasten or be chastened. Also remember that it’s never fun to be chastened, pruned or refined, but it is necessary to our spiritual growth.
Just two weeks ago, on All Saints’ Day, we gave thanks for those in our past who helped us grow into the child of God each of us is becoming and gave thanks for all the saints who from their labors rest. Sometimes our saints may have chastened us when we needed it. And who among us who have had children have not chastened our own?
Let us not be afraid to be humbled and refined, for then we shall be further along on the journey to wholeness. This Thanksgiving, remember the gifts
you have received from God, both physical and spiritual; and, then
remember to stay safe, wear a mask, keep socially distant,
and give thanks at all times and all places!