Let’s Eliminate Negative Thinking Rev Dr Durrell Watkins March 15th, 2015 Moses has led his people out of Egyptian slavery. He has taken them under the cover of darkness out of their oppressive condition and into the wilderness where they will be safe from their former oppressors. But, the wilderness offers its own set of […]
Let’s Eliminate Negative Thinking
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
March 15th, 2015
Moses has led his people out of Egyptian slavery. He has taken them under the cover of darkness out of their oppressive condition and into the wilderness where they will be safe from their former oppressors. But, the wilderness offers its own set of challenges. Yes, they have a future filled with promise, which they imagine as a Promised Land, but to get there, they must deal with unknowns, struggles, delays and setbacks.
Can they keep the vision of what is possible and let it energize them through the difficult times?
Their choice will determine their experience.
That’s the background for our story today from the Book of Numbers.
In the story, Moses’ community has experienced battles, uncertainty, and other hardships. They are living on manna which, though edible, does not provide a well balanced diet. They don’t even know what it is. Manna means “What is it?” They called it bread from heaven. More likely, it was an excretion from a plant or insect; edible, even sweet and tasty, but not terribly substantial. Added to the manna, they have swarms of Quail every once in a while, and even find water in rocks. But insect secretions, rock water, and the occasional stray Quail isn’t luxury dining; still, their needs are being met and they are continually moving forward toward a land, a life of promise, of infinite possibilities.
The community, tired, frustrated and afraid, starts to complain bitterly. Rather than celebrating what they can do together if they keep the vision, they spend all their time grumbling about what they don’t like and what they don’t yet have. They remember the good old days of slavery when they were treated like beasts of burden, like property, when their very humanity was denied. They remember the glorious Egyptian Empire, and they remember having plenty of food and shelter, even though that may not have been quite accurate.
They left Egypt behind in search of a life of dignity, but they’ve gotten in the habit of constantly complaining, and they’ve twisted their memories so that Egypt now represents the good old days and the journey to a land of Promise is what they find onerous. They’ve got it all ass-backwards!
Have we ever romanticized the people who weren’t that good to us? Have we ever missed the places or organizations that never accepted us totally? Have we ever longed for the good old days of Egypt, and let our bitterness delay finding a new promise, a new experience of joy and empowerment?
In response to their habitual negative attitudes and constant complaining, “fiery” serpents appear. When the people repent of their negative attitudes, then the bronze serpent is introduced as a healing modality. It sounds like ancient folk magic, or maybe like the unscientific miracle cures that used to be called snake oil, but in the story, complaining leads to a toxic experience, and repenting, that is, making a positive change, changing from the habit of complaining to a new habit of hope and happiness leads to healing.
Bitter or toxic (“poisonous”) attitudes can make us emotionally/spiritually sick. So, when we look boldly at our challenges (the bronze serpent), and dare to face them, we discover we can overcome them. When we choose to be grateful for our blessings and hopeful about our challenges, we experience healing. The story may not be so much about what did happen, but about what does happen in our own lives.
Facing the problem and repenting (choosing new, better attitudes) lead the people to healing. The story shows us that negative attitudes lead to suffering, while changing our attitudes in a more optimistic and positive direction brings strength and renewal to us.
There are other snake stories in scripture. One is in the Book of Acts. The Apostle Paul is a prisoner, on a boat, on his way to Rome for trial. A storm pops up and the ship he’s on is forced to shore on the island of Malta. Shipwrecked, Paul starts gathering wood to build a fire. Acts 28.3-5 tells us, “Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, ‘This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.’ But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects.”
Paul has survived a storm and a shipwreck, but now suffers a snake bite. Have you ever had one of those days? Where one misfortune after another plagues you? Well, the people who lived on the island jumped to some conclusions. Have you ever had a hard time and felt like people were judging you instead of offering you compassion for your difficulties?
I remember in the early days of the AIDS crisis, some angry, wrist-slapping, finger-pointing, name-calling pugnacious preachers of doom and gloom declaring that AIDS was divine punishment.
I suppose it never occurred to them that a god that would strike entire communities with a deadly disease wouldn’t be the sort of god that any sane person would wish to serve.
I suppose it never occurred to them that the advent of anti-retroviral medication would make their false prognostications look ridiculous.
I suppose it never occurred to them that if God was so offended by love and attraction that God would try to wipe out entire communities, that would make God look petty and worse, even evil.
I remember once visiting a couple who were very ill from AIDS complications. They owned a beautiful house and had lovely gardens. But there were no effective medications yet, and one of the two men was bedridden. It was sad that a young couple was struggling just to survive, and one of them was declining faster than the other. But what was sadder, tragic really, is that the one who was not bedridden agreed to take care of his dying partner but had otherwise broken up with him. He had found a church that told him that if he would renounce his homosexuality God might cure his AIDS. He was so desperately afraid, that he abandoned the love of his life in order to secure a miracle from a deity that he believed was punishing him for who and how he loved. Of course, no such miracle ever occurred, and they both died without the comfort that their shared love should have been able to give them.
How heartbreaking to look back at that time, and those who still hold such unenlightened views, and see that religious people chose blame and shame and terror over hope and compassion. People were infected with a deadly virus…they needed care, not condemnation.
Paul is storm-tossed, shipwrecked, on his way to ultimate execution, and now, he’s been attacked by a viper. Someone might have said, “Poor thing, he can’t catch a break. Let’s try to help him!” But instead, the people said, “He must be a bad guy. The gods are punishing him.” What horrible gods some people worship.
That’s why it’s important that we constantly offer up a bigger experience of religion, a larger view of spirituality, a more inclusive understanding of the divine. We will never be better than our God, so if our God is petty, nasty, vile, punishing, intolerant, and hateful, there is almost no hope of us being better than our God. But if our God is All-Love, All-Beauty, the Field of All Possibilities, the Substance of All-Life, the Power that is everywhere, fully Present…then our Good God is the Truth of our lives and we can hope to live into that divine Reality. It may take us a lifetime or more, but we will be moving in the direction of infinite Compassion, indomitable Hope, healing Love.
Emerson said, “It behooves us to be careful what we worship; for what we are worshiping we are becoming.”
Well, look what Paul did. Yes the storm tossed him about, but he held on.
Yes the ship crashed, but he picked himself up and started building a fire to keep warm.
And yes, a viper fastened itself onto his hand, but he shook it off!
Things happen, and sometimes they aren’t fair, but we are in charge of how we respond.
We can choose to stand tall (in spirit if we are unable to stand tall physically).
We can choose to go to peace instead of to pieces.
We can choose to start over.
We can choose to believe in our sacred value even when others are calling us everything but children of God.
Snakes strike, but we can shake them off!
The finger pointers, name callers, gossips and accusers don’t define us. We don’t have to accept their judgment of us. We don’t have to accept that their poison must be our reality. We can shake it off!
Diagnoses, financial hardships, betrayals, natural disasters, they need not be the end of our story, nor must they determine how we feel about life. When fear, like a viper, strikes…we can shake it off. We can deny fear’s power over us and affirm that we are God’s miracle and not God’s mistake!
If anyone ever has said that you are anything other than a beautiful part of God’s perfect creation, shake that mess off! They may be selling it, but that doesn’t mean that we’re buying it. Even when our own thoughts betray and attack us, we can cancel those thoughts and shake them off and embrace a new thought, an affirmation of our goodness and innate perfection.
This isn’t pie in the sky, rose colored glasses stuff. We just need to notice when our default position is fear, or self-pity, or blame. And once we find that our thoughts are habitually negative, we start making corrections so that we can become more optimistic, more serene, more aware that we deserve to be happy.
Maybe that’s what the whole Lenten journey is meant to be. It has been said that LENT can stand for, “Let’s Eliminate Negative Thinking.” Habitual negative thinking led the people of our story today into a place of suffering, and eliminating negative thinking is what restored them and allowed them to move forward to the blessings that they were always meant to have. We can follow their example, and this is the good news. Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2015
I am God’s miracle and not God’s mistake.
I choose to go peace instead of to pieces.
I deserve to be happy. Amen.