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Sermon on "Negativity Fast" (Part One)

“You are my son…my daughter…with you I am well pleased. … The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

This Lent, we’re trying something we haven’t tried before in our sermons, and that is that is this Lent, Rev. Kate, Pastor Mary and I are all going to be sticking to one theme.  

Instead of jumping around from message to message or preaching on very different unrelated themes, this Lent – over the next five Sundays – we’ll be taking our time unpacking one theme.

Even though it’s one theme, you’ll be getting three very different takes on this theme, because Kate, Mary and I all have different perspectives on it. But we thought we’d look at this one theme over the season of Lent, because we think it’s an important topic to take a good look at, one that I introduced a few weeks ago in the e-Pistle,

And the theme is a “negativity fast.”

Now as you know, it’s customary for people to give things up and take things on during the season of Lent.

And most of the time we think of giving up something like chocolate or sweets or nicotine or wine or snacking, in order to get in touch with the many ways we try to fill our God-shaped hole with something other than God (or attempt to numb the pain of our emptiness). Which is great.

And many people resolve during Lent to give up a half hour of Facebook or television, and give that time to prayer or Bible reading. Which is also great.

But in addition to those traditional disciplines, Kate, Mary and I would like to invite you to consider taking on another kind of fast, something along the lines of what the author/pastor Steve Backlund has popularized,[i] called a “negativity fast.”

A negativity fast is fasting from – refraining from – stopping and protecting yourself from -- negative thoughts and speech, and replacing those thoughts and speech with thoughts and speech that build up.

A negativity fast is fasting from negativity in all its forms:  negative thoughts about yourself, about others, and about conditions or circumstances, and – over time – training ourselves to substitute those negative thoughts with thoughts of God’s promises…hope…solutions…and gratitude.

When thinking about “fasting from negativity,” it’d be tempting to focus on how you view others, or the outside world: world events, politicians, the economy, or other people close to you.

But this morning I want to focus on one very simple point and that is that a negativity fast should begin with the realization that people are more negative toward themselves than anything else: or to put it another way, the negative thoughts we have about others and the world are often rooted in the negative thoughts we have about ourselves (our selves).

Let me bring this home in a practical way: I heard someone recently say that despite the fact that we live in one of the most prosperous countries at one of the most prosperous times in the history of the world, we, many of us, have somehow adopted a shortage mentality.

For many of us the first thing we think upon waking up is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” And the last thought we have before going to bed is “I didn’t get enough done today.”  And it’s been said that people feel that things would be okay financially if they just made about ten percent more than they are currently making.

Problem is, of course, when we’re in a shortage mentality, no amount of sleep is adequate enough, no number of things checked off our list suffices, and the additional ten percent is always out ahead of us like a mirage, we never get there because it’s always another ten percent.

And so here as in so many other places, the best place to begin is on getting the negativity off of our self – those lies we tell ourselves about ourselves, the little negative tapes we’ve memorized that are not from the Holy Spirit but some other spirit.

Get that off of us, and we’ll view the world differently.

A negativity fast doesn’t change our circumstances so much as our attitude toward them: it’s a discipline of shifting our world view: so as to say,

·         “I got a lot done today (or, “I focused on the right things today.”)

·         I slept well last night (or (if that isn’t the case), “well, you know, this is one of those mornings that I’m glad God created coffee!”)

·         And as far as money: here’s a little mantra for you: “you know, compared to 80% of the people living in the world today and compared to most people living throughout human history, I have won the lottery. Unlike so many others throughout history and around the world today, I don’t have to worry if my children will eat today or not. Unlike so many others throughout history and around the world today, I am not concerned about where to find clean water today. Unlike so many others throughout history and around the world today, I am not afraid that I attacked with a machete.”

Compared to most people throughout history and around the world, most of us have enough, and more than enough…in fact we have abundance, extravagant, overflowing abundance.

But that begs the question, doesn’t it? 

Why do all these “negative,” “shortage,” “inadequate” tapes play in our heads?

I want to dig a deeper into that dynamic….go after the root of negativity so we don’t have to always be attacking the weeds as they pop up.

I’ve had the good fortune of having some very wise Jesuit spiritual directors. And I’d like to share what one of them – Fr. Jim Shea – said to me one time.

It was something that rocked my world and quite literally changed my life:

At the time, I was wrestling with something that many of you wrestle with, and that’s perfectionism. I still tend to be a bit of a perfectionist, but man, back then, the struggle was a a lot worse.

Well, Fr. Shea was wise enough to know that perfectionism is closely related to the idea of acceptance….self-acceptance, being accepted by others, being accepted by God.

And so Fr. Shea had encouraged me to read some pretty heavy theology by the theologian Paul Tillich, and I one day in my spiritual direction appointment, we were talking about something that Tillich writes about grace:

Grace,” Tillich says, “strikes us when year after year the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair [I’m just not good enough, I’ll never make it, I wonder if I have what it takes] destroys all joy and courage.
Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying, ‘you are accepted.

You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know.

Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later.

Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much.

Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything.

Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!

If that happens, we experience grace.

I looked at Fr. Shea and asked, “is that true? Is that really possible, that we are accepted, no matter what, no matter we’ve done or not done?”

And that’s he said, “You know John, you can only be as compassionate to other people as you are to yourself.”

“You are my son…my daughter…with you I am well pleased. … The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

You can only be as compassionate to other people as you are to yourself.

You see, up until that point, I had thought two things:

One, that I could be kinder, gentler, nicer, to other people than I was to myself…

that I could be hard on myself, tough on myself, stern with myself, but then someone I could turn that off and be gentle with others, tender and compassionate and kind to others – that it’s only myself I treated harshly, not others.

And the other thing I thought up until that day was that being kind to myself...being gentle and forgiving and compassionate to myself was nothing more than self-indulgence…that if I was that way to myself, it’d lead to giving myself all kinds of excuses or self-rationalizations to behave any way I wanted…that if I stopped the negative tapes of self-criticism then all hell would break loose! what would stop me from just doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted?

Here’s the thing, though:

I don't know about you, but every single change that I had ever gone through in my life for the better…every single improvement I have made in my character and in my life, has NOT come because someone – myself or anyone else -- was criticizing or scolding or belittling or shaming me…

…but rather, every single change I have gone through in my life, every single improvement I have made in my character and in my life, has been because someone believed in me, encouraged me, looked past – as if it were invisible, because it was to them – whatever flaws I had and saw only good, and encouraged the good.

Encouraged the good.

Encouraged the good.  

And so – as is so often the case with making any kind of change in the world – the best place to begin a negativity fast is with ourselves, our selves.

“You are my son…my daughter…with you I am well pleased. … The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”


[i] I say “popularized” because obviously, others have written about this for years: Henri Nouwen, in Life of the Beloved, comments on Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness by saying that is “it not easy to hear the voice that says ‘you are my beloved’ in a world filled with voices that shout: ‘you are no good, you are ugly; you are worthless, you are despicable, you are nobody—unless you can demonstrate the opposite.’ These negative voices are so loud and so persistent that it is easy to believe them. That’s the great trap. It is the trap of self-rejection. Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can, indeed, be a great temptation, but their seductive power often comes from the way that they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions.”  


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