“Denying for Love” by Mark W. Harris – March 28, 2010
“Denying for Love” Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – March 28, 2010
Call to Worship – Mark 14:66-72
And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the maids of the high priest came; and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said.” You also were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway. And the maid saw him , and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. And after a little while, again the bystanders said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” But he began to invoke a curse on himself, and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him: “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
Story for All Ages – “The Naughty Shoes” – from The Netherlands
Reading – from Atonement by Ian McEwan
Sermon – “Denying for Love” Mark W. Harris
My son Dana’s school bus was late on Friday morning. As the minutes ticked by, and our older son Levi was long gone, we knew there was a problem. So I called the bus company, and asked where the missing bus was. They had not heard from our regular driver, and so they ended up sending another bus causing Dana to be very, very late for school. Asher’s bus is from the same company, and, as you might guess, his bus was very late, too. Frustrating conversations with the bus company were only the beginning of the story though. Eventually our regular driver called with tears in her eyes to say she had just been fired. Yet it turned out that she was sick with strep throat, and had told her boss previously that she could not drive. The boss in turn had told her to drive anyway, but not tell the parents. She wanted our driver to lie to cover up the possible exposure of the children to illness, and just keep working. She allegedly said, “I can’t afford to lose this contract.” The well being of her driver, the health risk to the children were all secondary to the money she earns from our town. Then when the driver slept in, and didn’t call, he was summarily fired. Now we could report the behavior of the owner of the company to the school, but it would merely be a “she said, she said” kind of situation, and the owner would almost certainly deny that she ever said, “don’t tell the parents you’re sick.” We deny the truth or twist the truth to protect ourselves against perceived harm to life or livelihood.
Friday morning’s incident was a reminder that denial in one form or another is always entwined in the fabric of our lives. The topic for today emanates from my personal concern and interest in the case of Nancy Kerrigan’s brother Mark who apparently assaulted their father a couple of months ago, perhaps in a drunken outburst, and then the father died two hours later. The case is made especially public because of the fame of Olympic figure skater Kerrigan who won medals, fought with and was victimized by Tonya Harding and her cohorts, and hails from Stoneham, just up the road. After the father died, the brother was arrested on assault and battery changes, and there was speculation that he could even be indicted for murder. He was then sent for psychiatric evaluation. Finally, the family made a statement to the effect that the homicide ruling from the father’s autopsy was not accurate, and they were going to do everything in their power as a family to uphold the brother’s innocence. Of course I don’t know all the details of this case or of the family’s history, but the bare details reminded me of so many families I have known, where a child or parent has an addiction issue, and the family is torn between doing everything they can to help and protect their loved one on the one hand, but also realizing on the other hand that his or her behavior wrecks havoc within the family, and it is thus impossible to ever feel safe, or relaxed or free because you are always on guard, or always protecting or rescuing your loved one, or always denying that something is seriously wrong and needs attention. One of the news reports said, “These parents seemed like they were trying to do the best for this guy and it looks like, from appearances, that he turned on them.” Where do you draw the line? Our first response to a loved one is to help in every conceivable way, but what if their behavior is destroying our finances, other relationships in the family, and literally taking away the very sanity of our daily lives because we are always doing one more thing to take care of them, and neglect taking care of ourselves. Sometimes protecting our loved one, means we enable our loved one, and in the end no one is protected. The problem with this denial is that it is carried out with the best hopes and intentions that everything will be all right. We are denying for love.
Denial is, of course, one of many defense mechanisms we all use to help us deal with anxiety in our lives. We feel we must find ways of coping with an unpleasant reality or truth that we either want to ignore or refuse to believe. Just the other night it began raining hard in the middle of the night. Andrea and I both awoke around 3:30 a.m. I think I can say that with some assurance that fear and anxiety filled our minds. We both asked ourselves in our own way, “What if the basement is gong to fill up with water again?” As it pelted against the windows we could probably both see another two feet of water flooding the cellar, as we had just experienced with the consequence of ruined appliances and other items. There was the cold water, the pumping, the wet walls, and the cleaning. This was a legitimate question, and there was no way of denying that it was raining. The denial was in the refusal to go look at the basement, and the feeling of not being able to bear seeing such flooding again. The irrational denial is expressed as, “if I don’t look, maybe it won’t happen.” This is the same response we feel as when a loved one does some seemingly insanely dangerous act, and we say, “I can’t watch.” I remember a couple of summers ago my son Dana saw Andrea seemingly caught out in the bay in a sail boat in Maine, and he turned to run up the stairs to our cottage yelling. “Mom’s going to die, and I can’t watch.”
Dana was trying to protect his own psychological well being in a stressful situation. He was not ready or capable of dealing with such a painful reality. He was saying, Mom can’t really be in trouble, and it will all go away if I am not watching. And, in fact, Andrea was not in trouble. She does not get into trouble! Denial protects us from the overwhelming feelings that we think we cannot cope with. I think we may all experience this with a diagnosis of an illness. When a shoulder or a knee gives us pain or discomfort over a long period of time and refuses to relent, there is often a certain denial at work in going to the doctor in the first place. We often say that the pain is not so bad, or I’ll get over it. We may even cope by trying to live with it because we are busy denying the anxiety we feel over the ramifications of actually finding out there is something wrong with us. Denial is something I also associate with inner feelings, especially anger. In my family of origin it was inappropriate to express anger or negative feeling, except for the occasional outbursts that no one could ever address in any manner. When we come from these kinds of families then it is hard to know how to express these feelings, and I know that if I have them, it always feel like the extreme outburst that will end in disaster or in everything falling apart. Because of this anxiety of where anger will take me, it is much better in my view to hide the anger, and deny that it exists at all. This is like the stereotypical Englishman who has all feeling under complete control, and can just be morose, negative and depressed.
With denial we may deny that something is happening, or we may deny that we played any role in an incident, or to save our situation we deny that we said or did something. This as we know is also possible on a large scale. The Kerrigan family may be denying what the brother has done in order ot protect him, but the Catholic church in Ireland, and the Pope deny the ramifications of sexual abuse by priests all over Europe. The denial is a refusal to admit knowledge, and even the apologies are couched in terms that lead to no tangible actions or changes in the church. They want forgiveness without the mandate of actually doing anything about what they have done wrong. We see denial with a whole group of scholars who want others to believer that the Holocaust never happened. Is this due to anti-semitism or shame for what your fellow countrymen or family members have done or is it something else? Locally there is no more relevant example of denial than the Turkish inability to admit to the Armenian Genocide. Nobel prize winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk had the courage a few years ago to say in a newspaper interview, “Thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in Turkey. Almost no one dares speak but me, and the nationalists hate me for that.” For that he was accused of high crimes. The press attacked him for dishonoring the Turkish state and incitement to racial violence. He has been called a liar, and a miserable creature. We have to wonder what the Turks are fearful of hiding. Why is it so hard to reach the truth?
Whether it is the national or the personal, we know there is a truth present that is too uncomfortable to accept, and so we reject it instead. We may deny because it is so private we do not wish to share it with others. We may deny because we simply cannot accept that amount of pain that acceptance would bring to us. When children do not seem quite normal, we may deny their issues by saying everyone has a problem. We may say things will get better using denial as a false belief that in time it will all change. We may believe that some people will not notice, and so we work to make everything appear ok. We may be able to deny the problem exists by focusing on another child or another activity so that we do not have to think about it. We want so much for them to be normal and ok that we may not even be able to ask ourselves the question, what is wrong? And then maybe after time and multiple traumas, the denial finally ends, because we have no other choices left, or we see things have gotten so bad we have to accept the truth.
There was a recent editorial in the Boston Globe called “Forgive Me,” by Karen Shepard. She details how she had to reject the pleas of her father who was addicted to crack cocaine. He asked her for money, and ultimately she said she loved him, and for that reason she could not give him the money. Her story had a happy ending of rehab and reconciliation before he died. The inclination in all of us is to help, and to be there for our loved ones at all times. But we have to weigh the price to be paid. There is the struggle between all we wish to be and have and know, and we may deny the reality because it may reflect what we fear is true, and it is too much to accept.
The story of Jesus being denied by Peter is perhaps the most famous story of religious denial. He has three opportunities to face the truth that he knows Jesus. He denies him each time. In a way he is like the bus company owner who will deny to save her skin. Peter perceives that admitting that he knows Jesus is tantamount to a death sentence. They will kill me if they believe I am a cohort of this radical. He denied his love and friendship. But he also wasn’t ready. Denial is a way of buying us time so that we can cope. And we want to cope. We do love, and we do try, but people are flawed, including ourselves, and sometimes we make bad choices. Accepting the problems we see in others can’t come until we accept ourselves and our own fears, especially of what we might lose.
Jesus died and Peter’s denial was part of the drama. Yet this is the Peter who becomes the rock of the church. He just wasn’t ready yet. Later he found his courage. Just as we can find the right time, too. He found his love. He lived up to the truth, and found that he could speak the truth of his message in love. And ultimately that cost him his life. But he didn’t die in denial. He died in love. I think that is probably what we all aspire to. We don’t want to intend to deny the truths in our lives. They simply are too painful at times. And we need time to find the ability to face up to what we have denied. We have to see what we gain when we sacrifice for love rather than deny. Our eyes are finally wide open. Peter’s sacrifice meant he could become that rock, that truth that once was hidden when he denied Jesus. We do sacrifice all that we dreamed would come true. We do sacrifice our image that we are perfect. But it never was the truth. It is like a church offering. We give up part of our goods or what our hard work has earned. And when we deny something we are often working very hard to protect and to save. We all want to take care of ourselves and our loved ones, and we need to do it, at least for a time. But to sacrifice that work eventually means we serve a greater good. There are deeper and more fulfilling results. There may be new life and freedom for us.
When we deny for love, we can never fully love. We may feel good about helping, or protecting, but the evident loss or flaw is never accepted, and it escalates. We may use all our strength to keep our lives together, but it holds our souls captive. The Irish writer John O’Donohue says we need some glimmer of outside light to reach our eyes, to help us recognize that we have fallen for a vampire. The vampire is the calm reassurance that we all want things to be fine. But when we deny the truth of the rising water in our basement because we don’t want to look, and we just keep baling, then we know we are being sucked dry by that vampire. Beyond that denial is the love we truly want, or as O’Donohue concludes, “That your lost lonesome heart, Might learn to cry out, For the true intimacy, of love that waits, to take you home. To where you are known, And seen and where, Your life is treasured, beyond every frontier, of despair you have crossed.”
Closing Words – “The Journey” by Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do.
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations –
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.