Sermon Ideas For Exodus 34:29-35 Part 2
What a picture the text paints. Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of stone after his encounter with God. His face, unbeknown to him, strikingly radiant. So much so that the people noticed and immediately realized that he had an encounter with God. Their initial reaction: anxiety and fear. They anxiously attempted to move away and stay distant from Moses. Eventually Moses deals with this by putting a veil over his face.
There is something about encounter and enlightenment, and the radiance which can follow it that can often cause people to distance, and react, and at times even move away. Most people are careful to not say too much about their "mountain top experiences." When they do, however, most of us get more than a little nervous and wish they would "veil" their reaction a little bit, and contain their enthusiasm. We are all too aware of the problem Carl Jung referred to as spiritual inflation, when those who claim to have a word from the Lord become quite inflated in the process, imagining themselves as special emissaries for God coming down from the mountain top with God's word for the rest of us. We become anxious, and suspicious as we listen.
Yet, too often even the more ordinary and less inflated "revelations" can cause strong reactions. When happens to the person who has an unusual spiritual experience? John, for example, came to talk to me because of some unusual dreams which seemed to contain significant spiritual content. He was troubled both by the dreams which he could not get out of his mind, and by how to talk about the dreams with his wife and his friends in church, because he did not wish to seem like a fanatic, or have anyone think he was crazy. He felt caught between the excitement of his dreams and sense of an unfolding spiritual life, and the risk of appearing to be different. He illustrates the tension of attempting to talk about profound spiritual experiences with intelligent, sophisticated religious friends. Fredrick Beuchner, in Telling Secrets talks about the dilemma. He states, in describing a discussion of spiritual things between two students, "...in the part of the East where I live, if anybody were to ask a question like that, even among religious people, the sky would fall, the walls would cave in, the grass would wither. I think the very air would stop my mouth if I opened it to speak such words among just about any group of people I can think of in the East because their faith itself, if they happen to have any, is one of the secrets that they have kept so long that it might almost as well not exist." The dilemma of pastoral care is how to help people both interpret and speak about their "mountain top" experiences, as well as the variety of spiritual experiences which they have. Yet there are a number of problems in this pastoral care situation. The first problem is helping parishioners feel more comfortable with their spiritual journeys and helping them better articulate the process. On the other hand it also involves helping people articulate spiritual experiences in such a way that they do not become inflated, or unnecessarily alienate and confuse those around them.
The first dimension of the pastoral care situation is creating an environment where people can be both supported in their quest for a deeper spiritual life as well as speak freely about it. Object relations theory, one of the schools of thought in psychoanalytic theory, underscores the importance of a good enough holding environment for people to grow. It describes how healthy families provide this type of good enough holding environment so that children are free to grow and develop to their potential without being constricted by parental or family dysfunction. It further describes how in the psychotherapeutic setting this holding environment is created thereby enabling persons to grow and experience and integrate the different dimensions of self, leading to a more cohesive self. One of the tasks of pastoral care is creating a type of spiritual holding environment where parishioners are both free to grow spiritually and to provide opportunities to talk about those spiritual experiences. One of the bitter ironies of church life is that church can be the last place where those experiences are encouraged or are talked about. Pastoral care can facilitate this type of growth by the tone that is set through preaching which can create greater expectation and encouragement of deeper spiritual life. Pastoral care can facilitate this in a number of ways such as by the encouragement of small groups, by journaling, by structured retreats, or other practical steps. It recognizes how difficult it can be to listen to God and to develop a spiritual life in the midst of the pressures and business of life and is sensitive to help facilitate the development of spiritual life.
On the other hand, the other equally important and demanding task of pastoral care is helping people with the "veiling" of their experience. At least two difficulties exist here. First, there is the difficulty of inflation as mentioned earlier, and second the difficulty of translation. In the first case, inflation exists when one begins to believe that spiritual experience has given them the right to speak for God. These persons need the gentle pastoral care that facilitates the integration of these experiences and allows these spiritual experiences to help develop a quality spiritual life that is woven into the entire fabric of life. There needs to be spiritual guidance and pastoral nurturing that both supports and translates these experiences. If they are not sorted through, they tend to be frightening or distancing to those around them. Even the most simple forms of enlightenment can have this effect. For example, who has not experienced the overzealous person who in the course of psychotherapy has received some insight about family dysfunction and subsequently confronted family members with insights about their behavior and the effects of upbringing. Expecting understanding and empathy from family members, they receive the opposite. They struggle with the anger and defensiveness which they receive from their families. In the same way those who have profound spiritual experiences which they do not take the time to sort, find a similar type of skepticism and defensiveness from those they encounter. Sensitive pastoral care helps prevent this from taking place.