WIshing for an angel with a burning coal

Isaiah 6:1-9

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’

A classmate gave a sermon on this passage in preaching lab today. It made me think of the following, which is something I have been wrestling with for months.

In November the spiritual director I worked with throughout seminary moved out of state because the order of nuns she belongs to is consolidating at their mother house. We had a couple of closing sessions to sort of wrap things up. One of the things she asked me was “what are the most important things you got out of seminary? Just name two or three.”

One thing in particular that I’ve been thinking about over the past 9-12 months is that seminary gave me my voice. I am, in many ways, much more confident than the person who started seminary in the late summer of 2006. I now know that I have something to say and a story to tell. I now know that I can speak with real authority. I now know that people listen to me.

Or do I? Being listened to is not something I’m particularly used to. As a deeply thoughtful, introverted kid in a more practical, more extroverted family I was often the one with the crazy ideas about what things mean and the fascination with the eternal struggle between good and evil. I was also the deeply sensitive kid who got picked on for not being able to see like the other kids. Early on I learned to keep my emotional depth to myself and to cover hurt feelings with throw away lines of sarcasm. These were coping mechanisms both at home and at school.

But for some reason I kept talking. I never actually shut down. I always talked to anybody who would listen. I corrected people when they were wrong about facts. I dished out advice. I found that with a small inner circle of friends I could be funny, entertaining even, and also in charge.

But then after college I had a number of crummy administrative jobs where nobody listened to me. My job was to get paperwork done and phones answered, not to be innovative or thoughtful.

It was a shock to me when I came to seminary and my peers actually listened to me. A classmate in a small group floored me one day at the beginning of junior year by quoting me back to myself. Yet I cannot claim that this caused some sort of drastic change in how I dealt with people. I wanted so badly to be seen as competent. I kept at the sarcasm. I acted like things didn’t bother me. I tried hard not to let anyone see when life started to get to me.

Things were different in CPE. Not only did my patients listen to me, but my group members listened to me. My supervisor listened to me. But my group and my supervisor did more than that. It seemed to me that for the first time in my life, people really wanted to understand not just what I was saying but also what I was thinking and feeling. The chasm between these things – between what I said and what I was feeling – decreased greatly in CPE. I stopped trying to “play with the big boys” and was just myself. Really, truly, purely myself. My sarcasm became rare. My peers experienced me as a very integrated person, one for whom emotion and intellect work together.

It was then that I started to realize the power I have when I speak, both to do good and to do harm. If it is true that people listen to me at all (and I often forget that they do) then I need to be much more careful what I say. Sarcasm becomes a big problem. It occurred to me that people might have been listening to me all along but avoiding me because I acted like it never mattered what I said. Back when I thought nobody was listening, I thought I could just say anything, because who would care?

So I’ve been working on this issue for months, this remembering that despite my own insecurities people do listen to what I say. Sometimes I manage to be intentional about what comes out of my mouth; more often I feel that I’ve been rude or insensitive or sarcastic and I’ve screwed up yet again. Sometimes in seminary people have pushed back at me, and pushed back hard. Once my sacristan team called me out on something I said, something stupid that I just threw out there, thinking nobody would care. One called me judgmental, and others agreed. And it hurt, because when it comes down to it I am really just a very warm, very affectionate person who cares deeply about people. But they were right. Taken at face value, my remarks indicated nothing but obnoxiousness and a judgmental attitude.

That was an awful experience, but what is worse is when people don’t push back. I sometimes replay what I’ve said over the course of my day in my mind, and I cringe. I wonder what I could possibly have been thinking when I was talking to people and said things I didn’t mean that sound completely ridiculous. Some themes come back repeatedly – feeling insecure, feeling less intelligent than the other person I’m talking with, wondering where I stand with someone, trying to be seen as competent.

It’s so frustrating and disappointing. And I wonder what to do with it, as I contemplate Lent, as I prepare to be ordained and as I struggle with my emotions in day to day interactions, where I catch myself making sarcastic comments to people when I’m actually thinking “do you have any idea how glad I am that I got to spend time with you here in seminary?” Where is the seraph with the coal held in a pair of tongs??


~ by Sophia on March 5, 2009.

One Response to “WIshing for an angel with a burning coal”

  1. It sounds to me that the seraph has already come. You have grown so much and learned so much, and will continue to do so. We are never perfect, only better than we were before.Interestingly, you will find working in a parish that your words come with so much more weight than they ever have before. People will listen to you – and want to listen to you – simply because you are their clergy. Oh, yes, they will listen to you.

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