Full Circle (11/28/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
One does not need the soul of a poet to think of life as a journey. Just like any of the travels we undertake, life has a beginning, and an end, and we visit all sorts of places in between. There are many in this world who do not have the luxury of charting their own course through life. The East African child who is born in squalor to a mother infected with the AIDS virus has limited options. His journey will be short, and filled with suffering, and decisions regarding his journey will be made for him. His course has been charted.
But for most of us—certainly for those born in this nation of great wealth—life is a journey that takes us across mountain peaks of laughter and valleys of tears, and the direction we take through life is very much a matter of our own choosing. It is our own decisions that chart our course. It may sometimes seem that we are wheeling through life in a 1978 Yugo while others are cruising through life in a new Rolls Royce, but the fact is, we still have our hands on the steering wheel. Generally speaking, our life goes in the direction we point it.
We are explorers, you and I. Or at least I hope we are explorers. We are not like that helpless and hopeless East African child born into wretched poverty and fated for an early and meaningless death. We… we have a sense of direction. We are looking for something. But what? What are we looking for?
Do you remember the old Archie comic books? There was Archie, the young guy we could all identify with, and his best friend Jughead; there was Betty—the wholesome girl-next-door, and rich but spoiled Veronica. Archie was always chasing after Veronica, but any fool could see Betty was the real catch. I grew up on Archie comic books. A psychiatrist would probably say my youthful dating preference for blondes was a result of my pre-adolescent crush on Betty.
But there was one other character I vividly remember, and that was Moose. Moose was the dummy. Moose was the guy who was just too stupid for words. For example, I remember once when the math teacher says, “Okay Moose. If one plus one is two, and two plus two is four, how much is four plus four?” And Moose cries out, “No fair! You took the easy ones and left the hard one for me!” (Moose was old enough to drive to school when this happened, by the way.)
But occasionally there was great wisdom hidden in the pages of Archie comics. For example, there was a time that an angry Veronica threw something at Archie and it hit Betty instead. Everybody got mad at Archie. After all, he was the one Veronica was aiming at. That was the first time I came to understand what we would later refer to as collateral damage. The military operations of every nation in the world invoke the Veronica defense: It’s not our fault—we were aiming at the bad guys.
You are probably wondering why, in this sermon about life as a journey, we’ve taken this little side trip through the world of Archie comic books, especially when I had just asked the question, “What are we looking for?” Well, it all comes back to Moose. Moose the dummy. Because every now and then Moose would say something profound. It was always an accident, but once in a great while Moose would let loose with a real gem.
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In the case I find relevant for today’s sermon, Moose sees Archie strapping on a backpack at the bottom of a mountain. Moose asks him what he is doing, and Archie tells him he is going to climb the mountain. Moose says, “Why in the world would you want to do that?” And Archie replies, “Moose, I’m hoping to find myself.” And Moose says, “Let me save you a few steps. You ain’t up there.”
And there you have it—the reason for our diversion through Archie-land. The journey through life is the search for ourselves… at least according to Archie comics, and I’ve found they are seldom off the mark!
But it is Moose’s remark that stings us with the truth. Moose knew that Archie was not way up there on top of the mountain. Archie was right there in front of him. And while our movements across the face of this amazing little planet do indeed help us change, and grow, and evolve, the journey through life, ultimately, is an inner journey. And all the experiences we have on the outside are perhaps most significant in the way they combine to shape our inner journey—our search for ourselves.
And so I offer you the purpose of life, the meaning of this journey through life: Life is the search for our self.
Okay, I know what some of you are thinking right now. I could have slept in this morning. The last thing I need on this late autumn morning is some pile of New Age psycho-babble about the search for meaning—the search for one’s self. But bear with me for a little while.
As you know, I read all the time. I am constantly in search of that new thinker, that person with fresh insights that force me to grow spiritually. I figure that if I cull through all the writing that is of little worth, I can spare you—the congregation—the trouble, and then share with you those rare and insightful thinkers who at least speak to me in some very deep level. Perhaps they will also speak to you.
Now, I never claimed to be the sharpest knife in the drawer. And the fact is, every time I think I have had some sort of original thought—some insight that has eluded the human race for these many years—I discover that precise insight stated with clarity and purpose by some great thinker of the past. I now realize that there is probably no thought my little mind could come up with that hasn’t been thought before—long before—by the brilliant minds that have graced humanity.
So I read as a part of my exploration process. My journey through life involves the study of how people think. I read to try to find those truths that are already there inside, but which need a little prodding for me to grasp. And lo and behold, just recently I found another thinker who states in rather clear terms something I have been trying to say—unsuccessfully—for a long time.
The person to whom I refer is named Parker Palmer. He has written several books, and in his most recent book—Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life—he says in a fairly succinct manner what I have tried to say many times in my sermons over the course of the years. The basic message is this: We have within us a real person—the real us—who is hidden beneath the masks we have built to protect our true self from the world.
Palmer asks us to remember the days when farmers on the Great Plains, at the first signs of a blizzard would run a rope from the back door of the house to the barn. Everybody had heard stories of people who had become lost in a white-out—an intense blizzard—and frozen to death trying to find their way form the barn back to the house. I’ll quote Palmer:
Today we live in a blizzard of another sort. It swirls around us as economic injustice, ecological ruin, physical and spiritual violence, and their inevitable outcome, war. It swirls within us as fear and frenzy, greed and deceit, and indifference to the suffering of others. We all know people who have wandered off into this madness and been separated from their own souls, losing their moral bearings and even their mortal lives; they make headlines because they take so many innocents down with them.
He quotes the poet Leonard Cohen and writes, The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and it has overturned the order of the soul. Palmer says that if we can only catch sight of our soul, we then have the rope to pull ourselves back to the house in the midst of this blizzard. We then have the means to go home—to become the person we were born to be in the first place.
He has so many great insights. For one thing, he tells us to get over the hope of being perfect. We aren’t perfect. We never will be. In fact, we were not born for the purpose of becoming perfect. We were born for the purpose of becoming who we really are—imperfections and all.
We live divided lives. We have within us the real person, the real self, but we are divided because of the masks we have created to show ourselves to the world. Because of this we are broken. But we do not heal our brokenness by becoming perfect. We heal our brokenness by becoming whole. We heal our brokenness by embracing our brokenness as an integral part of life.
Palmer points out that many people try to improve themselves, and humanity in general, by raising the ethical bar. But that simply does not work. He draws a brilliant analogy here. Remember your eighth grade biology class? Many creatures have exoskeletons—a hard outer shell that contains and protects their inward parts. He says that most of us treat ethics like an exoskeleton. Ethics—right and wrong, good and bad—are found in some external code of conduct. Ethics become a set of rules we are supposed to follow. They are not a part of us. And the truth is this type of exoskeleton can be slipped off as easily as it is put on.
Parker Palmer says that for a person who is whole—for a person who is undivided—ethics is the internal skeletal structure upon which our whole being hangs. Our notion of good and bad, and right and wrong, is integral to who we are. The undivided person could not cheat a friend, or kill a foe, or intentionally cause pain to another human being for any reason. Being good is a part of being whole. It is not a decision that is made. It is a part of who and what we are.
It is not our fault that the person we show the world is not the real person within. We learn early on to protect ourselves, and the message of protecting ourselves—hiding ourselves from the world—becomes simple wisdom and common sense. Put on your mask. Keep your armor intact. It has become folk wisdom. This world is a dangerous place. It will eat you alive. Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. Keep you cards close to your vest. Don’t tell everything you know.
But who are we protecting? Who is it that we fear the world may damage if we fail to keep layers of armor and lots of masks between it and the world? That is us! That is you in there. That is me in here. That is the real deal that is being hidden beneath all those layers of protection. That is the real and uncorrupted you.
Parker Palmer calls that real person inside the soul. That is who we really are. It is buried way down deep, and the fact is most of us lose sight of it over the course of our lives. We’ve become so accustomed to putting on masks and donning our armor we don’t even know who we are any more. Listen to what Palmer says about that real self—the true person inside each of us—who is desperately trying to break through all the masks we have buried him or her beneath:
Philosophers haggle about what to call this core of our humanity. Thomas Merton called it the true self. Buddhists call it the original nature or big self. Quakers call it the inner teaching or inner light. Hasidic Jews call it a spark of the divine. Humanists call it identity and integrity. In popular parlance, people often call it the soul…
What we name it matters little. But that we name it means a great deal. For “it” is the objective, ontological reality of selfhood that keeps us from reducing ourselves, or each other, to biological mechanisms, psychological projections, sociological constructs, or raw materials to be manufactured into whatever society needs.
What is this thing Palmer calls the soul? Who is this real person inside of each of us who is fighting to break through the layers of armor we have constructed to protect ourselves from this strange and frightening world? What is our soul? Palmer says we can never penetrate the mystery of the soul, but we can name some of its functions. Again, quoting Parker Palmer:
The soul wants to keep us rooted in the ground of our own being, resisting the tendency of other faculties, like the intellect and ego, to uproot us from who we are.
The soul wants to keep us connected to the community in which we find life, for it understands that relationships are necessary if we want to thrive.
The soul wants to tell the truth about ourselves, our world, and the relation between the two, whether the truth is easy or hard to hear.
The soul wants to give us life and wants us to pass that gift along, to become life-givers in a world that deals too much with death.
There is much to like in the thinking of Parker Palmer. I think what appeals to me most is the notion that we human beings are good. We human beings, at the deepest level of who and what we are, are good. That flies in the face of a lot of Christian theology. So much of the church—even in our beloved congregational tradition—insists that humans are by nature depraved, and become good only when God intercedes to make us so.
And I am not belittling the notion of God interceding to get us on the right path. I could not make my way through this life without seeking the guidance of God. I am not nearly wise enough, and I am far too selfish. But I really appreciate the idea that God creates us right, and we are the ones who put all the armor and all the masks over that perfect child of God we were intended to be.
And I think we know this is true in our hearts. How often do we say, “Gee, Bobby is just not himself today. That’s not the Bobby we know.” Aren’t we really saying, “Gee, Bobby has so much armor and so many masks on today you can’t even see the real Bobby in there.”
And how often do we say, “Betty has really come into her own. She’s found herself.” We are not saying that Betty has finally become the depraved and wretched person we always knew she could be. We are saying that Betty has thrown off her masks and revealed her soul—her true self.
She found herself. And that is surely the purpose of our journey through life—to discover the person we were meant to be all along. To discover the person we have actually been all along.
Moose was right. Archie wasn’t going to find himself on top of that mountain. Because Archie was there all along, waiting inside himself to be re-discovered. He just needed to do a little exploring. Which reminds me of the famous word of T.S. Elliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
As our journey leads us toward Christmas, may we discover our true selves waiting for us in the spirit of the season.