What You Are Is Where You Were When

September 29, 2002



What You Are Is Where You Were When (9/29/02)

University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas

Rev. Gary Cox

In the scripture reading for this morning you heard the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple. This story is found only in the Gospel of Luke, and it is the only story in the entire Bible that has anything to say about Jesus’ youth. Matthew and Luke both have stories about the birth of Jesus and the time immediately following his birth, but then, with the exception of this single account, they remain silent concerning his childhood. They jump ahead to where the gospels of Mark and John begin their stories—with Jesus of Nazareth, around the age of thirty, being baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.

We’ll come back to that story about the twelve-year-old Jesus, but for now I want to tell you about a film I saw long ago, that really had an impact on me. I was working for General Motors at the time, on the assembly line. I was about twenty years old, going to college on and off, and making what seemed to me to be an exorbitant income doing work that by now is surely performed by machines. Don’t get me wrong—I earned every penny. I don’t know how many automobile light switches I helped assemble, but it was a bunch. An until you’ve sat in one place, performing with both hands the same multitasked function every three seconds…and until you’ve done that minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, week after week…

Well, let me put it this way. If St. Peter sees me standing at the Pearly Gates and, determining I have arrived at the wrong address, pulls the lever that opens the trap door that sends me falling…well, I will not be surprised if upon arriving at that most dreaded of final destinations I see an expanse of automobile light switches sitting on an assembly line and stretching into eternity…three seconds at a time.

As you might imagine, such work is not conducive to strong mental health. There was a great deal of alcoholism and drug use, and people often were not in the best of moods. The work was horrible, and mind numbing, but it was a trap. At that time those of us on the assembly line were making six times the minimum wage. Our benefit package was amazing—there was never a single penny out of pocket for any type of medical expense. It was very difficult, and in the eyes of most people irresponsible, to idealistically walk away from that level of security.

There was often an antagonism between the people who had worked there for thirty years, and who had somehow developed a devotion to General Motors over that time; and those younger employees who still dreamed of finding a life beyond the assembly line. The petty arguments and bickering grew to the point that management did something inconceivable: they shut down the assembly line for an hour, and showed us all a film.

The name of this film was What You Are Is Where You Were When. I only saw this film that one time, but it left a lasting impression on me. Now, almost thirty years later, I am still affected by its message. I did an Internet search in hopes of refreshing my memory and finding the filmmaker. All I could find was an out-of-print book by the same name. The author of that book is Morris Masse. I assume the film was based on his book, but I can’t say for sure. Anyway, whoever put the film together deserves credit for the idea behind it, which I will explain this morning. Keep in mind that it has been almost three decades since I viewed the film a single time—so there is a good chance that I may distort the author’s original intent here and there.

This is the basic idea behind the film, What you Are Is Where you Where When. There is some point in all of our lives when we go through a radical change. This usually occurs sometime when we are pre-adolescent, although the time of this change varies from person to person. What happens is this. For the first time, we get a sense of how big the universe is and how little we are. For the first time we start to have a sense of what it means to know we are mortal—that the day will come when the sun will still shine and the birds will still sing and we will not be here to see and hear those things.
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This experience is both frightening and thrilling. It is the first time in our lives when we desperately need to find a purpose for our lives. We need meaning desperately. One of the subjects I enjoy studying is transpersonal psychology. In transpersonal psychology there is a point in the development of our minds when we move from a mythic view of the world to a rational view of the world. This is an evolutionary process within each of us that occurs somewhere around the age of twelve—it can be much earlier and it can be later. But as I understand it, the experience I’ve tried to describe—the recognition of our place in the universe—is the pivotal moment in the transition from mythic to rational consciousness.

According to the film What You Are Is Where You Were When, the situation in which you find yourself when you go through this transition has a lasting effect on your personality. The surrounding world, at that time, largely determines what you are—who you become as an adult. In other words, what you are is where you were when you realized the importance of finding meaning and purpose for your life.

General Motors had us watch that film because if helped explain why the people who were in their sixties had such a different world-view than those in their twenties. Let’s apply the principle today, and you can be the judge as to whether or not it is a valid concept.

Many of you remember the Great Depression, and those of us born after the Great Depression all have friends and relatives who still have vivid memories of those days. My dad was born in 1923, and my mother in 1925. Since my maternal grandfather owned the only grocery store in a small Indiana town, my mother never really felt the effects of the depression. My dad’s father, on the other hand, was a coal miner. My dad had vivid memories of his father bringing home a head of cabbage which the family shared as their only meal of the day. Since the depression began when my dad was six and lasted until his late teens, it is safe to assume he had that sort of “enlightenment” experience explained in the film in the midst of the Great Depression.

I’ll tell you a few things about my dad, and if the film is correct, you’ll recognize his traits either in yourself, or in your friends and family who grew up during the depression. He did not trust the stock market, and would rather keep his money in an insured bank account—accent the word insured—than invest in stocks and bonds. He hated credit. I remember when my parents bought their first new car in 1963. My dad paid cash for the car. Cash! And he wasn’t a wealthy man. He just figured if you couldn’t pay cash for something, that meant you couldn’t afford it.

He was the ultimate handy man. I never saw him hire anybody to do anything. He built the house my mother still lives in, doing everything from the blueprints to the carpentry to the plumbing to the wiring. And for him, a job was the most treasured possession on the world. I can honestly say that he never took a single day off sick—never. He developed a hobby in which generated extra income—electronics.

If the film we’re examining is right, my dad had personality traits that are common to people who grew up in the depression. I’ve seen our own Dr. Meyers, who grew up at the same time as my dad, turning off the lights in Fellowship Hall as people visit after church, all for the purpose of saving the church a couple of cents on electricity. My dad would approve.

And consider the people who were born during the Great Depression. They were too young to realize how wretched that era was, and they came of age the following decade—during World War II. People of this age typically have no problem with the phrase, my country right or wrong. Patriotism is in their blood—although, at least according to the film, it is not really inherent. As they searched for meaning during that critical stage of their lives, they found it in the fight against the Third Reich and the Axis Powers. People who came of age during World War II are typically resentful of those who are too questioning of our nation’s leaders.

Compare that with those who grew up a generation later. I am in that group. I was born in 1955, and would have had my enlightenment experience during the Viet Nam War. From the time I was ten until the time I was fifteen, I had the same routine every day. At school we would talk about the war. Sometimes one of our classmates would be gone for a few days, and we would learn that his or her brother had been killed in the war. Every evening my family would watch the evening news as we ate dinner. And it was a strange time for me, because even as I watched shows like Combat and Rat Patrol glorifying war—at least war as it was fought in World War II—I watched videos every night of soldiers with missing limbs being carried to waiting helicopters. That war became up close and personal for me, and I didn’t like what I saw.

Every night the news carried statistical reports. It was like a game. This many of ours killed, that many of theirs killed. This many of ours wounded. And then, cut to the protests taking place in the streets all over America. All this while I’m trying to make sense of why the universe is so big and I’m so little. And speaking in general terms, those of us who grew up in that era tend to have extremely negative feelings about war. We tend to reject phrases like my country right or wrong. And now that we have children old enough to go fight for our country, we expect to hear some pretty good reasons for war before we are willing to see our children coming back home in body bags.

Regarding the film What You Are is Where You Were When, I haven’t given a great deal of thought to those who came of age after my generation. The decade of the seventies is often called the “me decade,” and the eighties was a time of championing smaller government and greater entrepreneurship. I suppose a case could be made that the corporate greed and malfeasance we are seeing today is a result of those who came of age during those years. I’m not slamming smaller government and entrepreneurship—I’m just guessing that some may have twisted things around a bit in their minds as they sought meaning through that critical juncture of their lives.

And that leads us back to the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple. Regardless of how much emphasis we put on this story, one thing is obvious: Jesus was raised in a religious home. Jesus didn’t gain his insights into the human condition by meditating alone in his bedroom—although we can be certain he spent a great deal of time doing that, also. Jesus grew into the person he became in large part because of the way he was raised.

Of course, this being raised in a religious atmosphere is a double-edged sword! Those who go through this what you are is where you were when experience in a fundamentalist home are going to have a lot of religious baggage to deal with throughout their lives. And this is not a slam against Christian fundamentalists. Fundamentalism exists in every single religion in the world. Fundamentalism is simply turning the spiritual into the legal. It is turning the rule of love into the code of law. When a person has this experience—this experience of trying to come to grips with how it is the universe is so big and his or her life is so little—the type of religion they are exposed to at that point is critical. Is God our accepting creator or our critical judge? Is Jesus our merciful savior or the one who separates the sheep from the goats? Is God’s basic nature unconditional love, or righteous anger?

It makes a difference. When I look at the Middle East situation, I have a difficult time remaining hopeful. Between the fundamental Jews and the fundamental Muslims, you have two groups who honestly believe God is on their side to the exclusion of the other. And both sides are creating future martyrs almost every single day. If you are a twelve-year-old Jewish boy going through the experience we’ve examined this morning, and your mother gets blown to pieces by a suicide bomber as she rides the bus to work, you have found your cause. You have found your reason to be: hatred of all things Arab.

Over the past months, Israel has bombed various Hamas targets. Hamas is a nasty group—they have no desire to make peace in any way, shape or form. But for every Hamas terrorist that has been killed, several innocent Palestinian civilians have been killed. And every time Israeli soldiers use American arms to kill innocent people, there are hundreds of Palestinian twelve-year-olds who find a purpose for their lives: hatred of Israel and America.

Okay, maybe it’s the fact I came of age in the late sixties that makes me hate war so much, but I am what I am. And I find this world as confusing as the next guy, but there is one thing I believe with all my heart. God does not want us to kill one another. Really. God does not want us to kill one another. Not over money, not over oil, not over economics, not over land, not over political systems, and certainly not over religion.

But we keep doing it. We keep killing each other. The history of humankind is the history of warfare. I like to think we are the most enlightened nation in the world, but here is a brief history of the United States of America in the 20th Century: World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Viet Nam War, The Persian Gulf War, and now Afghanistan.

And I don’t have any magical answers that will make this a peaceful world. If I could go back in time and be given an audience with the world’s leaders of the past, there is not a thing I could say or do to prevent any of those wars.

And now our weapons have gotten fiercer and fiercer. And more and more nations are developing those weapons. And the people who make the decisions to fight wars aren’t on the battlefield with swords in hand, but rather in radiation-proof bunkers with fingers on buttons. And frankly, I don’t think the human race has a chance…without God. We are just going to keep on killing ourselves until there’s nobody left…unless God does something. And God can. God can do something, but here’s the catch. The old saying goes like this: Without God, humanity cannot; without humanity, God will not. Again: Without God, humanity cannot; without humanity, God will not.

It really is up to us. Because God isn’t out there somewhere watching us. God is within us, trying ever so hard to change this world through us. These are the only hands God has—yours and mine. And we can fool ourselves all we want to, but one fact remains: God does not want us to use these hands to kill one another. Never. Not over money, oil, economics, land, politics or religion.

Is there a chance for the world? Yes! There is a chance, but the only chance is for us to stop making martyrs out of our enemies. Starting right now, we’ve got to create a world in which no twelve-year-old looks around himself or herself and finds their purpose in life comes through hating somebody. For millions of people all over the world, right now is the time of what you are is where you were when. All of those people are being shaped today in ways they will carry through their lives. We’ve got to find a way to give them a chance. We’ve got to find a way to give the world a chance.

Okay, I know I sound idealistic. But I mean what I say. We don’t have a chance without God. And God doesn’t have a chance unless we commit ourselves to bringing God into the world through our hands, our minds, our hearts. We are the only door God has into this world.

There are only two possible roads for the human race. We can throw up our hands in helplessness and say, “That’s the way it’s always been,” and go one killing one another; or we can make a decision, one person at a time, to just stop the killing. We’ve got to change. We’ve got to evolve into a species that does not kill itself.

If you’re sitting there thinking, “That sounds great, but it’s not going to happen,” then you’re right. If the evolution of humanity doesn’t start here—right here, right now—with intelligent men and women seeking God’s will at an institution based on the teachings of Jesus; then it won’t start anywhere. You and I have been given the responsibility of creating the world our children will live in. For the sake of all that is good and right and holy, I pray we start the change—right here, right now.