I Corinthians 1:20-31; Psalm 96:1-6
The Rev. Tom Herbek
September 10, 2017
Sometimes we forget something Paul had to learn, that “God made foolish the wisdom of the world.”
A long time ago, a counselee of mine gave me a poster that described her caution in revealing herself to anyone. It said: “I am afraid to tell you who I am, because if I tell you who I am you may not like who I am, and that’s all I have.” I know how painful it can be for people to find out that you are not the person they want you to be, but sometimes who you are is all you have.
It was Fall Formals weekend at Va. Tech, my first college dance during my freshman year, and a miracle had happened. Linda, a high school senior and head cheerleader at my high school had agreed to be my date. I was stunned and thrilled. She had known who I was and said hi in the hall at high school the previous year, but she was always surrounded by more popular guys. Maybe it was the fact that I was now “a college man”; I don’t know why she said yes, but she arrived by bus on Friday and we had a quick supper and went to the Friday night concert.
On Saturday, wanting to impress her before we went to the dance, I made a reservation at the most upscale restaurant in Blacksburg. The only trouble was that it was 8 miles out of town on the way to Roanoke. So I borrowed my roommate Mike Craig’s car for the evening. It was an older Corvair with a stick shift, but it was in great shape and a nice ride.
All went well until we got to the top of the long hill and the stop light to turn right onto Main Street. Now I had driven a stick shift for a brief time when in high school- my parents’ VW bug- so I was confident that the Corvair was no big deal.
That all changed when I stalled Mike’s Corvair at the top of the hill when the light turned green. Unable to get it going, I finally put my arm out and waved the drivers behind me to pull around – after the blaring horns began. As each angry driver drove around me, glaring at me, I noticed Linda. Somehow the passenger seat had become much shorter as each successive driver drove past. As the end of the line of cars drove past, only the very top of Linda’s head could be seen above the window.
Once everyone had passed us, I did the only thing I could do. We majestically rolled backward to the bottom of the hill. I climbed out and walked to a pay phone (this was long before cell phones) and called Mike at the dorm. He came and drove us back to Linda’s motel room – the dance was off – because she had developed an excruciating headache all of a sudden. I never saw her again. She called the next morning to say she was leaving on an early bus back to Richmond.
For a long time after that, I felt humiliated and I was mad at Linda for being so shallow. But the truth of the matter was that we were both only interested in appearances: she in the fact that I was a college date with an invitation to a big weekend, and me in the fact that she was the captain of the cheerleading squad at my high school. It took a long time for me to realize that life is more than appearances.
For most of us, it takes a long time to accept who we are. I like the following rabbi’s tale, though I have modernized the language a bit:
There is a story about a Rabbi Zusha who was on his death bed, and tears were streaming down his face. “Why are you crying?” asked his disciples.
“If God asks me why I wasn’t like Moses,” answered Rabbi Zusha, “I’ll say, I wasn’t blessed with that kind of leadership ability and wisdom.” But I’m afraid of another question,” continued Rabbi Zusha, “What if God asks, ‘Rabbi Zusha, why weren’t you like Rabbi Zusha? Why didn’t you find your inner being and realize your inner potential? Why didn’t you find yourself?’ That is why I am crying.”
Although we ‘ve all had a friend or family member tell us, “Just be yourself,” they probably never had to roll a Corvair backwards down a long hill, with a cheerleader named Linda somehow disappearing in the passenger seat. But, let’s face it, what most of us really want is to be ourselves.
First, of course, we have to begin the process of discovering who we are. It’s not an easy task. And it’s one that continues for our entire life. The Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard once wrote: “To venture in the highest sense is precisely to become conscious of one’s highest self.” At the time, I would not, in any way, have characterized the Corvair episode as “an adventure.” Yet, I learned some things about myself that affected me in dramatic ways.
Carl Rogers, the famous clinical psychologist, who spent the very early part of his career in Rochester, wrote a book entitled, On Becoming a Person. In it he said the following: “I have found that the more that I can be genuine in the relationship, the more helpful it will be.”
Later he writes: “It seemed extremely important to be real. In my relationships with persons I have found that it does not help, in the long run, to act as though I were something that I am not. What I am saying here is that I have not found it to be helpful or effective in my relationships with other people to try to maintain a facade; to act in one way on the surface when I am experiencing something quite different underneath.”
But Rogers realizes how difficult this can be: “I would want to make it clear that while I feel I have learned this to be true, I have by no means adequately profited from it. In fact, it seems to me that most of the mistakes I make in personal relationships, most of the times in which I fail to be of help to other individuals, can be accounted for in terms of the fact that I have, for some reason, behaved in one way at a surface level, while in reality my feelings run in a contrary direction.”
It is ironic that our attempts to come across in a certain way actually are the factors that cause us to fail. When we lose ourselves, when we are not genuine, we may fool a few people, but we do not fool ourselves, and we certainly do not fool God.
We stop living our own life when we try to be someone that we are not, when the judgment or potential rejection of others causes us to pretend to be someone we are not. Each of us may find ourselves in situations where there is great pressure on us to give away or stuff down inside of us a crucial part of who we are, and in the process, we risk damaging our soul.
One of my favorite writers is Anne LaMott who recently wrote in her blog while sitting at the Seattle airport:
I have just toured the country promoting a book on mercy, called HALLELUJAH ANYWAY, whose main premise is that if we practice radical self-care and forgiveness, this will heal us and radiate out to our families and communities, bringing peace.
However, I have done something so out there, so On Beyond Zebra, that it drew into question every aspect of that guiding principle (i.e., that I am NOT defective). I thought I was 80% over this. But I have outdone myself. I have done something so amazingly incompetent and so profoundly inconvenient to so many people I love that it will allow you to forgive yourself for almost anything. I will be your new gold standard.
So: six months ago, I was invited to give a talk at the 2017 TED conference in Vancouver. This was very heady stuff, as sometimes millions of people see these talks online and might want to buy your new book, saving you from financial ruin and having to go live at the Rescue Mission.
So I wrote and sort of memorized my 15-minute talk, and my various caseworkers worked for months to get me to Vancouver this morning from Seattle, where I did a reading last night.
I got to the airport an hour ago, got out my passport, and tried to get a boarding pass for a flight I’ve been booked on and obsessing about for 3 months.
That’s when I’d realized I had grabbed the wrong passport at home. The expired one.
Therefore, I would not be able to catch a flight to our tense new enemy, Canada, to give the biggest and most important talk of my life.
It is hard to capture my feelings at that moment: terror, shame, self-loathing and catastrophic thoughts about my doomed future.
I texted my agent, ran to TSA, pleaded my case and how I must be HUGELY important (albeit brain damaged) to be giving a TED talk.
No go. And no way to get on board any flight to Canada. I was doomed.
HALLELUJAH ANYWAY is half about how there is nothing outside of yourself that can heal or fill you or make you whole unless you are waiting for an organ transplant. A TED talk was never going to have been able to fill me with respect. That’s an inside job.
So five minutes later, my agent and the TED people had worked out a plan whereby as I write this my son is flying to Seattle with my passport. He’ll be here in 5 hours. There’s a late flight to Vancouver, and the TED people have created a space for me tomorrow morning out of thin air. Talk about making a way out of no way.
Additionally, I charged $30 worth of medicine, magazines and a sack of peanut M&Ms.
All I have to offer is this story: that we get to make huge mistakes, and that the one I made this week is almost certainly bigger than any of yours. But neither of us is defective. We are perfect children of the universe, although maybe still a little funny around the edges, with tiny character issues and failing memories. We possess every day the capacity to extend gentleness and forgiveness to ourselves and those suffering nearby.
I am smiling gently at all the miserable frantic people at the airport and telling them I like their hats. I gave a sobbing child my IHOP crayons. (This is the path to world peace.) And I will never, ever hear the end of this from the people who love me. Ever. Believe me.
Perhaps my Corvair incident isn’t so big, after all. The good news is that, no matter what we have done or said or pretend to be, God is ready to love us. It is not based on our past, on our failures, but only based on his love for us. And it is in that realization that we begin to be able to be who we really are.
Not being able to get a car in first gear, getting involved in an effort to succeed that causes us to lose ourselves – none of these is an insurmountable obstacle for God. Even grabbing an expired passport. Even regret on our deathbed can be overcome.
Whenever the call to be ourselves is heard- and it is a continuing struggle to hear it and follow it- we must return again and again to our core, to the place of our deepest genuineness, and that is where we realize again that we are children of God, and that we are called to live out of that awareness, that reality of God’s love for us.
We are called to be ourselves – and that is all that we have, that, and God’s love.