The soul is the fountain of our flourishing. We all, in one way or another, want to thrive. Who wants to die never having lived into who they really are? How can we rediscover the fire and force of our souls, to love well, do good work, make a difference, live with meaning, and build a better world?
Here’s my sermon from August 11, 2019. It’s part of a three week series called, “What Matters Now?” And it’s based on Genesis 2.4b-7, Matthew 15.11 and 16. 26, as well as Thomas, Saying 70. Find the audio sermon here.
Who am I?
Who are you?
There’s the me I present when I’m at work
the you at home with those you love
there’s the me that’s driven by my fears
the you that doesn’t dare reveal your tears
Who am I, really?
Who are you?
the you you carry deep inside
the innocence so vulnerable and shy
that you, like me, will tuck that part of us away
and show, instead, those parts of us
the people in our lives who matter most
want us most to be
even if the you and me God made each one of us to be
is kept inside a tiny inner room
hidden behind a lock and key.
Emil’s in his late 20’s. A successful founder of a tech start up. Bright mind. Light behind his eyes. Thick, full beard. He’s driven to succeed. And he’s done very well. There are lots who’d want a life like his at any age, let alone at 29. He was in love for awhile. But they fought too much because the man he loved said Emil was never really there. He was always working, always distracted.
What’s driving you, Emil? What keeps you from putting away the laptop, shutting off your phone and being there for dinner or at the movies or for a real kiss?
“I’m afraid. I feel like if I’m not running and pushing, breathless all the time, then I’m not really working, not doing everything I can.”
What’s wrong with not working all the time? Taking a break?
“If I don’t push myself so hard I’ll end up back there.”
“Back there” is where he was ten years ago. Emil is an immigrant. Ten years ago he lived in a place where a gay man could never come out, where gangs kill young men who have bigger ideas for their lives. Emil knew then that the cartels were a dead-end street. He found a way out. He got north, across the Wall. But there’s a gang that he can’t outrun. A gang within himself that drives him relentlessly to perform, achieve, prove himself, and create a safety he doesn’t really believe will ever come.
Who are you, Emil?
“I don’t think I know. Sometimes I ask that question of myself. I think I know who I’m not. I’m not back there. I’m not dead. I’m not poor. But sometimes I wonder if there’s more than this. Sometimes I wonder how long I can live like this. I’m not dead back there, but I honestly don’t know that I’m really living here.”
“What good would it do you,” says Jesus, “if you gained the whole world but lost your soul?”
“I can’t think of a sadder way to die,” writes Parker Palmer, “Than with the knowledge that I never showed up in this world as I really am. I can’t think of a more gracious way to die than with the knowledge that I showed up here as my true self, the best I knew how, able to engage life freely and lovingly because I had become fierce with reality.
“Fierce with reality.” Who I am really. Who you are, really. Showing up not as you think you should be. Showing up as I really am. A true reflection of our souls.
“When it's over,” wrote the poet, Mary Oliver,
“I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular. . .
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.”
Who are you? Who am I, really? Am I living from my soul’s reality? Are you?
What does it mean to thrive? How can you and I stop trying to outrun the gang inside our heads, hounded by unconscious fears, worries, and unexamined drives. How can we show up in this world, really—with those we love, those who love us, what we care about most, what requires our unique, God-breathed identity and gifts.
What would it take for our outer lives to manifest the pure gold of the divine light within us? What could our lives be like then? What could the world be like then? What goodness could flow from us into the world?
“If you bring forth what’s inside you,” says Jesus, “what’s inside you will save you. But if you do not bring forth what’s inside you, what’s inside you will destroy you.” Matthew’s Gospel puts it this way: “It’s not what’s outside you that brings trouble and ruin, but what spills out from inside you” (15.11).
During the first sixty to seventy years after the death of Jesus, collections of his sayings circulated widely around the ancient Middle East. Several decades after Jesus’ death, the Apostle Paul used some of them to shape his letters to the young churches. Between 70 and 80 CE, Mark, followed by Matthew and Luke, fashioned some of those sayings into three different Gospels, narrative structures, stories of his life. At the turn of the first century, the Gospel of John, the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, and the Gospel of Thomas (among other writings) appeared, each contending for the prime place as the authority for Christian spiritual and theological reflection.
The writings of Ignatius gave direction to the outer expression of the early church and to the institutional hierarchy of a male order of church leaders, called bishops. John’s Gospel focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus and the exclusiveness of Christ as the only revelation of God’s design for our lives. Thomas’ Gospel focused, instead, on the inner life of those who seek God. It is a collection of sayings that invites seekers onto a path of spiritual experience and awakening and teaches that everyone, without exception, has access to the inner light of the living Jesus among us.
Unfortunately, the emphasis of Ignatius and John on power and exclusivity was appealing in a world then not unlike our world now, where people grapple for power, and where race, gender, economics, and religion often divide rather than unite people. The Gospel of Thomas, which places a priority on the inner experience of the soul’s liberation and transformation was forgotten or intentionally ignored and sometimes dismissed as heretical.
It never made it into our Bibles.
And that may nearly have cost us our souls.
Where might our world be today if we had continued to develop this early psychology, the “science of the soul”, envisioned by Jesus?
Some dismiss inner work as privileged navel gazing. “There’s too much to do to stop and look within.” But the spirituality at the heart of every religious tradition teaches us that unless we transform the trouble within us, we’ll make trouble outside us. We are like Emil who though he could outrun the cartels, but was relentlessly driven by the gangs in his own head.
“If you do not bring forth what is within you,” and heal it, “what is within you will destroy you.” Where does the divisiveness and incivility of the age, the violence and racism, the misogyny and nationalism begin first? They spawn within us before they are ever spewed outside us.
Last year our council of elders set as one of the six key Vision2028 strategies this statement:
“Davis Community Church will cultivate an environment that promotes a vibrant inner life and physical wellness through a wide array of spiritual practices, embedded in all aspects of congregational life. These practices will deepen our experience of God—the reality of God’s love, peace, hope, transformation, and healing. A healthy and vibrant spiritual life is essential for wellbeing and grows from the heart of Christian faith. Spiritual practices can also build bridges between persons of other faith traditions from whom we can learn and with whom we can work for the wellbeing of the world.”
What, then, is soul? Soul is bigger and more beautiful than anyone can capture in words. But here’s something that moves in the right direction: soul is the essence of who you are as a manifestation of the Sacred. It is the divine spark within you, the image of God which is your truest self. Some scientists say that the soul is a way of describing the genius of human consciousness, your awareness of your place in the universe, your sense of transcendence.
“Soul” means that there’s so much more within you than you have yet to know. There’s lead inside, of course, but there’s gold you’ve not yet discovered. And if you discover the gold within you, you’ll manifest that gold outside you. If you live from the beauty and goodness of your soul, you’ll manifest beauty and goodness in the world.
In the second of two creation myths, woven together in the first and second chapters of the Book of Genesis, we find an early meditation on the nature of what lies within and beneath all that is visible to the eye. We could call this a primitive, but highly perceptive psychology—something that for too long has been read literally and historically when it was meant metaphorically and symbolically, a parable inviting us to perceive the sacredness of what is within us and within all things, a summons to become aware and reverent toward what matters most—your soul, my soul, the Soul of the universe
“In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—”
Before rain. Before human life. A river of life! The storyteller is using metaphor, a prose poem to tell us that without this subterranean river there’s no life. No plant of the field, no herb in the garden can grow in the outer world unless the inner world flows with the essence of life—with soul.
“Then the Lord God formed humankind from the dust of the ground, and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being.”
Who am I? Who are you?
We are so much more than we think, more than the definitions imposed on us, the drives that push us, the shame that binds us.
There is in each of us a living stream, the very life of the Divine, the fountain of our flourishing—infinite, immortal, and priceless. The main work of our lives is to find, cherish, liberate, and expand this fountainhead until our outer lives flow from all the goodness and beauty of our souls.