Let Your Life Speak: Listening To Life

“I am running into a new year,” writes poet Lucille Clifton.
“I am running into a new year, and the old years blow back / like
a wind that I catch in my hair / like strong fingers like / all my old
promises and / it will be hard to let go / of what I said to myself /
about myself…” That’s what Lucille Clifton writes, and she
is not the only one. We too run into a new year, and can we let go of
what blocks us from stepping forward into greater personal
authenticity, into richer relationships, and into greater
responsiveness to the world around us? Can we? This is the question of
vocation, the question of the call that is ours to hear in life and
leads us onwards into greater purpose and meaning.

And so we begin a three-sermon series called “Let Your Life
Speak,” taken from the classic book on vocation by educator and
social activist Parker Palmer. I hope you read along with me, and as
you do, you will see that his liberal Quaker spirituality is
completely at home with our Unitarian Universalism. Always there is
before me Ralph Waldo Emerson, that champion of Transcendentalism, and
listen to what he once said. This was in 1841, so he uses exclusively
masculine pronouns, but he means everyone. He says, “There is a
time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction
that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take
himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide
universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him
but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to
him to till.” In others words, we starve unless the purpose and
path of our lives emerges out of the soil of our native, natural
existence. Let your life speak.

But it is surprisingly hard to do. It is paradoxically hard to do. You
would think that it should be easy to just stand there and shine, be
the star that you are, and yet old years blow back as we run into new
years. Old promises are like strong fingers reaching for us, and we
can reach back to them, we can hold on for dear life even though
time’s arrow moves us resolutely forward and so, in the end, we
find ourselves twisted up, moving backwards, moving forwards, going
all sorts of directions at once. Another poet, May Sarton, said it
this way: “Now I become myself. It’s taken / Time, many years
and places; / I have been dissolved and shaken, / worn other
people’s faces, / Run madly, as if Time were there, /Terribly old,
crying a warning, / ‘Hurry, you will be dead before
[long].” Hearing the call of one’s true life is hard.

This is what I want to focus on in today’s installment of the
sermon series. Why it’s so hard. Then we’ll take a look at
some things we can do to get clear of the blocks and start listening.
That’s our purpose for today.

And I’ll begin with the observation that when we wake up to the
question of vocation-when we wake up from the delusion that we have
always been awake-we wake up to messiness. Who are we? Where does our
path of purpose lead? Racism or sexism or homophobia come alive for
you, for example-some incident brings them home powerfully and
unforgettably-and you realize how these pressures deny you your right
simply to be yourself. How they deny ones you love their right simply
to be themselves. Their and our precious life dreams are denied and
deferred and, as Langston Hughes asks, “What happens to a dream
deferred? Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like
a sore– / And then run? / Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust
and sugar over– / like a syrupy sweet? / Maybe it just sags / like a
heavy load. / Or does it explode?” What will happen to the dream,
when so many want to deny it, block it, make it go away?

That’s the messiness some of us wake up to, and here is more.
Perhaps the problem is that we are established in the world-we already
have cars and houses to pay for, we already have relationships that
have settled into predictable and comfortable patterns-and guess what?
The heart balks at all of it; it wrestles with it and will not accept
it. Makes no sense to the mind, which knows that we have made it,
which knows that we have achieved what society has always taught us is
admirable and even enviable. But the heart disagrees. The soul has its
own truth to say. It feels in a deep and undeniable way that things
are out of whack and that we are out of whack, nothing satisfies.

Yet another kind of messiness we can wake up to is this: the reality
that, no matter how hard we try, we just aren’t able to give
ourselves to a job or career that would take us to the kind of success
others (or ourselves) expect. We just can’t find our right fit in
life. Here, I’m thinking about a story that comes from another
excellent book on vocation called What Should I Do With My
Life
, by Po Bronson. Listen to what he says about a thirty year
old man named Noah Goldfader: “Noah Goldfader … told me that
since college he’s had ten jobs in eight years, spread over six
cities in four states on two coasts. But when I broke it down with
him, employer by employer, I tallied no less than sixteen jobs in
those eight years. He never stayed anywhere long enough to move up the
corporate ladder-everything was entry-level. Two thirds of these jobs
were in marketing and promotion. He’d given away Frappucinos and
Cuervo Gold tequila, put up placards during WNBA games and
three-on-three NBA Hoop-It-Up tournaments, and created never-used ad
campaigns for Levi’s blue jeans. He’s thirty now. Currently
unemployed. His older brother tells him to stop messing around, thinks
he’s a slacker. But Noah’s no slacker. You can’t fault him
for not trying. My definition of a slacker is someone who thinks all
jobs suck and isn’t going to lift a finger. Noah would happily
work sixteen-hour days if only he knew what it was that he should be
doing. He was all-too-desperate to find his song in life, and was
panicked that there wasn’t one out there for him. He didn’t
expect it to be easy. But he sure wanted an answer. [One time he told
me,] ‘I believe everyone has a unique gift to give the world. I
sure as heck don’t want to be one of those people who dies with
the music still inside them. I wish I could find out what I was put on
this earth to do.'” That’s Noah Goldfader’s story.
The problem that some of us have is the one he has: never being able
to find a right fit with the jobs and opportunities handed to him. A
heart that balks at everything handed to him, even as it hurts the
rest of his life and holds the music within. Parker Palmer speaks to
this when he says, “True self, when violated, will always resist
us, sometimes at great cost, holding our lives in check until we honor
its truth.” And so it is.

Waking up to the question of vocation wakes us up to messiness. Dreams
dry up, or fester and run, or stink, or crust and sugar over, or sag,
or explode-anything but unfold naturally, as is their right. Or we can
feel a global sense of dissatisfaction that others (and the inner
critic) interpret as insanity. Or we can never seem to achieve
stability and success, and so we get a slacker reputation. Hearing the
call of one’s true purpose is hard because it shakes us to the
core. It becomes a fearful moment when it is clear that “the life
I am living is not the life that wants to live in me.” Society
defines a success path that goes one way, but you sense that you must
go another way and follow the different drumbeat of your own heart.
But then, what is that mysterious way? And how to discern it?

This is an uncomfortable place to be. And it is so tempting just to
react, just to grab for anything that will bring immediate comfort,
but it is … reactivity. It’ll put a band aid on the hurt without
ever addressing the deeper dis-ease. Reactivity won’t clear up the
underlying messiness, not really. Thus Parker Palmer in his book
counsels us to go deeper. Go deeper into the messiness, see what’s
really going on there.

And here it is. The deeper dis-ease is what Parker Palmer calls
“moralism.” Moralism is a voice of anxiety which is also a
voice of authority. We hear it coming from outside us, in messages
from family and community and culture; and then we internalize the
messages and hear them coming from within us, from the voice of the
internal critic. Saying essentially this: What’s the matter
with you? The way forward should be clear. You ought and you should
become an already known quantity. Become like someone who has already
achieved success. Wear their face, not your own. Grit your teeth and
force it if you have to. But do it. And if you don’t-watch out.
Bad things are going to happen.
Does this ring any bells?

If you happen to be in a place where you are reconsidering your
already established life, or you have not yet found career security,
then others may say to you, “Listen, just look at him, or look at
her! They’re stable; they have their act together; they own their
own home; they go on vacations. That’s what matters.” Note
that no one here is asking you to be like Jesus or Moses or the Buddha
(and in fact, they never would if they knew how all such people were
troublemakers in their own times). Moralism’s vision of success
boils down to safety and control. Stay safe, don’t make waves,
don’t stand out too much from the crowd.

And then the external dialogue becomes internalized. You say to
yourself, “You know, I’m starting to see their point. Am I
crazy to be hunting for my purpose, my vocation? Shouldn’t I just
give all that touchy-feely stuff up and get a grip, get on with my
life?” You say this to yourself, and then also this:
“Shouldn’t it all be simpler? I mean, shouldn’t I have a
passion for something that stands out so clearly that what I need to
do is obvious? What is wrong with me anyhow? Why is this all so hard?
If only I had something to show for all these past years … feels
like I am going nowhere.”

This is the deep dis-ease of moralism. How devastating it is,
especially the regret, the fear of wasted time and wasted years. And
there is this, too: the bottom line distrust of self that such regret
betrays, that moralism as a whole betrays. A suspicion towards the
complexity and subtlety of the soul, how its hungers can be so
powerful and yet so vague. A suspicion towards its proclivity to stand
back and cross its arms and be dissatisfied with things that any
“normal” person should be satisfied with. Moralism sees it
as perversity, sees the soul as tending towards perversity, and in
this way it embodies a pessimistic theology, a theology that sees the
self as requiring external controls since its inner compass is broken
and repeatedly points us towards the wrong way. So moralism says,
“Get your act together. Grit your teeth and do your duty. Stay on
the well traveled roads, and only them.”

There it is. So now: what do we do? How do we go forward from here? We
are running into a new year, and as we do so, how might we let go of
the moralism that keeps us stuck in self-doubt and regret? What can we
do?

Parker Palmer says this: that we make a “Rosa Parks
decision.” “Most of us know her story,” says Parker
Palmer, “the story of an African American woman who, at the time
she made her decision, was a seamstress in her early forties. On
December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks did something she
was not supposed to do: she sat down at the front of a bus in one of
the seats reserved for whites-a dangerous, daring, and provocative act
in a racist society. Legend has it that years later a graduate student
came to her and asked, ‘Why did you sit down at the front of the
bus that day?’ Rosa Parks did not say that she sat down to launch
a movement, because her motives were more elemental than that. She
said, ‘I sat down because I was tired.’ But she did not mean
that her feet were tired. She meant that her soul was tired, her heart
was tired, her whole being was tired of playing by racist rules, of
denying her soul’s claim to selfhood.”

“I sat down because I was tired.” It is exhausting to play
by the rules of racism and sexism and homophobia and all the other
-isms. It is exhausting to play by other people’s rules, or by the
rules of the inner critic. And more damage comes from that than ever
comes from disobeying the voices of moralism. “No punishment
anyone might inflict on us could possibly be worse than the punishment
we inflict on ourselves by conspiring in our own diminishment.”
That’s where the courage comes from, to sit down. That’s
where.

And so we sit down. This could mean several things, in addition to all
our actions and initiatives whereby we say NO to injustice. It could
mean, first and foremost, that we sit down and stop working so hard,
stop pushing the river. We sit down and refuse to grit our teeth when
it comes to exploring our sense of purpose in life. This is
essentially an act of trust that there is, in fact, a part of
ourselves which is deeper than all the shrill superficial voices of
anxious moralism which come at us from within and from without. It is
an act of trust, affirming that deep within is no broken compass but a
golden compass which unerringly defines a positive growth process for
us-positive no matter how complex and mysterious it might seem to our
rational minds, positive even if it takes us into a midlife crisis or
a retirement crisis or a marriage crisis or a crisis of job after job
after job without hope in clear sight. Positive, whatever the pattern
happens to be. We honor the hesitation we feel when an image of
success is put before us. We honor the way the soul resists all that
which would violate its integrity. We trust the fact that vocation is
not so much fighting for a knowledge or an awareness that we don’t
already have at some level as it is a capacity for openness to
receiving this truth, a capacity for listening to our lives which is
always already whispering answers to us constantly.

We sit down in trust of ourselves, and we also sit down with others in
a trusted context. I’m talking about people who don’t have an
axe to grind with us, who love us just as we are. This simple
acceptance on their part becomes, for us, freedom to relax and to
breathe. Freedom to remember who we are underneath all the protective
masks. Consider as well how we so often say to others what we most
need to hear for ourselves. Parker Palmer points this out, and I think
he is right on. We can be so wise for others, but for ourselves we can
somehow forget all that. True friends can gently bring us back to
ourselves. And so, with this in mind, perhaps we might find a small
group here at UUCA to be a part of, or recommit to the group we are
already a part of. There are also age and lifestage groups to
consider, like the 20s-30s group, the 40+group, and others. Make
ourselves available to these opportunities for honest conversation
about issues of meaning and purpose. Open up to these opportunities to
be supported and cared for, as we are…..

There’s a lot of ways to sit down, to make a Rosa Parks decision,
but I’ll mention only one more. To sit down with possibility.
I’m thinking of volunteerism here at UUCA, as an opportunity to
develop a talent that the rest of your life might not make room for.
Or, to try out an interest or passion that has yet to be tried. Among
all the various opportunities for personal and spiritual growth that
congregations like this one provide, volunteerism is central and key.
Voluntarism is a royal road. I’ll talk more about this next week,
but for now, I invite you to take our first ever on line strengths and
interests survey, available at http://www.uuca.org/mygifts. This is to get you started on discovering what your right service fit at UUCA might be. Check it out.

We make a Rosa Parks decision. We sit down in trust of self; we sit
down with trusted others; and we sit down with possibility. We are not
going deny the life within us that wants to be heard. We are going to
listen to our lives, listen deeper than all the superficial shrill
voices of moralism. Again and again, I go back to the words of Emerson
that I shared with you earlier-and as you and I enter into a new year
together, let us carry them with us, let us hold them close to our
hearts, let us use them to refine and redefine our priorities for the
months ahead: he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is
suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his
portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of
nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that
plot of ground which is given to him to till.” May it be so.
Amen.