Recovering the Inner Life

Jewish Children with their Teacher in Samarkan...

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“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  – Paul, Romans 12:2

Awhile ago  Dr. Phil broadcast a show on the prevalence of cheating in our school systems and beyond. I was fascinated by his conversation with one young woman who was very open and clearly pained by her own cheating. Why did she do it? No new revelations: she felt enormous pressure to achieve a high standing in her class and all the awards that were signs of success (straight A’s, Honor Society, varsity letters, class president, etc. etc.) Those things defined success for her. They defined her as a worthy or an unworthy person. Achieving those markers had become more important to her than her character, or real learning. So she cheated to gain an edge, to get what she believed she needed.

Her self image, her self esteem, had become defined by these things which have very little to do with who she is. She defined herself by things outside of herself, and in comparison to others. She looked very successful, but in fact was very unhappy.

The truth is that she is far from alone. Studies show that most people cheat in business, sports, etc. as adults also cheated in High School. Cheating is more common and on the rise. The reasons are essentially the same: the thing I believe I need has become more important to me than character, integrity, or the quality of what I am doing.

I write this, not to rant on cheating or cheaters, but to notice one sign that our culture tends to be very externally directed, defining life and what is good, by things that we get or have. It tends to let go of the important world of our inner lives. Even though we know better, at some level we come to believe that happiness, success, etc. is more about what we have and less about who we are.

So, people are driven to get the newest gadget, the next car, the next promotion, to go on the next more exotic vacation. People, even cultures, become rich in things, as Jesus taught, and impoverished in spirit. That we become angry, reactive, and aggressive, even violent, is no surprise. That developing deep, life long committed relationships is very difficult, is no surprise. That addiction is epidemic is no surprise.

The apostle Paul, like every great spiritual teacher, points in a different direction: who we are is enormously more important than what we have. Happiness is an inner capacity, not an external achievement. Paul writes very clearly that we are not to be conformed to the patterns around us, but are to be transformed, renewed in mind and spirit. We are to let the Spirit work on us and in us, to renew our inner lives, our minds and hearts. That renewal will transform us, so that we can then know what is good, and experience life as God would have it for us.

The key that opens this lock is not outside of us, but inside of us. The things that lead to deep and joyful life are things like compassion, generosity, a peaceable spirit, personal integrity, the capacity to forgive, the capacity to love.

Spiritual teachers speak about the value of having less, and not getting addicted to the need for more, the beauty of the ordinary, the power of serving others. Spiritual teachers speak about the infinite value of who we are before God, and the relative unimportance of what we have, or how we might impress our neighbors.

As we enter this new year, what will you do that will focus on your spiritual growth and maturity? What will you do that will open your spirit to the very Spirit of God? Will you be conformed to the culture that would have you get more, newer, bigger, faster things? Will you listen to Paul who advises us to take a different path?

I think Emerson said it best: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. “

Pastor Bill

(Source of Emerson quote:

“Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:21)

I read a disturbing article in Sunday’s New York Times (“Across Nation, Mosque Projects  Meet Opposition” 8/8/10, Protests against building or expanding Mosques are occurring in many places, far beyond Ground Zero in NYC. For many, evidently, the issue really is not about sensitivity to building a Mosque near the location of the horrific violence in 2001, but a larger reaction against Islam. The accurate and reasonable demand that we defend ourselves against violent Islamic fundamentalists is becoming a more generalized fear directed, inaccurately, toward an entire religious movement. The leading photograph is of a woman holding a sign that reads “Mosques are Monuments to Terrorism.”  This is not very different from the mixture of fear and anger that led to the internment of Japanese citizens at the beginning of WWII.

There is a movement, at least among some people and some politicians (I hope a very limited minority), to deny Muslims the religious freedom which is one of the defining characteristics of our nation. To do so would be to diminish ourselves and our nation. To do so  would be to let ourselves be governed by reactivity and fear, no matter what language is used to justify it.  When this happens, we paradoxically become more like the thing we are afraid of. We fear a movement that denies basic human freedoms and represses its citizens, so we respond by repressing our own people.

There is a story I heard so long ago that I forget where I heard it (and so, unfortunately cannot give proper credit to its source) that speaks to the choices that are in front of us. I have used this story in many sermons, so if you have heard me preach you have probably heard this story. But it is worth repeating.

There was an old man who would sit every morning under a certain tree by a river outside of his village to pray. One morning following heavy rains, the river was swollen and rushing by the tree. While praying the old man noticed a scorpion fighting for its life in the water. As the river came near the tree, the scorpion became caught in the tree roots that extended into the river. The man watched the scorpion struggle for its life, clinging to the tree roots.

Instinctively the man reached down to pull the scorpion out of the water. As he did, the scorpion stung his hand. He pulled his hand back and then reached again to the scorpion, and again the scorpion stung his hand. The struggle continued. The old man was determined to pull the scorpion out of the river. The scorpion instinctively struck at his hand.

A young man riding his horse near the river saw what was happening, and stopped to watch this mini drama. Finally he said to the old man: “You stupid old man, don’t you know that that vicious insect only wants to harm you and will not stop stinging your hand?  Why do you keep trying to save it? Just let it drown.”

The old man looked up to him and said: “It is the scorpion’s nature to do harm. Because its nature is to do harm, why should I let it change my nature which is to save?”

Why should we allow the violence, the evil, the fearfulness, the intolerance of fundamentalist extremists make us fearful and intolerant? If we do, then they win.

The apostle Paul spoke to the challenge well many years ago when he wrote: “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:21) It was a challenge in the 1st century. It is a challenge in the 21st century.

Fortunately, the Times article did report that where some have acted to deny basic rights to our Muslim neighbors, many others have stood up to defend them.

What is at risk is not only the civil rights of our neighbors, but our character as a people.