Cosmic Kindergarten: Independence

Read the rest of the Via Positiva: Cosmic Kindergarten series

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost:

Do not be afraid of them. (Ezekiel 2:1-7)
Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown. (Mark 6:1-13)

Our first song this morning comes from the country music band Sugarland. The group got its start in Atlanta and hit the big time in 2004 when their first single “Baby Girl” went double-platinum. Since then, they’ve sold about 14 million records. Today’s song comes from their 2011 release The Incredible Machine. It’s called “Stand Up.” Let’s try it.

All the lonely people cryin’
It could change if we just get started
Lift the darkness, light a fire
For the silent and the broken hearted
Won’t you stand up

Chorus: Won’t you stand up Stand Up, Stand Up
Won’t you stand up you girls and boys?
Won’t you stand up Stand Up, Stand Up
Won’t you stand up and use your voice?

My mother told me a story once that I do not remember. She said I was about five years old or so, and she had tucked me into bed and was about to leave the room. As she said good night and started to leave, she said I pleaded with her not to leave.

“Don’t go,” I said, probably a little panicked.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I don’t want to be alone,” I told her.

“You’re not alone,” she told me. “God is here with you.”

“I know,” I told her, “but I want something I can touch.”

Isn’t that still what we want, even though we have long grown out of our own five-year-old bodies? We still just want something to touch, something concrete, something we can rely on to be right there beside us in this present moment. That something could be a parent, a friend, a spouse, a car, a house, a job — anything that we can touch, feel, see, smell and lean on when we’re feeling scared or alone.

This past week we celebrated the independence of our country from British rule — and we, as Americans, give a lot of lip service to this idea of being free, of being an individual that stands out among the group — but really, deep down inside, the thought of true and absolute independence scares us to death.

And it ought to — because true independence means giving up any reliance on those outside, concrete things that make us feel safe. Those things that make us feel accepted. Those things that make us feel “normal” — or even those things that make us feel unique — those things we tend to invest our identity in like jobs, relationships and group membership.

But Cosmic Kindergarten is here to teach us the real meaning of independence. The first step is that taken by the prophet Ezekiel.

He said to me: “O mortal, stand up on your feet and I will speak with you.”

Our first step is to stand up. The act of standing up requires us to be awake. If we truly want to be independent, we’ve got to stop sleepwalking through our lives — and instead stand up, become wide awake and tune in to what the Holy has to say to us.

There’s a comfort,
There’s healing
High above the pain and sorrow
Change is coming,
Can you feel it?
Calling us into a new tomorrow

Chorus: Won’t you stand up Stand Up, Stand Up
Won’t you stand up you girls and boys?
Won’t you stand up Stand Up, Stand Up
Won’t you stand up and use your voice?

Once you stand up, though — don’t expect the crowds to cheer. It’s sort of an odd paradox — as children we’re taught to claim our independence. We’re encouraged to learn how to dress ourselves, how to brush our own teeth, how to clean our room, how to look after ourselves. We’re taught that it’s healthy to pull away from our parents, to do things our own way and stake our own claim in this world.

But as soon as we really start to claim that independence, the people around us get anxious — and they often seek to undermine our move toward independence. We start getting messages from the world — and perhaps even our parents — that we’re moving too fast, or moving in the wrong direction, or not doing it right. They warn us that we’ll lose our way, we’ll get into trouble, we’ll take a wrong turn. Instead, we should rely on them, on their advice, on their experience — and not on our own internal compass or our own authentic voice.

This is the paradox of independence. We’re encouraged to go our own way, and the moment we do, the world criticizes us.

The prophet Ezekiel deeply understands this dilemma. Ezekiel’s task will be to declare his independence from Hebrew society. That’s what all prophets do, they stand outside of society so they can point out where people are going wrong, where they are straying from the path that leads to God — that leads to that new Jerusalem, or God’s realm, right here on earth.

That kind of independence brings scorn. As God tells Ezekiel, “you live among scorpions.” The world stings prophets — scorns them — tears them apart with their words. Being called to stand up and be a prophet to a world in love with being dependent on outside, concrete things, is not easy. But the Holy tells Ezekiel to expect this — to expect people to say bad things about him.

“Do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words,” God tells Ezekiel. As we learned in real kindergarten: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”

But oh, how we let the words of the world hurt us like real sticks and stones. How we let the words, the opinions of others, keep us from declaring our independence and claiming the real freedom offered to us by the Holy. This is the real freedom that Ezekiel claimed — and it is our birthright as well. Will we stand up, boys and girls? Will we stand up and use our voice?

When the walls fall all around you
When your hope has turned to dust
Let the sound of love surround you
Beat like a heart in each of us

Chorus: Won’t you stand up Stand Up, Stand Up
Won’t you stand up you girls and boys?
Won’t you stand up Stand Up, Stand Up
Won’t you stand up and use your voice? (Repeat Chorus)

The poet Rumi wrote of two warriors in battle:

There are many winds full of anger, and lust and greed.
They move the rubbish around,
but the solid mountain of our true nature
stays where it’s always been.
There’s nothing now, except the divine qualities.
Come through the opening into me.
Your impudence was better than any reverence,
because in this moment I am you and you are me.
I give you this opened heart as God gives gifts:
the poison of your spit has become the honey of friendship.

The warrior who has declared his independence from the world understands that though the world’s winds of anger, lust and greed blow around us, our true nature is not moved — we are mountains, not weeds blown around by the world’s winds. When the world speaks up against us, when the world seems to conspire to kill our independence, it actually gives us a gift. Such resistance teaches us we are moving in the right direction — and that we must continue on in our journey to independence, not just for ourselves, but for others.

We are one — those who speak against you are in you, just as you are in them. When the world spits on us — instead of being insulted — feel compassion for the world — open your heart to the world. Feel compassion for those who are so caught up in their overwhelming dependence on the world’s good opinion of them that they lash out when independence, when true freedom, is offered to them.

You are them and they are you. You know where they are. You’ve been just as afraid to really claim your independence, so you can deeply understand those who resist. But, when we declare our independence — when stand up and accept our call to be prophets in this world — we should expect to be spit on, to be scorned, to be challenged to do battle. Be honored that the world has noticed you, because it means you’re well on the way to your own freedom.

Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from children’s songwriter Corey Leland. He has created four CDs called The Insects Rock. This song comes from the first of those CDs released in 2005. It’s called “You’re Gonna Do Great Things.” Let’s try it.

[Intro] You’re gonna do great things I believe in you,
you’re gonna do great … You’re gonna do great,
you’re gonna do great

[Verse] One person can make a difference,
anyone could try
There’s a reason why you’re here,
and soon you’ll find out why
You do what you love and you love what you do
Lots of great things gonna happen to you

[Chorus] Oh, you’re gonna do great things
You’re gonna do great things
You’re gonna do great things,
I believe in you you’re gonna do great …
You’re gonna do great, you’re gonna do great

In our Jesus story, we find our guy hanging out in his hometown of Nazareth. Like any good hometown boy, on the Sabbath, he heads down to the temple. But, he doesn’t take a seat in the back row so he won’t be noticed. No, he takes over as rabbi. He begins to teach to his homies — and they are not impressed.

They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

“And they took offense at him.” Isn’t this always the way? Those closest to us — our family, our friends — whenever we embark on a journey to our own independence — that independence they encouraged us to seek in the first place — are often the ones who are most offended when we step into our authentic selves.

The people around Jesus can’t see how extraordinary he is, because they’ve seen how incredibly ordinary he is. This is the kid who played in their streets, yanked their dog’s tail or threw rocks at their kids or houses. This is Mary’s son, that lowly carpenter who was nothing special when he lived here. Now, he’s out in the world, gettin’ above his raising and thinking he can change the world.

“Where did this man get all this?” they ask. Certainly not here in Nazareth. We never told Jesus he was special. We never told him he could change the world. We never led him to believe that he had some special skill or some special mission in the world. We never expected the son of Mary, that simple carpenter, to do great things.

Jesus expects this kind of reaction, saying: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

Wow, I get that. I really resonate with Jesus and his dilemma here. Much like Ezekiel, those closest to him are scorpions, disregarding his gifts, dissing his power, and rendering him useless among the people who need him the most.

I can identify, and I’m sure many of you can, as well. When my book, Bulletproof Faith, came out in 2008, I got a lot of support from people who knew me, and a lot of support and praise from perfect strangers. The place where I got no support — at all — where I got no praise — at all — was within my own family.

My mother read my book and said, “I kind of liked it after you stopped talking about me.” Even though my mom comes off pretty well in my book. But my brothers and sisters were not impressed that their little sister was a published author — complete with one of them fancy New York agents. They weren’t even impressed that the book had gotten an endorsement from Desmond Tutu — one of the most impressive religious figures of our time. To me, that was like getting Jesus to endorse the book. But their reaction? Crickets… nothing.

But it’s been that way all my life. I think I’ve done some fairly impressive things.

I had a successful journalism career that spanned two decades and ended up at CNN — a network that many journalists would give their eye teeth to work at. My family’s reaction? “You work for the ‘librul’ media!”

I got a master’s degree — oh, but it’s in religion — and now that I’ve asked all those questions I’ve polluted my previously pristine faith — according to my mother, anyway.

Oh, the list goes on. A prophet is always without honor in their own hometown — doubly so in their own home. I’m sure you can tell some similar stories about how those closest to you are often the last ones to encourage you in your greatness — if they ever do. I’ve decided that you can never be considered great by someone who has changed your diaper at some point in your life. They’ve just seen too much of you…

But Jesus knew something that these people of Nazareth, and our friends and family even today, do not know — he knew he could claim his independence, not just by standing up and using his voice and accepting his role as a prophet in this world. No, he knew the only way to claim his independence was by becoming fully dependent on the Holy.

[Verse] They say practice makes perfect,
you get out what you put in
Keep on working, keep on trying, I’ll say it again,
You do what you love and you love what you do
Lots of great things gonna happen to you

[Chorus] Oh, you’re gonna do great things
You’re gonna do great things
You’re gonna do great things,
I believe in you you’re gonna do great …
You’re gonna do great, you’re gonna do great

Okay, how in the world does that work? We can become independent only by becoming fully “dependent”?

Yes, this is what Jesus and Ezekiel are here to teach us in our Cosmic Kindergarten lesson for the day — freedom is paradoxical — independence comes from dependence. But not dependence on anything outside of ourselves. No, true freedom, true independence, is a form of complete surrender — to the authentic Holy self that resides in each of us.

Declaring independence from outside influences means we must acknowledge that we have the Holy inside of each us, and that Holy Spirit, that animating spark, is all we need to guide us in this world. It is not becoming powerful in the world’s eyes that makes us do great things. It is only when we acknowledge our powerlessness that we can do great things.

You see, the reason that Ezekiel and Jesus could not do powerful things around the people who knew them so well is because all prophets, from then into today, are powerless without faith. The ancient Hebrews, and those friends and family of Jesus in Nazareth, had no faith in them. They knew them as simple, ordinary folks with no special skills to speak of. Why would they have faith in them?

But we can only do great things in this world when the people around us have faith that we can. You’ve experienced this before. Your mom or dad says, “You can ride that bike without training wheels. I have faith in you!” And, bam! We ride on two wheels. Your spouse or friends say, “You can achieve that goal you’re aiming for. We have faith in you!” And, bam! You’re doing things you love to do but were scared to try when other people were dissing your dream.

Faith, Jubilants — this is the centerpiece of our independence. We cannot be independent unless we have complete dependence — complete faith — in the Holy’s ability to empower us to live into our authenticity.

Ah, but we spend most of our lives depending on everything but the Holy. We depend on the world to give us our worth. We depend on bosses, or family, or therapists, or even preachers to mark the path for us — to tell us we’re worthy. It’s really nice when those outside of you have faith in you. It really can propel us to do some great things.

But to do the truly great things — the things we were meant to do — we must rely on the Holy. As we have faith in the Holy to guide us — the Holy begins to have faith in us to do those truly great things.

When we stand up and use our voice — when we become independent by wholly depending on the Holy — we change the world, Jubilants. Those who stand up and speak against injustice, who stand up and speak against inequality, who stand up and speak against poverty, who stand up and speak against homelessness, who stand up and speak against hunger or any human system that oppresses anyone so others may thrive — these are the ones who are doing great things.

Sometimes it might not seem so — because inequality, injustice, poverty, homelessness, hunger and oppression still exists. These injustices persist no matter how many speak out, no matter how many feel called to be prophets of hope and unity.

This is where our utter dependence upon the Holy is essential. Even in the face of scorn and rejection — even in or life among the scorpions — it is our faith in the Holy to ultimately overcome all the evils and ills of the world that helps us turn the spit of our enemies into the honey of friendship. Instead of seeing our efforts as fruitless, take the poetry of Rumi to heart. The continued opposition to our prophetic words of hope gives us the opportunity to see ourselves in our opponents, to see our own small, insecure nature in those still refusing the freedom offered by the Holy — and instead clinging to their dependence on the world’s good opinion — or the world’s wealth. Those who refuse true independence remind us of just how far we have come when we’re able to surrender fully and have faith in the Holy that has faith in us to do great things.

So I invite you to think about it, Jubilants. What are you depending on other than the Holy? What are you depending on outside of yourself — that true, Holy, divine self? The Holy offers us real independence, whenever we fully depend on — or have faith in — the Holy.

When we fully depend on the Holy we are ultimately free. We are no longer bound by the world’s good opinion of us, no longer bound to do what the world believes we ought to do. No longer bound by the world’s insistence that we take care of Number One and not worry about the lot of others. When we are dependent on the Holy, Jubilants, only then are we truly independent. Only then are we free, and able, to do great things.

[Bridge] Not every day will be your best day
You’ll have days that aren’t quite so great
Someday you may be in a hurry,
that is when you’ll find you have to wait
But you’ll feel good about yourself
You’ll be good to someone else

[Chorus] Oh, you’re gonna do great things
You’re gonna do great things
You’re gonna do great things, I believe in you

Oh, Yeah!