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Looking Back to Find Yourself

February 06, 2011

Bible Reading

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”

(Luke 17:20-21)

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.

(John 14:8-14)


In the office, Laura, our ministry coordinator, has on her desk a Zen calendar with a saying for every day of the year. The seed of today’s service comes from one of those sayings, a quote from a sacred text of the Hindu tradition known as the Upanishads: “God made the senses turn outwards, therefore people look outward, not into themselves. But occasionally a daring soul, desiring immortality, has looked back and found himself.”

In this sermon I want to talk about looking back and finding ourselves at three successively deeper levels.

Often we hear it said that you should take a close look at yourself in the mirror, and that you should see yourself as others see you. That, I will point out, is still an external way to look at yourself. It doesn’t require you to look within, but rather to take into account what you look like from the outside. Now, I’m not about to say that looking at yourself in the mirror and seeing yourself as others do are bad things exactly. Certainly we are more effective in our day-to-day public lives if we understand how we look to others. This is a very good skill to have. Still, I would say that there is a trap in that kind of knowledge if we are not careful.

The danger was brought out clearly in the children’s story that Cathy read this morning. In that story the main character, a happy and friendly dog, is quite unaware of the size of his ears until he is taunted with “Get out of the way, Big Ears!” Well, because of that, he looked at himself in the mirror, saw himself the way others saw him, and found that it didn’t enhance his enjoyment of life! Quite the contrary— there is always self-limitation involved in adopting a merely objective view of who we are. I have big ears, therefore I can’t... well, what exactly? In this case, I guess, I can’t go out in public without feeling selfconscious. I’m good at math, so it doesn’t bother me to do A, B, C, but I’m not so artistic, so I avoid having to do X, Y, Z. I’m shy, so I’m OK with doing A, B, C, but don’t ask me to do X, Y or Z! And so on.

A deeper way to understand ourselves is in terms of our freedom. Whatever I may typically do, whatever I may have done in the past, is the now moment I choose. Many of you here have been studying The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Part of the power of now is that it is only in the now moment that you can choose. In fact, in a very real way, in the now moment you cannot do anything other than choose. Right now, it is pointless for me to say of myself “I am this” or “I am that,” as if those were objective facts. I can only choose what to do next. In fact, paradoxically perhaps, I have to choose what to do next.

Seth Lloyd, a physicist, describes this paradox of human freedom in a particularly clear and engaging way.

“For years my wife and I would go for lunch to Josie’s in Santa Fe. I, after spending a long time scrutinizing the menu, would always order the half plate of chiles rellenos, with red and green chile, and posole instead of rice. I felt strongly that I was exercising free will: until I chose the rellenos half plate, I felt anything was possible. My wife, however, knew exactly what I was going to order all the time.” (Programming the Universe, p. 36)

While Seth’s wife is able to predict what he’s about to order, the important point to grasp is that Seth himself cannot predict what he is about to order. He can only order—that is to say, he has to choose. Of course, that is in the now moment. Seth may very well predict, and accurately, what he will order next week. Still, when the moment arrives the self-prediction is without force; he can only choose.

A large part of our spiritual growth consists of expanding our sense of what we are capable of, to understand ourselves not in terms of what we are or have been, but in terms of what we can do. I can sing! I can dance! I can write!—whatever would be a good and life-enhancing stretch for you. Years ago, when my ministers at the time suggested to me that I could preach, the mere thought was laughable—I was way too shy. But as you can see... And most importantly, any of us can affirm these possibilities: I can forgive! I can love God! I can love the neighbor!

The relationship between our public, observable, predictable selves and our inner freedom is, to be sure, complex and dynamic. Sometimes it seems as though we know ourselves only too well. We get so used to our own habits and foibles; we understand so clearly our own strengths and weaknesses. We see ourselves do the same things over and over again—often to our chagrin and despite our best intentions to do things differently this time! I would insist, however, that in the now moment all of that is beside the point. We always have the potential to surprise ourselves.

Jesus says in our reading from Luke that the Kingdom of God will not come with things that can be observed. I am inclined to read that as saying that the Kingdom of God is not, and never will be—at least not primarily—an objective fact. It is rather a possibility, a freedom, something you can choose to do. Thus it is “within” you. Or to use the alternate translation, thus it is “among” us. The Kingdom of God will arrive in the external world when we collectively choose to do the Kingdom of God.

There is a way of understanding ourselves which is deeper still, one I will approach indirectly.

First, let’s consider the nature of silence. Several years ago, I wrote a sermon called “Be Quiet!” in which I explored physical and spiritual silence. One of the blessings of hiking in the mountains or the woods is the opportunity it provides to experience natural silence. But you may have noticed an odd fact: sometimes the chirping of a bird or the snapping of a twig only intensifies our awareness of the surrounding silence. It is as if these sounds help us to “hear” the silence they interrupt. If you reflect on it, I think you can come to perceive that whenever we hear a sound there is an implied silence “underneath” it. We cannot hear a soft sound in the context of a much louder one—say, a human conversation over the noise of a jackhammer. The jackhammer itself would be inaudible against an even greater racket. There is also a practical limit as to how loud a humanly audible sound can get. Sound at a certain decibel level would destroy our ears; anything louder than that is also inaudible. Whenever we hear a sound we are in the presence of an implied silence.

Something analogous can be said about light. We cannot see the stars during the day; their light is overwhelmed visually by the blue glow of the sky. And again, a bright enough light would destroy our eyes. If we see light, it is only because it is shining in the darkness. Something similar holds as well for solid objects: no two can fill the same space at the same time. If we experience solid, extended objects, it is only because they fill an implied emptiness. I don’t quite know how to argue the point, but perhaps the same thing can be said of motion: every motion we perceive moves against an implied motionlessness. Certainly for our human senses, there are motions that are either too slow or too fast to be perceived.

For this sermon, these examples are offered to provide analogs to our thoughts and feelings. We cannot consciously attend to more than a few things at the same time. In fact, “multi-tasking” doesn’t come naturally to us, and in my opinion it is not spiritually healthy. We are at our best when we focus on one thing at a time. And again, it is possible to feel a mix of emotions, but the stronger an emotion gets, the more it excludes other emotions. Then too, there is also an upper limit of intensity of thought and emotion beyond which we collapse. This suggests to me that there is an implied—what to call it?—”zero point” or “still point,” say, of thought and feeling underneath any conscious thought or feeling. To use Zen-like language, underneath any motion of the mind there abides no-mind.

I invite you all, then, to take in the following words slowly, to savor them, to enjoy the release they have to offer.






It often seems to me that our contemporary world has pushed the pendulum as far as it can possibly go in the opposite direction. Sound! Lights! Busyness! Speed! Drama! It wouldn’t surprise me—I could be wrong, but it wouldn’t surprise me—if the pendulum started swinging the other way in the years to come. I suspect that many people are developing a deepseated inner thirst for simple peace and quiet.

When you read about the Buddha, the great medieval Christian mystics, or the great spiritual masters throughout all times and places, it does seem as though there have been people who let go of ego enough to live from the still point. I am not one of them—at least not yet. But I will say this: any time you can get even an inkling of the stillness beneath the hubbub in your life, any time you can remind yourself of it, any time you acknowledge it, it is strengthening, it is calming; indeed, it is freeing.

Many of the mystics would say that our deepest selves are a sort of fertile nothingness—that silent, dark, empty, motionless, still place in which God can most freely create. To touch that place and then to return from it is to return free and open to all our divinely given potential, including the highest.

Today I have been trying to illustrate how there can be more inward and more outward ways of seeking and finding ourselves. At the deepest level we find a nothingness in which God grants us our potential and our freedom. As we unfold our freedom in the choices we make, our public, external selves become manifest to those around us. I would affirm the whole trajectory. To grow into loving presences in the world—currently my favorite short answer as to why we are here—requires that we get to know ourselves well on all levels. May the Holy One watch over us all as we come to grasp more and more clearly what we are and who we are called to become. Amen.


We bless you that we were made to love,
as the stars were made to shine.
Grant that such love may never die within us,
but being daily rekindled in our souls,
may burn in our hearts
and forever renew our whole being.
This we ask through Christ our Lord.

- Florence Allshorn (1887-1950)

As the hand is made for holding and the eye for seeing, thou has fashioned me for joy. Share with me the vision that shall find it everywhere: in the wild violet’s beauty; in the lark’s melody; in the face of a steadfast man; in a child’s smile; in a mother’s love; in the purity of Jesus.

- Gaelic, tr. Alistair MacLean

Lord, I thank you for teaching me how to live in the present moment. In this way I enjoy each simple task as I do it without thinking that I must hurry on to the next thing. I do what I am doing with all my ability and all my concentration. My mind is no longer divided, and life is more peaceful. Thank you for teaching me how to do this, and please help me show others the way to learn to trust you more completely and to do everything which has to be done at your time and your speed.

- Michael Hollings and Etta Gullick, in The Oxford Book of Prayer, George Appleton, ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1985), p. 97.

Holy Spirit of God,
let us not seek you in the distant land,
for you are here among us.
Let us welcome you in the heart
which is your dwelling place
and let us rejoice in the glory of your presence,
the only fountain of goodness and love.

- Amy Carmichael (1868-1951)

Rev. Jonathan Mitchell