One evening, an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, ”My son, the battle is between two wolves” inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee chief simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Everybody has a way of understanding the world and how it works – it’s the script we use to interpret the world and our place in it. The script starts being written in our hearts and minds the moment we are born and continues to be recorded through our families and the larger world. It is in the practice of this script, explicit and implicit, that Walter Bruggemann says, we develop a sense of self, purpose and security in life. I had a friend who would say to her children when they misbehaved, “Forsbergs never lie” or “Forsbergs always win.” Her children’s script was being laid down in them like a gene on their DNA. They were learning which wolf to feed.
Of course, in reality, we are not so dualistic. It is not as though we were split down the middle into an evil part and a good part. We are more like an overlapping of the selves we have learned to be over the years. When we feel safe and secure, loved and valued the generous script of our compassionate self emerges and when we feel threatened, anxious, and fearful the script of our hoarding, arrogant greedy, angry self shows up.
Perhaps some of us are here this morning because our script has failed us and so we have had to look to God to help us rewrite our script or exchange it for a new one. But others of us are unaware of our scripts because the scripts we have been given are extremely subtle. We really have to pay attention to recognize them to know if they work toward spiritual health or sickness. Sometimes it’s not until we are presented with a different script than the one we know, that we wake up and look deeply at the script we are using to live our lives. Then when we open the Bible and read God’ script we can be hit by Jesus’ words that leave us wondering about just which wolf we are feeding….it’s not always easy to tell.
In the United States we live by the script of a consumer society – our capitalist society is based on consumerism. But many people would agree that it has gotten out of control when they read ads like the one that said about a product, “It is not something that you don’t need: it is just something you haven’t thought of yet.” Kenneth Carter, in an article in The Christian Century (July 2007) states what for me is the obvious. “[Our] culture saturates our thinking about the good life and we are hooked by it.” The Bible isn’t critical of being a consumer but it does warn us about looking for meaning for our lives in all the wrong places. The parable of the rich man and his successful crop is not a story about the evils of abundant production and consumption; rather it is a commentary on what we do with abundance and the meaning we give to it.
Our story makes it clear that the art of accumulation is not new but we in the U. S. live it with a certain flair. Think of the whole phenomena of self storage. According to the Self Storage Association, our country now possesses some 1.875 billion square feet of personal storage. All this space is contained in nearly 40,000 facilities. What this translates into, apart from a lot of stationary bikes kept behind padlocked metal doors, is an industry that now exceeds the revenues of Hollywood. One in eleven American households, according to a recent survey, own self-storage space – an increase of some 75 percent from 1995. Last year alone saw a 24 percent spike in the number of selfstorage units on the market. You can’t take it with you, the proverb says, but you can certainly find a place to stash it away. Which reminds me of the answer John D. Rockefeller gave when he was asked how much money was enough, “just a bit more,” he answered. Rockefeller was refreshing in his honesty. Most of us would blush to admit that deep in souls we could echo his words. We can only admit in our heart of hearts, like the rich man to his soul, how tempting it is to think that if we just had a little bit more, if we just had ample goods laid up for many years, we could relax, eat, drink and be merry. But Jesus offers us a challenge to that picture when he asks the question, “What does it profit [anyone] to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?” (Luke 9:25)
Our very self or our soul is defined by the Wickepedia website as, “the self-aware essence unique to a particular living being. The soul is thought to incorporate the inner essence of each living being, and to be the true basis for wisdom.” Not everyone agrees that we have a soul. In a 2006 issue of U.S. News and World Report Jay Tolson wrote about the disagreements in science about the self and the human spirit. He quotes biologist Francis Crick from his book, The Astonishing Hypothesis. “The Astonishing Hypothesis is that ‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and you ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more that the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.” But there are other scientists, writes Tolson, who find it very, “troubling about reducing consciousness to the operations of a three- pound chunk of wrinkled brain tissue.” I would think that most of us here, on some kind of spiritual journey, would also find that thought troubling. Our thinking would be more in line with David Galin who said in the same article that “the experience of spirit …is itself part of the human capacity to experience implicit organization, hidden order, deeper and ineffable connectedness in what we see or otherwise encounter.” Thomas Moore put it this way, “Tradition teaches that soul lies midway between understanding and unconsciousness, and that its instrument is neither the mind nor the body but imagination. The materialistic life can be so absorbing that we get caught in it and forget about spirituality. What we need, he said, is soul, in the middle holding together mind and body, ideas and life, spirituality and the world.” (Care of the Soul) It is this spirit or soul that sees beyond the surface of something, say the Grand Canyon, to encounter it on a deeply meaningful level, to have an aha! experience in which we see ourselves part of one another and of all life. If we don’t believe in soul then we might as well just join our rich man and sock away as much as we can. But if we believe in soul, then each one of us needs to take care of ours with special care and attention.
Luke makes it clear that we don’t care for the soul by hording our possessions, our time, our work or our affection. According to Moore, what we want to do…is to re-imagine those things we think we already understand. We need to detach ourselves from the scripts that encourage us to find security in self-sufficiency and warn us about the preoccupation with possessions and the hollowness of hedonism. (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary). Our rich man is a fool, says Luke, not because he cheated anyone, or because he was a good farmer and his land produced abundantly. He is not even criticized for tearing down his barns and building new ones. No, he is a fool because he imagines that his full barns can feed his soul and make him feel secure in the long run. Eventually, after he has eaten and drunk and been merry for a while, the parable says, he will die. And, as someone said when they were asked how much Aristotle Onnasis left behind when he died, “he left everything.”
There is no way, apart from God, that the rich man is capable of hoarding enough to bring delight and protection to his soul. The man lacks the imagination to see beyond himself as a conduit of God’s good gifts. Real life does not consist of storing up for ourselves but in enjoying our harvest and sharing it with others. We must change our script from seeking a good life to seeking a blessed life, “the one in which we are ‘rich toward God.’” Stephen Carter continues, “It is clear that we must let go of the good life in order to receive the blessed life. Augustine said it well: “God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them.”
What is the blessed life? It is one where we live with soul, where we tear up the script we were given or the one we developed over the years and adopt God’s script for our lives. It is the life nourished by the love and goodness of God that contributes to the flourishing of all creation. (Ellen T. Cherry, Christian Century July 2004)
This last week, in the midst of preparing for a memorial service, two weddings and this sermon I received a phone call from a woman asking for my help. She needed to write a very important letter. English was not her first language and because she wanted to express herself clearly and with passion, she wondered if I could help her write the letter. For a moment I paused…how could I give up precious time in a busy week to help? Was there someway I could justify to myself not helping her? Was this really a pastor’s job? Then I received an inner nudge that said, “Jane, stop hoarding your time and help her,” so I said yes. Rewriting her letter took me about and hour an a half. About half way through the letter a sense of well being washed over me that fed my soul and I realized the truth of St. Francis’s words: “O divine master, let me not seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned and it is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”
In May of 2003 Anne Lamott gave the commencement speech at the University of California at Berkeley and I wish the rich man in Jesus’ parable had been there to hear her speech. She outlined for the class the path her life had taken. “I’d been wanting to be a successful author my whole life. But when I finally did it, I was like a greyhound catching the mechanical rabbit I’d been chasing all my life — metal, wrapped up in cloth. It wasn’t alive; it had no spirit. It was fake. Fake doesn’t feed anything. Only spirit feeds spirit, in the same way only your own blood type can sustain you. It had nothing that could slake the lifelong thirst I had for a little immediacy, and connection.” Then she gave them some advice. Remember, “you are loved; you are capable of lives of great joy and meaning. It’s what you are made of. And it’s what you’re here for….find a path, and a little light to see by. Every single spiritual tradition says the same three things: 1) Live in the now, as often as you can, a breath here, a moment there. 2) You reap exactly what you sow. 3) you must take care of the poor, or you are so doomed that we can’t help you.”
“Spirit feeds spirit.” That’s good advice for taking care of your soul. “Do not lie to one another,” writes the author of Colossians, “see that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” (Colossians 1: 9-11) God challenges us to strip ourselves of the script that says protect yourself at all cost, for one that trusts in God to care for us as we care for others. May it be so. Amen. .