Sermon delivered June 5, 2011
Today marks the beginning of our summer of proverbs! Children, youth, and adults will be engaged in the same topics each week.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” certainly gets a lot of traction! saying is attributed to Lao Tzu, who lived over 2500 years ago. Confucius also got credited, though he was born 20 years after Lao Tzu died. And we keep on saying it because it applies to just about every person and every new venture that is ever undertaken.
Consider this morning’s parable. Tony went to summer camp as an art student. His bunkmate Andy attended as a drama student. Each boy helped the other one overcome obstacles so that Tony could participate in a play in spite of his fear of forgetting lines, and Andy learned how to use a potter’s wheel in spite of having only one arm. It just happened that they met each other and coaxed something new from a new friend. You can probably remember a time when someone said just the right thing to point you in an unexpected direction.
The title “Journey of a Thousand Miles” shows up all over the internet. I found it on a personal finance blog that said if you want to get out of debt, start with a list of everything you spend for a month. There’s also a wedding blog, Journey of a Thousand Miles, that tracks a bride and groom’s journey from their engagement to a destination wedding and honeymoon. An autobiography, Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story, shares the life of a boy in China who eventually travels to Europe then America then on the world stage through piano performance.
Life itself is a journey. All of us could tell a story about a truly significant turning point or moment when something new began. A new baby, an empty nest, a graduation, a new job—are common experiences that occur only after a period of preparation. David Brooks had a good message for recent college graduates when he said, “It’s not about you.” Brooks says, “Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. . . . The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself”[i] in something that calls to you.
That resonates with a phone conversation I had with Ruth Chatfield, our eldest Live Oak member. For her, the reason to do something comes from an urge to be of use and to make a contribution. She has just come home from the hospital and doesn’t know what contribution she can make any more. She wanted me to tell you that there are some Very Good People at Live Oak and she wouldn’t know what to do without you. She couldn’t come to church today because a home health nurse will be visiting her every morning for 30 days to help her with medication and other needs. During Ruth’s 92 years she has undertaken countless journeys, especially in the world of art and music. She was a dancer, then a violinist, then an artist, then a potter—redirected each time because of a specific medical challenge. If anyone knows about journeys, Ruth certainly does!
Sometimes a journey gets kick started when you feel lower than a snake’s belly or lost in the slough of despond. My friend Jim, who spent 3 ½ years in a federal prison, said the journey to hell also begins with a single step. He is out of prison now and after a few years of struggle he is finally ready to move on. His youngest son graduated from high school this year. The sense of completion seems to have provided the incentive Jim needs to refocus on his own life.
An organization that was born out of the pain of a daughter’s death grew to become “For the Love of Christi.” Hundreds of families like Live Oak’s MacIntoshes and Von Alts have been helped through enormous grief. Now they, in turn, provide support to other families who suffer the death of a child. No one understands better than someone who has shared that experience. Yesterday an addition to the Christi House was dedicated. Christi’s parents Don and Susan Cox were there with gratitude for generous donations of time, money, and in-kind donations ranging from the concrete slab to the living room couches. A moving prayer was offered by the Rev. Dale Schultz, senior pastor of St. Phillips United Methodist Church in Round Rock.
Whether it’s a gradual decision or a devastating event, there finally comes a moment to act. Mary Oliver in her poem “The Journey. ” [Here’s an excerpt. Entire poem easily found online.]
One day you finally knew
what you had to do and began,
. . .
determined to dothe only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.
What makes us decide to embark on a journey of any sort? A tragedy, a chance encounter, a suggestion, thoughtful consideration?
Fifty years ago the first Freedom Riders got on buses in Washington D.C. and headed south with a determination to raise the issue of unfair racial laws while remaining non-violent no matter what happened. They were indeed met with violence, especially in Alabama and Mississippi. Brutal beatings, fire bombing one of the buses, and prison time for hundreds. After the first group of a dozen or so were forced to return home, more waves of young adults, black and white, boarded other buses. Non-violent protest stood in stark contrast to public brutality until finally the Kennedy administration was forced to uphold federal laws of equal rights. We continue to challenge injustice wherever it occurs.
Thirty years ago odd cancers and pneumonia began showing up among young gay men in New York and California. These were the first harbingers of a catastrophic pandemic that has infected over 60 million people and killed at least 30 million. In 1981 no one knew whether it was a new disease, what caused it, how it spread, how to treat it, or even a name for it. AIDS research has been a long journey full of trial and error to achieve today’s better treatment and education about prevention, but there is no vaccine yet and the trials and errors will continue for a long time to come.
What makes us decide to embark on a journey of any sort? I like to believe that it’s a combination of fact, context, and intuition. But apparently there’s a lot more to decision-making before it even reaches a conscious level.
Some of you probably heard Dr. David Eagleman on Fresh Air this week[ii] or saw him on TV or read about him in the New Yorker magazine. He is a neuroscientist at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine and a writer and speaker. His latest book Incognito explores the neurons and brain activity that compete for attention and influence how we act, what attracts us, and what we think. Eagleman says that all of this happens after an internal lightning storm of electrical impulses that operate quite without our conscious awareness.
Brain cells make up the 3-pounds of gray matter we each carry around in our skulls. The cells are made of hundreds of billions of neurons and glia that are as complicated as a city. Electrical pulses to other cells measure up to hundreds of times per second. That means, Eagleman says, that there are as many connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
It boggles my mind—in a happy way! Conscious thoughts in making a decision cannot even begin to capture that level of connectivity. Behavior, thoughts, and actions might seem to appear out of the blue, but we don’t even have a way to describe what’s happening. You could damage your little finger and still be you, but if you damage that much brain, it might affect your ability to speak, to understand music, to avoid a hot stove, or to recognize yourself in a mirror. When the brain changes, so do we. Most of its function is below conscious level but ultimately it controls our journey of thousands of miles.
Having been introduced to Dr. Eagleman, I kept reading interviews with him and watching his videos. His previous book Sum is a journey of possibilities. After all, he calls himself a Possibilian. For this book he selected 40 possible “reasons for our existence and the meaning of life and death.” In various stories, maybe “God is a married couple,” or “God is the size of a bacterium,” or “life runs backwards after the expansion of the universe reverses and you get to see all the details you mis-remembered.” [iii] When he made up the word possibilian in a lecture, hundreds of people had emailed him by the time he got back to his office, so he did the modern first thing: launched the website possibilian.com. Check it out!
As a Possibilian, Eagleman rivals the late great Carl Sagan in his ability to fascinate audiences about science and its creative process. So much scientific knowledge has been gained over the past 400 years! “We reached the moon and eradicated smallpox and built the Net and tripled life spans.” It’s like we are building a pier out into the ocean or out into space. One by one we add planks of knowledge to the end of the pier for new generations to follow. But eventually, standing at the end of the pier, all you can see in the distance is mystery. Eagleman describes mystery as “The equivalence of mass and energy, dark matter, multiple spatial dimensions, how to build consciousness from pieces and parts, what life and death are about, and so on. I have no doubt that we will continue to build the pier out, several new slats in each generation, but we have no guarantee how far we’ll get. [iv]
From the depths of one of those nematodes found deep in a South African cave to the outer reaches of space, the frontier beckons. Enjoy this time lapse view from four Very Large Telescopes in Chile. Let your mind soar on a journey through space and time.
We are a part of this! We may not know where we’re going, but we are on the journey!
[i] A version of this op-ed appeared in print on May 31, 2011, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: It’s Not About You.