Does not take directions well. Has trouble listening. Won’t color within the lines. These are the kinds of evaluations made about kindergarten students. Early in our lives two realities clash. The first is highlighted in today’s breathtaking reading from the 139th Psalm. Each of us, like a snowflake, is unique. We have been lovingly crafted by a skillful Creator to be ourselves – a one of a kind masterpiece. The other reality is we are a communal people. We do not live in isolation, but rather in complex relationships with others. As such, we need to conform to certain standards and expectations. There comes a time in life when you will be free to color outside the lines, but early on the emphasis is on mastering the skills necessary to fit in and get along.
To shift the metaphor to one I have used before, in life, each of us is meant to be a jazz musician. Jazz music is a free-form, creative expression built on the unique talents of the artist and his or her interaction with others in the group. You can’t just pick up a saxophone for the first time and blow jazz. First you must master the basics and learn the scales. Only when the fundamentals are so deeply ingrained as a tacit skill is it possible to break free of them and create something of your own.
It takes years and years to get to this point, and one of the great sadnesses of life is when a person learns the scales but never deviates from them; when a person learns how to color within the lines, but never branches out into authentic, personal expression. These people are everywhere, littering our lives. They tend to be rigid, domineering, and highly critical of others who question convention.
We meet some of them in today’s reading from the gospel of Mark. If the Pharisees are anything, they are masters of the scales of practicing religion. When the Lord God said, “You shall honor the Sabbath and keep it holy,” they became the guardians of what this looked like. They have all the details down pat. What was intended as a day of rest and celebration of delivery from bondage in Egypt became for them an exercise of coloring within the lines and playing the scales. Do it like this. Nothing else is permissible.
Sunday in and Sunday out we gather in this place and pretty much do the same thing every week. Yes, the readings and the hymns change, but we are a “prayer book” church. It is how we come together to experience the Sabbath. But we are not slaves to the prayer book. Several years ago we received word early on a Sunday morning a parishioner had been rushed to a hospital with a life-threatening medical emergency. I knew I had to be there, so I turned to Al Reese and said, “You need to figure out how to wing it.” Everyone understood the Sabbath priority of pastoral care eclipsed prayer book worship in that moment. Do you remember the Sunday we observed the 15th Anniversary of 9/11 outside with the Unity Project? Honoring the Sabbath is not the same as being obliged to a mandated form of worship.
Try to tell this to the Pharisees. They exercise what is known as positional authority. This is the authority of a boss or teacher or police officer. We do what they tell us to do because their position entitles them to place demands on us. Positional authority is grounded both in the power of the person who wields it and in the fear of those who are under it. The Pharisees’ title and role makes them the wardens of all things religious.
Jesus operates with personal authority. Its expression is grounded in a person’s own vision and values. It inspires loyalty and trust in others and they will allow such a person to speak to their lives because they know the person cares about them. Personal authority is not concerned with prestige, status, or image, but rather in the genuine well-being of self and others.
Sometimes, but not always, a person with positional authority also has personal authority. This is a powerful and potent combination. In today’s reading, no one has both. Jesus has personal authority, but not positional. The Pharisees have positional authority, but not personal.
Most often most people will not challenge positional authority even when they know it to be wrong. The FAA has discovered many errors by flight captains go unchallenged by crew members because they do not believe it is their place to question. One airline went so far as to create a flight simulator with scenarios designed to overwhelm the captain. 25% of the time subordinates failed to take corrective actions in the face of a captain’s fatal mistake.
This suggests the Pharisees are not used to having their positional authority challenged. They are not used to someone like Jesus who knows how to color within the lines, but at times elects not to. And it illuminates why they take the dramatic step of consulting with the Herodians – members of the occupying ruling government – in order to find a way to “destroy” Jesus. They are concerned only about the demands of communal living and insist on conformity and standards. Jesus has moved past this and is focused on the reality that every person is a masterpiece and our highest pursuit is to discover the unique way we can express how we have been created in God’s glorious image.
Dr. James Hollis, in his book What Matters Most: Living a More Considered Life, states “the single most important task of the second half of life is the recovery of personal authority, namely, the discovery of what is true for us, really true, and mobilizing the courage and resources to live our truth in the world.” He notes Carl Jung – the founder of analytic psychology – held “all our troubles stem from one place—the separation from our instincts”. All those adaptations we make to fit in and get by, while necessary, have the cumulative effect of estranging us from the quiet and centered voice within each one of us; the voice telling us who we are and what is right and what will keep us healthy and help us to flourish.
Hollis talks about the adaptive self and the true self, which is longing to be expressed in the world. He says,
The ultimate question we have to ask ourselves is, “what wants to enter the world through me?” This is not a narcissistic question; it is a respectful, reverential invitation to reflect on the purpose of our journeys. And then we must ask, “what within me stands in the way of embodying that talent, that enthusiasm, that curiosity, that relational gift which I can bring to my family, my friends, my world, and to myself?” This is not an agenda for being famous, recognized by others, or even understood by others. It is rather a question of what do I experience as truly meaningful in my life.
“In the end,” he says, “we need to feel that the life we lived was our life, not someone else’s, that it was chosen rather than simply our following the instructions on the box.”
Christian spirituality adds to this search one critical element. In the search for our true self we are also in pursuit of the true Jesus. How does the Word Incarnate inform who you really are? Say you discover your most authentic self-expression is that of a ne’er-do-well. Such a discovery is not one to be celebrated or pursued. Each one of us has been created for something more grand and glorious than this. We have been created to manifest a unique expression of the perfect humanity we find in Jesus of Nazareth, what St. Paul's describes as making the life of Jesus visible in our mortal flesh.
This morning we see Jesus acting out of his personal authority. He addresses human need and alleviates human suffering. These are expressions of his deep, authentic self. The single most important task in the second half of life is the recovery of personal authority. What is true for you and how do you mobilize the courage and resources to live your truth in the world?