Psalm 107:1-9 (NRSV)

Once upon a time, there was a man who lived in the middle of a desert. Yet, that was not quite true. It would be better to say that he was a prisoner of the desert. You see, somehow and sometime in the past, our friend had acquired the habit of following his shadow, and only his shadow. It was a relentless and unbending compass, which he obeyed completely and followed without question. Every morning when the sun came up, he began walking in the direction his shadow pointed. As the sun traced its slow crescent across the sky, he followed the subtle bending of his shadow. By the end of the day, he had traced a rough oval and was nearly back to where he had started in the morning. While his course varied a little with the seasons of the year and the speed he walked, it wasn’t much, and it was never enough to allow him to leave the desert.

This had been going on for as long as he could remember. It was familiar and comfortable, the only way he knew. Yet he also had to admit that it often left him feeling trapped and alone. Sometimes he wondered what it would be like to face the sun instead of always turning his back to it and walking the other way. And he longed to see if there might not be something more to the world than the desert, but he never seemed to have enough resolve to do anything different. Once upon a time, there was a man who lived in the middle of a desert. Yet, that was not quite true. It would be better to say that he was a prisoner of the desert.

I came upon this story a few years ago in a magazine called Weavings. It was written by a man named David Griebner. It presents an interesting image doesn’t it, the kind that’s easy to picture in your mind. A man walks in circles out in the wilderness. He is bound to his own shadow. We have a lot of familiar expressions for this kind of thing: living by rote, going through the motions, being locked into stagnant patterns of thought or behavior. I always loved the commercial of the poor baker who dragged himself out of bed day after day mumbling, “time to make the doughnuts.” I think the idea was that we were supposed to appreciate his devotion to the task of bringing us something sweet, but you had to feel sorry for the guy being so robotic about his life. The truth is that many of us live that way: going through the motions, bound to our own shadows.

Cleveland Amory tells a story in his book, The Proper Bostonians, which carries a similar message. For more than fifty years, John Lowell, the 19th century poet, had oatmeal for breakfast every day. One morning, to her shock, his cook burned the cereal and discovered that there was no more in the pantry. “Mr. Lowell,” she said. “There isn’t going to be any oatmeal this morning.” “Oh,” he replied “that’s all right, my dear. I never did care for it.” Isn’t that fabulous? Fifty years of eating oatmeal he never did care for. Does your life ever feel that way? I’m sure it does, sometimes. Mine certainly does, once in a while. We all find ourselves stuck in ruts from time to time, but that’s not always a bad thing.

Robert Pirsig is most famous as the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But he also wrote a less familiar book called Lila, An Inquiry Into Morals. In this book Pirsig says that life is made up of static and dynamic qualities. Static qualities don’t move; they are conservative, predictable, fixed and traditional. The static qualities of life hold things in place. Dynamic qualities, on the other hand, are characterized by motion and change. They are free, moving, growing and spontaneous. Pirsig is not saying that one is better than the other. Both static and dynamic qualities are necessary for a balanced life. We need both to maintain our equilibrium, and we can easily become unbalanced in either direction; either too static or too dynamic. Either way doesn’t work very well.

We certainly know what too dynamic looks like. It’s when life gets completely thrown up for grabs and there doesn’t seem to be anything solid to hang on to. That can be a frightening place to be. The 4th of this month was the 30th anniversary of my Father’s death. He died when he was just three years older than I am now. I’ll never forget how completely disoriented I felt when he died. It took me a long time to get my feet back on the ground. More globally, I’m sure you remember the chaos of 9/11. Eighteen years ago, and there are still ripples keep going out from that tragedy. Lately, well, politics seems to be all about chaos these days. No doubt about it, too much dynamism in our lives can be overwhelming.

But, becoming too static has its own problems. In a world of rapid change, we can’t just be the kid with his finger in the dyke. We can’t just hole up inside our sanctuary and hope the world will come to its senses. Static and dynamic qualities both have their challenges. But if I had to guess, I would say that most of us, most of the time, are much more likely to suffer from being too static than too dynamic. It is so easy to become bound up in our own shadows. So easy to stay in the places we’ve always been, do the things we’ve always done, rehash the ideas we’ve always had. Even if that’s not the kind of person we think we are. Sometimes stasis can creep up on us. One day we are surprised to discover that we have been wandering around in circles out in the wilderness.

This is a very human experience. I’m sure it’s been around, well, probably as long as people have. Just look at today’s psalm. “Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; hungry and thirsty, their souls fainted within them.” Doesn’t that sound just like the man in the desert? Maybe we should call this psalm the song of the shadow bound. There is a difference though, between the psalm and the story. In the psalm, the people aren’t left wandering in circles. “They cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He led them by a straight way, until they reached an inhabited town.” If we truly want to get out of the wilderness, it’s clear that we can’t simply keep going around in the same circles. We have to change directions. We have to go in one direction, until we find our way to some new territory. But changing directions, that’s the challenge isn’t it. There is something in us that resists change.

There’s a great old story you’ve probably heard, about a man who developed the curious notion that he was dead. When he shared his belief with his friends, they begged him to go see a psychiatrist, which he finally did. When the doctor learned about the man’s belief, he gave him an assignment. “For the next three months, first thing in the morning, I want you to look at yourself in the mirror and repeat these words over and over; ‘Dead men don’t bleed. Dead men don’t bleed.” The man agreed. He went away, then returned three months later. The doctor asked him if he had done as he had been asked. When the man said that he had, the doctor suddenly grabbed a hold of the man’s hand and jabbed him with a needle. “There,” the doctor said. “What do you think of that?” For a few moments, the man stared at his hand in amazement. Then he looked up at the doctor and exclaimed, “O my word. Dead men do bleed.”

Have you ever tried to change someone who doesn’t believe they need to change? Have you ever tried to change yourself? It seems like it ought to be easier to do than it is, doesn’t it. How many times have you tried to diet, or stop smoking, or, really, get out of anything that feels like a bad habit? We have all kinds of books telling us how to do it. Very few sections of any reputable bookstore will be as large as the self-help section. If change was so easy, there probably wouldn’t be a market for such books. Most of us have a long string of broken resolutions behind us. We have the best of intentions, but there is something in us that resists change. The French have a beautiful saying that captures the problem perfectly. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. That’s actually the only thing I know how to say in French. But I liked it so well I memorized it. It means, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Isn’t that a great line? And it’s so true isn’t it. We look around us; the world, our lives, seem to be changing all the time. Yet for all the differences, so often what we are actually doing is circling right back upon ourselves, ending up in more or less the same place we started from. In our own lives, our churches, our schools, and in the ways our countries interact with one another around the world, we love to trumpet the idea that we are changing and growing, improving, making progress: every day in every way we are getting better and better. Yet the truth is, as we all very well know, in the overwhelming majority of cases, we are merely tracing a very large circle in the wilderness: Shadowbound. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That doesn’t sound like a very hopeful message does it. Does that mean I don’t believe in change? No, certainly not. I wouldn’t leave you there. I value my job too much. But real change is something different than we usually think it is. I’ve got a wonderful book that explains why. The book is called Change. It’s written by Paul Watzlawick, and others. He says that in order to truly understand change, we have to recognize that there are actually two different kinds. He calls them “first” and “second order” change. First order change is the kind we have mostly been talking about. Watzlawick uses a beautiful analogy of a man in a room filled with furniture. One day this man decides that he has had enough of things being the way they are, so he gets up and starts moving the furniture around. He pushes and shoves couches and chairs, tables, lamps and the old upright piano around until he has them arranged quite differently. But at the end of the day, despite all his effort, he is still the same man, with the same furniture in the same room. He might believe that things have changed, but nothing is fundamentally different. That is first order change. If he gets up and rearranges the furniture every single day for the rest of his life, it might very well seem like his life is filled with change. But in reality, he will only be circling back on himself. He will be shadow bound.

Second order change is different. Second order change is always transcendent. It always depends on something or someone coming to us from outside our normal room, with the message that there is more to the world than we had always thought. Watzlawick says, it is as if someone knocks on the door of our little room and says to us, “excuse me, but are you aware that there is a whole other room here? Are you aware that by simply walking through this door, you can open yourself up to a larger world?” Where first order change will run endlessly around in circles, second order change is always transcendent. That is the message of Watzlawick’s book. It is also the message of the psalm. First and second order change. When we follow our own shadow, we always end up wandering in desert wastes, hungry and thirsty, our souls fainting within us. But when our own resources finally fail us, we cry out to the Lord, who takes us by the hand and leads us by a straight path to an inhabited town.

I know this is true because I’ve seen it so many times in my own life. Things fall apart, I find myself going around in circles, I am brought to my knees, and God opens to me another path, another room, a larger world than I had previously known. Just before I left my church in Westport, this was exactly what was going on. Life had fallen apart in a big way. My mother had died, my daughter was in serious emotional trouble, and I was in a great deal of conflict with the staff and lay leadership of my church. It seemed like the perfect storm: three different storm systems all converging on one another to form one monster storm. Everything I tried to do to fix things only seemed to make matters worse.

Right in the middle of all this dynamic chaos, I found myself, late at night, walking along the beach and praying. I told God about all the mistakes I had made, all the ways I felt I had failed, about how exhausted and trapped I seemed to be, and most especially, about how much I wanted to find a church filled with people to love, where I could pour out my heart and soul for the sake of grace. God took me by the hand that night. The road, since then, hasn’t always been straight, but I know that I have been led by God out of the wilderness; first to Maine, and then to Manchester.

It is often true that our lives are more about going around in circles than they probably ought to be. It is often true that the more things seem to change, the more they stay the same. But it is also true that we are deeply cherished by a God who transcends our everyday lives; who is forever seeking to draw us out into a larger world, a larger widsom, a larger balance between the static and dynamic elements of our lives. It is God’s transcendent love for us, and leading of us, that makes possible the kind of change we are all looking for. We have but to turn around and face the light of God’s love, to be led out of our shadow-bound wilderness, to the inhabited town of God’s choosing.


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