A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, May 28, 2017
Proverbs 16 (selected verses); reading from Parker J. Palmer’s, Let Your Life Speak
Today’s message was prepared primarily with our graduating high school seniors in mind. At the same time, what I have to say today may be applicable to those of all ages – graduating seniors or senior adults – because it is never too late to hear the “Voice” that speaks to us, calling us to be our authentic self, even in our retirement years. We are reminded that the renowned American folk artist Grandma Moses didn’t hear that “Voice” calling her to seriously pick up a paintbrush until she was 78 years old. Her paintings – which she initially sold for $3-5 – would eventually bring thousands of dollars and grace the covers of magazines, be featured on a U.S. postage stamp, and be displayed in numerous museums and galleries around the country and world.
But the question of the day – for high school seniors and senior adults alike and everyone else in between – is which voice are we going to listen to when choosing a path to follow and/or seeking to be our authentic self? Because the voices that beckon to us – the voices crying out to be heard – are many and varied.
I was reminded this past week of one of the scenes in that classic movie starring Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate. Now, I hasten to say that not every scene in The Graduate is suitable for a church discussion, as most of you well know. But the scene I am referring to is when the character Benjamin, played by Hoffman, is at the graduation celebration party that his parents have thrown for him. As Benjamin is milling around the party, different people keep asking him what he plans to do or telling him what he should do with his life. And one family friend in particular corners him to give him advice. (As a side note, the line I am going to share with you was named No. 42 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest movie quotations.) The family friend says, “I just want to say one word to you. One word. Are you listening?” When Benjamin replies, “Yes,” the family friend says, “Plastics.” The future is in plastics. But the point here being, it is obvious that Benjamin is totally confused about what to do with his life, and all the voices urging him to go this way or that doesn’t help matters at all. Such vocation confusion resonates because it is a universal feeling among young people setting off into the world.
I imagine that our graduating seniors have a cadre of competing voices as well about what they should do with their future – where they should go to college, what field of study should be pursued, what business or profession should be entered into, the position that will pay the most money, and so on. Voices of teachers, guidance counselors, well-meaning relatives, neighbors, ministers and churches, and yes, even parents as well. I have come to believe that our task as parents and grandparents is to try to listen to and seek to facilitate discussion, focusing on helping children and grandchildren discern the most important “Voice” of all in choosing their own path into the future. It might not change at all the course they choose, but then again it might actually be a help to them.
And then there are the voices of the media, social media, contemporary idols and role models, sports stars, rock stars, and others who serve as “voices” and color the picture of who we should seek to become. With all the competing voices out there calling out to us, which voice is to be listened to as we plan our lives and look to the future?
Young people, there is some wonderful reading and good, practical advice in the book of Proverbs from which I read to you. I would encourage you to read the book of Proverbs sometimes. The last verse I read to you reminds us that “What you think is the right road may lead to death” (16:25). Let’s interpret that as not just physical death; but death of the soul or spirit may be the result if we find ourselves on the wrong road in life. A lot of people are walking around in the world physically alive, but void of inner life.
But finding the right path in life – the path that is compatible with the inner person one is – can lead to a life of joy and life abundant. And that is where listening to the right “Voice” comes into play.
As a graduation gift, we are giving each of the graduating seniors a copy of Parker J. Palmer’s little, but oh so powerful, book, Let Your Life Speak. I discovered this book some 10-12 years ago, but how I wish I could have had it when I was a graduating high school senior. It is one of my Top 10, all-time favorite books, one I will not loan out. I encourage our graduates to take time to read this book, as it has life-changing potential. In the first half (55 pages), Palmer talks about voices and vocation. In choosing our life’s vocation, we need to be careful about which voice we listen to. We are all tempted to heed the voice promising success or status; to choose one profession or position over another because it promises to make us rich or famous. But as Palmer himself realized, choosing a vocation based solely upon success or status, riches or fame, will not lead to happiness and may, in fact, make us physically or emotionally ill.
What Palmer advises in deciding upon a vocation or path in life is to refrain from listening to the voices “out there” that call us to become something or someone that we are not. But rather, he advises to listen to the Voice “in here,” inside of us, which calls us to be the person we were born to be, to fulfill the selfhood given us at birth.1 The question becomes, What is your gift, what is your personal passion, what energizes you and gives you joy? This is the “Voice” that speaks to us.
Now, being the true Quaker that he is, Palmer is quick to share his own belief that this inner Voice is the “image of God in which we are created,” or what Quakers call “the inner light, or ‘that of God’ in every person.” Mystic Thomas Merton called it “true self.” “The humanist tradition calls it identity and integrity.” No matter what we call it, the inner “Voice” is that voice to which we should above all other voices try to be true. What is our inner, created self saying to us about who we are and what we should do with our life? By doing otherwise, we will never be true to our inner self, and likely will not find the ultimate joy that comes from being the person we truly are and sharing that person with the world.
Suzanne Blokland forwarded an article to me on 13 habits of extremely confident people. The article lists 13 negative habits that we all need to give up in order to boost self-confidence. At least three of the habits are applicable to the subject at hand regarding which voice we are going to listen to. The article suggests giving up “Caring too much about what other people think. . . stop trying to meet other peoples’ expectations.” Also, give up “Asking others for their opinion before formulating your own. Become the expert of your experience.” And then the third habit to give up that applies to our theme of the day is stop “Wasting time comparing yourself to others.”2
Well, whether one is a graduating high or college senior, or a senior adult, or someone in between, it is important that we discern among all the voices that beckon to us. We do well to listen to the Voice deep within that calls us to follow the path that is representative of our true self. It may be choosing the course of study that fits, it may be deciding upon a vocation or change in vocation, it may be deciding to become a volunteer in some organization with whose mission we resonate, or it may be pursuing and exercising a creative talent or gift (as in the case of Grandma Moses) that we have long been drawn to but never attempted.
Call it what you will: the Voice of the true, inner self; the Voice of the Spirit; the Voice of “that of God in everyone”; or the Voice of personal identity and integrity. To that Voice above all may we seek to be true, whatever our age may be. Amen.
1Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2000. P. 10.
2Matthew Jones, flipboard.com/@IncMagazine, May 18, 2017.