The Wayfarer's Tale

Rev. Jonathan Mitchell

Wayfarers Chapel

May 25, 2003

Deuteronomy 30:15-16, 19-20

Mark 4:21-23

Last Sunday, I started a series of sermons based on the Wayfarers Poem, Pause for a moment, wayfarer, on life's journey . . . And I suggested that we define the wayfarer to be anyone who has a story to tell. To the degree that we are all embarked on life's journey and have a story to tell, we are all wayfarers. This morning I want to reflect further on these questions: Who is the wayfarer who pauses? And in that pause, how do we tell, and how do we hear, the wayfarer's tale?

One of the things I observe about myself, whenever I have a chance to pause, is that all kinds of memories start to bubble up from within. It seems like a very chaotic process. Memories come in from all periods of my life and in no particular order. And I am just as likely to remember trivial things as I am the big events. To be sure, if I get to wondering how I came to be thinking about a particular period, person, or situation from the past, I can usually trace back a series of associations to its first trigger in the present. Yet this chain of associations can take me almost anywhere in very short order. In thinking about this recently, the image came to mind of the cauldron. The ever advancing present is like a ladle constantly stirring up the cauldron of memory, bringing to the surface first one memory and then another. And every day more ingredients are poured in—stir, stir, stir! But if memory is a cauldron, then what magic potion, or what poison is being prepared? Well, who knows? But I pray at least, for myself and for all of you, that out of the cauldron of memory will emerge the wisdom of a life's experience—the unique wisdom of the total life experience of one unique and irreplaceable human being.

How then do we bring some order to our memories? How do we understand our lives as stories with an overall plot? When we pause, what do our stories tell us, what guidance can they offer for that part of the journey which is still to come? In relationship to our total life experience so far, we are much like editors. Our memories make up an enormous mass of manuscript, if you will, and it is up to us to boil it all down to a story that can be told and shared. In this process, we have, I would suggest, more creative freedom than we usually realize. Whatever has happened to you in the course of your life, you can organize and interpret that story in many ways. How you tell that story affects your outlook on life, or maybe it is better to say that the story of your life as you tell it to yourself is your outlook on life.

One of the simplest ways we organize and interpret our experience is to see the same things happening to us over and over again. It is as if our lives were a song with many verses, but with always the same refrain. The comedian Rodney Dangerfield made a career of this approach. I don't get any respect—the constant refrain of his routines—is funny in large part because we recognize in it our own tendency to see our lives as the same old story over and over. If we take such an interpretation too seriously, however, there is a danger that we will come to see ourselves as hapless victims circumstance. Surely our stories a need, at the least, a sense of direction.

There are other overall themes that can summarize our life experience as well. I once had a brief conversation with a visitor to the grounds of Wayfarers Chapel, who told me that he had been married here—the first time. He went on to say that his second marriage was going much better, that he had been young and foolish the first time and had married for all the wrong reasons. I could see that revisiting Wayfarers Chapel had evoked a wistful feeling for him. Older and wiser—this too is a theme that can organize our life story.

Or again, I had a wedding couple tell me recently that they wanted to play heavy metal music by AC/DC in their wedding. Luckily, they were joking. But, certainly, we can, if we choose, see ourselves as traveling on the Highway to Hell, and this outlook can have a certain seductive appeal. Another couple wanted Stairway to Heaven in their service. Which is it for you? Are you on the "Highway to Hell" or the "Stairway to Heaven"?

Popular songs, and favorite hymns, often express various ways that our life stories could be summarized. This is what makes them popular: we see ourselves in them. For example, consider a song Frank Sinatra made popular, I did it my way. The advantage of seeing your life in these terms is that it affirms the choices you have made in life as your own free choices, and it emphasizes what you have done over what has happened to you. Another good example is the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, We Shall Overcome. This is an empowering way to look at your life in that it recognizes that there are circumstances and injustices in your life you have no control over, while at the same time affirming your ability to resist. It suggests that you can make things better for yourself and for others. The "we" is significant too. In contrast to the individualism of "I did it my way", it invites you into a group identity and a common cause. Or yet again, consider Amazing grace . . . I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see. It is indeed a moment of grace in our lives when we can sing this song and mean it. It lets us acknowledge the mistakes in our lives as mistakes, while thanking the Spirit for bringing us beyond them. It invites us to a life of conscious gratitude.

Well, these examples could go on indefinitely. So I will leave it as a thought question for you. If your life experience so far were to be summed up in a song, what would that song be? I think you will find, when you reflect, that several of the songs I have mentioned, or others that occur to you, can be made to fit to one degree or another. As I said earlier, we have more creative freedom in telling our stories than we often recognize. We ourselves decide, so to speak, the name of the tune.

The importance of how we interpret our experience is brought out tellingly by Robert Haralick, in the introduction to his book, The Hidden Meaning of the Hebrew Letters. He writes:

We are involved in a variety of relationships with family, friends, work, community, country, world and God. The understandings and interpretations we give to each of these situations all complete a meaning we return to God. These understandings and interpretations are not necessitated by anything external. Nor are they fixed in some way so that our situation can have only one kind of interpretation. Each of our situations is inherently ambiguous, having meaning possibilities one way or another. And the choice of how to interpret, which way to interpret is ours.
By the meaning possibilities we complete, we establish what we have made ourselves. God tells us to choose life: choose to complete meaning possibilities that are holy. Do not choose death. Do choose meaning possibilities that are unholy.
Here Haralick alludes to our reading this morning from the Book of Deuteronomy:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving God, obeying God, and holding fast to God. For that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Life and death, blessings and curse - these are the choices God sets before us. I hope you have come to see that they are also the implicit choices we make as we tell our stories, whether to ourselves or to each other. We can tell our stories in ways that bespeak bitterness, resentment, cynicism, discouragement and despair. To do so is to choose to curse, to curse ourselves and others. Or we can tell our stories in ways that bespeak gratitude, forgiveness and compassion, that bespeak an aspiration to learn and to grow, that bespeak a commitment to contribute to the betterment of the world. To do that is to choose to bless and to support the forces of life.

Simply to retell our stories in new ways can be a transformative moment in our spiritual lives. We can realize that the stories we have been telling ourselves are destructive and self-limiting. We can come to see that we could just as truthfully tell ourselves more hopeful, more empowering stories. We can reexamine the stories of our lives so far in the light of these new interpretations. We can choose to bless and to live richer, fuller lives.

Who is the wayfarer who pauses? How do we tell, and how do we hear, the wayfarer's tale? I would suggest that these are questions for ongoing pause and reflection here at Wayfarers Chapel. May we be given the wisdom to tell and to hear our stories in their most life-giving tellings. And as we meet on the road, may we help each other to find the wisdom and the blessing in the wayfarer's tale.