Freedom to Find and Walk

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 11/24/2013

Last spring I worked with a group of you to decide what our monthly worship themes should be this year, this year that we’re calling The Year of Spiritual Curiosities. Once we identified the general spiritual curiosities people might have, we spent some time fine-tuning the wording so that we were asking the right question about those curiosities, capturing them in the right way.

And the group of you with whom I was working, the Themesters, that group was very interested in exploring the topic that turned into this month’s theme. We worded it, perhaps a little awkwardly: How Do I Find the Right Path…for Me? And we planned it for November, and here we are.

But there was something that stuck in my craw a little bit about it, not just the somewhat awkward phrasing, but the whole question itself. And finally I realized what it was that was bothering me. What was bothering me was that the question does not quite get at the real problem, if you ask me, the real spiritual curiosity.

The dilemma, if you ask me, is not, How Do I Find My Right Path. The dilemma is not quite “How Do I Find My Right Path,” and the reason for that is because we all have a superhero power.

Stay with me.

The dilemma is not quite “How Do I Find My Right Path” because we all of us have a superpower, and that superpower is….Spidey Sense . [ Adapted from the Alban Institute’s article, the May 18th, 2013 entry from Bob Sitze's new epub, Simple Enough: A Companion Along the Way. Visit the article at ]

Spidey Sense, you know, what Spiderman has. The thing that tells him when something bad is going on. Spiderman got his Spidey sense the same place he got all his other superpowers, from the radioactive spider that bit him in his lab, and don’t tell me there’s not at least one person at this church who doesn’t have radioactive spiders in some lab somewhere.

But you don’t have to work in some mysterious lab along the Technology Corridor to have Spidey sense. Spidey sense happens to all of us, actually, warning us deep down of evil or that something weird is happening that isn’t quite obvious.

Or, more importantly for today, Spidey sense tells us when something is slightly or massively off in the way that we’re living. It’s what happens when something in your gut, something in your heart, tells you that there’s something about the situation or the life you find yourself in that isn’t…quite….right…for you.

You can call it conscience, or intuition, or the voice of the divine, but nearly everyone has this Spidey sense. You’ll be moving right along the paths of your life and you’ll pick up on something, maybe with a tingle all over like Spiderman, maybe with an ever-so-subtle feeling of dread or numbness, maybe with something in your stomach or your head or heart that tells you that something is not quite right about what you’re doing with yourself, something is not quite right in the way you’re choosing – or have to choose - to live. Something about it is not the Right Path For You. And given a little bit of space and a little bit of reflection, that Spidey sense can rise and take shape and give you good direction to what a better path for you might be.

This is why I think our spiritual curiosity this month is just a little bit off. I think, rather than having it be called, “How Do I Find the Right Path,” the question really ought to be, “Given that I know, deep inside, when a path is right for me and when it is not, how do I develop the ability to follow the path that IS best for me?” How do I develop the ability to follow the right path, that’s what the question should be.

Because there are so many influences and pressures, aren’t there, that keep us from following that right path, from even trying to figure it out. Think of all those labels that you listed just a few minutes ago. Name, age, gender, family roles, educational attainment, occupation. Those descriptives weren’t invented by you one day as you sat in some empty room considering what the best path forward might be. Many of them, if not most of them, were given to you by others.

You aren’t really an individual person, you’re at least in part a collection of the places you come from and the people who raised you and the people you spend time with now, and the lifestyles and expectations of those people and places are evident and weighty on us as we grow up, learning who we are and what we want to do and be. They influence us, so much so that sometimes we find that we’re walking their paths, and not our own. Sometimes we find out that we’ve set sail to someone else’s star.

For example, it’s hard for Americans to not want to buy nicer things quite regularly. We are told to buy nicer things all the time – we tell each other that, all our entertainment tells us that, even our holidays tell us that, which I mention since we’re coming up on a big one. And that’s not a neutral or simple thing to be told, because being able to buy things comes attached to making money and making money comes attached to occupation and occupation comes attached to educational attainment or genius in some way, and suddenly we realize that we started being told that we need to go out and get a good job or get super smart or find some money somehow when we were in the second grade or something, and that was a long time ago for most of us.

When we were in something like the second grade and we were just starting to get that Spidey sense going about what might be the right path for us, what do you suppose happened if our path didn’t match what we heard from everyone around us about what constitutes a “good” life? If “everyone” tells us a good life is one with a steady supply of new things, we might be likely to put away our other ideas of what a good life for us might be.

What if you always wanted to be a poet, or an explorer, or what if you just wanted to be with your family and friends and at the end of the day money and work just never mattered that much to you? What happens to that “right path” for that second grader? A lot of kids, and a lot of adults, just decide that they aren’t right about their path after all, and they learn that they should listen to the people who are out there rather than the very important person in here. And that’s how paths get mislaid.

Another example of how we get off our paths: Many people in the US, particularly women, have lives that are enmeshed with the lives of the people that they care about. They measure themselves and value themselves according to who was around as they grew up and whom they’ve come to love now that they’re grown. Sometimes these people, women in particular, can get all tangled up in what others think about everything they do, from how they look to whom they partner with to what their children are up to.

What happens to girls who want to be or look the way that’s right for them, when their families and friends and later their partners and children are encouraging them to go in different ways? Can that girl, that woman, find the strength to turn her Spidey sense into a real, fitting path that’s just right for her? What would she need in order to do that?

What’s the answer to our reconstituted theme question – How do I locate the strength and skill to not just find but follow the right path for me? The answer, I think, has to do with freedom. The sort of freedom we were trying to gain in our exercise earlier.

Not only freedom to get to do something, which is the sort of freedom that most readily comes to mind, like “You’re free from work for Thanksgiving; what are you going to do?” But it’s also freedom from things. The sort of freedom from the things that keep a person down. Freedom from those things could liberate you, for example, liberate you so that you might be able to better follow your true path.

While I was thinking about freedom last summer, I happened to visit the FDR memorial downtown and see and remember the Four Freedoms that President Roosevelt outlined in his address to Congress in January of 1941. President Roosevelt named four freedoms as essential to human development, four freedoms that he said everyone in the world should experience. There are two “Freedom ofs”: Freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. And there are two “freedom froms”: Freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Thinking about freedoms like this is a helpful way to consider what people need in order to live their best lives. It goes along with what a psychologist named Abraham Maslow identified as a hierarchy of needs at around the same time. Maslow pointed out that the needs of human beings form a pyramid. You need the more basic needs at the bottom met, the ones like breathing and eating and sleeping, before you can even start moving on to the next layer of needs, the ones for safety or good health or security of income. And it is only after that that you can seek to meet your needs for love, or relationships, or connection, or finding your true self.

Think about all the things you need to be free from before you can even begin to think about following your best path. You need to be free from want, to begin with. You’ll need to have the resources to shift and change your life a little bit; abject poverty is a destroyer of spirit, and it will be hard to find your right path if you can’t find enough food or a place to stay. Being poor is a waste of human potential, and that’s why Roosevelt felt it was so important to make sure everyone had their basic needs met. People who are not free from want are a real part of our lives here in upper Montgomery County, and a real part of the lives of people in this room, too. You won’t be getting far if you can’t find this freedom, and if you can provide this freedom for others, then bless you for doing that good work.

You’ll also need some freedom of speech in order to follow your right path. In other words, if you’re being silenced by your culture or your family or by voices in your own head, you aren’t going to be able to translate that Spidey sense into real change. After a while, if you aren’t able to say who you really are, then you’ll lose the urge to figure out who you are to begin with.

You’ll need freedom of religion to find your true path too, freedom of religion in the Unitarian Universalist Fourth Principle sense of the freedom of religion, because when you’ve responsibly sought and found your own truth, you’ll have that much more inspiration and strength to follow the other paths in your life that need your attention.

But most of all, more than anything else in following the right path for yourself, you need to be free from fear.

I said before that given a little bit of space and time for reflection, our Spidey sense rises and takes shape into real information about what our best path is and how it might be different from what we’re actually doing with our lives. And sometimes, we work really hard to never allow that space or time into our lives, because we know that our Spidey sense is going to tell us something that we’re afraid to hear.

The kind of fear that we need to be free from, so that we can follow our true paths, that kind of fear is often coming from inside of us. It’s so easy for human beings to get themselves locked into a sort of track, someone else’s path, where all the work they’ve done to get to where they are somehow means they are destined to stay there all of their days.

We can get locked into a track that tells us that we have to maintain a certain standard of living, because that’s the American dream. We can get locked into a track that tells us that we have to do what we think our friends and family expect from us, because that’s the way things have always been done. But those fears, those ideas, those locked tracks, they are mental slavery, my friends, as Bob Marley told us earlier.

You can live on less money than you think. You can completely change your occupation without feeling you’ve wasted your time or money. You can change the way you think or approach situations so completely that it brightens and refreshes everything you do. You can find a true path for yourself that is so new, but feels so spot-on to who you already are, that it will seems like you were not only aware of it all your life but were heading there despite yourself.

The darkest, most intractable and confusing problems can shift. Your extravagant talents and most stubborn deficits can somehow come together, not to continue to be bad parts and good parts of you, but to simply be the markers of the amazing you that you are. That you, the one with the talents and deficits, is just the right you that the world needs so badly in order to be complete.

And all these things can happen if you free yourself from your fear, and start asking yourself honest questions about whether or not you’re doing the right things for yourself and your life. The band En Vogue said it best in 1992: Free your mind, and the rest will follow.

Bob Marley is partly right when he says that none but ourselves can free our minds. Much of this work of following our true path comes from inside of us. But it is work that we can do in community, work we can do with and around each other so that we have inspiration and support as we go along.

And it’s just possible that the path we find, we don’t have to hack it out of some jungle as if no-one has ever been down that way before. Usually there are others who can help us find our footing and clear the way. That’s why we come together in groups like church in order to help us be our best selves. It’s hard to do alone; it’s easier to do it together. And why not let things be easier when we can?

But mostly we do this hard and scary work because each one of us has come onto this planet with a mission and a skill set that no other person has or ever will have. That is the genius of creation, that none of us are just like anyone else, but instead are individual snowflakes in the midst of a storm of humanity, a storm of life. Who knows what good, what knowledge, what talent might come from any one of us if we are freed to be who we really are and freed to do what we really are able to do?