Dean Baxter: “The Integrity of Our Inner Voice”
Jeremiah prayed: “Oh Lord, I say what I feel I must say but, everyone is laughing at me. They talk behind my back. Even my best friends don’t trust me. Like a fire shut up in my bones.” [Jeremiah 20:7-13 Matthew 10-24-33]
Have you ever read an opinion poll or survey and felt depressed that your opinion was not in the majority? How often have you been in a coveted social or professional setting and felt the sentiments of the conversation strongly conflict with your own convictions or deeply held views? You were shocked. You wanted to say something but you did not want to jeopardize acceptance, belonging. Yet you could barely be quiet. I have been in both situations and they are hard and difficult experiences. If you are like me, we don’t like being odd or seen as naive. As Lucy said to Charlie Brown (quoting the poem “If”), “If you can hold your head when about you all are losing theirs, then you don’t understand the problem, Charlie Brown.”
One of the greatest challenges of personal integrity today is the conflict between our inner-voice and conscious, and the voices in the worlds around us. The worlds (professional, social, religious, political) in which we desperately wish to be accepted or at least to blend in with and not standout as odd or overly against or be a target for debate.
We live in a time when most of us not only have discomfort or fear of those different from us (ideologically, politically, culturally or religiously) but we are even more afraid to being perceived by others, especially those important to us, as different. Yet being honest, at least with ourselves, means knowing our inner most values and our deepest convictions on things that matter most. Personal intergrety is being able to distinguish our inner-voice from the voices of the worlds in which we move, live and have our being. And when it counts, not allow that voice of our deep values and convictions to be muted by our need to be accepted, respected, and affirmed. In fact Jeremiah ended his prayer by thanking God for saving him from his “Life of neediness.” (i.e. being affirmed by unbelieving friends and associates).
Now I say these things sympathetically if not empathetically. For we live in a time when there are many very hard issues. And we live in a time when hard issues are coarsely and manipulatively presented to us as polemics. How often have you heard: “You are either part of the solution (our particular solution) or part of the problem,” Or “You are either for us or against us.” (if you don’t see it our way, you are the enemy). What’s more, is that very little of what is presented as truth is spoken with love (as St. Paul taught), for example: * Regarding abortion: you are either “Pro-life” or by implication “anti-life”; or you are “Pro-Choice” for women or by implication you are against women having choice. * Regarding War on Terrorism: you are either for the War and thus an uncritical patriot of whatever means the Government deems necessary or you are Pro-Peace meaning that support for any action of national military security categorizes one as immoral. * Progressives or Liberals are stereotypically described by opponents as bleeding hearts and hedonistic cultural elites with no consistent values (as song writer Cole Porter sang, “Anything Goes”). Conversely, Liberals describe Traditionalist or Conservatives as stuff-shirt, selfish, stuck-in the mud, nostalgic curmudgeons.
The effect is to label and to politically and morally polarize. Recently I was speaking at a university about religious diversity. Later a very attractive graduate student came to me and introduced me to his wife. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “We are polite to other religions, but we are black and white Christians. Jesus is Lord!” They were saying, “We are nice people, but until you share our doctrinal view of Christianity you are not credible as a Christian. Social discourse has become increasingly coarse, self-righteous and polemical: often disguised as truth and passionate virtue. So in such a world we find comfort in voices of familiarity and compatibility and are repelled by voices of offense and difference. But neither voices which comfort or offend should silence or deny our inner voice. Remember, familiarity is not necessarily morality; neither is that which offends necessarily untrue.
This leads to another matter about integrity of our inner-voice. Although our inner-voice is a reflection of our true self, our true self is not necessarily truth or faithful to God’s will. Sometimes the inner voice speaks vengeance. Sometimes it speaks old subtly taught prejudices. Sometimes our unchallenged or unexamined inner-voice speaks with narrow self interest and self protection. In such situations our inner-voice is indeed an honest reflection of us, but not truth, nor faithful to God. Truth is about justice seeking and acting for the righteousness of God; for God’s vision for wholeness of community. Truth speaks for healing and the righting of human offenses and broken relationships. Most of all, justice is always about that which is beyond vengeance and retribution.
Justice is also a Godly understanding of equity that is beyond equality. As parents we know that to be equitable is that some children need more affection, attention, support or discipline than others. This is what makes parenting so challenging, difficult and often misunderstood by children and outsiders. It is what makes parenting so imperfect. As parents we must risk to be equitable more than equal so all children will grow, discover the full integrity of self, succeed and contribute their inner gifts to the world. Because we love all our children it hurts us when we must make equitable decisions. But integrity as a parent demands it. So if our inner-voice is to have some integrity it must be about justice and love. The prophet, Micah (6:6-8) asked, “What does God require?” The prophet Micah understood God’s will is that we: Do Justice….. Love Kindness. …..Walk humbly with God. Justice is a duty; kindness is to be our passion. Spiritual life gives integrity to the inner-voice. It keeps us aware like Jeremiah that such a thing as an inner voice exists; and that it is made clear and humble at the same time. Only a spiritual life can guide us in this tension between the active duty or obligation of justice and the passionate heart which loves kindness.
Spirituality begins with God. Yes, we need a prayer life private and congregational. We need a prayer time with God. Time not only to talk with God but to listen to God. Spirituality also means being part of a community of faith. We need a congregation — human people who differ with us and from us and as well will share with us the journey of faith and spiritual life in corporate prayer, worship, study, fellowship and sacraments. So that as Jesus said in Matthew (10:27), “God may whisper in the dark privacy of your heart what you should speak in public witness.” This is the hardest part about spiritual and congregational life and a difficult challenge. St. John taught (John 5:20,21), “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen can not love God whom they have not seen… Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” A minister who works with first year seminarians said he ask them why they want to be ministers. Invariably, they say, “We want to work with the people. He replies “Have you met the people?”
Jeremiah came from a wealthy societal family of land holders. He was called to ministry as a teenager (as was I). He was seminary trained and was a temple or cathedral preacher. Jeremiah lived in a time all around Israel there was the shift of super powers [Babylonians over Assyria]. Most in government, business and social religious circles had put their money and allegiance on Assyria. But Jeremiah felt things were changing and Israel was too spiritually and morally weak as a society to withstand political upheaval and stresses of a regional war. God was trying to warn leaders like Patrick Henry pre- revolutionary war speech: “The gentleman may cry peace, but there is no peace, the war is actually begun [in circumstance around us].” Jeremaih’s political, social and religious friends laughed at him; mocked him. “There goes Jeremiah again — like chicken little and the sky is falling. Terror is all around.” They did not want to be associated with Jeremaih. It hurt Jeremiah.
Jeremiah prayed (20:10): “All my close friends are watching for me to stumble, saying perhaps we can shame him or intimidate him to show him how stupid and out of step he is.” But Jeremiah had a prayer life — and he would not withdraw. Jeremaih said he wanted to be silent and withdraw from temple community. He prayed (20:9), “The rejection hurt. It embarassed me. But the truth within me was like a fire shut up in my bones and I love God and my people too much to be silent.” Again, as Jesus taught, “What you hear in the dark priviacy of your heart, tell it in the public light.”
We are not all Jeremiahs whose words speak to the fate of a nation. But each of us is needy for acceptance. Yet we know in our heart of faith the truth of God’s love for the world. We see broken relationships and old prejudices between families, communities, races, genders, sexualities, denominations of religions. We hear voices which exascerbate community divisions with arrogance and hate. We see lives which have no sense of God’s love and power to redeem and change. We see the destructiveness of a world forced to be either black or white categories exactly our way or no way at all.
You hear members of your intimate circle speak without respect for human dignity regarding: women, gays, foreigners, other religions, races; or speak of justice as righteous revenage and retribution. You hear persons speak as though God is dead or irrelevant to the pain of the world. When you hear there voices; is there a voice within you that is like a fire shut up in your bones? Not a fire of anger or hate, but of compassionate flaming hunger for God’s vision so strong that you feel another word must be spoken of justice, hope and faith?
So pray, brothers and sister, for courage to speak truth, but in love. Each of you knows the love of God which heals, converts, redeems, resurrects. Let the fire in your bones be made known. And prayfor God to speak to your inner-voice. Ask God to give you moral courage and personal intergrity based upon a desire to please God and love for our fellows. Ask God to deliver you from a life dominated by neediness to be accepted. The world needs people of integrity — everyday people with the courage of integrity. We have enough popular people. Yes, it is only by God’s grace and a prayerful life that we will find our true voice; and have the courage to speak it (not polemic arrogance), but with love and hope for healing and redemption for our world. Let us pray.
Almight God, by the Spirit teach us what is wise and what is foolish, what is noble and what is mean, what is eternal and what is passing. May we prefer goodness to greatness, worthiness to wealth, the doing of one good thing to the hearing of many great ones; rather to be of thine unknown known ones written in thy book of life, than to have our names written in a book of earthly flame. Let us walk in a world filled with the Spirit of God, filled with joy and peace in believing; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen [Author is George Dawson]