We were in a meeting of clergy from our denomination years ago. Hundreds of us had been required to gather from across the state. The speaker had told us all the qualities we would need to acquire to become “effective.” Taken together the qualities sounded like God rolled up into a human package. There was a rumbling of discontent among the crowd, as the throng of faithful servants felt egos bruised. Soon they were like caged animals, wounded and snarling and ready to lash out at anyone who drew too near the cage they believed they were in.
When a supervisor gathered the wounded animals for a discussion of what they had heard, the hurt spewed out. One after another spoke of the impossibilities of adding even more responsibilities to their overly full plates. They felt beaten down. The thinly veiled message of the culture, “You will never be enough,” was not lost on them. They had already secretly believed that for too many years.
On that day, for some reason, I had not felt demoralized by the speaker, nor fallen under the spell of his “never enough” message. Perhaps my standing as a clergy from another tradition, appointed to serve alongside them, created just a slight ability to orbit around the giant hairball of the institution.
I felt sorry for the throng of clergy, the wounded animals, as they seemed to have lost sight of their inherent giftedness. When I could bear their verbalizing of hurt no longer, I spoke up, which had never happened among them. I heard my own voice passionately saying, “You all have such great gifts and beautiful creativity. I think you have forgotten that you are free to do and become whatever you want, to go wherever you feel led.”
One of the strongest voices in the room, a pastor of long-standing and great respect among his peers, lashed back at my message: “We are not free! We are bound by a system that sends us wherever it wants and controls our livelihood. We are told where to go and what to do and how to do it. We can’t just walk away. We are trapped here.”
The sense of woundedness and the resulting rage was palpable across the room. No one else spoke for a few minutes. He had spoken for the group. They all felt trapped by a system that commanded allegiance. In their minds, they were caged animals. They had lost sight of their own innate wildness, of the freedom instilled in them by their very Creator.
I believed the same thing for decades of being an employee at various hospitals. I could never imagine being self-employed in those days. I thought that life was for super confident people with special business skills. And I only learned otherwise when an administrator informed me that my position and program for the hospital was being cut.
Thrown out into the world, outside the employee walls of caged “safety” I had so long believed in, I was terrified. I had no faith that “things would all work out.” In fact, I was pretty sure that I would fall on my face and become unable to support my family very soon. And we did lose $20,000 of income in that first year of entering private practice as a pastoral psychotherapist. But for some reason, people told other people they should come see me, and my counseling practice sustained itself.
After a year I saw a therapist peer from the hospital who was considering private practice for herself. She asked how it was going. Without even thinking of what to say, I heard these words: “I am poor but free.” The truth of that statement hit me solid. I think it was the first time I had realized what had become my new truth. I was free. After years of believing I was dependent on an institution to keep me safe, to provide the income and benefits I needed to support my family, in all reality that dependency had been a cage. And finally, almost by accident, I had become free.
So I will close with a reflection on how giants fall, which is to say, how we become free of the oppression we too often create for ourselves. This is a metaphor of how we become like the smooth stones David, a bible figure, used to slay the oppressor known as Goliath.
We are still rough stones
in the first half of life,
flung into the river’s strong current,
which does us the service
of slowly smoothing our rough edges
over the many years.
Our pride, and sometimes arrogance,
our self-depreciation and insecurities,
our overly bold faith and our doubt,
our concerns about appearances
and what others think of us,
our desire to feel in control
of the torrent that is this life,
all of these rough edges
become smooth in time,
if we are blessed,
through the steady work of life’s river current.
And if we are especially blessed
a hand reaches into the river
and picks us up
and shows us our purpose
And what is that?
Small, and seemingly powerless as we are,
we become the smooth stones flung at giants
by the hand of God’s servant,
as a boy who has tasted absolute freedom
acts to bring freedom for others.
This is how giants fall:
when we say “yes”
to all those years
of our own transformation,
to becoming free enough to free others,
as the boy David had.
when our freedom rises up
from our own depths,
an inherent gift of the gods,
offered in the second half of life
after self-inhibition has been smoothed away.
Then we are ready to be used
to help the others find their freedom,
to be flung at giants,
who turn out to have no power
except what we give them
every time we surrender our own true power.
May we all surrender
to our own smoothing,
finding our freedom from cages
and purpose for living
before it is too late.