The "Oh, Yeah" ... of Understanding

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached July 10, 2010 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Readings:
Psalm 25:1-10: "...teach me your paths."
Luke 10:25-37: "Go and do likewise."
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

Back in 1991, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released an album called "Into the Great Wide Open." Tonight's first song, "Learning to Fly," was released as the first single from the album and hit #28 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but topped the Billboard Album Rock Tracks chart where it stayed for six weeks.

Petty said he was inspired to write the song after seeing an interview with a pilot talking about how easy it is to learn how to fly - it's landing part that's really challenging. The video for the song reveals that the song isn't literally about flying - but is instead a homage to growing up - which fits well for Jubilee! since we're all about growing up spiritually - seeking that "Oh, Yeah" of understanding - that "Oh, Yeah" of getting it. Let's give it a try:

Well I started out, down a dirty road
Started out all alone
And the sun went down, as I crossed the hill
As the town lit up, the world got still

I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing

"To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul" - this is how this ancient song starts out. "O my God, in you I trust. Do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame ... make me know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths."

"Well I started out, down a dirty road," begins this not so ancient song, "... started out ... all alone. And the sun went down ... as I crossed the hill, as the town lit up ... and the world got still. I'm learning to fly ... but I ain't got wings. Coming down, is the hardest thing.

Two songs - the same idea - seeking a path of learning - a path of understanding, a path of flying high with the Holy. They are also both songs of lament. Both singers are feeling alone, lost, and abandoned. Our ancient psalmist is surrounded by his enemies, and they're happy to see him feeling so glum. Our modern psalmist begins his journey all alone, on a dirty road - seeking to understand his life, but how will he learn to fly when "ain't got wings"?

Now, some may balk at comparing these two songs, but it's appropriate to compare this ancient hymn with this more modern one - they are both "psalms" - which literally means "a song played to a stringed instrument." Most often that would be a harp, back in those ancient days, but today, it's most likely a guitar.

Whenever we sing a lament, or a praise song, or a love song - we sing to the Holy. Whenever we send up our voices in song - we vibrate with the Holy. A song doesn't have to be in the pages of a Bible to make it sacred ... it only has to come from the heart - and be sung with sincerity.

We're all starting out, day by day, down that dirty road of life - seeking to know more, to learn more, to gather more knowledge than we have today. We have choices along that road - we can, like our modern psalmist, start out all alone - or we can lift up our soul to God - put our trust in God - and go on that journey of understanding with the Holy. "To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul ... as I start out ... down this dirty road."

How would it change the way you live, if you started every day with this prayer - with this affirmation? Starting down each dirty road of life with our souls lifted up - elevated - flying without wings with the Holy. It beats starting out all alone on that road, doesn't it?

"To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul ... as I start out ... down this dirty road."

We may not have wings, but when we start our journey of understanding in this way, we will soon be saying, "Oh, Yeah."

Well the good ol' days, may not return
And the rocks may melt and the sea may burn
I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing

Well some say life will beat you down,
Break your heart, steal your crown
So I started out, for god knows where
I guess I'll know when I get there

I'm learning to fly, around the clouds,
But what goes up must come down

Learning can be a tricky thing - mainly because everyone has a different learning style. Some of us learn best by listening. Others learn best by seeing, and still others learn best by doing.

For example, say you have decided you want to paint a room, but it's something you've never done before. Those who learn best by listening might call a friend, or a paint store, or go to Lowe's and take a morning course in painting before starting out. Those who learn best by seeing might look online for answers, or read books and magazines to learn about painting before they start. The ones who learn by doing - those experiential learners - will go to the paint store, pick out some paint and a brush and get cracking. If they run out of paint, they'll just go buy more. Eventually, you learn how much paint and supplies you'll need for future projects.

We may all learn differently - but the fact remains that we're all on a search for understanding - we have questions and we want to know the answers. We are all constantly on a search to know more, learn more, and grow as human beings. Along the way, we make mistakes. We mess things up - sometimes a lot. Life beats us down - steals our crown. Coming down really is the hardest thing - but we do it so often. We find ourselves spiraling for the ground, wondering if we'll land safely or crash and burn. Sometimes, we do crash and burn - we screw up so badly that we wonder if we'll ever be able to utter that "Oh, Yeah," of understanding our situation.

But, the good news is, those errors are all part of the path - all a part of that dirty road we're on. The difference is - are we on the road all alone, or have we lifted up our soul and put our trust in God? Have we asked God to teach us the path, and lead us in Her truth or are we just blindly groping our way down the road?

If we have lifted up our souls, and put our trust in God as we begin then we can remind God that we are in need of mercy - because all of our attempts to learn new things will be fraught with mistakes.

"Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgression; according to your steadfast love remember me, for you goodness sake, O Lord."

Our mistakes, our errors, don't count against us, because God's love for us is steadfast - no matter how badly we may muck up things in our lives - we are a forgiven, treasured, and loved people. With the Holy as our guide - even a dirty road can be a joy to travel, despite all the challenges we face along the journey.

So we're on this road to God knows where - and that's the important thing - God knows where - we'll know when we get there, but for now, it should be enough to know that we're on a road to God knows where. Our job, then, is to trust - to lift up our souls to God - and know that each "Oh, Yeah" of understanding is a gift from the Holy.

Breathe deeply.

I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing
I'm learning to fly, around the clouds,
But what goes up must come down

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers have known one another since elementary school in Georgia, but it wasn't until they were both in college at Emory University in Atlanta that they began to perform together as the Indigo Girls. Emily said they got their name by going through the dictionary looking for words that struck them - and "indigo" was one of them. In 1989 - they released their first major label album. The song we'll do tonight is probably the best known song from that record called "Closer to Fine." The song went to #26 on Billboard's Modern Rock Tracks charts, and peaked at #52 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Emily wrote the song while on vacation in Vermont with her family. She said the song "is about not beating yourself up too hard to get your answer from one place. There's no panacea, that in order to be balanced or feel closer to fine it's okay to draw from this or to draw from that, to draw from a bunch of different sources.

So, it's about being confused but looking for the answers, and in the end knowing that you're going to be fine. No seeking just one definitive answer." And that's the "Oh, Yeah" of Understanding. Let's try it!

I'm trying to tell you something about my life
maybe give me insight between black and white
and the best thing you've ever done for me
is to help me take my life less seriously
it's only life after all yeah
well darkness has a hunger that's insatiable
and lightness has a call that's hard to hear
I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety till I sank it
I'm crawling on your shores

[Chorus] I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains
there's more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in a crooked line
and the less I seek my source for some definitive
the closer I am to fine
the closer I am to fine

It's been said that learning goes through three stages:

1. In the beginning you learn the right answers.

2. In the second stage you learn the right questions.

3. In the third and final stage you learn which questions are worth asking.

In our Jesus story today, we meet a lawyer who has made it to that third stage of learning. He confronts Jesus with two questions worth asking:

"Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" and his second question was, "Who is my neighbor?"

At the heart of each question is a quest for the "Oh, Yeah" of understanding. Some have said the lawyer is laying a trap for Jesus so he'll give an answer that he can be persecuted for. I think the lawyer is sincere. He wants to understand. He calls Jesus, teacher. He shows him respect - and Jesus returns that respect in his answers.

First, he tells him, the best way to go down that dirty road of life is to love God, with all your soul, strength, and mind. "To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul." In addition we must love our neighbor just as much as we love ourselves.

This is where the story gets so familiar we no longer pay attention, because we think we've already learned the lesson of the Good Samaritan. It's a story that, if we're honest, brings us a sense of self-satisfaction, because it's a story where the outcast is the hero. We hear this story and we think, "That's right, all those self-righteous people I hate are the ones passing by the guy lying by the side of the road - it's the outcast, the gay person, the homeless person, the woman, the poor, who will come to his aid. I am the Good Samaritan."

Not so fast. We all know that this story was scandalous to the lawyer, because it did cast a Samaritan, someone hated by good and proper society, as the hero of the story. But, we forget just how incredible this story is.

Perhaps we need a modern twist on it to really get the "What the hell?" of this story. Hear it this way:

A man was beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. Not long after the beating, Martin Luther King Jr. walked by, but when he saw the man he passed by on the other side because he was late for a civil rights rally.

Likewise, Gandhi happened by, but he, too, passed by on the other side because he was late for a peace rally. But, just then, Pat Robertson passed by - or Jerry Falwell - or Fred Phelps - or Osama Bin Laden - or George W. Bush - or Adolf Hitler. And when any of these men passing by saw the man they were "move with pity" and they cared for him.

We cannot even wrap our minds around that story, can we? King or Gandhi would never walk by an injured man. They would never, ever shirk their responsibility to help another person. But, Robertson? Falwell? Phelps? Osama? Bush? Hitler? We can't fathom a bit of humanity from these people.

This is the scandal to the lawyer - his versions of King and Gandhi - a priest and Levite - pass the man by. Already the man is gasping in disbelief - then the impossible - a Samaritan - someone as despised to him as any of those other men are to us, is the one who helps the injured man. Even when Jesus asked, "Who was a neighbor to the man?" the lawyer couldn't even say the word "Samaritan" - he could only say, "the one who showed him mercy."

So hear it anew - King and Gandhi walk on by, but Hitler saves the man - and doesn't even ask if he's a Jew.

So, which one was a neighbor to the man in need? "Oh, Yeah ..."

Breathe deeply.

And I went to see the doctor of philosophy
with a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
he never did marry or see a b-grade movie
he graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
got my paper and I was free

[Chorus] I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains
there's more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in a crooked line
the less I seek my source for some definitive
the closer I am to fine, the closer I am to fine

We can't be too harsh on the lawyer - because he sought what we all seek - certainty. We have questions, and we want answers - and we want those answers to be satisfying - to settle the question once and for all.

We go to all the sources of knowledge we can think of - professors and doctors. We even go all mystical and head for the mountains or seek to see the world through the simplified knowledge of children. The place we seek answers the most, though, is the place we're least likely to find them - the Bible.

My New Testament professor in seminary once said, "If you read the Bible and come away with more answers than questions, you've misunderstood it." So many preachers, and churches, believe that the Bible is God's big answer book. That's not the Bible's role. Instead, it's here to give us more questions - to encourage us to go deeper in our faith - to constantly be seekers of the deeper truths and not easy, open the book and point, answers. The Bible is like those "Dick and Jane" books - the watchword is "LOOK!"

The good news here may sound like bad news - but the ultimate "Oh, Yeah" of understanding is this: When we truly understand, we know which questions are worth asking - and the truly worthy questions are those that lead to more and more worthy questions. The "Oh, Yeah" of understanding is not about getting the right answers, or even asking the right questions - it's about asking worthy questions so we can find worthy knowledge - things worth knowing.

What is worth knowing? Emily knows: "The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine." The less we seek certainty - the less we seek the easy answers - the closer we are to fine. The more we seek the mystery - the more we seek to learn God's paths - the more we "LOOK" - the closer we are to fine. The more we LOOK, the more new light we see God shedding on the world around us. In that new light of knowledge, we can't help but say, "Oh, Yeah."

In the end, we all may excel in one form of learning over another. Some of us learn by listening, others by seeing, and others by doing - but we all use a mixture of those things to truly learn. We listen, someone shows us how to do something, and then we do it. We all may learn at a different pace, but we are all teachable.

Just as our learning is a mixture of listening, seeing, and doing - so are our lives. Each of us is a mystery - a mixture of good and bad, darkness and light, kindness and cruelty. Sometimes, we're the Priest or the Levite walking by the beaten man. Sometimes we're Good Samaritan generous with our mercy, and sometimes, we're the person beaten and bloodied by the roadside, surprised when it is our direst enemy who saves our lives. Sometimes, we're all those in a day. We are all deep mysteries. Jesus invites us to explore the mystery not just of ourselves, but of those around us. Stop judging so quickly and so harshly. Instead, see the world through the eyes of Christ - that appreciates the mystery of it all - the mystery of ourselves and the mystery of everyone else.

And in that mystery, you finally understand - in a deep, and awe filled way - and you find yourself saying, "Oh, yeah."

I stopped by the bar at 3 a.m.
to seek solace in a bottle or possibly a friend
and I woke up with a headache like my head against a board
twice as cloudy as I'd been the night before
and I went in seeking clarity.

[Chorus] I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains
yeah we go to the doctor, we go to the mountains
we look to the children, we drink from the fountains
yeah we go to the bible, we go through the workout
we read up on revival and we stand up for the lookout
there's more than one answer to these questions
pointing me in a crooked line
the less I seek my source for some definitive
(the less I seek my source)
the closer I am to fine, the closer I am to fine
the closer I am to fine

Oh, Yeah!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

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