May 24, 2020
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
“The Voice Within”
Scripture Reference: Matthew 5:33-37
“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Kathy and I drove to Washington DC last January for a funeral. We lost a dear friend, Sam. Sam was in his early eighties and lived a very full life. Each Summer we would gather with Sam and his wife Wendy for an evening of good food and great conversation. Sam was witty and exceptionally bright. A unique quality to Sam, though, was a quiet reserve. Sam knew stuff. But he never let on why or how. When our conversation would venture into global affairs, Sam would offer something that was not spoken as opinion. It was as if his yes was yes and his no was no. His confidence suggested he knew stuff.
Sitting down in the pew of the Episcopal church that looks directly at the White House, I read the biography of Sam’s life. Leaning over to Kathy I whispered, “I knew it; Sam was a spy.” I was pointing to the sentence that described his years in the CIA. That was how he knew stuff. But my confidence soon waned. In the next few lines came parts of Sam’s life where he would have been “in the room” so to speak. He was the deputy National Security Advisor for Vice President Bush and set up his cabinet when he became President of the United States. He may very well have been a spy, but that was just the beginning.
As the service progressed, I learned more about Sam that I didn’t know. Yet, with each new piece of information his character remained and the lovely humility he offered gained in value. When Sam and I were discussing Iraq, he could have mentioned that he reenlisted at the age of 70 and served in the Green Zone and in the communities where violence persisted. Instead of qualifying or justifying his confidence, he simply said what he had to say about the situation there as if it was true. His yes was yes and his no was no.
The most memorable part of the service came near the end when his son gave a beautiful eulogy. It was clear how much Sam was Sam wherever he went. His son described the many things he learned from his father and all of them came with a bit of wit and wisdom. Sam taught not with demand but quiet confidence and joy, delight, devotion. You could hear him when he wasn’t speaking.
At the end of the eulogy, Sam’s son said, “Going through my father’s papers I found something.” The sanctuary was now very quiet with curiosity. “It’s a commendation letter,” he said and began to read in the clipped, crisp diction of official Army correspondence. The letter described in detail how a then young major serving in Vietnam had rushed to the aid of a crashed helicopter; how he carried fellow soldiers, dead and alive, to safety all the while taking fire, entering into explosions and being wounded. The final sentence was a request to award Sam with a very distinguished medal.
Sam’s son folded the letter and set it down. He finished the eulogy by saying, “My father never spoke of this; he didn’t have to.”
Even before he came to the last line, it was clear that his father’s voice was in him. He could hear his father even when he wasn’t speaking, hear his voice within.
If you are lucky and if you are willing, voices such as Sam’s can abide with you. These voices calm, direct, advise, and cajole. They keep us moving or slow us down. Here we find the true confidence of the yes and the no.
Everyone has a voice within, an inner voice. Our inner voice, though, is oftentimes the most critical. Not all the time, but quite often, we are our worst critics. This inner voice brings recrimination.
In just a moment I will describe the first time I heard this inner voice. The first thing I heard was a bit harsh.
Like Sam’s son, I have other voices in me. Some are people I have lost. One voice that is with me quite often is my grandmother. Being raised as an only child of two loving parents, there was not much in the way of criticism or chastisement. My grandmother created a balance here. The balance came in the form of very frank honesty always with colorful expressions. Like Sam, she had a yes and no. And they were very clear.
I trust her voice; hear it often. When my inner voice is too harsh, there is a tempering laughter of my grandmother; her cackle leads me to take myself less seriously. When the inner voice is venturing toward self-righteousness, she is there to bring me down to earth.
Coming down to the earth is embedded in our reading today. Jesus starts with heaven and moves to judgment from on high; from there we come down again to the earth and Jerusalem until we reach the mind, or head of the body. Lastly, the decent continues unto the inner voice, the yes and the no.
Each step of this decent is about confidence and surety. We “swear to God” and we “pledge allegiance” to a nation and we “know for sure”. Each step here is a moment of surety.
Like most parts of the sermon on the mount, there is a path offered here. Jesus is bidding us to work our way down to our inner voice and find confidence there. And like most parts of the Sermon on the Mount, the way is not clearly prescribed. Your yes is to be yes and your no is to be no. That is it.
Some could suggest that Jesus is bidding us to live the words of Socrates, to thine own self be true. That is certainly one way of reading the yes and the no. Yet, what neither Socrates or Jesus lets on is how to find this yes and no, how to achieve certainty without arrogance, how to speak with assurance that is not belligerent or so qualified with conditions to be useless. How do you listen to the inner voice and trust what you hear? When does our confidence from within prove true?
The first moment I heard this inner voice came while hiking in the mountains around Lake Arrowhead, northeast of Los Angeles. I was hiking with a couple of friends on the trails near Big Bear Mountain; I was eighteen. The trails were narrow, dry, and rocky. We came to an expanse.
The expanse was a dry waterfall. From one side to the other was about five feet. A good running jump could clear it. One friend ran and jumped; the next friend did as well. They waived and shouted when they saw me stop at the edge and look down. It was about a sixty-foot drop.
As I looked across, I became mindful that to each side of the expanse, the area beside the trail, was sheer cliff. Imagine a narrow opening with walls of stone on either side. Something inside of me said, “no.” Another voice said, “what are you, afraid? Jump.” So I took four steps back, ran, and leapt. I missed.
As I was flying through the air, I could see the trail to my left and the sheer rock face coming before me. I hit the wall and since I am here today you can guess, my fingers found a grip. Carefully I swung my leg to the left and slowly moved the rest of my body to safety.
It was in this moment, walking away from the cliff and the treacherous drop that I heard the inner voice within me: you are idiot.
Through the years and even this week, I have heard this inner voice. What are you thinking? Is ever ready at hand. Thankfully, through the years though I have learned from and been gifted with other voices within me. Voices that bring balance.
Perhaps you have them too. It could be a friend, a spouse, a boss, a teacher: the voices that temper and calm, the voices that cajole and encourage. For if left to ourselves, the inner voice can be a bit too much. You are an idiot.
This destructive power of the inner voice, left to itself, is what the Quakers found when they invented our modern prison system. The Quakers were the ones who designed the current form of incarceration. They wanted to leave aside the brutality of the dungeon with its cramped quarters of people thrown together. So they were the ones who invented a prison as a series of cells where each prisoner was given space, a quiet place to listen to their heart without beatings or scourging.
This was considered an extreme departure from the dungeon and the common cell. This would free up the prisoners to consider the error of their ways and thus bring true reform. Much to their surprise though what the Quakers found was that the inner voice was far too brutal, too much to be left with for too long. All the prisoners went insane. What was meant as mercy was harsh.
When I consider our current state of affairs, and I think through the isolation so many people are feeling, this is my concern. Cut off from our daily lives, do we still have the resources, the chorus of good voices, that temper and cajole our inner voice? Being cut off from friends and co-workers, we may be cut off from the balance we need to keep the harshness of the inner voice in check.
Isolation may be something that stretches us too far. We may be physically safe, with food and entertainment and warmth, but we may find the resources of the soul are not being replenished. Zoom helps; talking at a distance helps. Yet, the slow unfolding we live each day, the balance of true “yes and no,” feels put aside.
When I listened to Sam’s son speak of him, I could hear the wisdom and wit of decades. Some of it was spoken, somethings, like his bravery in combat, were never spoken. As he described his father, I could hear Sam and his quiet certainty. In his eulogy I got a sense that his father was continuing to speak to him. He was an inner voice.
When I think back on my times as a young boy with my grandmother, when I look back, I can hear her frank assessment often times laced with salty adjectives, and in this moment, I am grounded and balanced. The harshness of inner critique yields to a more honest voice.
As you live out this week and the next, if you are finding the inner voice is getting too harsh, too much, remember this is not how things are supposed to be. Things are upside down right now.
In normal times I am quite often an idiot. The inner voice is right. Jumping over a cliff was just clearer than most of my foolishness. The inner voice was right. But being right does not mean helpful or a truth we can use.
Go easy on yourself right now. You may be missing the balance of cajoling voices. Cast your memory back and see if you can find a kinder voice than your own. Better yet, make a call to a friend, to a loved one, a trusted voice. Let them bring you balance within so your yes is yes and your no is no with compassion and beauty and grace. Amen.
- 1 Corinthians 3:6 - 11
- Matthew 5:33 - 37