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We all know the Frank Baum story of the Wizard of Oz and its themes of fantasy, discovery, and personal empowerment. A theme that is central to the story, but one which we often overlook, is Dorothy’s growth from thinking like a child. Finding life in Kansas to be strict, boring and, literally, very grey, Dorothy imagines a brightly colored world of fantasy, populated with happy people, an emerald city, and figures who love and protect her. In her dreams, she is carried away to Oz only to find that it, surprisingly, is far from perfect. Its yellow brick road and gleaming city are facades constructed by people with everyday fears and neuroses. It has its share of evil with nasty witches and flying monkeys all ready to do battle against the forces of good. Even in her imaginations, Dorothy comes to understand the adage that the grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence. A fantasy place is just that – fantasy.
Caught in a world of her own imaginations, Dorothy realizes that home in Kansas may not be perfect, but it is not so bad either. And she soon desperately wants to return. She then relies on the further fantasy that a mythic being, a great and powerful wizard, will miraculously grant her wish and send her home.
But the wizard proves to be a fraud – a little man hiding behind smoke and mirrors to cow and control a gullible population. Not only can the wizard not miraculously transport her home, he cannot even manage the everyday, simple means to do so. The basic science of a hot air balloon is beyond his understanding even as he claims great powers.
Through the kindness of Glinda the good witch, Dorothy finds that wizards and supernatural powers are the stuff of myth. Trust in such abilities is worthless. Instead, Glinda tells Dorothy she has within herself the power and the light to return home and, more importantly, to enable her to find an elusive contentment.
Dorothy is amazed that she can control her destiny. “I have that power?” she asks. “Well,” Dorothy finally concludes, “I – I think that it, that it wasn’t enough just to want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, and it’s that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard because, if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”
Dorothy has her epiphany and her key to a life of happiness. The Ruby Red slippers are the symbolic means to her self-realization – contentment and her home are found in the here and now. They’re found within one’s own heart and mind. No wizard, no god, no Oz, no mythological heaven, no alleged paradise on earth or in the hereafter will bring true contentment. There is no place like home and, for Dorothy, home is in Kansas, home is where she began her journey and where, ironically, she had never left. That old and worn farmhouse, that flat and dull prairie, that place of rules and structure, are all Dorothy ever needs – a place of loving family and friends, a place of security, a place of shelter. Home is not perfect and it never will be. But in the power of her mind, it can be her refuge. It can meet all her needs and grant her the contentment and the peace she so desperately wants.
As we intuitively know, but generally fail to believe, happiness is not found in the circumstances or places of our lives. It is not found in hoped for heavens, wondrous scenes of great beauty, large and luxurious mansions, in perfect, flawless people or in fleeting moments of physical pleasure. Home and happiness are not found in places, people or things. Home and happiness are states of mind.
And so I ask my second question for this month of imagination messages, “have you ever dared to imagine…that home is where you are right now?”
Some people don’t distinguish between the words ‘house’ and ‘home’. They both seem to imply the structure in which we live. I, however, understand these words to have two very different meanings. A house is the physical structure in which one eats, rests, recreates and sleeps. It offers physical security, nourishment and shelter. A home, on the other hand, is a more abstract concept. Home is where one feels loved. It’s where one feels emotional security. It nourishes, protects and shelters the soul. Ultimately, we find houses on maps. We find homes in our hearts.
Paul, the writer of much of the New Testament, had a lot to say on the matter of contentment. From his life experiences he gained insight and wisdom on how to be at peace. On most other matters, I am not a fan of Paul. I believe he was a fanatical early convert and interpreter of Jesus as Messiah but he was not an Apostle – one who personally saw and followed Jesus the man. He has no eyewitness credentials like Peter or John, other than very dubious claims, to be an authority on the meaning of Jesus’ teachings, life and death.
Sadly, however, much of modern Christian theology is based on the writings of Paul. Many Christians, for instance, quickly turn to Paul’s denouncement, in his letter to the Romans, of gays and lesbians as worthy of hell and eternal death. Christians grant Paul the authority of teaching on a subject that Jesus never mentioned. The namesake of their religion is ignored on the issue of homosexuality – one that was obviously not important to him – while accepting the views of a false Apostle. Paul’s teachings about women, Jesus’ alleged second coming and other matters are equally unfounded.
My intent is not to demonize Paul but rather to frame what he wrote and taught in its proper context. Some of it has merit, much of it does not. In that regard, Paul’s teachings on contentment nevertheless have the ring of truth. He lived a life of great hardship in his zeal to spread the new Christian faith. Having always wanted to proselytize in Rome, he instead made it there as a prisoner – an enemy of the state who had tried to convert Jews back in Jerusalem. Facing the judgment of the notorious Emperor Nero, Paul languished in prison awaiting his fate – one that appears to have been his execution.
Before his conversion, supposedly after seeing a vision of Jesus, Paul had been an elite Jewish official of wealth. As a Christian missionary, he courted the wealthy for their support and he lived in many fine homes during his travels. As a result, in one of his letters he confessed to struggle with coveting and wanting the nice things of life. But, locked in a dank Roman prison cell facing likely death, he also wrote, “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
Paul’s words in this instance are key to my message today. By imagining the feeling of being at home and of being at peace in every place and in every situation, good or bad, we can like Paul learn to be content – and the key word is “learn.” Despite his desire for the easy things in life, Paul was able to learn how to be content. Too often we simply don’t dare to imagine we can be at peace, content in our home, when we are in the midst of hardship, when we are visiting or living someplace we don’t like, or when the world is seemingly set against us. We tell ourselves that home is not a hospital room, a dirty motel room, a jail cell, our work desk, the house of our in-laws, or any other place we would rather not be. Instead, we hold our personal pity party, we convince ourselves life has been unfair, and we harbor seeds of anger and resentment at our current situation and the people we blame for causing it.
But as I discussed in my message last week, imagining ourselves in new and better ways is crucial to escaping our prisons of depression, addiction or discontent. To imagine ourselves at home and at peace in each and every situation of life is to change our reality. As we think, so we are. This is not the idle fantasy that Dorothy first engaged in – to create a make believe world that suited her liking. It is, instead, a way to step outside our present feelings of discontent and imagine the feelings we connect with being at home – peace, love, security, happiness. As Glinda the good witch told Dorothy, all she needed to do to get home was to imagine that there is no place like home. The key to her happiness was in her mind all along.
Tad Williams, an award winning contemporary science fiction writer, once said, “Never make your home a place. Make a home for yourself inside your head. You will find what you need to furnish it – good memories, friends you can trust, love of learning and other such things. That way, home will go with you wherever you journey.”
Finding contentment is not easy and I do not mean to imply that it is. I have struggled all my life with finding genuine and lasting contentment. I often place too much importance in my circumstances – where I live, the job I have, the friends around me, to determine whether or not I am happy and at peace. Once again, in choosing a topic for today’s message, I chose one that speaks to me as much as anyone else. For many of us, genuine and lasting peace of mind is as distant as the farthest star but, in reality, it is as close our next thought.
Many experts, philosophers and spiritual prophets encourage a pursuit of contentment. Jesus taught that we should follow the wisdom of nature and see how the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, for instance, do not spend their time worrying about physical well-being. Simplicity and security are necessary, but that is all. Birds find the shelter they need in simple nests and the food they require in basic seeds. Flowers are adorned with natural beauty and they do not worry that it is fleeting – here today and gone tomorrow. Our treasures in life, Jesus taught, are not found in our inanimate possessions that will one day rust away or end up owned by someone we don’t even know. All of the things on tables in the other room – set out for our rummage sale – are testimony to that fact. Things we once believed we needed and wanted are now rummage and cast-offs that this congregation will sell for 50 cents an item. Our treasures in life, instead, are found in gestures and actions that last – the legacy and positive impact we have in building a heaven on earth for all to enjoy.
Muhammad taught much the same as Jesus. “Wealth,” he said, “does not come from having a great amount of property. Wealth is finding self-contentment.” Balance is crucial according to the Koran. Those who are cheap and hoard all their earnings are just as broken as those who spend it all on material possessions. Indeed, Muhammad’s implicit message was to understand what motivates our discontent. Do we desire things that bring us fleeting pleasure or the kinds of things that offer lasting contentment?
Buddhism is even more explicit on this point. Craving is the source of our unhappiness. We desire a life without struggle, the ease of a rest filled retirement, the luxury of a nice house, the joy of perfect family members and friends – all to find that such things and people are illusory. As we discover the latest thing we buy or the newest object of our affection is flawed and soon outdated, we move on to wanting something newer, bigger or better. Contentment is found in our soul and not from any object or person.
Experts echo this same thinking. By letting go of, or scaling back on our desire for physical things and pleasures, we ironically discover greater happiness. If we find that we always want new and better things, we can, psychologists say, scale back on those desires and seek a balance point between what we desire and what we already have. And this is something we intuitively already know – most of us are blessed beyond compare. We have so much. We bask in immense wealth of things, money, food and good people. If we adjust our scales in life to acknowledge and measure all that we already have, we will no longer feel discontent. We will no longer desire that which we already have.
In order to count our blessings, experts encourage us to first be willing to admit to the cause of our bitterness, anger or discontent. Dorothy had to realize that she yearned for a more perfect place like Oz because she was not satisfied with her supposedly boring and strict Kansas home. Admitting that, she could change her perspective and see that not only was Oz not as perfect as she had dreamed, but that Kansas was not as bad as she had once complained. Indeed, Kansas was full of loving friends and family who cared about her and protected her. The story is a classic promotion of positive thinking and of seeing all the good in life that we already possess.
Even more to the point, some philosophers assert that in an imperfect world, we often have an unrealistic expectation that we deserve to live in perfect situations and with perfect people. The reality is that life is difficult for everyone and who am I to believe that I am special and thus immune from heartache, hurt or pain? Will I retreat into my pity party when confronted with hardship? Will I cover up my discontent with opiates that mask my dis-ease – drugs, alcohol, food, sex, material things, depression? Or, will I imagine, and thereby create, a better me at peace, a me at home wherever I am, a me who is happy and loving and giving?
I have told this story before, but it bears repeating in the context of my message today. Mabel lived in a nursing home after suffering a severe stroke. She was paralyzed, unable to speak, feed or take care of herself, and she was confined full time to a wheelchair or bed. All day she would sit in her chair and stare blankly ahead, her mouth half open and drool running down her chin. To any outside observer, her life seemed pointless and so very, very tragic.
One day, a computer was placed before her and she was slowly taught how, with the slightest twitch of her hand, she could move a joystick connected to the computer and type out words and sentences on a monitor. As she gained the ability to form written words, the staff and others in the nursing home were amazed. Nobody realized her mind was still alert and aware.
At one point, she was asked how she felt. With painstaking slowness, Mable carefully typed out: “I am wonderful. I am surrounded by people who love me and take care of me. Life is good.”
Have you ever dared to imagine that right here, right now, in whatever situation you are in life at this very moment, you are at home? You are at peace? You are content and happy beyond compare? Let us imagine that beautiful self. Let us see ourselves in all of the abundance, goodness and joy we already possess. And, then let us be that imagined, content self. Let us no longer hunger for an Oz-like paradise that does not exist. Let us, instead, bask in the heaven of right here, right now.
I wish us all great peace and joy…