The front page of the Times carried a story on the first day of the New Year about a systemic cheating scandal at the University of North Carolina and their football players. It was one of those articles that make you roll your eyes, a new year perhaps but the same old, same old. No surprise that the football team drops the college SAT average a couple hundred points. In a second, I was transported back to college freshman year, end of the first semester. We had a final in Spanish, all of us were struggling, and we agreed to study together. Carmen Delgado, our defensive tackle, shows up in my dorm, my roommate pulls out his three ring binder. I say to Carmen, “what you got”. I’ve got some notes here and he reaches into his back pocket, pulls out like 4 sheets of paper with some scrawl on it… My roommate’s glasses fell to the bottom of his nose. That was the last semester that Carmen attended Wake Forest.
The Dean at UNC was asked to comment on the fact that the faculty had violated some basic standards in order to help the lineman stay eligible to play. He said, ‘We operate on trust that our faculty members are fulfilling their duties and living up to the standard that we set for our community.”
And that is really the moral and spiritual principle that we try to teach at the University. We want kids to operate by an honor code, a code that they internalize. We want them to produce their own work because spiritually speaking we want people to find their own authentic voice. It is a lifetime achievement, finding your own voice. But no one else can do that for you. And you can steal other’s work and pass it off as your own for a short amount of time but in the real test of living your life, you have to live what you are supposed to do, not anyone else’s. And that is a deeper spiritual truth.
We Christians repeat it every year about now. We say about Jesus, ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth’. This is the real deal. This is the light that shines in the darkness and because of that, we each need to embody the light that grace and truth might find grow in us.
The movie ‘The Words’ is about a young writer who can’t quite seem to break through and get his work published. He isn’t that good yet and he is frustrated about that. His girlfriend and he go to Paris and she buys him a writer’s valise at a flea market. It is almost an antique. He gets home and discovers that inside is a hand written manuscript, probably 50 years old.
It tells the story of a young American GI in Paris right after the end of WW2, who falls in love with a French woman, a beautiful romance, and tragedy that befalls them. This young writer is captivated by the manuscript and reads the whole thing. Then he decides that he will type it our verbatim, hoping that typing great words will help him think great thoughts.
His girlfriend finds the story on his lap top. Thinking it is his, she tells him that she has read it, that just reading it makes her realize that he is more interesting and wonderful than she knew, that she found the man inside the man when she read the piece, and she throws her arms around him in a moment of rapturous romantic expression.
He freezes, tries to explain, but to no avail. Way leads to way and he decides that he really wants her to love him, for others to love him, so he finishes the manuscript, gets it to the editor, gets it to the publisher, who reads it in a single sitting, it is so gripping. They publish the book and it becomes a huge, huge success.
One morning, the young writer is sitting in Central Park. An old man has followed him to the bench where he is sitting. And the old man starts to tell the young writer a story. The story is about a young American GI in Paris right after the war, who meets a French woman. They fall deeply in love and then a tragedy drives them apart. The young man is desperate to get her back, to tell her how he feels, so he writes a novel about their life and he finishes it. He gives it to this young woman in a writer’s valise on her trip to her mother’s house in the French countryside. She leaves the valise on the train. It is never heard from again. The young woman never gets to read the manuscript, never gets to hear how much he loved her, they never get together again.
Years and years go by and then the young man becomes an old man, walks into a bookstore and sees a book for sale by the very same title of the work that he wrote, opens the first page and begins to read again the words he wrote with so much passion decades and decades ago. It takes him right back to that time of so much love, so much pain, so much loss.
The young writer has been trying to politely excuse himself from this old man’s story and now he is frozen stiff. He is frozen, not just because he is about to get caught. It is actually much bigger than even that. Even before that moment, he had been traveling about the country, reading selections from the book and answering questions. He’d been receiving the adulation of ordinary people everywhere he went. And the more adulation he received, the more anxiety he developed.
After a point, the anxiety bloomed into a full blown sense of inadequacy. People would ask him, how he could imagine such a poignant scene? How can you write so vividly about the pain of that loss? How can you make yourself so vulnerable, open and honest?
It wasn’t just that he wasn’t as gifted a writer. It was that he hadn’t lived as fully in his life. He wasn’t reading from his script, he was reading the script of someone else’s life. He suddenly realized that he had completely missed the point, that his fans around the country were in love with someone else that he was pretending to be, that his girlfriend was sleeping with a man who was spiritually not the man that she thought she was in love with. He was white with the genuine fear that he had missed the point of his own life that he was a fake. And no amount of money to the real author and no amount of explaining this situation to his girlfriend would actually make it right. No this was way, way beyond that. The Truth with a capital T had reduced him to a Failure with a capital F.
It is a tough moment. But you reach these places in your life where you need to be honest, and genuine romantic love is one of those places. There comes this moment, when it is no longer simply about how clever you are making conversation, it is not just about how beautiful and sexy you are, it is not about how successful and interesting your life might be. It is about being real.
There comes this moment when you need to be loved just for who you are, warts, quirkiness, zany odd stuff that you got from your family. You just deeply, deeply want to be real with this other person.
And Bob’s piece gets at that moment so wonderfully, whether you are 17 or 70. It is a jump, a wonderful and frightening leap. You know how nutty you are, all your foibles, so that you know someone in their right mind couldn’t possibly find you good enough. But there you are giving it your best shot with all of the game that you have. This comes from the heart, this needs to be real.
The deepest spiritual challenge of our lives is simply for us to become real, with ourselves, with each other, with God. You have to be spiritually courageous enough to learn to read from the script of your life. You have to find your voice and become who you are meant to become.
Richard Rohr says that if you zoom out on your life, your quest is to increasingly develop ‘unitive consciousness’. You want to speak with one authentic voice that is your own. All throughout our lives, we realize our inconsistencies. We find ourselves playing a part because it is expedient, it serves a short term goal. We pretend to be what we are not because we think that is what we need to do to get ahead in our careers. It is what we think our Mother would want us to do. It is the way that someone else would do it that is more talented than us, more successful than us.
We know it isn’t working. I remember talking to one of my fraternity brothers right after we graduated and he told a few of us that he was gay. Great athlete, always had great looking dates that we couldn’t get to date us, so we were teasing him, ‘you mean Cheryl Robinson wouldn’t do it for you?’ He got a winsome smile on his face and turned to me and said, “I wanted to be straight, I really did”. But you can’t be who you are not, even if you spend years trying.
Sometimes you wake up and you realize, I just can’t do this anymore. I have to try to find me. I’ve been bullshitting myself and I just can’t do that anymore. Why do I raise this right now? There is something about the holidays, about seeing people from your deep past that make you realize just how much you’ve changed. There is something about a new year coming that makes us really stop for a moment and think to ourselves, usually driving down the road late at night coming home with the kids asleep in the back of the car, ‘am I becoming who I need to become or am I just faking it reading the script from someone else’s life, like it is my own.
The word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. And the Word became flesh that you might find grace and truth in your life. You can become real too. Is your life coming together? Have you found your voice?
I hope that you follow that inner anxiety about your own duplicity and complacency until you find the courage to genuinely move in a new direction. I hope you stumble upon something genuine in yourself, something real. I hope you find the life, for that life is the light of us mortals. And that light can shine in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. Write the script of your life, a beautiful script that feels just right for you to live. And may the gift of the new year bless you with hope, truth and grace. Amen.