Toorak Uniting Church

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The Hidden Wholeness of Integrity

Psalm 107: 1 – 7, 33 – 37   Matthew 23: 1 – 12
Rev. Dr Christopher Page
30 October 2011

Parker Palmer is a Quaker writer who has spent most of his adult life researching the place of integrity and wholeness in human life. He believes that much in the modern world forces us to live a sort of fragmented life. What’s on the inside isn’t always reflected in our outer life – in our ways of being in the world. He suggests that there is a kind of violence in our contemporary world that does damage to our inner life, our true selves, because we are often caught between what we ought to do and what is expected that we should do.

Surprisingly the "shoulds" of life get in the way of living life in all its fullness. And I don’t mean that there aren’t things we have to do that are uninteresting, or dutiful, or at times morally difficult; rather it is more the sense that what drives us, what enlivens us, what gives us life and what is our way of being in the world can clash with the "shoulds" of life that are visited on us from the cradle to the grave. Our integrity, our wholeness can feel to be compromised.

After the twin towers collapsed on September 11, 2001, I was intrigued to understand why they fell as they did. You may know that the Internet is alive with conspiracy theories that suggest it was a controlled demolition that brought the towers down. Oh dear!! But in the weeks that followed the tragedy, engineers and scientists explained what had happened. I remember one such expert saying something like, "the integrity of the steel girders central to the buildings’ construction was comprised by burning jet fuel and other flammable materials present in the buildings." The integrity of the steel girders was compromised.

I am no building surveyor, but I understand what is being said. Steel has a certain character that is created to be undivided, that is it wholes together. It has wholeness. It’s form and its function has integrity. And there is a unity and oneness that gives it its "reason for being." Or something like that. I haven’t talked with many steel girders to confirm that. Then something from the outside; something that tests it and puts it under unexpected stress breaks its oneness; its wholeness; its integrity. And in the case of the twin towers we observe the awful tragedy when that happened.

Walk your Talk:
The gospel of Matthew sees Jesus as particularly harsh on those who were hypocrites; those who didn’t practice what they preached, who didn’t walk the talk or those who said one thing and did another. He was critical of those who lacked integrity, who lacked wholeness in their lives. And unfortunately for someone like me - those in the religious profession – we came in for the strongest criticism. We know that even today our high sounding words are not always in concert with our behaviours.

"Do what ever they teach you, says Jesus…but don’t do as they do, for they don’t practice what they teach…"

It doesn’t take much to see how our good words, when not backed up by good actions become devalued and eventually meaningless. And this is particular so when our words have to do with loving, and when our actions fail to match our words. Wasn’t it Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady who sang to Freddy?

"Words! Words! I'm so sick of words!
I get words all day through…
Don't talk of stars burning above; If you're in love,
Show me! Tell me no dreams
Filled with desire. If you're on fire,
Show me!

I think it is fair to say that good actions can redeem poor words, but poor action can seldom redeem good words.

Character is both Inside and Outside – Words and Actions:
Matthew’s Jesus is concerned about the inconsistencies observed in the religious leaders of the day.

They lay heavy burdens on others, burdens they are not willing to even lift a finger to remove. They do their good deeds to be seen by others…loving the place of honour and respect given to them by other people.

I have been somewhat of a fan of the leadership guru Stephen Covey since his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, came out in 1989. Covey reintroduced the concept that character was an essential aspect of modern leadership and in fact, central to everything we do. In the last 50 years there has been a turn away from emphasising the importance of both character and virtue. It seemed too many that character and virtue were an old fashion way of being, not suited to the modern world. Covey on the other hand showed how the character ethic was foundational to success. Aspects like integrity, humility, loyalty, faithfulness, courage, patience, simplicity and even modesty are the:

"basic principles of effective living and people can only experience true success and enduring happiness as they learn and integrate these principles into their basic character".

Character always seeks wholeness. What is on the inside needs to be expressed authentically on the outside. Show me! says Eliza Doolittle. Again it has been the Quaker Parker Palmer who has helped me see this.

"Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks--we will also find our path of authentic service in the world."

This might be a bold statement, but I would suggest that this longing for wholeness and integrity is actually what life is all about. And it is a deep spiritual longing that finds its home in the loving heart of God. Now while the language used in Matthew’s gospels is not easily accessible - "Call no one father on earth, for you have but one Father who is in heave," it nevertheless, points us to the solution to our dividedness; to our compromised integrity, our lack of wholeness, we find our home in our oneness with the God of life, the ground of all being.

I don’t think in this passage that Jesus is actually anti-religious. He certainly was anti-religiosity and hypocrisy. Neither was he anti-religious leadership. I think he did say, "listen to your heart – to your inner truth," but he saw the human heart as formed and shaped by the presence of a loving God and that good teaching and leadership could lead people into a place of wholeness, fulfilment and happiness. I think he got angry when religion was either used to press people down or to rob them of access into the fullness of life. Sadly that continues even today when there is more emphasis in our religion on the "shoulds," then there is on the joy of living the undivided life with integrity.

© Rev. Dr Christopher Page, 2011

Comments or suggestions on this page appreciated by email, Thanks.