Tag: Lewis Joseph Sherrill

Growing into our tomorrows

Thanksgiving causes us to look back in time and to look around us at today. The goal in looking is to be thankful. This surely is a very good thing, one which should be more than an annual occurance in the living of life.

What might be the downside? Possibly a failure to look ahead, to look to the future at what might be possible. How might we continue to grow, to become more than we were yesterday or are today?

Lewis Joseph Sherrill wrote in The Struggle of the Soul (1951) that in nature there is an “inward propulsion to grow.” He saw it in plant life. When a seed is “placed in suitable surroundings,” it will “germinate, swell, send out roots, send up a sprout, break into leaf, and eventually complete its cycle by producing seed again after its kind. This it does as if by a sort of inner compulsion. So strong is this compulsion that, in growing, a tree, for example, will lift, push, or split heavy obstructing objects in order to complete itself.”

In animal life there is similar inborn movement toward growth and change. “A young bird, for instance, acts as if there were an inner compulsion to learn to fly, to leave the nest, to sing, to mate, to feed and defend its own young, to migrate, and so on.”

As you might expect, Sherrill sees this among people, as well. “And in the human being we have also to reckon with a comparable kind of inward propulsion to grow, that is, to pass through certain stages as one moves toward the complete fulfillment of life.” (p.8)

There is, however, a darker side to the human tale.

“If this were all there is to the story of the human psyche, there would be little to human history except the recounting of the idyllic tale of happiness and progress. But the psyche knows another motive, one which seems to be peculiar to the human being, apparently not being found either in plant or animal life. It runs exactly counter to the inward propulsion to growth. It is a dread and fear of growth, a shrinking back from the hardships, the risks and dangers, the suffering, which are involved in each stage of growth.” (p. 10)

Reading that last sentence, I thought of Frodo in T. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. He did not shrink back from the hardships, risks, dangers and suffering associated with destruction of the evil ring. He grew as a man in the story, if not in height. He longed for the Shire of his past, but moved forward anyway. Yes, he’s only a fictional character, but good imaginary creations can illustrate truth about real life.

You may recall the story from the Hebrew Bible of Lot’s wife turning back to look back at the city from which the family had just fled. She turned to salt for disobeying God’s combat to look forward and not look back. Sherrill says the following:

“… [T]he soul takes on the role of Lot’s wife. Looking backward to the good things about to be left behind, and unable to go forward, one is immobilized into a pillar of salt which cannot escape from its own desolation.” (p. 10-11)

Some of us have turned to salt. We have looked back to the good times in our past and are afraid to move forward into new challenges. This is sad, but it’s more than sad. “In the last analysis this, as much as many other things of which the term is used, is rebellion against God.” (p. 11)

As we give thanks for the past and the present, may we give thanks for what God still has ahead of us if we will but be strong and move forward with power and purpose. Service is much preferred to rebellion, or should be.

Pilgrims on the road to somewhere

When I think of pilgrims I have images of men and women wearing funny clothes and having a thanksgiving dinner with friendly natives. The images come from my childhood, and they represent the religious dissenters who left England for a land where they could worship God freely.

Time distorts things. We have heard these people so long referred to as “The Pilgrims” that we have forgotten why we call them that name. They came to be called pilgrims because they were on a pilgrimage.

A pilgrimage means to go somewhere with a purpose, often of a spiritual nature, in order to gain some internal or external benefit. (Ferrell’s Unwritten Dictionary)

It generally is an actual journey to somewhere, but it also can be viewed as a metaphor for life.  

Lewis Joseph Sherrill says there are many metaphors for giving meaning to life, and pilgrimage is one of three that he cites in his 1951 book, The Struggle of the Soul. The three are treadmill, saga, and pilgrimage.

“Treadmill” is one of a number of metaphors used to “express the same general but dismal feeling toward life–that it has no meaning.” (4) People work, eat, sleep, and die. Sherrill associates it with many people who work in monotonous jobs. The metaphor, however, is not about their circumstances; it is about how they understand life.

“Saga,” as a form of story, chronicles the “vicissitudes and exploits” of a hero or heroine. When saga becomes a metaphor for understanding life, “it lifts the heroism and glamour of life to a poetic level.” Sound like any movies you’ve seen lately? “Thus the saga rises above the treadmill by exalting the distinctively human qualities which exist, if we can see them, within the treadmill. The saga teaches men to see and honor the humanness of the natural virtues, such as courage, patience, endurance, self-sacrifice, and the like.” (4-5) Saga has a two-fold value: “it shows wherein the nobility of great character lies and it shows the heroism of the common life. Even when trivial and preposterous, it still serves to lift the hearer a little way above the treadmill.” (5)

But don’t get too excited about saga; it has its problems. “… [T]he saga is secular in the root meaning of that term; that is, it concerns the people and the events of a saeculum, a particular age or generation; and again we must say that if there is more to sing than the saeculum in which the saga is laid, the saga cannot sing it. (5)

Yikes! Not able to sing a song that needs to be sung? So what’s missing? The answer rests in pilgrimage as a life metaphor.

 “… [P]ilgrimage is a state of mind before it is a journey, and many who deserve to be known as pilgrims can never take a journey of body. Yet they refuse to live in a treadmill. For some, who are pilgrims at heart, have to spend their days in the same round of constantly repeated activities as their fellows; but to them it is no longer a treadmill.” (6)

Note that pilgrimage does not have to do with a person’s outward circumstances; it has to do with how they approach life. Now, back to the limitations of saga and the benefit of pilgrimage.

“Life as saga, we saw, is life bounded in two planes. It can celebrate humanity, but it is essentially limited to humanity. And it can celebrate the saeculum, the current time, but it is limited to time.

“Life as pilgrimage, on the contrary, is open in both of the planes where life as saga is closed. In the vertical plane, so to speak, where life as saga is closed, life as pilgrimage is open to more than the merely natural and human, so that human existence is consciously related not only to nature and to humanity, but also to God who transcends nature and humanity. And in the horizontal plane, if we may again use a spatial symbol, where life as saga is secular in the sense of being limited by time, life as pilgrimage is open to eternity. It tastes what has been strikingly called ‘the power of an endless life.’” (6-7, quote in final sentence is from Hebrews 7:16)

All of us have a way of looking at life. We often don’t think about it or consciously form it, but it is there–a way of making sense of life. But it’s more than that because how we make sense of life affects how we live it.

I desire to live as a pilgrim, and I plan to eat turkey on Thanksgiving just like the Pilgrims did back in the seventeenth century. Well, maybe they didn’t, but I’m going to remember them when I eat mine.

Character, strength and maturity

“In a word, modern civilization demands character marked by a high degree of strength and maturity in those who would survive it.”

That was written 60 years ago by Lewis Joseph Sherrill (The Struggle of the Soul, p. 1), but it’s still true.

He continues with a tough diagnosis of the civilization. Remember, this was written in 1951, six years after the end of World War II and before the start of the now-storied, God-and-family 1950s.

“And yet, on the other hand, modern society is producing, in vast numbers, persons who are rendered deficient because they cannot achieve precisely that kind of strength and maturity which our civilization demands. Instead, while the civilization is requiring one thing in the character of men, the society out of which that civilization has arisen tends to produce the very opposite in the character of men.

“Moreover, this disparity between the demands upon human character and the sufficiency of human character, seems to be growing steadily as we advance further into our century.” (p. 1)

Sherrill said Americans at the beginning of the 1950s lived “in a time of trouble,” that they were “harassed by uncertainty, heartbreak and despair.” (p. 2)

But the author could see a new possibility.

“In this time of trouble many, to whom religion has been outside the bounds of personal experience, have sought to find reasonable grounds for hope, only to discover, sometimes to their frank surprise, that their quest has brought them face to face with a Reality which they recognize as God, but a God with whom they do not know how to deal. Others are discovering that religion, as they know it , is not sufficient for the new demands which life is placing upon them. Still others, already at home in the religious life, are finding in religion greater resources than they have ever known before, and are drawing more deeply upon these resources in their day of need. When all such facts are put together and carefully examined, there is much to justify those who say that we are in a time of turning to God.

“But man’s turning to God may prove to be only one side of something whose other side has an even greater significance. Is it possible that God is now confronting man, in this modern world, with deeper demand and with more hopeful promise than any of us has been able as yet to apprehend? Here again there is much to lead one to believe that this may be so.” (p. 2)

Today, we live in a new time of trouble, often harassed by uncertainty, heartbreak, and despair. Could it be that we stand at the cusp of an opportunity for renewed vigor in regard to the things of God–loving God and loving others as ourselves? And could it be, as in 1951, this represents a reaching for connection both by men and women and by God?

May we all grow in character, strength and maturity today. And may we pray that a new day of God and family may be upon us.