LESSONS IN LIVING. The Theology of Dr. Seuss. Oh, the Places You ll Go! A St. Andrew s Sermon Delivered by Dr. Jim Rigby September 1, 2013

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1 LESSONS IN LIVING The Theology of Dr. Seuss Oh, the Places You ll Go! A St. Andrew s Sermon Delivered by Dr. Jim Rigby September 1, 2013 Scripture Reading: Joel 2:23-3:2 (The Inclusive Bible) We are beginning a new sermon series today called The Theology of Seuss, where we will look at Dr. Seuss and hold it up with scripture and see what we can learn from both of them. Dr. Seuss had no children of his own, which I think in some ways made it easier for him to enter completely into the world of a child. When you have children of your own, you have to consider things like will they take their tricycle into the freeway, that kind of thing, so you want them to have imagination, but you also would like them to live and not burn down the house. Books like Dr. Seuss are a wonderful bridge, where, in a way, you suspend roles a bit and the adult that is growing inside the child and the child that never died inside the adult can spend time together in a way that is both imaginary and very real. The book that we are looking at today is called, Oh, the Places You ll Go. It is the last book Dr. Seuss wrote, and it s very different in that he seems to realize that our children are going to live in a much harsher world than anything that has ever been known. He wants to both give hope but also have that hope be embedded in reality. In Scripture that is called Apocalyptic Literature. Apocalyptic Literature just means taking the cover off of something and looking at what is really there. It is not about just saying the world is going to end; it is trying to give us hope that will take us through the catastrophe that is to come. To do that we have to lose our illusions, we have to be disillusioned, but that actually makes it much safer for us. If you have ever been driving a car and thought that closing your eyes would make you safer (laughter) you probably learned that this is not true. It is true of all of life and when we look at the environment, when we look at the economy, when we look at the military situation of the world, it is very easy to despair. You go into a make believe world. If you want to know what a make believe world is like, go to a commencement speech almost anywhere. I think it would be great to go outside a commencement speech and sell a thing called Cliché Bingo. Have a little card with squares like journey, and as soon as the speaker says journey you can check that off. As soon as speaker says you can be anything you want to be you can check that off, be yourself, follow your passion just have all of those and play bingo. Dr. Seuss is going to have that voice in

2 Oh, the Places You ll Go and sometimes it is quoted in commencement speeches but there is also another voice there, a very sober voice, a very heavy voice, because Dr. Seuss cares about our children. I imagine that he imagines the book being read by a parent to a child. He wants to give the child hope and to give the parent a calling to not play cliché bingo, but to actually look at the world the way it is and pledge ourselves to making it better. The world does not have to be this way. We don t have to live in this insanity. But to live in sanity will mean checking out what we are currently doing. Dr. Seuss will rotate between the voice of the cliché bingo, the commencement speaker, Oh, the Places You ll Go, and a prophetic voice very similar to Joel and the other prophets in scripture. They want people to lose their illusions, the imaginary future. There is a difference between dreams and visions. Dreams can be escape from reality, visions are imagination going deeper into reality. In a sense, what we are being called to in this book is from our dreams and into our visions, and to live out of those. The philosopher, Immanuel Kant used to say there are three basic questions that every human being must ask in life. These are to him the three most important questions: 1. What can we know about the world? 2. What should we do? and most importantly, 3. What can we hope? If we are honest about the world we live in, the world our children will live in, what can we hope, what can they hope? Oh, the Places You ll Go, by Dr. Seuss. See if you can tell if this is the prophet or the cliché bingo. Congratulations! Today is your day. You are off to Great Places! You re off and away! You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. O.K. well, that s a crock, right? (laughter) But it s a wonderful thing to say. It feels great to say it, so we often send our children out into the world with that kind of mythology and they are going to bump into some stuff that doesn t cooperate. So Dr. Seuss is going to have the other voice now. You re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the guy who ll decide where to go. (He says guy, we d say guy or gal.) You ll look up and down streets. Look em over with care. About some you will say, I don t choose to go there. With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you re too smart to go down any not-so-good street. And you may not find any you want to go down. (A little bit of reality there.) In that case, of course, you ll head straight out of town. It s opener there 2

3 in the wide open air. Out there things can happen and frequently do to people as brainy and footsy as you. And when things start to happen, don t worry. Don t stew. Just go right along. You ll start happening too. Now that s the prophetic hope. Not that things will happen the way we want them to, but that our challenges will bring out the greatness within us. That s very important. In the ancient world one difference between the false prophet and the true prophet was the true prophet was never predicting the future. The true prophet was clarifying principles. When you have clear principles you can look at a nation and see where it is headed. You might want to think of some mythical (tongue in cheek) nation that you want to do that with, that appears to be on a crash course with reality. But it is also important to know we have within us the capacity and when we look around us and see no heroes, that can be a call to our own heroism. But when we send children out thinking that the world is play dough and they are going to be able to shape it any direction they want to, they are going to be in for a rude awakening. The apocalyptic prophet says that sometimes the best you are going to be able to do is to not let the world change you. You may not be able to change the world, but you can hold on to your own humanity. You can decide you are not going to compromise away who you are as a human being. Back to cliché bingo. OH! THE PLACES YOU LL GO! You ll be on your way up! You ll be seeing great sights! You ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights. You won t lag behind, because you ll have the speed. You ll pass the whole gang and you ll soon take the lead. Wherever you fly, you ll be the best of the best. Wherever you go, you will top all the rest. Except when you don t (laughter). Because, sometimes, you won t. I m sorry to say so but, sadly, it s true that Bang-ups 3

4 and Hang-ups can happen to you. You can get all hung up in a pricke-ly perch. And your gang will fly on. You ll be left in a Lurch. You ll come down from the Lurch with an unpleasant bump. And the chances are, then, that you ll be in a Slump. And when you re in a Slump, you re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done. That s the prophet. Joel at one point in our scripture today says that the Jewish people will never be put to shame again. This was written before the Holocaust, so it tells you it is speaking of a treasure that cannot be taken by the world. Most treasures can be taken by the world. Your courage, your temperance, your wisdom, your justice, cannot be stolen from you. These are the four treasures that the ancient world taught. Four great virtues: Wisdom, temperance, courage, and justice. Those are the things that the world cannot give you and cannot take away. If you approach the crises of our time as an opportunity to express those virtues, then I think you will get what Joel and Dr. Seuss are talking about. There is a theologian named Parker Palmer who used to say, sometimes the road to God leads down. This means that sometimes to find goodness, mercy, charity, your humanity, it leads you away from success. It leads you away from popularity. To hold on to your humanity may be the most expensive treasure that you have, but it is also the most valuable one that you have. When we think the cavalry is going to come and save us, we may never find our own heroism. You were probably taught that your job as a human being, as Americans, is just to vote for the hero and against the villain. Those roles have been reversed your whole life. As soon as the hero gets in power, surprise. Many years ago I went to Mexico to watch the eclipse. It was a wonderful trip, but to get to Oaxaca we had to ride on one of these buses that was completely filled with people. People hanging out of the bus, the windows open and along these mountain roads. I am very afraid of heights. Later, I had a dream about it. I am in this bus and it is even more crowded, with people hanging off it and we are going along the mountain pass, going down, careening down and I am nervous, but I keep hearing this person sob behind me, saying there is no hope, no hope. I turn around to console the person and it turns out to be the bus driver. (laughter) There IS no hope under those circumstances. This week our president was itching to bomb Syria while the research is still going on. I don t know what happened in Syria, but we had another president rushing to go to war before the information came in. That s what we call a Nobel Peace Prize winner. There is nobody driving the bus. The hope of the world is for us to find our humanity, to find our courage, wisdom, temperance, justice, and to live out of that. That is what we have to 4

5 teach children, but it is also what we have to show the children. When we talk about great virtues and live our lives pursuing petty goals and they never see us working for the whole world, where are they going to learn? Are they going to believe the words or are they going to believe the path we walked? I see Dr. Seuss sitting there and imagining, how do I speak to them both, the child hearing the story and the adult telling the story? You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly they re darked. Simple it s not, I m afraid you will find, for a mind-maker-upper to make up his mind. You can get so confused that you ll start in to race down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace and grind on for miles across weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place. The Waiting Place for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow. Howard Thurman was a great theologian and an activist. He said when you can t find your path, when you don t know who you are, instead of asking the question, What does the world need? ask What brings you to life? What makes you get up in the morning? He said What the world needs most is people who are alive. It doesn t end there, but I personally believe that we do not even recognize justice if we haven t first seen beauty. We do not even recognize justice if we have not first seen beauty, because the essence of justice is empathy put in application. When we are just trying to do the right thing, we become brutal and wooden in our responses. When our activism, our pursuit of justice is an expression of our empathy, then it is a very different matter. Well, Dr. Seuss ends with a parade. Oh, the places you ll go! There is fun to be done! There are points to be scored. There are games to be won. And the magical things you can do with that ball will make you the winning-est winner of all. Fame! You ll be famous as famous can be, with the whole wide world watching you win on TV. Except when they don t. (laughter) Because, sometimes, they won t. I m afraid that some times you ll play lonely games too. 5

6 Games you can t win cause you ll play against you. All Alone! Whether you like it or not, Alone will be something you ll be quite a lot. Wouldn t it have been helpful when you headed out? See, that s not bad news. It depends on what we do it with. When we recognize the human condition, that is not bad news. To drive with your eyes open gives you a whole lot more chance to live in an imaginary world reduces our chances beyond measure. As I worked on this sermon this week, I just thought of this compassionate man trying to talk to us through this book, through this story, to awaken in the children the hope and to know that whatever they face, they are equipped to do it. But also to wake up within us the realization that these children are not going to live in the world we wish for them. They are going to live in the world we have created for them. We need to teach them hope that will get them through. We have a choice of spending our time spinning clichés with them while their world goes further to hell or to question whether we love them enough to become activist and give them a different kind of world with different kinds of choices. The world does not have to be this way. I want to close with Dr. Seuss. But on you will go, though the weather be foul. On you will go though your enemies prowl. On you will go though the Hakken-Kraks howl. (whatever they are) Onward up many a frightening creek though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak. On and on you will hike and I know you ll hike far and face up to your problems whatever they are. Transcribed and edited by a member of the St. Andrew's Sermon Transcription Project. St. Andrew s Church Loving Progressive Presbyterian Wells Port Drive, Austin, Texas (512) Fax: (512)

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