If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
-Henry David Thoreau
Okay, I better address something this week. Why in the world am I using someone like Thoreau for leading me deeper into the world of Lent? Thoreau was not supportive of Christianity. In fact his “diary” entry for Sunday in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack is more about western religions' faults and hypocrisies. On top of that he is often seen as self-centered, narcissistic, pompous, and hypocritical. An article in New Yorker magazine in 2015 by award-winning author Kathryn Schulz severely criticizes Thoreau.
The real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world. From that inward fixation flowed a social and political vision that is deeply unsettling. -LinkShe goes on to analyze and question how in the world such a person could be so honored and even deified by so many?
I am not here to defend Thoreau. To some extent I agree with Schulz’s general review of him. He was a very strange man in so many ways. In spite of the popularity- and importance- of his ideal of civil disobedience, or his ideal of Walden pond, his arguments as presented do not always hold water, especially in the 21st Century. He was an excellent naturalist and the founding father of so much of what has since been written, but again it may not be all it seems. In many ways he was writing a metaphor, not a strict natural history. But again, we are dealing with the pre-Civil War 19th Century! The world of New England in 1845, which Thoreau presented as the seeming pinnacle of civilization, looks nothing like our world. It is, for me, the principles and directions of his thought that impress me.
As we remember that we are not dealing with a contemporary of ours, so too we should understand that he was not a “wise elder.” Thoreau never made it to being an elder; he died at age 45 of tuberculosis. He was 28 when he moved to Walden, 30 when he left, and 31 when he delivered the lecture that would become Civil Disobedience. In other words he was still a young rebel. He never left that behind.
Which is why I am so impressed by him and why the quote at the top of this post is his legacy for me. He was always marching to a different drummer. I believe that we as Christians should never forget that thought. We should find ways to move our own lives with an attitude of following our own music- or more fittingly for this series- the music of the soul and spirit as we Jesus-followers experience and discover it through Jesus Christ; him crucified and resurrected. Jesus told us that we should learn the ways of the world because he was sending us out
like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (NRSV)Part of that, Thoreau would remind us, is to listen for the beat of that different drummer! That is what Lent reminds us. Here is the call of this season for us-
dig deeply, look inside to find the drumbeat of our lives.More to the point may be that we are hearing the heartbeat of God when we do so. That heartbeat can be restless. That can make it a heartbeat that animates us, gives us direction and meaning and life. It keeps us moving.
A friend on Facebook posted a challenge to his fellow Baby Boomers last week. He asked what happened to the idealism and hope, the fresh ideas and directions, the radical and revolutionary understandings that propelled so many of us in the 60s and early 70s? Instead we have become “elders” (read: old), often more interested in the status quo than the possibilities of growth and peace, grace and spirit. “Have we lost our soul?” was my personal response. Have we become afraid of our own shadows, or even ashamed of some of the naive and innocent ideals of our youth? As a result have we turned away from asking the hard questions for fear of offending ourselves or others? Have we turned off the drumbeat and simply given up on making the world a better place?
But the word naive comes from deeper roots than that.
1650s, "natural, simple, artless," from French naïve, fem. of naïf, from Old French naif "naive, natural, genuine; just born; foolish, innocent; unspoiled, unworked" (13c.), from Latin nativus "not artificial," also "native, rustic," literally "born, innate, natural" -LinkMaybe we weren’t as “foolish” as some think we were. Maybe we were listening to what is more innate, a more natural way of living. Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond was a similar move. No, he did not leave the world behind and live like a hermit. Far from it. Instead he used that time to dig into his own soul and the spirit of the world around him, to hear the different drummer’s beat for him.
That’s what I am doing this Lent. I am using my faith and my experiences to bring that beat into clearer focus. I am using the wrestling with Thoreau to help me fine-tune my ear for the music and the ways to bring what I still believe as important from my “naive” years into this time and place.
- Where am I turning to hear the beat of God’s drummer?
- How can I pay closer attention to what the Spirit is calling me to do?
- What is the path in front of me that I may need to follow?
- What of my past is valuable to translate into this new century and the next decade of my life?
- How can I leave a trail that others may follow and find their own place in the work of God?
Do not go where the path may lead,
go instead where there is no path
and leave a trail.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson