Self-Discovery and the Journey to God: What the Wizard of Oz Teaches Us About Finding Our Way Home

During the summer months, the Cobb Theater in my hometown offers free movies in the mornings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This is a gift to families who are trying to find kid-friendly entertainment that doesn’t break the bank. Last week, I was able to get away for a couple of hours to see The Wizard of Oz with my children. The last time I really watched the movie was in elementary school, and I was struck by something I had never realized before. Dorothy and her three traveling companions actually possessed the things for which they were so desperately looking.

The scarecrow thought he need a brain, but turned out to be one of the smartest characters. The tin man thought he was missing a heart, but showed strong emotions, sometimes evidenced by tears. The lion thought he lacked courage, by like the others was able to face his fears, successfully make the journey to the Emerald City, and save Dorothy from the wicked witch in the process. This insight is confirmed at the end of the film when the wizard, instead of giving them the virtues they were seeking, gave them symbolic objects that functioned to confirm the qualities they already possessed. And of course Dorothy was trying to find the means to get back home, only to realize that the ruby slippers she wore the whole time was all she needed.

What seems clear to me is that this film is about self-discovery. It’s about leaving home, transgressing boundaries into unexplored territories, and returning home with an expanded consciousness. It is about our compulsion to look for wizards who can deliver us from danger and give us magical (i.e., quick and easy) solutions to complex problems so we don’t have to travel the long and painful road to maturity. It is about helping us realize that we have within us the things we so desperately look for in others, but also how evil can gain the upper hand by exploiting our insecurities and convincing us to believe lies about ourselves. It’s about realizing that everything we need to get home, everything we need for salvation, has already been accomplished and deposited in us as a gift. And it’s about the importance of discovering all of this for ourselves in the midst of life’s storms and the grief that comes with saying goodbye.

As I pondered these insights about the Wizard of Oz, I began to see parallels in the church’s teachings on the Holy Spirit and salvation, especially as interpreted by the contemplative and mystical traditions. The biggest temptation of fallen humanity is to look for salvation in other people or things of this world. By looking outside ourselves, we try to secure our own existence with created things, which inevitably leads us down the path to idolatry. We are particularly tempted to seek salvation in other people: a romantic partner, a therapist, a pastor, an inspirational author, or even a friend that we put on a pedestal as a spiritual giant. Anytime we are looking for someone outside of ourselves to “fix” us we get in trouble because the answers lie within.

I am not suggesting that we save ourselves—only God saves. But the Bible teaches that with the sending of the Holy Spirit, the triune God comes to live in us. (In addition to passages referencing the image of God in human beings, see Philippians 2:12, Colossians 1:27, Galatians 2:20, Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 6:19). And if God lives in us, then finding or drawing close to God points to the inward journey of the heart. As Richard Rohr says in Everything Belongs, we are “circumference people” who live at the edges of our existence, and the path to God is the movement from the edges to the center. The biblical metaphor for the center of our existence is “the heart.” The journey to God is also the journey of self-discovery. These two kinds of knowing happen together. 

Furthermore, if the very power and presence of God lives in us, then in a certain sense we lack nothing. Some of the most entrenched problems of human existence come from the idea of scarcity—the fear of not getting enough or being enough. We often assume that we are missing something really important for a life of joy and contentment. This compels us to search outside ourselves for what we think we lack, and this outward focus often leads to the comparison trap. We gaze upon the idealized persona of others generated by projections of a charmed life on social media and the material signs of success (wealth, good looks, and influence). Then we compare ourselves to this illusory ideal and find our fears confirmed by thoughts such as, “I wish I had it all like her,” or “I wish I had it all together like him.” The comparison trap intensifies our anxiety and sometimes leads to depression as we struggle with the entrenched suspicion that we are really not good enough and lack the solution.

But the Bible teaches that God has given us everything we need for abundant life and has deposited this treasures in our hearts through the sending his Holy Spirit who lives in us. Just like Dorothy wore the slippers that could take her home all along, so God has given us the means for divine, intimate communion. All we have to do is close our eyes and (instead of clicking our heels three times) call on the name of the Lord (Romans 10:13). The way home is the path of prayer. That is what this message is all about. I hope it blesses you!

Phrases for Meditation: I am accepted. I lack nothing, The Spirit of God lives in me.

Becoming a Holy Fool!

Western Christians seem hell-bent on saving themselves by intellectual work, by having the right beliefs or the correct interpretation of the Bible. Our culture indoctrinates us with the lordship of the rational mind that constantly organizes, categorizes, and analyzes in order to figure things out. Knowledge is power, so if we can figure something out then we can control it. Think about the way educators talk about students “mastering” a subject. There is much to be gained by this kind of thinking, but it can be deadly when we try to ultimately secure ourselves by means of rational control. But this is exactly what many are trying to do in the Western (especially Protestant) church. While it is difficult for us to admit, we speak out of two sides of our mouth! On the one hand we proclaim that salvation is a pure gift of love received in faith. On the other hand, we insist that salvation requires “the right” interpretation of scripture (i.e. my interpretation of scripture), or “the right” beliefs (i.e. my beliefs). So are we saved by God’s love or are we saved by intellectual work (which would be another way of trying to save ourselves)? I am not saying that systematic and constructive theology are unimportant. Nor am I saying that the content of our beliefs are unimportant; our beliefs profoundly shape who we are and how we act, for better or worse.  But I am saying that when we start tying salvation, as well as who should be included or excluded in the church, to having “the true” interpretation of scripture or “the right” beliefs, then we are slipping back into a form of works righteousness. (By the way, when someone says, “That’s not Biblical,” it is sometimes a passive-aggressive way of saying, “Don’t question my interpretation of the Bible!”)

I am becoming increasingly convinced that a big part of the solution to this problem is to balance our emphasis on the rational with a healthy dose of the contemplative. Richard Rohr says, “The final stage of the wisdom of faith is what we might call becoming a Holy Fool. Ironically the Holy Fool is one who knows that he doesn’t know but doesn’t need to know either . . . the Holy Fool doesn’t need to know. He obviously would like to know, but he is able to leave the full knowing to God” (Everything Belongs 123). Rohr calls the Western way of thinking “small mind” and the Eastern way of thinking “big mind,” and then says that true faith is a convergence of the two. This reminds me of Anselm’s dictum, “Faith seeking understanding,” with the qualification that at the end of the day we must stand silent before the mystery of God.

Many people have come to view the church with suspicion because of an apparent “bait and switch.” We say, “God loves you just the way you are and offers salvation as a pure gift of love,” and when they say, “I want this gift!” we reply, “You can have it if you interpret the Bible like we do and embrace the same beliefs (including social and political beliefs) that we do!” Indeed, social and political litmus tests come to determine who is an insider and who is an outsider, and the church builds ideological walls to keep the pollutants out! We condemn the most obvious expressions of this division, exclusion, and condemnation as distasteful (which is not really to do so in the cause of radical love), but are there remnants of Westboro-Baptist Church hiding in the corners of our hearts and churches? When you find them, they will not look anything like grace, nor will they align with Jesus’ constant command to be unified in love.

Oh how things would change if we could become more like the Holy Fool who doesn’t need to figure everything out and then use this “truth” to control, ridicule, exclude, and condemn to hell people who disagree. Oh how things would change if we could learn to be more patient with ambiguity, uncertainty, and even unknowing. I pray that we can all experience the inner freedom of not having to know (and therefore control) everything, so that we can find ways to be more unified in love.