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A sermon by Rick Richards delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, June 27, 2010

Unsolved Cases from the Files of a Soul Detective

Opening Words
When people ask me what a soul detective is, I like to say, “A soul detective is just a detective, and a soul is just a mystery.”

If they persist, I tell them, “A mystery all depends on what question you ask. If you ask the wrong question, nothing makes sense. In fact, nothing ever will make sense because nothing can make sense. Asking the wrong question is like taking the wrong train. You’ll get somewhere all right, but not to the place you want to go.”

Of course, as soon as I start talking about trains, people get a little lost, because most people don’t take trains anymore. But all you need is one experience of taking the wrong train to understand what I’m talking about. The longer you stay on that train, the worse off you are; and the sad part is you sometimes don’t figure it out until you have to get off.

If they survive my train analogy, I say, “A soul detective is someone who asks about how things are in order to understand how they should be if the soul is going to prosper.”

If you’ve followed me so far, you might begin to suspect that you are a soul detective – maybe not in a big way but, still, a soul detective. If you’ve ever looked into how things are in order to try to figure out how they should be, you understand the challenge that all soul detectives face.

First of all, you have to give up most of your ideas about what the right question is, because you might need to ask some really flaky questions. A friend of mine once said that it’s easy to ask questions about things you don’t know much about or don’t think matter that much. But, he said, it’s hard to ask questions about things that really matter to you. He said that’s because, at the heart of each of us are convictions that hold us together. He called these convictions “lifelines” because people put so much belief in them. Strong belief makes good questioning hard. “Touch a lifeline,” he said, “and most soul investigations stop.”

So, being a soul detective is both simple and hard. The hardness doesn’t go away and you need to take your comfort where you find it. Me, I take my comfort in light. That’s probably because so much of my work is done in the dark. So, if you don’t mind, let’s take a minute and light the chalice. The light may come in handy.

First Reading – From Legs by William Kennedy
Legs Diamond was clearly an Al Jolson fan, and so was I, and I listened to him express amazement that anybody could be as good at anything as Jolson was but still be the most conceited SOB in shoe leather.

I broke into the conversation and said something windy like: “He sings, whistles, dances, gives out the jokes and patter and its all emotion, all a revelation of who he is. I don’t care how much he’s rehearsed, it’s still rare because it’s pure. He’s so at home in himself he can’t make a false gesture. Everything he does is more of that self that’s made a million, ten, twenty million, whatever it is. People find this very special and they’ll pay to see it. Even his trouble is important because it gives him diversity, pathos, and those qualities turn up in his voice. Everything he does funnels in and out of him through his talent.

Sure he’s conceited, but that’s only a cover-up for his fear that he’ll be exposed as the desolated, impoverished, scrawny, fearful hyena that he probably thinks is his true image, but that he can’t admit to anybody without destroying his soul.”

First Unresolved Case: The Case of Unresolved Loss
I’m very happy to be with you this morning to share some cases I’m working on. I’ve chosen the cases that keep eluding me, scratching at the back of my mind like a dog wanting to get out of the door.

As you know, souls are tricky things. They tend to get lost and, when they do, it causes a world of misery. Think of someone you know who has lost their soul and you’ll know what I mean.

On the other hand, people who know where their souls are can be pretty amazing – they can be kind to others in ways that make you cry with joy. They can be crusaders of such power it takes your breath away. And mainly, when you’re with them, you feel a really solid presence. You kind of know that someone who has their soul can weather just about anything and not get their feathers ruffled.

So, let me start to open up some of the old files.

The first case I want to talk to you about is a young man who searched me out several years ago. Finding a soul detective is harder than you might think because most of us work out of our minds, so we’re kind of a moving target.

Anyway, it’s was a dark night and I was sitting in my mind staring off into the middle distance when there was a knock on the door. I was surprised, since I don’t have a door, but there definitely was a knock.

“Come on in,” I shouted.

The door opened and this young man – it’s hard not to call him a kid really – came into the office. He looked around at the place, which is pretty seedy. I’m not a great one for pictures, rugs, knickknacks – all the things that might make you feel at home.

He asked tentatively, “Are you the guy who’s a soul detective?” “Yep, I’m the one,” I said. “How’d you find me?” I wanted to know if my security had been breached.

“I saw the light on in your window. It’s dark and rainy outside, so that single lighted window stood out, way up there – it must be the sixteenth floor. That’s a lot of stairs!”

Someday I’ll find a building with an elevator.

“What’s on your mind?” I asked. I could see a restless look in his eyes and I wondered how bad this one would be.

“Well, I don’t really know, and I guess that’s the problem,” he said. “I keep thinking there’s important stuff I don’t know. I don’t know what it is, but I know that, until I know it, I won’t really understand life, I won’t know what I should do, and there will be people who do know and who know that I don’t know. And, even if they’re nice about it, it’s hard, knowing they know and you don’t know.”

Whew! Talk about bad. It was hard to know where to begin with this one – knowing you know you don’t know but knowing other people know and on and on.

Thinking quickly, I told him this was too big for him to take on alone. I said, “There’s a Unitarian church down the street. A lot of people there will understand what you’re talking about, so why don’t you check them out, talk to a few people in Coffee Hour, and then come back here.” Actually, I knew my advice was a little risky, especially the part about Coffee Hour, but I thought this was the best way for him to get started. It wasn’t going to be easy, so the sooner he got started, the better.

He showed up in my office again a couple of weeks later. “How’d it go?” I asked him.

“To be honest, I’m not sure,” he said.

“Tell me about it,” I said, with what I hoped was an encouraging look. “Well,” he said, “a lot of things I don’t remember. Maybe my mind was wandering. But at times things . . . things seemed to come into focus and make sense and then they’d fade out again.”

I could tell he was falling asleep in the sermons, but the good part was that at least something was making sense. “Tell me about what was making sense,” I said.

“The part I remember best was a song we were singing when the kids were leaving the service, a song about breathing in and breathing out. I think it was peace and love going in and out – that part I didn’t get. But I did get the part about breathing in and out – that part sticks with me.”

I could feel the hair rise on my neck – I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to zero in on something that would definitely help him find his soul.

I spoke a lot more casually than I felt. “What I find interesting about that breathing in and out stuff is that you don’t need a whole lot of knowledge to do it.”

“That’s totally true,” he said, “but I’m not sure what that means.” “Think about it this way,” I said. “You don’t need knowledge to think about breathing, you need awareness. To develop awareness, you need to be tracking yourself and what you do. The neat thing is that when you do that, you find a whole world of rhythms. Awareness is different from the kind of knowledge that’s been bedeviling you. The kind of knowledge that’s bedeviling you actually turns you in a different direction from awareness.”

He sat there kind of staring into the middle distance. After a while, he said, “You know, it’s not just simple rhythms like breathing. There are other rhythms, like going in and out of engagement, going in and out of energy, going in and out of friendliness. When you see it that way, you don’t need to be tormented because you don’t understand why those things come and go. Instead, you can expect them to come and go and work with the change.”

“Good start, kid,” I said, but inside, I was bursting with excitement. I had to get out into the night, my natural element, to cool down. “I gotta go now,” I said, “I’ll see you around.” And I did. Sometimes we’d see each other with that wacky group, the Unitarians, and sometimes he’d drop by my office late at night and we’d shoot the breeze.

Then one day, he was gone – just gone – and I never saw him again. So that’s the unsolved mystery here. Where do people go? First, they are here and with you and, then, they are gone and you live with their memory. Don’t get me wrong – soul detectives live with this kind of mystery all the time, but if you have had any success with a case like this, I’d like to talk to you. In the meantime, let’s think about the mystery of unresolved loss for a minute.

Meditation & Musical Interlude

Second Reading – From Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
“You don’t understand,” he said.

“Yes, I do.”

“No, you don’t. I don’t want to beat Peter.”

“Then what do you want?”

“I want him to love me.”

She had no answer. As far as she knew, Peter didn’t love anybody.

Ender said nothing more. Just lay there. And lay there.

Finally, Valentine, the sweat dripping off her, the mosquitoes beginning to hover as the dusk came on, took one final dip in the water and then began to push the raft in to shore. When they got to the shore, she climbed onto the dock and said, “I love you, Ender. More than ever. No matter what you decide.”

He didn’t answer.

Second Unresolved Case: The Case of the Disappearing Hug
Not too long ago, I was driving back to Rhode Island after solving a case in upstate New York. My partner and I stopped at a Friendly’s for a bite to eat. It had been a tough case and we were both tired – happy, because we’d solved a case, but tired.

Inside the restaurant were about half a dozen families, all mothers of girls in soccer uniforms. Those girls were something else, it was amazing what they were eating – ice cream sundaes that had so much goop and goo, nuts and bolts, that there was hardly any room for ice cream.

And they weren’t exactly quiet about what they were doing; each one seemed to be trying to go one further than the other one, and every time that happened, everybody had to stop and say “eeeyou” or “gross” or some other expression of giddy delight.

I was trying not to get too engaged in what was going on, but it was pretty distracting. Then I noticed, at a table beyond the soccer players, a table where the mothers were sitting, distancing themselves from their daughters. And at the table was a little girl – too little to play in the league and too little to leave at home. She sat beside her mother and all I could see was the two backs – one big and one little.

As I was watching, I saw this little arm come up and hug the mother. The mother was too big for the arm to get around, and the mother didn’t seem to pay any attention. The little girl had just spontaneously, for no apparent reason, decided it was time to reach out and hug her mother.

I was dumbstruck. What was I seeing, I wondered? I didn’t have many clues to go on. I did know that there were times when I felt strong affections rising up for no reason I understood, but usually they started me talking to people, not hugging them.

This got to me so much that I opened a file on it. As a working title, I called it “The Case of the Disappearing Hug.”

The problem was that I didn’t know what the mystery was. Was it that little girls stopped hugging their mother like that and turned their attention to soccer and ice cream sundaes? Or was it bigger than that, a case about something that happens to all of us, maybe a case about something we all lose? If so, this was a really big case.

How could I get any evidence on this one? My usual investigation technique is to walk the streets late at night, especially when it’s raining, and I don’t see too many kids out there, let me tell you. So I resorted to replaying the scene over and over in my mind; and then, after a long time, I began to notice something I can only describe as auras around both the little girl and her mother. These auras had color and size and motion. For example, the little girl had an aura that looked greenish. It was small, and it buzzed around like a hummingbird. The mother’s aura was more brownish and much larger. It moved very slowly, hardly at all.

As I watched the auras, I saw that the little girl’s kept going out on little trips and then, for reasons I couldn’t fathom, she would turn around and go on back. She would zoom back to her mother’s aura and just kind of nestle there. And then out she would go again, in and out, in and out, in and out.

I also noticed that the mother’s aura got a little greener when the little girl nestled up to her. So I knew that, at some level, the mother was in touch with what was happening.

So here’s the unsolved case. I know that people have auras and that their auras change. What I don’t know is whether we can change our own auras or whether our auras are too deep for that. I don’t know how auras get bigger or slower or browner or anything, really.

It’s an important case for me for a lot of reasons. For example, as a detective, it’s important to use violence judiciously. Sometimes, in the face of evil, only violence will work. If you’re going to use violence – and that’s a red aura – the soul detective code holds that it has to be for some very righteous reason.

So I know I have to always be on top of what I call the “red shift.” The red shift means things are about to get dangerous; but there are some really dangerous things out there, and a good soul detective learns to respect the red shift.

In the end, “The Case of the Disappearing Hug” turned into a full-fledged investigation into auras – which I didn’t even know existed when this case started out. I think the real mystery here is just that: you never know where a case is going to lead. Except they all lead back to dark streets and rainy nights.

Let’s spend a minute thinking about not knowing where things will lead.

Meditation & Musical Interlude

Third Reading – Adapted from London Match by Len Deighton
“Do you know what those idiots have done?” he asked, standing in the doorway, arms akimbo and feet apart, like Wyatt Earp coming into a saloon at Tombstone.

“Released him?”

“Right,” he said. My accurate guess angered him even more, as if he thought I might have been party to this development. “How did you know?”

“I didn’t know. But with you standing there blowing your top it wasn’t difficult to guess.”

“They released him an hour ago. Direct instructions from Bonn. The government can’t survive another scandal, is the line they are taking. How can they let politics interfere with our work?”

“It’s all politics,” I said calmly. “Soul detecting is about politics. Remove the politics and you don’t need espionage or any of the paraphernalia of it. We don’t run the world. We can pick it over and then report on it. After that it’s up to the politicians.”

Third Unsolved Case: The Case of the Missing Community Not too long ago I opened a file on a new mystery. I called it “The Case of the Missing Community.” I know the name doesn’t sound like much, but believe me this case has everything – love and hate, hope and despair, life and death, and not necessarily paired up neatly like that, either.

The case began with a phone call from an old friend – she said she needed to talk, not just needed to talk but needed to talk REALLY BAD. There was pain and anger in her voice, and I could almost see the tears in her eyes.

Later, in the office, she told me her work had been hard – but she was good at it and she was dedicated to it, thought it was worthwhile. Part of what made it good was that the people she worked with were always willing to listen and help, when they could. Even the people in charge listened to her and took her ideas seriously.

But lately, the politics had changed. They’d been taken over by a group from out of town and now the problem was that she wasn’t supposed to matter. According to the people in charge, the better she did her job, the more she just became a replaceable working part. As they told it to her, she was supposed to do what she was told and get really good at following directions. She said she had always been able to follow directions, she’d been doing that forever. She’d done it cheerfully when she was a little girl because she loved her parents. And it was still OK to follow directions in high school and college because the teachers expected you to do something creative with the directions. For them, directions were just a starting point to get you doing something that took some thought.

But things were different at work, directions seemed to be the whole point, all there was. You just followed them – you didn’t do anything creative with them.

The big problem was that, when you just follow directions, you become an extension of someone else. And, she said, when you’re in a community where you’re just an extension of someone else, the people in charge don’t want to hear your ideas – in fact, they don’t even want you to have any ideas because that might screw things up.

“You gotta do something!” she practically yelled, “I can’t stand it, it’s like I don’t exist anymore and that hurts!” I could tell she was getting agitated, so I pulled the bottle of rye out of my bottom drawer, dusted out a mug, and poured her a stiff one.

“You gotta be kidding,” she went on. “That doesn’t begin to touch the problem. I want to FIND myself, not LOSE myself!” and she shoved the mug back across the table at me.

“What can I do? What do you want?” I asked.

“For starters, I want a place to work where I can be with people and it doesn’t hurt all the time,” she said.

I must have looked like I wasn’t getting it, because she elaborated. “You know, a place where I can talk to people and they’ll listen to what I have to say, instead of acting like what I say is stupid or that I don’t have a right to say anything. What would be even better would be a place where people tell me what they are trying to do and then let me help find ways to do it. You know, a place where people expect everyone to be involved and contributing.”

Man, was this case moving in a hurry! My notes were piling up and I was getting a good idea of what I was looking for. I’d written:
  1. Place with a sense of purpose
  2. Define the problem, not the solution
  3. Expect that people can solve problems
  4. Help people relate and communicate with each other
  5. Listen for what is valuable, not for what can be discounted or ridiculed
What she was looking for seemed so obvious. I remembered some politician talking about “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” and that’s what this sounded like. Still, I had to admit I hadn’t seen or heard of anything like it lately. This case might be a lot tougher that it looked.

I told her I’d take her case. After all, what she was asking for only seemed fair, what everyone deserved.

She dried her eyes, sniffed and said, “Thanks for listening. Even if this investigation goes nowhere and you never find anything like what I’m looking for, it was good to have someone to talk to. I gotta be going now.” And she was gone, leaving a wisp of perfume and a sense of longing in the middle of my chest.

I stood up and put on my hat and raincoat. Outside, the rain had slowed down to a soft drizzle – not a bad time to start a search like this.

I turned up my collar and headed for the door. I knew that outside I’d be walking the mean streets, but that didn’t seem so bad because I knew what I was looking for and that solved at least half of the case. Let’s all take a minute and think about the community we are looking for.

Meditation & Musical Interlude

Closing Words
It was getting late – maybe too late. I’d looked everywhere, but the cases still didn’t fit together. The missing piece was still missing, still just out of reach the way it had been when I first sensed its existence. But at last I knew it was there. If it wasn’t, then nothing made sense, so it had to be there.

I decided to call it quits. Sometimes you get so stupid you just can’t get out of your own way. That’s where I was and luckily I knew it. Outside, I went down a flight of steps and opened a door with a blue neon sign in the window. Inside, the bar was almost deserted. Someone was playing Duke Ellington on the jukebox. I love the Duke, but he was no help to me now.

Over in the corner I spotted him, in the half-shadow of a booth. I walked over to him. Even though he was big, I didn’t feel afraid. He said, “Have a seat,” and I sat down. “Have you been following me or have I been following you?” I asked, “It seems like I’ve been seeing you for a long time now.”

“We’re both working on the same case,” he said, “that’s why you’ve been seeing me, it’s like we’re looking at each other through a window.”

I admit that spooked me a little – working on the same case! How could that be? I wasn’t even sure what case I was working on. How could this guy know we were working the same territory? It was preposterous, and I was in no mood to entertain the preposterous.

“If we’re working on the same case, what have you got?” I asked, an edge in my voice.

He looked at me thoughtfully for a minute and then he said, “May god watch between you and harm in all the empty places you must walk. In the evening of life, you will be judged by love. May all beings be happy.” He slid out of the booth, walked across the room, and disappeared into the night.

I sat there, my mind going a million miles an hour. What had he said? His last words were “Be happy.” That was it! That was the missing piece.

“Be happy”: it sounded like a imperative to me – an imperative for living, like “drink water” or “breathe air.” If you weren’t happy at the moment, then you needed to put all your awareness into finding ways to be happy. Otherwise, you were on the wrong track, your train was going to the wrong destination.

I finally saw it, what I’d been looking for all along, the key to what all soul detectives look for. Be happy, look for happiness, find ways to be happy, think deeply about how to be happy, help other people be happy. What made it such a mystery is that, unlike drinking water or breathing air, the rhythms that maintain happiness require almost constant attention.

The message I began to hear in his words went like this: “Pay attention to happiness, not just as an occasional or casual need, but as a deep and central issue that the welfare of your soul, and the souls of everyone you know and care about, depends upon.

That’s what every one of these unsolved cases was about.

I wouldn’t solve all the cases tonight, probably not tomorrow either, but as I walked out into the dawn, I couldn’t help thinking that a whole new light had been shed on the cases. It wouldn’t be long before I could close the files on them. I extinguished the chalice and began to get ready for a new day.

Rick Richards is in his third decade at First Unitarian and has remained so long because he has experienced the saving power of words, particularly those spoken from the pulpit many times in this church. You can infer from this that he sees himself in regular need of salvation. While this is true, he thinks it is important that you know he sees himself mostly in need of salvation from his own foibles, ignorance, and temper. He thinks church helps.