Beyond the Cowpath

Exploring Ingrained Habits & Beliefs

Sermon by Hilary Higgens
July 5, 2020

A transcript of the sermon follows the video.

Part 1

Cow paths come up in poetry. The romance of the lazy path. Based on the number of images out there, other people must find them fascinating as well. I wish I had a photograph of my childhood cow path and perhaps someday I will.

Cow paths come up in business. Todd Des Marais describes the well worn route from A to B created by one set of cows and then followed for generations by cattle as they head for water, feed, shade, or the farmstead. He notes that cows don’t seem to challenge or potentially see a faster or more efficient route. His point is that in successful business you need to engage evolution and change. That if you look there might just be a better path.

As for that 6 or 7 year old me, the cow path that I found so interesting was the one on our farm. Cow paths are not wide. Six inches or so. Cows seem wide but their feet are not spread far apart. 

Our cows went out everyday and headed west for about the equivalent 2-3 city blocks. Once they reached the ridge line next to the fence they traveled a quarter of a mile give or take to the South. We lived on one of those roller coaster hilly gravel roads North West Iowa is famous for. Up and down, Up and down they went. Then they turned back East again the equivalent of 2-3 city blocks towards the shade of the trees and the water of the creek.

This tomboy daddy’s girl observed all this and took note. I was confused. WHY? Why not just go straight? I asked my father. He said, “cows are stupid and creatures of habit.”

The wondrous memories of cows are overshadowed by the wondrous memories of my father.

He was a quiet man. Instead of talking he drove me around in his 1965 blue Chevy pickup. We checked the cows and the fences and the corn. Me with a bucket of tools between my knees, him sometimes singing “How much is that doggy in the window?”

I have often thought of those cows and their paths and the questions that are challenging to answer in life. What paths are the right ones for me?

Part 2

If you listen carefully to the hymn “Come Come Whoever You Are,” you hear a clear invitation to start anew. Ours is no caravan of despair. 

There are the things we inherit when we are born. The shared destiny of our parents and our parents parent’s and further generations. We inherit ways of being that stem from the experiences that have shaped them and us. 

There are things that happen to us and around us thru no fault of our own. 

Sometimes when you are unpacking and looking for truth you don’t find it because you are not looking at the right source. The subject of this story bothered me for years. 

As a child when we were in town my parents would have a conversation as we were ready to pass the funeral home if the light was on. “I wonder who’s there”, dad would say. Mom would say, “let’s go in and check.” To which my sister and I would look at each other in horror. 

We were about to go shake hands with grieving people we did not know and spend a few hours in that funeral home with NOTHING TO DO! And my parents didn’t know WHO WAS IN THERE! About five years ago I was talking to my older brother and shared this nightmare. He laughed. He said, “they knew who was in there. They just wanted to see who was there that they could visit with.” 

We all have bits and bobs like this traveling around in our brain. 

Susan Werner’s song “May I Suggest” came to me recently as a gift.

She offers:
May I suggest? May I suggest to you? May I suggest this is the best part of your life? I felt every word deeply. 

Then:
May I suggest this time is blessed for you? Yes it is!

There were a thousand reasons just beyond my sight. Yes!

She talks of a treasure chest that has been given to you, of private scenes and brilliant dreams that mesmerize.

So let’s talk a little about that treasure chest. And those inherited ways of being, and those searches for truth. Yes we want to get to those brilliant dreams and private scenes but we may need to do a little homework first. 

I’m going to share two boxes with you. 

One box has all the pieces I inherited, experienced, tried on and found they fit or didn’t fit. The other box is the treasure box.

So let’s pull three examples from each box: 

I was born Catholic, I was raised Catholic and I will die Catholic. Heard this before have you? Turn that into an item to add to the treasure box? Yes! Now I have found my true home in Unitarian Universalism.

My maternal grandmother committed suicide, we have a family history of depression and anxiety. My mother was an alcoholic. How is that a treasure? It isn’t. Doing the work of an adult child of an alcoholic goes straight into that treasure box. 

My mother used Miracle Whip in all things calling for mayonnaise. I was shocked to learn that Miracle Whip is not mayonnaise. Hellmann’s? What is that? treasure box? Yup, I like Hellmann’s better. Use one or the other depending on my taste. 

When we create choice, when we have perspective and possibility. We can look for ways to turn things into treasure.  We also open ourselves up to things we could never have imagined before. Treasure.

p.s. There is only one box.

I offer you the simple words of Walt Whitman:

Re-examine everything you have been told.
Dismiss whatever insults your soul.