18 August 2013

Love the One You're With

Psalm 86 & Romans 13:8-10 

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
18th August 2013

Several Sundays ago I preached on the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10.  Jesus offered this parable in response to the test question posed by the lawyer, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).  The focus of the parable is on the neighbor.

            In the response to that sermon several questions emerged.  Love of God, we know something about that, although we’re not very good at it.  Love for neighbor, we know something more about that, although we’re not very good at that either. But what does it mean to love yourself? What does this look like? It’s clear that the ability to love one’s neighbor is inextricably linked to the ability to love one's self.  But how does one love one's self without being or becoming selfish?  And so today’s sermon is an attempt to respond to these questions because they’re critical ones. Our response will shape the way we understand the Christian life. So with apologies to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, how do you love the one you’re with?  “One” here meaning oneself, this one, this self within, who we are.  How do we love ourselves?

            These aren’t academic questions or abstract curiosities.  Pastors confront these issues all the time in ministry because somehow, somewhere along the way people have come to believe that to love one's self is un-Christian, that the love of and care for one's self is actually a sin.  What is worse—and I’ve seen this a lot in my ministry—there are some who even operate with the twisted assumption that as Christians we are supposed to hate and even loathe ourselves, that we are to remove any trace of the self.  This is due, in part, to a warped hearing of texts like this one, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). A misreading of this text has caused considerable damage to the psyche of countless Christians for centuries.

            So what does it mean to love one’s self? The idea of loving one’s self might sound odd.  We know something about what it’s like to love a spouse or partner, child or grandchild, to love our country or love a pet. But love toward self, this might trip us up.  Perhaps using the word love is an obstacle.  So what if we use other words, such as: like, value, forgive, kindness, cherish, honor, acceptance.  What does it mean to like one's self?  Value one's self? Forgive one's self? Cherish and honor on's self? What does it mean to be kind to one's self?  What does it mean to accept one's self? 

            Now we’re getting personal, aren’t we?  Now we’re getting a little too close to home.  We’re hitting some very sensitive areas, I know.  We’re going into the depths of the self. And in the depths are the shadowy parts that we have difficulty facing and acknowledging are there.

You shall like your neighbor as you like yourself.
            But what if you don’t really like yourself very much? What then?
You shall value your neighbor as you value yourself.
            But what if you don’t really value yourself very much?
You shall forgive your neighbor as you forgive yourself. 
            But what if you can’t forgive yourself? 
And what about kindness?  Do you know how to be kind to yourself?
            Can you cherish yourself, honor yourself?
            Honor, not just part of yourself or even most of yourself, but all of yourself. 
You shall accept your neighbor as you accept yourself. 
             But can you accept yourself? 
Not part of yourself.  Not just your put-together-Sunday-self, not just the part you want people to see, but all of yourself. All. Can you?

            We are made up of many parts.  There are parts that see the light of day and parts we place in shadow and lock away from the world and even ourselves. They might be out of sight, but they’re never, ever out of mind. They’re all there.  It’s the parts that we lock away or try to forget, that we don’t want others to see, or can’t acknowledge to ourselves, that we generally have difficulty liking or valuing or honoring or cherishing.  We all have parts of ourselves that we struggle to like or accept, there are parts we even despise and hate.  Years ago I came across this very wise saying that I use a lot:  “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” You never know what someone is struggling with. Very often the ones who seem to have it all together, who appear “perfect,” the ones obsessed with perfection and expect perfection from others, are often the ones who are hurting the most inside, but they can’t accept that because that would mean admitting imperfection.  We are divided within and we know it.

            The psalms are remarkable in their ability to speak to the human condition. They’re written from the heart.  When people ask me what they should do when they have difficulty praying, when they can’t find the words to pray, I often suggest that they pray the psalms, allow the psalms to give voice to their hearts.  It’s all there, every aspect of the human condition.  The psalmist understands what it means to live with a divided soul, to be at odds with one's self, alienated from God, neighbor.  You can hear it particularly in Psalm 86:11, in this petition:  “…give me an undivided heart to revere your name.”  It’s a plea from one who knows what it’s like to live divided.

            Yet, the psalmist seeks something more.  He wants wholeheartedness.  For he knows that wholeheartedness helps us to praise and glorify God.  When we’re wholehearted or undivided we’re better situated to perceive God’s love moving toward us and when we know this we’re free to praise.  You see, when we’re divided there’s always a part of us—the unacceptable, the sinful or shameful part—that doesn't feel worthy of God’s love.  This, then, only reinforces the division. This is like living in Sheol.  Sheol is not necessarily hell, but a place where we’re cut off from God, with no personality, no strength, no life, living in shades, in shadow.

            The psalmist, however, wants to worship God with his whole heart.  When the psalmist, undivided, is open to God’s love, then the soul knows that God is gracious. A divided self has difficulty believing, has difficulty trusting, never really experiences the grace, the steadfast love of God, because its harboring a feeling that there is a part that is unlovable, unacceptable, unforgivable.  That’s the part we have difficult accepting. That’s what we focus on. That’s the only part we think God sees. 

            However, over and over again the psalmist affirms, indeed the Bible insists that God is gracious and merciful.  “For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol” (Ps. 86:13). Yet, so many can never really “hear” such good news, have never really experienced this grace.

            The gospel is this:  God’s favor toward us is real, now.  We already have God’s favor. We already dwell in God’s favor. We don’t have to earn it. We don’t have to work toward it.  Yet, there’s something broken or distorted in the human psyche that can’t quite accept or believe it, remains suspicious of it.  In one of Paul Tillich’s (1886-1965) greatest sermons, “You Are Accepted,” he has this piercing insight into the experience of grace.  Grace can and does strike us.  In the midst of our pain, self-alienation, disgust, and self-hatred, in our inability to embrace all of ourselves as God does, a wave of light breaks into our darkness and we begin to hear a voice deep within, deeper than the fearful, negative, critical voice of our egos, a voice of the Holy Spirit that whispers to the depths of our soul: “You are accepted.  You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you….  Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” Tillich writes,  “If that happens to us, we experience grace.  After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed.  In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.  And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.”[1]  Accept your acceptance.

            The capacity to love one's self, to like, to forgive, to accept one's self is not selfish and it’s not a sin. In fact, to love one's self is critical if we’re really going to love our neighbor, and the stranger, and even God.  The ability to love neighbor and stranger flows through one’s capacity to love and accept one's self, and the ability to love one's self is rooted in God’s love for every part of ourselves.  What’s needed is a relationship with one's self that mirrors God’s own relationship with us, which is rooted and grounded in love.  To see ourselves the way God sees us.  This is what was driving the apostle Paul and his ministry and why he was willing to suffer loss and persecution, because of this truth:  “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (Romans 13:8).  Indeed, the law is summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10).

            Before we start trying to love our neighbor, we need to start with the one we’re with, within.  Not in a self-centered, egotistical, narcissistic way, but in a loving way look inward.  If we’re looking inward in a truly loving way we will quite naturally begin to look outward in a loving way.  If we’re not being loving toward ourselves, then don’t be surprised if we have difficulty loving others. 

            This is a real concern within the Christian experience today.  We think of love as only self-giving love, sacrificial, which sets self aside, sets personal concerns aside, concern only for others.  There are a lot of Christians out there doing all kinds of good and necessary things—but their inner lives are wasting away, they’re empty and hollow. It’s surface Christianity. They’re so outward focused they’re not attentive to what’s occurring in their hearts. As a result, there are a lot of tormented Christian souls around who can’t hear the gospel and therefore can’t really share it. Or they’re so bent on making everyone think they’re Christian or doing the Christian “thing” in service, that they’ve never applied Christian love to themselves, extended kindness to themselves, acceptance to themselves.  I think this one of the reasons why Churches can be so dysfunctional and cruel, and why Christians develop a reputation for being a critical, judgmental, nasty group of people.  We do to our neighbors what we do to ourselves.  We need help loving ourselves.

            What do we do? How do we accept ourselves?  Accept God’s acceptance?  It’s through grace, of course. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) claimed that, “The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.”  He’s right.  We don’t want to hear this, but he’s right. That’s why grace is required. This is difficult. We can’t do this alone. We need help, we need grace.  I believe self-acceptance and love to be among the critical issues facing us today; it is one of the most pressing ethical issues facing us as Christians.  If you want to know what burdens my heart as a pastor, it’s this.

            Writing toward the end of his life, Jung argued that the “acceptance of oneself is the essence of the whole moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook on life.”[2]  Then he addressed his concerns directly at the Church, targeting Christians who pride themselves on their virtuous life and good deeds, yet don’t know how to love themselves. The Church needs to hear this today, Christians need to wrestle with what he said, because I think Jung gets right to the core of what’s wrong within Christianity and what’s wrong with so much of the Church these days, we have yet to fully embrace and embody the implications of the gospel.[3] Jung wrote: 

That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ—all these are undoubtedly great virtues. What I do unto the least of my brethren, that I do unto Christ. But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself—that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindnessthat I myself am the enemy who must be loved—what then?”[4]  What then?

            This work, this inner-work isn’t easy. But we have a moral obligation to ourselves and to the world—to God—to begin it, to continue it, to deepen that capacity to love one's self.  That’s what grace does, that’s what grace is. We have to start claiming our self-worth, because by grace we are already worthy.  And so for the love of God, please stop raging against yourself and tearing yourself apart, if you’re doing this. Stop. Be kind to yourself. Be compassionate toward yourself. Make peace with yourself. What we do to this “neighbor” within we extend and project out upon the world. 

            I’ll close by offering a gift, a poem by Derek Wolcott (b. 1930), “Love After Love.” I had this taped on my bathroom mirror at home for a time.  You can hear the Eucharistic aspect of what he’s getting at here.  To give yourself back to yourself, to be wholehearted is a holy, sacramental act that we bestow upon ourselves and through us to the world.

The day will come
the time will come 
when with elation
you will greet yourself
arriving at your own door
and each will smile at each others welcome
saying sit here, eat
you will love again the stranger who was yourself
Give wine, give bread
give back your heart to yourself

to the stranger who has loved you all your life
who you ignored for another
who knows you by heart

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes
feel your own image in the mirror, see it
Feast on your life. 

To give yourself back to yourself, to be wholehearted is a holy, sacramental act that we bestow upon ourselves and through us to the world. Then we can really give ourselves to the world, and to God, when we truly love ourselves.

[1] Paul Tillich, “You Are Accepted,” The Shaking of the Foundations (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 162. The full text of the sermon may be found here: http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=378&C=84.
[2] Carl G. Jung, "Psychotherapists or the Clergy" (1932), in Psychology and Religion, Vol. II, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1958), paragraph 500.
[3] Carl G. Jung makes this point in “Introduction to the Religious and Psychological Problems of Alchemy,” Psychology and Alchemy (1944),  CW 12, cited in Anthony Storr, ed. The Essential Jung (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1999), 257.
[4]Jung, "Psychotherapists or the Clergy." Emphasis added.

1 comment:

Linda Sanders said...

There was a musical in the 70's called "I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road." I saw it several times, one of the only shows I've ever wanted to see more than once. Most of my friends felt the same way. There is a great line in this play, it goes something like this: I am my own creation and I'm feeling fine, I woke up this morning and the face in the mirror was mine."