You made all the delicate, inner parts of my bodyHow do you define your Self? I am a married, white, straight, educated, 45-year-old child of the ‘80s with four children, who enjoys variety in my menu, who likes to dress in mismatched plaids and who enjoys a relatively good amount of health and happiness. Each of these descriptions is a code to more understanding. When I was born, what I eat, how I dress, how much money I make, where I live and with whom – you form assumptions based on what you see and hear about me.
and knit me together in my mother’s womb.
Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!
Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.
You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion,
as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.
You saw me before I was born.
Every day of my life was recorded in your book.
Every moment was laid out
before a single day had passed. Psalm 139:13-16 (NLT)
I am also more than any of that. I can define my Self by my consciousness. I think. I evaluate. I act on decisions. I am aware of my world. However, I don’t always know why I do the things I do, so something else must be at work. Sometimes I sense unknown motives and desires behind what I do. Sometimes these things just pop out and shock me. How can I explain an urge to suddenly call an old friend or to take a drive alone? How can I explain why I want to cross my legs when I sit down? Sometimes we can find triggers for our impulses, but usually we just move from one subconscious desire to another without any real awareness of why we do what we do. So I know there are two parts of my Self, conscious and subconscious. But I don’t know enough about these parts and how they work to form a good picture of who I am.
I have a spiritual Self -- driven by unseen forces and universal realities that are bigger than I can fathom. I have a Self that others see. People have an opinion about me when they get to know me. Am I any of this? Can I know my real Self? Can you know my real Self?
Over the next few weeks, we will be talking about how we, as a church, take good care of the Self, the Self as individual and the Self in relationship with others in our church and in our world. We will be thinking about a process of spiritual formation that includes letting go of old ways of doing things so Self-transformation can emerge in our individual lives and in our church. Before we can engage on any journey of transformation, before we talk about empowerment and new life, there’s a beginning step. We must become aware. Awareness is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the spiritual life. Today, we become aware of the Self in relationship with God and others.
When I was a teenager, trying to figure out who I was and where I fit into the world, the church I belonged to had an answer for me. The Self is created by God, fallen into sin, restored through the atoning work of Christ, and destined to inherit life through resurrection.
Sounds good on paper, but what does it mean? I was taught that a self-existent, totally unique, Supreme Being called God creates and controls the universe. This God is self-sufficient, does not need creation to be complete, and does not rely on creation for anything. God can’t rely on us, the creation, because creation is corrupted … sinful … separated from a holy, perfect God. The difference between the Creator and the human creation is so vast that God exists fundamentally in a different order of being -- an infinitely superior, stronger, more excellent way. It’s as if one compared the sun and a candle, the ocean and a raindrop, or the universe and the room we are sitting in.
The Self is created by God and fashioned in the image of God. The job of the self is to love God. But, because of our sinful nature, we can only love God, Self, and others imperfectly. I was told that the only way to know perfect love is to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior of the world who takes away our sin and restores us to right, perfect relationships.
As time went on, I had some issue with this answer. It did not take into account how we are fearfully and wonderfully complex, as the Psalmist puts it. It does not take into account how God partners with us to forge a more just, compassionate world. The theology I grew up with wanted me to understand myself as someone who inherited sin – someone who is originally cursed. Over time I began to wonder what might happen if we understood ourselves as originally blessed, rather than originally cursed?
Instead of being suspicious about our bodies, we would welcome our bodies and we would be gentle, instead of combative. Humility would no longer mean despising of one’s Self.
Instead of trying to control everything, we would be more ready to experience and celebrate the passions of life. Instead of regarding humans as sinners we would regard ourselves and others people who can choose to create or destroy.
So, let’s flip the assumptions. Let’s become aware of a different way of thinking about God and Self. Here is my first provocative proposal of the morning: God does not know the future. You see, I was also taught, back in the day, that God has the future all mapped out and pre-determined. My teachers took the poetic words of Psalm 139 literally: every day of life is recorded in God’s book. Every moment is laid out. If we don’t live into that future, we are straying from God. So God needs to use coercive force and punishment to correct us and guide us and get us back on track.
The God I worship is a God of relationship –a God who shares power with us instead of using power to punish us. In my experience God is the creative and transforming power in my life, ever new, ever leading me to put my faith and trust in the beckoning future. And if our relationship is truly mutual, then God grows as I grow, as we all grow into a more compassionate, peace-building humanity. God is present in all things, but God’s presence leaves room for growth, creativity, freedom.
Instead of a sinner in the hands of an angry God, I think the Self is created with agency. That means the Self acts in freedom to birth a future that is best for the nature that has birthed us. God’s will for humans is that we use our freedom to co-create and nurture the world. The Self exists in relationship with God, with others, and with all of creation. The Self always has choices. Each of us is in charge of shaping our lives and justifying our choices.
Now keep in mind, freedom should not be mistaken for equality with God, the Creator. We partner with God in a cosmic, ongoing creative process.
The theology I grew up with did not leave a lot of room to think about the Self. In fact, I was taught that thinking about Self was selfish. As we talk about awareness of Self in relationship with God, I want to re-think that idea. I guess I’m feeling contrary today. Here is today’s provocative proposal #2: Selfless behavior is immoral. People who act out of selfless love may in be in danger of losing the very Self they ought to be developing and they may end up hurting the people for whom they care. Think about it. If a moral saint is spending all her time feeding the hungry, healing the sick, raising money for Habitat for Humanity, and packing peanut butter sandwiches for the homeless, then she’s not taking time to read a good book, go for a brisk walk, or enjoy the smell of warm wet earth after a passing Summer thunderstorm. If a moral saint is giving all of himself to save the world, he has no time to be an artist, or a good parent, or a skilled listener. There’s no chance for a truly selfless person to have the time or moral permission to develop the skills, talents and personality that make us interesting, well-rounded people. Selfless behavior is immoral when it prevents you from knowing your own intrinsic and equal value as a human being. What kind of love asks you to discount your Self for the sake of the other? What kind of love asks you to deny your needs? Where’s the mutuality? Where’s the trust? Is this the kind of love God wants from us? Selfless love? No! There is no such thing. Everyone wants to be desired. Everyone wants to feel needed. Selfless love may seem ideal, but it eventually denies partners what they need—to be desired and needed as equals.
I know plenty of people who give selflessly of themselves and feel rejected by those they love. What kind of love is that? As long as we feel rejected, we cannot love fully.
I know people who have been manipulated by others in the name of serving God. If God appears to us as an unhappy recipient of selfless love who gives according pleasure and condemns according to wrath, we cannot love perfectly.
If we can be in touch with the true spirit of love, our imperfect relationships can change. We can share in a love so extravagant, so complete, so true, that once we feel it, we can’t stop sharing it.
Closing Act of Awareness
Imagining the three Divine Persons gazing on the whole surface or circuit of the world, full of people. Consider what the Divine Persons (and you) see and hear: men and women of different sizes, shapes, and colors; rich and poor; old and young . . . People speaking different languages. Some being born, others dying; some running and playing, others sick and suffering . . . Some laughing, others crying. Some screaming and shouting, others praying and singing. With the gaze of the Trinity, consider how people are treating one another: some loving, others hating; some hugging, others hitting; some helping, others ignoring, hurting, and killing. What do you see and hear? How do you feel as you imagine the world in this way? How do the three Divine Persons respond to the joys and sufferings of the world? How does the God who is Love respond to us, God’s children, who are lost, aimless, suffering, sinning, confused, and hurting? Hear the Divine Persons saying, “Let us work the redemption of the human race”
What words do you want to speak to God, who is Creator, Christ and Spirit