November 15, 2020
Community Baptist Church of Gay Head in Aquinnah
Sermon, “Be Yourself”
+Scripture Reading: Psalm 139:1-14You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
One of the most important questions you can ever ask yourself is “Who am I?” Think of all the times you have to introduce yourself to other people. When someone asks you, “who are you?” the answer is usually pretty simple: you say your name. Your first name, your last name, which family you’re from. You might say what you do: you’re a student; you’re an employee at such and such; you’re an entrepreneur; you’re retired; you have such and such lifestyle; you live in such and such a place; you have a hobby that’s important to you.
You are so and so’s wife or husband; you have a relationship with someone or something in your life that defines you. In your brief first introductions to people, you usually communicate what you identify yourself with or what you identify as.
When someone asks you who you are, it’s usually a short and easy answer.
But what about when you ask yourself, “Who am I?” What sort of answer do you have to that question? Is this an answer you feel comfortable sharing with anyone else?
One of life’s biggest struggles is the fear of what others think about us. What does your mother think of you? What does your father think of you? What do your siblings think of you? Your spouse? Your friends? Your employers? Your neighbors? Strangers you’re about to meet — strangers on the street you’ll pass by and likely never see again?
Jesus once asked what others thought of him. “Who do you say I am?” Peter was the only one to say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Peter was so devoted to Jesus Christ that when the authorities came to arrest him, he fought for him with the sword. He was filled with courage — he knew Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God! But, Peter failed. He wasn’t able to prevent Jesus’ arrest. After Jesus was arrested, Peter denied even knowing Jesus. Peter feared the crowd. He feared the authorities.
Peter denied who Jesus was. But Peter also denied who he himself was too: he lied about being a disciple of Christ. He lied about the love he had for his friend, and he lied about how we’d spent the last three years with him. Peter’s entire life was wrapped around this man: and when he denied knowing Jesus, Peter also was denying who he himself was.
Have you ever denied something about yourself out of fear for what others would think of you?
The great Christian martyrs were men and women who, even in the face of persecution, said “Jesus is Lord.” They didn’t say, “I am a Jesus follower.” It wasn’t what they said they were that made them what they were — it was what their faith, and their faith in action, working through love. How they thought of themselves didn’t figure into it much. What brought them into conflict was expressing themselves, their faith, and the love of God they had in their hearts.
They were just being themselves.
Who are you? What makes you “you”? This is not a challenge to compare yourself to others. This is a challenge to truly observe yourself, to see what work God is doing in your life and in your name. There is only one you. There will only be one you. So who are you?
The things that make you “you” are the things that you have in common with no one else. Your genetic code. Your relationships. Your decisions. Your ticks. Your quirks. Your weirdness! Each one of you has those strange things about you that make you “you”, and that make your life yours alone.
“You” are a story that God is writing.
Now, these things that make you “you”…these things you don’t have in common with other people…aren’t these also the things about us that often make us fear other people? Aren’t these the things that most often make us doubt ourselves, and make us say “God — because of the way you made me, I can’t do this”?
And yet those very unique traits which God has given you are what He has blessed you with as your unique gifts from Him. Isn’t it interesting how it’s the most valuable things God gives us — our idiosyncrasies, oddities, and struggles — that often cause us the most fear and trepidation in this life?
Don’t say “God — because of the way you made me, I can’t do this,” say, “Thank you God — because of the way you made me, only I can do this!”
God did not make you to be someone else. God made you to be yourself. He sent His Son to die for you so that you can be yourself. The chief of all commandments is to love God with your heart, your mind, your soul. How are you going to do that if you’re not being yourself?
You might say, “Hey now, doesn’t the Bible call us to repentance? How does ‘being yourself’ fit into that? Being myself got me into all this mess that I gotta repent of!”
But I ask, what is repentance if not being yourself? The Bible tells us that an unrepentant sinner might gain the whole world but lose their whole soul. How can anyone who gives up their soul truly be themselves? Genesis tells us, “Man is a living soul.” So what is a living soul without the soul? Nothing!
But the Psalmist King David says, “God, You restore my soul. The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing to my soul.” When you repent, your soul is restored to wholeness, and that means you become more fully yourself. When a singer expresses themselves fully and authentically, we like to call them soulful. “She’s got soul.” It’s no coincidence the best soul singers came out of the church. You can tell King David was a soul singer, because the psalms he wrote are all about restoring his soul with repentance.
You might think repentance means, “I need to change.” Allow this presumptuous pastor to correct your semantics: you are already changing. You can’t help that. Everything in creation is always changing. It’s in the nature of things. Everything is in flux. Can you hold onto this moment? Can you keep from aging? You don’t need to change, you are change. Just be yourself — but be yourself as God made you to be. God knows who you are from beyond the confines of time and space: He knows your beginning, your middle, your end.
Who you see in the mirror is not who God sees when He looks at you: He sees the infant you once were; the person you are now; who you will be when you are old; and who you’ve been in heaven all along. You are enthroned with Him in the high places: no mirror on earth will ever show you what you look like in your special seat at God’s table: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
If you are struggling with something, you might feel trapped. You might feel stagnant. You might feel that nothing’s changing. You might not be living the life you want to live. You might not be who you want to be. But your desire to change is the first sign of the change that is already taking place within you. Don’t be afraid of who you think you are — accept and embrace who you know you can be as who you already are.
See yourself through God’s eyes.
Jesus said, “Believe in your heart that that mountain will move, and it will move.” In the same spirit, believe in your heart that you are who God has created you to be, and that’s who you’ll be. Don’t put yourself under pressure to define what changes must take place for that transformation to fully unfold: have faith, trust God, and be yourself.
If you want to live a holy life, be yourself. Understand, I’m not talking about “leaning on your own understanding.” It is impossible to truly be yourself without a soul resting in God. God restores the soul! We are not truly ourselves without God, since we were made to love and glorify Him. The Psalmist wrote that the soul sings, “I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, as in a dry and parched land where there is no water. As the doe longs for running streams, so longs my soul for you, O God.”
Without the breath of God, we are but dust. But by God’s design, we have a living soul that longs for her Creator. How can we be ourselves except to let our souls’ inborn yearning for God express itself as love for God?
So how do we love God?
Jesus said that the second greatest commandment is identical to the first: to love God, you must love your neighbor as yourself. How can we love our neighbor as ourselves unless we know ourselves? How can we know ourselves unless we have wisdom?
“But the proverb says, ‘Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool’!”
This is true! But the wisdom of knowing yourself doesn’t mean trusting in your own mind. The beginning of knowledge is the fear of the Lord — this is true wisdom.
Some years before I became a Christian, I was a student of Buddhism. I grew up in an area with many Buddhist Tibetan refugees and their religious community was very active throughout the region. My grandfather was a Jewish Zen Buddhist and was one of the earliest spiritual influences in my life, second only to my Catholic Granny Joan from Ireland. Buddhism informs my Christian faith the way Stoicism and Platonism influenced many of the earliest Greek converts to Christianity — while I don’t practice the religion, I will always value the lessons.
The Chinese Zen patriarch Hsing Hsin Ming wrote a classic of Zen literature, called “Verses On The Faith Mind”. He said that if you wish to see the truth about your own nature, exerting an effort in meditation is not going to get you there. “When you try to stop activity by passivity your very effort fills you with activity…The more you talk and think about it, the further astray you wander from the truth.”
These words were a revelation to me. I asked my Grampy, “Grampy, if meditation isn’t going to get you to the truth, and thinking and talking about it isn’t going to help…why so many books about it?” He said, “Even Zen Masters have to make a couple of bucks.”
All kidding aside, this old Zen writing climaxes with words that have always served me. “Do not search for the truth,” it said, “only cease to cherish opinions. To set up what you like against what you dislike is a disease of the mind.”
“Only cease to cherish opinions.” It’s very similar to what Jesus said: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” What I feel I’ve learned as a Christian is that it’s impossible to live out either of these ideals without God’s love. The kind of love that we talk about at every wedding, and I may spend the rest of my life quoting almost every Sunday morning: Love is patient, love is kind. The whole kit and kaboodle.
And isn’t it how striking that “judge not” might be the philosophical key to the knowledge of truth, which sets us free? “Judge not” isn’t just the key to shalom in the home — it’s the key to truth that safeguards the soul. And scripture bears this out, not just Zen masters. Proverbs says, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.” It doesn’t always go well with the fool! “The wise inherit honor, but fools get only shame. The wise in heart accept commands, but a chattering fool comes to ruin. A fool’s mouth is his ruin, And his lips are the snare of his soul.”
As you can see, it’s not wisdom that leads to “judge not” — but “judge not” that leads to wisdom. Just like the Zen master said!
And just think about it this way. Imagine you’re walking down Circuit Avenue. A man is approaching you. He is wearing clown shoes, and a bright orange wetsuit with a tutu and priest’s collar, a Dodger’s hat and sunglasses in the nighttime. How are you going to get to know him — by forming an opinion about who he is and what all that bling means, or by asking him who he is and what’s the meaning of this? By letting him speak for himself and be himself?
Similarly, your inmost self is likely just as strange for you to encounter as this man on Circuit Ave with the clown shoes, bright orange wetsuit with a tutu and priest’s collar, a Dodger’s hat and sunglasses in the nighttime. Your inmost self is, like that man, fearfully and wonderfully made by God Almighty!
The great father of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung, said that every man and woman has a rich inner world in their minds that we mostly don’t see until we dream. When we have a nightmare, we are encountering what he called our “shadow”. Our shadow is those parts of ourselves we don’t want to think about — we don’t want to know — we don’t want to be. When we have a nightmare about the boogeyman, the boogeyman is the symbol which the shadow uses to show itself to you. And because the shadow is you, the boogeyman is a role that you yourself are playing in your own dream without you realizing it.
During the course of Jung’s clinical career, he started to realize that he could only help his patients so much as a psychologist. He said, “The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge.”
Jung found that of all his troubled patients, it was those who graduated from therapy to religion who eventually found the self-knowledge and wholeness they sought. He concluded in his scientific way that it was impossible for a person to confront their shadow without a strong faith in its opposite, the Light, and that only those who found that Light in the idea of God could find healing and the resilience to live their lives in peace.
Jung observed with scientific curiosity that this transformation happened most gracefully with Christians. He theorized that the image of a human, Jesus Christ, as God was crucial to help his patients see themselves in God, which made it easier for them to understand, and therefore believe, in a God. Not only this, the idea of a God Who loves humanity so much that He is willing to die for us, even as we are imperfect — knowing that this God sees even our shadow and loves us, allows us to see our shadow and love ourselves.
You might have parts of yourself that you don’t want to think about — you don’t want to know — you don’t want to be. See yourself through God’s eyes. Don’t be afraid of your shadow. Be yourself. You are receiving this message in your life right now because God made your soul to have a thirst for Him, for His love and His presence, and He stands at the ready to come and give it to you. You are ready to receive His love. Be the mountain in own your heart that moves by the power of faith: be yourself.
Don’t be afraid of what people think of you. Embrace what God thinks of you. Instead of conforming, connect. Instead of censoring yourself, express yourself. Why limit the expression of your God-given soul to the expectations of others when your soul longs for the perfect truth, beauty, and love of God? “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? What can anyone give in exchange for their soul?”
You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being who God made you to be!