I asked a couple of people I trust about this Sunday’s topic. Mel Roy said that the two words that came to his mind were Desperation and Hope. I desperately hope that God can find a way to love me even when I can’t. He also said that pious phrases are not helpful. We love God the best with honesty. And honest is not always neat and clean.
Roger Johnson took a different approach. His two words were Acceptance and Challenge. We want God to love us as we are. But once we get to that acceptance, have we lost our edge? Is there any way to get better? He likened it to the fact that when a school district gets really good ratings, they tend not to maintain them. Could it be because they lose their intensity? If you suddenly believe that you’re the best ballplayer, the best church, have the best record will we become complacent? Maybe simple acceptance ought not be the goal. It’s healthy to be challenged.
The prophet Jeremiah was a person who had trouble loving God and loving himself. In fact, he was a reluctant prophet who did not like his job. He had to say some things to the people of Judah that were not the nicest things in the world. He was told by God that he had to tell the people that they were going to be sent into exile and that the Temple in Jerusalem was going to be destroyed. The people were in denial of this. They shouted him down and denounced him in town-hall meetings. He had to tell them to give up their dependence upon the illusions of safety and security. They needed to repent of their misplaced trust and if they didn’t they would be sent into a foreign land. The people didn’t like hearing what Jeremiah said anymore than he liked saying it. Jeremiah was angry with the people for hating the messenger. He was angry at God for putting him in this position and he felt used, disrespected and disregarded.
The books of Jeremiah and Lamentations are filled with Jeremiah’s weeping and wailing about his life. In their pages he declares that he has trouble loving God and yet can’t bring himself to hate God, either. Part of that is because he sees that God is right. The people are stubborn and thick-headed. They are prone to idolatry. They do have their heads in the sand about what is truly going on our there. But what Jeremiah can’t let go of is the fact that God gives him the task of saying the difficult word. He has to be the despised one. It’s hard to love yourself when other people hate you. It’s even harder to love God in the midst of such despair.
How do we love ourselves? The truth is that some of us don’t. We try to. We put up a good game face. But some of us have a place inside us that causes us great grief. It’s a scary place and it’s a vulnerable place. It’s an aspect of ourselves that we can’t control, no matter how hard we try. It creeps into our psyche at the worst possible times. When external pressures mount—like stress at work, anxiety about how we are going to be able to pay the rent, a relationship in chaos, the anticipation of school and the endless deadlines and pressure that comes with it. When these external pressures mount, those little internal flaws (that sometimes only we can see) become chinks in our armor. They grow in our own imaginations. They overtake the best parts of ourselves and pretty soon we feel out of control.
Sometimes we ask ourselves in our despair, Am I worthy of love? Sometimes it can feel like we’re not. It’s a cruel lie. Everyone is worthy of love. The problem is that sometimes we are so down that we can’t see it. We sing like the psalmist—“I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people.” (v. 6)
Of course that’s not the case—everyone is not against us, but it sure can seem like that. And the more we look internally, the less we see the external. The more we gaze at our navels, the less we see what is going on around us. Conversely, the more we see another’s need, the more capacity we have to see beyond ourselves, the more we see of God, the more we even find things about God to love.
The psalmist continues in his or her despair, “And Yet it was you (God) who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast…do not be far away from me for trouble is near and there is no one but you to help.”(vv. 9-11)
Loving yourself is not about being perfect. None of us are or ever will be. Loving yourself is seeing yourself as a reflection of God, when we are at our best. When we’re not at our best, it’s about hanging onto God when you feel like you can’t hang on anymore. Because God will not forsake you. God sees the kernel of blessing that is in you.
Henri Nouwen wrote a book a few decades ago called “Wounded Healers”. He acknowledged that each of us has been wounded in some way, shape or form. And yet, we are also called to be healers. And our best healing bubbles up from our own understanding of our woundedness. It makes us more compassionate. It makes us more empathetic, more sensitive, more wise, more in touch with the holy when we get right down to it.
The apostle Paul says that we have all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. That’s true. But none of us have fallen short of the grace of God. God is infinitely patient with our foibles and knows well our flaws—sometimes better than we know our own.
This past week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America made history. By a sizeable majority they passed resolutions and changes to their by-laws to pave the way for full recognition of non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy. It was a monumental step. And it was a step that I think is an example of the grace of God. Too many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people have learned from their churches that a central part of who they are is an abomination. That they are unworthy, unloveable, and only redeemable if they deny a key part of who they are. They are certainly not to be loved by God.
And this week the ELCA finally said “enough.”
Enough demonizing a group of people.
Enough using sexual minority folks as a scapegoat so we can avoid talking about any kind of sexuality.
Enough denying one portion of scripture in favor of another.
Enough prejudice, injustice, intolerance, exclusion.
It’s time for grace to kick in.
It’s time for love to kick in.
It’s time to say to folk who have been taught by the church not to love themselves, that you are worthy, you are loveable.
You are loved.
You are welcomed and affirmed.
Maybe some of those who have found it difficult to love themselves and love God will have a new lease on life and hope.
Our closing hymn today is a familiar one written by John Henry Newton. He was a slave ship owner who profited mightily by selling people. He even duped himself into thinking he was doing God’s work. But inside there was a turmoil going on. He knew that if he was to love God, he had to love people and that meant that he needed to repent of his sin of participating in and profiting from the slave trade. He was having trouble loving himself and loving God. And in the midst of a storm swept sea, he prayed to God, fully expecting God to punish him and kill him. Instead, he got word that God loved and had the capacity to save a wretch like him. Newton wrote, I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see.
Some of us are blind to the fact that God loves even us. We are blinded by our own sense of self-doubt, our own sense of liberal guilt, our own sense of conscience. We are blinded by our faithlessness. But hear this. God can and does love even you.
I can’t solve the problems of loving yourself and loving God. That is something that is up to each of us. We need to find within ourselves the capacity to love ourselves. Sometimes it takes someone else to tell you how important you are to them. We all need that. And you can’t wait for it to be said by someone else. The best way to do that is to tell someone else what they mean to you. If you pay it forward like that, chances are you’ll see yourselves and others in a new way.
Give someone the gift that really needs it. Tell them what they mean to you while you still can, before it’s too late.
I learned recently that a friend is dying of cancer. She and her husband have invited us to tell her how much she means to us. They have invited us to sing with her, to laugh with her, to celebrate life with her. It means little to her that we would do such a thing at her funeral. We need to do it now.
My friends, it’s true that God loves each of us. It’s also true that we find it hard to even conceive of that love when we don’t love ourselves. The church when it is at its best is a place where we can model the love of God, even when we don’t feel it for ourselves. It’s about giving hope and power and grace to people in need. It’s the heart of the Gospel.
A friend gave me a list a few months ago about things they admired about me. It was unsolicited and in my opinion unmerited. But what a gift it was. When I found myself in those familiar places of despair and doubt, I have pulled out that piece of paper. And I am reminded not only that I am valued by another person, but I’m also valued by God.
Tell someone what you love about them. Tell them as specifically as you can. Give them a gift. And remember to remind them that they are a reflection of God. Who knows, you may help someone find a way to love God as they begin to love themselves a bit better. Who knows, we might even find ways to love ourselves a bit better too.
Can God love even me? Of course. The question is, Can I love even me? And if I can, can I do so not in a selfish way, but in such a way that I can be a reflection of God to someone else?
If we can do that, then loving Good is not simply a thought or a theological proposition. It’s an action, a lifestyle choice of gratitude, a blessing, a gift that continually gives hope, joy, mercy and love. That’s what it’s all about.