Loving one’s self.

Several months ago, I attended a church service in which the senior pastor decided to tackle the issue of “health care in America”. He spoke thoughtfully about how the bulk of Jesus’ ministry involved healing sick people, and instructing his followers to care for the vulnerable members of society. During this part of his sermon, I felt that kind of uneasy feeling then that I really like – the kind of feeling that reminds me how far my own head can get lodged up my own ass, and then empowers me to think about practical ways I could be caring for my community.

Towards the end of the sermon, however, the pastor tried to drive home his point by reminding his audience that when asked which was the “greatest commandment”, Jesus answered,

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength”, and then immediately went on to say,”The second is equally important: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these”. (Mark 12:30-31).

My immediate reaction to this sermon’s meant-to-be-powerful conclusion was to wonder whether or not church-going folks are any good at loving themselves, and whether or not the church does a good-enough job of teaching people how to love themselves. Because, I thought, without a basic capacity to love oneself, part 2 of the ‘greatest commandment’ doesn’t carry much weight or power.

Since then, I have checked in with several handfuls of my church-going friends and asked them if they feel like the church is good at teaching people how to love themselves.

I’ll let you guess what their answers may have been.

And here’s the thing: it’s a pretty big deal if the church and church-goers are missing the mark re: the ‘loving oneself’ target. Reading the gospels, I find a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that A) Jesus loved himself – i.e. received God’s love – without reservation and B) that he extended this same whole-hearted love to every person he met. In fact, this was a big part of what made him so controversial during his time on earth. The religious leaders of his time did not appreciate the unbounded enormity of his love for himself or for others.

Somehow (and grievously), while I was growing up in church, I got the impression that I was supposed to first accept how fundamentally bad I was – you know, that whole original sin drama – before I could authentically and earnestly beseech Jesus to lobotomize those bad parts of myself, and finally become more pleasing to him.

Well, it’s pretty near-to-impossible to love yourself if you you’ve been taught – explicitly or implicitly – that you are basically evil. It’s equally near-to-impossible to love others when you assume that, like you, they are also basically evil. And because of this unfortunate assumption about human nature, you are then psychologically primed to start searching for people who appear to have “conquered” their evil impulses, in order to reassure yourself that it can be done.

Public Service Announcement number 1: no one conquers “evil” (please click that link); we simply have an opportunity to become more and more psychologically and spiritually honest, which allows us to make wiser, and healthier choices.

Let me briefly explain why it is 100% impossible to love others well if we don’t first love ourselves well. I will use myself as an example:

When I am critical and intolerant towards myself, I am critical and intolerant towards others. If I notice some unacceptable aspect of myself – those shadowy, hard to admit parts of my psychology – parading around in someone else’s skin, my first defensive instinct is often to judge that person harshly, or perhaps to reject them entirely. Somehow allowing myself to feel curiosity or compassion towards them becomes threatening to me, as if I’ll have to admit my own similar shortcomings if I get too close to other peoples’.

Does that make sense? Maybe it’s a bit ‘Psychology 101’ for some of you, but I find that for a lot of people this is a fairly complex idea. So let me make it even more simple:

THINGS WE DON’T WANT TO ADMIT ABOUT OURSELVES OTHER PEOPLE ACTING OUT THOSE SAME THINGS = PSYCHOLOGICAL CRISIS.

Here’s some good examples:

  • A closeted gay person expressing homophobic ideas or actions.
  • Someone that cares a great deal more than they’d like to admit about wealth and material things, who then condemns wealthy people for how they choose to spend their money.
  • Deeply felt inferiority feelings parading around as machismo, or bullying.
  • Systemically disempowered women being critical of “successful” women.
  • Someone with partisan political sentiments (who cannot admit this blind-spot to themselves) dismissing another person’s political ideas as partisan.
  • A compulsive over-eater who frowns upon compulsive [anything else].
  • Someone who feels insecure about their romantic relationship (or lack thereof) being critical of other people’s romances.
  • Christian extremists’ hatred for Islamic extremists.
  • An arrogant person noticing someone else’s arrogance and pointing that out disdainfully (I’m real guilty of this one sometimes, ugh).

Do you get the picture? It’s impossible to be compassionate with others if we cannot first be sincerely compassionate with ourselves.

And, why do I think it’s the church’s responsibility to teach this to it’s parishioners? Because Jesus did it.

He embraced all types of culturally repugnant people, and offered them intimate counsel and friendship. Some of the religious leaders of his time found his associations very troubling, and asked his disciples why he would choose to “eat with such scum?” (Matthew 9:11). Jesus answered them by asking them to “go and learn the meaning of this scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.'” (Matthew 9:13).

I believe we have to “show mercy” both inwardly and outwardly simultaneously for mercy to be genuine. And I’m pretty sure Jesus said almost exactly this in his own cryptic, ancient semitc way:

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.

Love each other in the same way I have loved you.”

– (John 15:9, 12)

In a sense, I believe he’s saying “my ability to receive (accept, or believe in) love is directly correlated to my ability to give love. Now, follow my lead: open yourselves up to the divine love that’s always available to you, and then give it away in exactly the same limitless way you have received it”.

To boil it down further: if we can’t embrace the darkest, hardest aspects of our humanity, then we sure as sh*t can’t embrace other peoples’ dark parts either. And from what I can tell, the whole entire ministry of Jesus was about embracing others, especially those willing to stand humbly in own their humanity.

So, Church leaders: if you don’t know how to teach this kind of love, and especially if you don’t know how to genuinely receive this kind of love for yourself, you need to hire people that do. We can’t fall asleep at the wheel when it comes to loving ourselves, or we can’t love others well. And if we can’t love others well, we can’t be the church.

 

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Love each other.

The invitation is exquisite:

Love each other well.

‘Here, let me show you how’, He said.

‘It’s not burdensome, it’s easy’.

It’s light.

Why then is it hard to do?

That mortally vulnerable part of ourselves is such a tyrant.

So defensive about our own well-being.

‘Consider the lilies of the field’, He said.

‘Why are you so worried’?

Our timid unbelieving hearts do tremble.

Could it be that simple?

God, wouldn’t I love to be brave enough find out.

“Dimension of the divine”.

“And the goal… is not to pray to God or have God tell you what to do, but to realize that you have been, all along, contrary to all of your illusions, a dimension of the divine. And in moments of heightened spiritual awareness, the boundary line… momentarily is erased, momentarily is blurred, and it’s no longer clear where you end and God begins.”

– Lawrence Kushner, scholar-in-residence at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, from his conversation with Krista Tippett on On Being

 

I AM

Fact: when Jesus spoke to the crowds of people that gathered to listen to him, he the spoke in an ancient Semetic language called Aramaic. Another fact: the English language version of Jesus’ teachings that we have access to today were not translated from Aramaic, but instead translated from Greek after first being filtered through Greek philosophy and greek language.

Consequently, much of the modern English canonical gospels are a representation – and sometimes a downright manipulation – of the teachings of Jesus that best supported the Greek culture and worldview at the time.

That’s a hard one to swallow if you have been living your life according to every single Greek-to-English word of your NIV, KJV, NLT, ESV, or even AMP version of the Bible. Nevertheless, it’s important – and I think that every serious Christian, and every serious spiritual seeker should be well-informed about this.

Because here’s the thing: if you attempt to throw that translation process into reverse, and get as close as you can to the original meaning of the original words that Jesus spoke, you wind up getting confronted with some pretty significant challenges to the fundamental ideology of a lot of modern, western Christian thinking.

For example,

“In Aramaic, the word that is later translated as ‘I am’ is really ‘I-I.’ Aramaic doesn’t have a ‘being’ verb. You can’t actually say ‘I am’ in ancient Aramaic, nor can you do it in ancient Hebrew, as far as that goes. So really what Jesus is saying is, ‘I-I.’ [In other words:] The connection of the small self, which in Aramaic is called ‘nafsha’, is the self that is growing, evolving, learning through life. And the connection between that and the greater self, or what would be called the ‘only I’, ‘the only being’, ‘Alaha’, or ‘the One’, or ‘God’.”

– Neil Douglas Klotz, from his interview on Insights At The Edge via Sounds True.

I cannot tell you how many times some well-intentioned Christian person has reminded me that Jesus once said “I am the way, the truth, and the light”, as a way to justify their idea that belief in the person of Jesus is the only legitimate path to heaven.

It gives me no satisfaction whatsoever to spoil anyone’s worldview in a painful way, but is of great significance to me that the word(s) “I am” would not have been linguistically available to Jesus in the language in which he was teaching at the time. Furthermore, if what he actually said was something closer to the Aramaic word for “I-I”, this piece of Jesus’ message – and it’s theological implication – becomes quite transformed.

Curiously, in many other religious, psychological, and philosophical disciplines the idea of a relationship between a “small self” and a “greater Self” – as indicated by this Aramaic word “I-I” – is a common theme. This is more common in far Eastern spiritualities, where concepts of “Buddha nature“, “Atman and Brahman“, and “Tao” invite it’s practitioners to seek spiritual enlightenment by liberating oneself from a “small-self only” orientation towards oneself and the world, and uncover a connection to the [choose your favorite word for the divine, i.e. God, Source, the One, Only-I, etc.] within.

Western psychology also has a way of conceptualizing this phenomena. The notion of the “small self” would probably be best described as “ego”. Ego, in psychological terms, is understood as the part of ourselves we experience as limited by time and space, and contained within a physical form. Ego, or small self, is something I’m confident we can all identify with; it’s the part of ourselves that worries about whether people like us, if we will be able to pay the rent, whether we will be happy, or what might make us happier.

Additionally, there are transpersonal psychological theories that discuss the idea of a “greater Self”, and often point to this concept as a fundamental part of psycho-spiritual health. In Jungian psychology for example, there is this notion that self-realization is available only through the development of an ego-Self (as in, greater Self) axis, or the ability to get your ego and the divine part of your consciousness talking to each other on the regular.

So, here’s what the phrase “I-I” means to me: “The way, the truth, and the light” is accessible to everyone. There is no dogma that can dictate this path, and there is no governing body to decide how it must be done. There is just you-YOU. You, the vulnerable human being subject to all the vicissitudes of your daily experiences. And YOU, the you that’s got a direct line to God.

Perhaps Jesus was saying, “Look, if you can get these two aspects of yourself – the human and the divine – communing with one another”, well … that is the way, that is the truth, and that is the light of human existence.

 

Maybe

Sweet Jesus, talking
his melancholy madness,
stood up in the boat
and the sea lay down,
silky and sorry.
So everybody was saved
that night.
But you know how it is

when something
different crosses
the threshold — the uncles
mutter together,

the women walk away,
the young brother begins
to sharpen his knife.
Nobody knows what the soul is.

It comes and goes
like the wind over the water —
sometimes, for days,
you don’t think of it.

Maybe, after the sermon,
after the multitude was fed,
one or two of them felt
the soul slip forth
like a tremor of pure sunlight
before exhaustion,
that wants to swallow everything,
gripped their bones and left them

miserable and sleepy,
as they are now, forgetting
how the wind tore at the sails
before he rose and talked to it —

tender and luminous and demanding
as he always was —
a thousand times more frightening
than the killer storm.

By Mary Oliver

“Quick to listen, slow to speak.”

“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.

Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.

This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life”.

– Deitrich Bonhoeffer, from Life Together

Sodom

Did you know that the biblical story of Sodom’s destruction is really a referendum on inhospitality? (Hint: not homosexuality).

#true.

Here’s the story: A man named Lot is the protagonist in this tale, and is described in this story as a “servant of the Lord”. He lives in Sodom, which happens to be an aggressively hedonistic town. According to the tale, the people in it are consumed with reckless greed and lust, which often times turns violent.

One day, Lot (our main character), sees two angels (i.e. living, breathing, divine messengers) walking up to the city gates of Sodom. He rushes towards them, and begs them to come stay in his house – in order that he might protect them from the violence of the city. They agree to this, and all is going well for a brief little moment.

Not terribly long after their arrival at Lot’s house, however, “all the men from every quarter” of the city surround the house and start yelling for Lot to surrender these heavenly visitors to them so that they can rape them. [Short hand: Some drunk, belligerent, and obviously violent men want to rape God’s angels, whom Lot has taken personal responsibility for by agreeing to house them.]

Soooooo, Lot goes outside and pleads intensely with the men at his door to leave them be, and even goes so far as to offer up his virgin daughters to the men in exchange for the angels. Of course, this is all kinds of troubling to me, but it’s also important for us to understand that at this time in history women were regarded as significantly less valuable than men (property), and humans as less valuable than angels, I imagine.

You tracking with me? Because this part is supremely critical: LOT IS NOT OFFERING HIS DAUGHTERS TO THE MEN OUTSIDE HIS DOOR BECAUSE SEX BETWEEN A MAN AND A WOMAN IS BETTER THAN SEX BETWEEN A MAN AND A MAN. Instead, he is offering his daughters to these men because he believes that allowing these men to abuse a piece of his own property is better than allowing these men to abuse two of God’s messengers.

Do you understand?

The Bible itself describes Sodom in this way:

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy”. – Ezekiel 16:49

Now, I do not see one single word about homosexuality in there.

Do you?

So, did I miss something? OR, is it just SO.MUCH.MORE.CONVENIENT for modern heterosexual Christians to convince themselves that homosexuality (something that doesn’t touch them personally) incurs the wrath of God instead of what the Bible actually says – i.e. arrogance, overindulgence, and indifference (something that may strike a bit closer to home)?????!

On behalf of every single LGBTQ+ person who has been needlessly tortured by their religious family, friends, clergy members, and law makers, I am sick and sorry about that.

Perhaps we can start making some progress here if we all understand the original story better.